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Chesa Boudin on Growing Up Radical
Posted on Apr 17, 2009
By Chesa Boudin
Toilet paper comes to represent capitalism, and his parents’ politics are so deeply ingrained that Sayrafiezadeh’s abstract childhood preference for comfort leaves him feeling guilty.
Ma and Pop appear between the book’s covers in all their three-dimensional complexity and contradiction, and, perhaps most impressive of all, Sayrafiezadeh neither loathes nor scorns nor resents them. And yet his memoir of a political childhood forces myriad questions about family: To what extent should parents impose their views on their children? What familial sacrifices can be justified in the name of abstract political struggles? Where does the healthy balance lie between political commitment and family obligation? There are no easy answers to these questions, and certainly Sayrafiezadeh does not purport to resolve them here. The difficult issues he raises are particularly poignant for me because of the similarities—and differences—in our upbringings.
As a child growing up I must have asked my parents thousands of times when they would get out of prison. If they had been as dogmatic or disingenuous as Sayrafiezadeh’s parents appear on the page, they might have answered “when the revolution comes.” But unlike a global socialist revolution that—widespread nationalization of the banking industry and global capitalist meltdown notwithstanding—floats far off on a blurry horizon even for the truest of believers, my parents’ prison terms were set hard and fast by a state judge. A radical black nationalist political group organized the 1981 Brinks robbery to raise funds for its operations, but instead it left three men dead and an entire community traumatized. Both of my parents were unarmed, but for their roles in the tragically botched operation my mother, Kathy Boudin, received 20 years to life, and my father, David Gilbert, received 75 years to life. Friends of theirs, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, took me into their family and became my other parents.
Before I can remember and with ample support from my new family, I began to build relationships with my biological parents from the distance that incarceration imposes. My biological parents arranged weekly phone calls and sent letters almost daily. I had to go through a metal detector and steel gates every time I wanted to give my biological parents a hug. Yet my frequent childhood visits to their prisons were joyful reunions that punctuated almost daily contact with all four of my parents. Sayrafiezadeh’s father, on the other hand, used his political commitments to escape parental responsibilities: “My father had again begun to disappear behind this massive workload of revolution, and his phone calls grew increasingly infrequent until they ceased altogether, and our joyful reunions become more like occasional punctuation marks in long paragraphs of silence.”
My biological parents made every effort to be involved in my life even from the maximum-security prisons where they were confined. Letters, phone calls and visits were the staples of our relationship, but my parents invented creative ways to make the best of the limitations. My dad told me adventure stories on the phone, and my mom read books to me on tape. My dad encouraged me to bring homework on visits, and my mom knitted me stuffed animals for my birthdays. With the support of my new family we built the foundations for loving relationships that allowed me to work through my anger at them and move on to benefit from their support and affection. At home, my other parents were deeply committed to their work, but both chose careers that focused on children, families and the community: my father as an early childhood educator and professor of education, my mother as a professor and director of a legal clinic dedicated to children and family law. The crime of David and Kathy left me with the benefit of four loving parents.
Yet the facts that my parents made an effort to be loving and engaged from prison and that I ended up benefiting from having four parents hardly justify their crime or that they did it when they had an infant son. Both Sayrafiezadeh and I grew up with parents who might fairly be criticized for letting their political commitments jeopardize their familial obligations. The issues raised about family life and political engagement in the memoir remain unresolved. The extremes that come to mind are clearly problematic: Some abandon children to their fate while others dogmatically exert a specific worldview. Most parents probably err on the side of enthusiastically passing on to the next generation their own particular dogmas. But few people would prefer a parent who passively failed to express any perspective whatsoever. The goal, it seems to me, would be for parents to fully commit themselves to their passions, political or otherwise, but without either limiting their children to the same belief system or ignoring them altogether in the interests of a supposedly higher calling. All people are rife with contradictions, but some live their lives in a way that makes a mockery of their values. It is an unfortunate truism that those who are most ambitious in their commitment to changing the world—whatever their particular vision or system of beliefs—often fail to start at home with those closest to them. As Bertold Brecht writes in his poem “To Posterity,” “Alas, we who wished to lay the foundations of kindness could not ourselves be kind.”
Sayrafiezadeh’s parents were so committed to the revolution that they neglected him, so focused on organizing the working class that they failed to provide him with many of the opportunities they sought on behalf of the poor masses. My parents took an unacceptable risk that cost three men their lives and turned mine upside down. Sayrafiezadeh, 11 years old in 1979, suffered from the stigma of being from a family that supported the Iranian Revolution even as his classmates were rallying against it because of the hostages in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. I still contend with the stigma of parental incarceration. Both I and Said Sayrafiezadeh grew up without television. Both of our fathers, and my mother, served jail time which would have been avoided if they had put family before politics. Meanwhile, both of us went to school with packed lunches of carrots, wheat-bread sandwiches and yogurt while our classmates enjoyed Twinkies, Wonder Bread and cookies. Both of us found ways to build mainstream lives without totally rejecting our parents or their politics. And we both learned that the experience of being an outsider, of seeing the world a little bit differently than peers did, of learning to love imperfect parents, has myriad advantages. Certainly the lunches no other kids wanted to trade for kept me healthy, and Sayrafiezadeh has a brilliant debut book.
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