Chesa Boudin on Growing Up Radical
When the revolution comes, skateboards will be free. At least that’s the line Said Sayrafiezadeh’s mother used to avoid buying him a coveted toy. Her response to his request is but a symptom of being more committed to a left-wing, radical-fringe political organization than to one’s own family. His mother’s line also inspired the title of “When Skateboards Will Be Free,” Sayrafiezadeh’s gripping new memoir.
Pop is an Iranian immigrant who came to the United States on a student visa and met Ma in 1964 at the University of Minnesota. Ma, the sister of Mark Harris, the author of “Bang the Drum Slowly,” a well-received novel that was made into a movie, is from a middle-class Jewish-American family. But it is Sayrafiezadeh’s parents’ politics that define his upbringing. Throughout his life, Sayrafiezadeh’s parents are both active members of the minuscule Socialist Workers Party. When Pop runs off to live with a female Comrade 20 years his junior and to participate in the short-lived secular socialist movements in the Iranian Revolution, Sayrafiezadeh’s mother creates a hagiography based on the absentee dad’s altruistic intentions and revolutionary zeal. The author’s father is thrown in jail for a time when the religious factions in the Iranian Revolution realize they no longer need the support of the socialists and the senior Sayrafiezadeh decides that all great revolutionaries go to prison at some point in their lives. Sayrafiezadeh’s writing is lyrical and poignant as he describes the ongoing separation: “There was something so immensely redemptive and exciting for me to imagine that my unknown father was not just a man who had abandoned me but a noble man of adventure who had no choice but to abandon me.” Over and over, weeks and months pass with no contact at all. Then, just as the author begins to wonder if he will ever hear from his father again, “a postcard will arrive from Istanbul, or Tehran, or Athens, or Minneapolis, where he has gone to attend this or that conference or to deliver this or that speech. ‘The weather is beautiful here,’ he will write in enormous swirling optimistic cursive that fills the white space, leaving room to say nothing more.” These occasional emotionless postcards fail miserably to make up for all the missed birthdays when his dad was just across town.
Despite his day-to-day absence, Sayrafiezadeh’s dad is a constant presence in the book. Pop is clearly loved and respected even as he is scorned and reviled. Sayrafiezadeh describes him as “a socialist missionary among proletariat savages, and all social intercourse presents itself as an opportunity for conversion.” The author’s 30th birthday is one of the rare moments where he and his father interact face to face. “I assume he is going to give me a gift for my birthday, and I look away and then down at my hands, because to look directly at someone when he is preparing to give you a gift is coarse, unmannered, and above all presumptuous.” Pop then pulls out a marked-up copy of the latest edition of The Militant, the Socialist Workers weekly, and proceeds to sell it to his son, along with a 12-issue subscription.
Another writer might take the opportunity to voice pent-up rage because of the skateboard denied, the Sunday afternoons spent alongside stands selling socialist literature, the Comrade who sexually molested him as a child, the single mother who attempted suicide. But not Sayrafiezadeh. He turns his childhood deprivation and adversity into laugh-out-loud humor, intricate human portraits, and a book that practically turns its own pages. The time frame alternates between the author’s childhood and present-tense adulthood, with the two threads converging at the end. There is no apparent mystery or suspense, no single tension driving the narrative—often a fatal flaw in writing, but not here. The unsatisfying part of this memoir is that the author never fully reveals his own politics, his own analysis of the world. He deprives the reader of black-and-white pronouncements about his parents and his intellectual inheritance. But the gray areas are often enthralling. The book consists of more than 30 short chapters, which, in turn, are made up of countless short stories and anecdotes that read like pointillism on the page.
One such scene comes when Sayrafiezadeh and his mother are homeless in Pittsburg. They sleep on the floor of an apartment belonging to Comrades from the party until his mother finds a sufficiently proletariat job and an apartment of their own.
The home my mother finally found for us was a one-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a small brick building in the middle of a ghetto. To get to it our first night, my mother and I boarded a bus filled with exhausted passengers, most of them black. We carried with us several bags of clothes and a broom. I had never known anyone to be on a bus with a broom, and I felt embarrassed to be seen with it and began to have a keen sense that something had gone far off-kilter. … Through the neighborhood we walked, with the bags and the broom. It was very dark out, and I imagined that the lighted windows in the houses were eyes observing us as we passed. Halfway to our new home, my mother realized that it was past dinnertime and we had not yet eaten and had no groceries, so we turned and went back the way we had come, the eyes watching us return, and walked to the Howard Johnson’s. Sitting beside the bags and the broom—I had never known anyone to sit in a restaurant with a broom—I ate a hot dog and a pickle. For dessert my mother ordered for me, as a special treat, an ice cream sundae in the shape of a snowman dressed in a candy suit with a smiling chocolate face. It was disconcerting to be given such a thing, it was not at all consistent with my mother’s character, and I knew in that moment, and without equivocation, that something was terribly wrong with us.
They continue to live in Pittsburgh’s ghettos for some time in a kind of self-imposed poverty. The author fully realizes that his deprivation is his mother’s choice only when she comes up with the $900 necessary to send him to Cuba with a delegation of Comrades from the party. Sayrafiezadeh is uninspired by what he sees in Cuba—especially the run-down outhouses—but relishes the basic luxuries available upon his return to the United States.
When my plane landed in Miami, I had to go to the bathroom. Once again dread came over me, and I entered the airport restroom with trepidation. I was flabbergasted by what I saw: The restroom was spotless and bright. A wall of mirrors amplified the shininess. There was also air-conditioning. I chose a stall and found to my great relief both toilet paper and toilet seat. How absolutely happy I was to be back in the United States. How thankful. And while I thought this, I knew—as I have many times in my life—that this was the wrong thought to be having.
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.
Chesa Boudin is a student at Yale Law School and the author of “Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America” (Scribner, 2009).