The revolutionary commitment may or may not be a waste of time, but how much profit can we expect to draw from an account of the experience that does not often come close to the reflective except when it is asking a question like: “Did all of us feel interested in bombing buildings only when the men we slept with were urging us on?”
To answer “yes” would cause the reader to lose all interest in the questioner; sexual bondage is not a motive but a sickness. But then, to suspend judgment and search for something beyond this self-abusive question is, I am afraid, to end up losing a deal of patience with a narrator so disinclined to bother herself with, let alone help the rest of us understand, what that something beyond might be.
It is puzzle how an undeniably appealing young woman could have composed an autobiography that leaves us with so little to respect except her troubles. Jane Alpert, to be sure, inflicted as many troubles as she endured. In November of 1969, she was arrested for having helped to plant dynamite in the Manhattan headquarters of the Marine Midland and Chase Manhattan banks, the Standard Oil offices, the Federal Building in Foley Square, and the Whitehall Selective Service Induction Center. No one was hurt in any of the bombings she planned. She disappeared two days before she was due for trial, costing her parents a $20,000 cash bail bond, sustained an aimless fugitive’s life for four years before surrendering to serve a total of two years in prison.
When these ordeals were over, Sam Melville, the lover who had been the moving force in her deeds, was dead and only a bitter thought to her; the woman to whom she had been closest was unjustly reviling her for treason to the revolutionary code; and she could hardly think of a comrade who was still a friend.
All these elements add up to a most impressive cargo of experience and yet Miss Alpert’s reflections upon them seem so trivial that they can hardly be called reflections at all; and what most persuades us of the shallowness of the illusions that made her a revolutionary terrorist is the patent shallowness of the disillusion that followed their crash.
She is almost the first ancienne combattante of the youth vanguard of the Sixties to seek the explanation of the examined self. Her failure at the attempt may, of course, be to some degree generic; the overindulgence of the collective voice in solitary circumstances leaves the user with rhetorical habits that work badly for translation into the personal.
Politics are all too often a coupling of the manipulator and the manipulated; and Jane Alpert is, perhaps irretrievably, one of the manipulated. The manipulator’s strength is altogether less attractive than his quarry’s weakness; and the difference accounts for a certain gentleness about Jane Alpert that surprised many of those who met her after her arrest for actions that, however without malice, could hardly be called unaggressive.
She is a brave woman and has no small gifts of intelligence; but those qualities of deference and passivity that drew her to us as a kind of victim turn out to be the ones that estrange her from us as a writer. There is too much the sense of someone who cannot find an idea unless someone else locates it for her first. She seems unready for, because unconfident about, the risks of irony, subtlety, or for that matter the cultivation of the mind. She is one of those who dwell among the too-trodden ways that are the ruts of formula rather than the paths of thought.
Her memories abound with occasions that might have been moments of revelation, and yet her account of them reads like transcriptions from a parrot. Her narrative is not without its uses as a portrait of the student rebellion of the Sixties; but it would, I think, be a mistake to think it typical because to take it as such would be to dismiss the dramas of that time as played out on a landscape all too like the island of legend that was exclusively inhabited by mares impregnated by the wind.
Jane Alpert seems instead to have been tangential to the radical movement until her dreadful susceptibility to suggestion made her a terrorist and set her to dreaming so giddily of herself and Sam Melville as revolutionary celebrities that she half hoped they would be caught so that the world could know what they had done.
Her actual introduction to the catharsis of dynamite came when she was fifteen and read Ayn Rand and was implanted with “the idea that bombing a building could be a morally legitimate form of protest.” Rand’s “brilliant, powerful, yet sexually passive heroines who submit to the men they love remained my role models long after I had forgotten where I first heard their names.”
It would be delightful to send Senator Jeremiah Denton off on the hunt after Ayn Rand as inspiration for the crimes and follies here set forth; but it seems more plausible that what we are hearing is the mechanical click of Dr. Susanne Schad-Somers, the feminist psychiatrist, who seems to have been the last of the avatars who led Jane Alpert down such a variety of roads; and we are left with the impression of hour after therapeutic hour scouring after the sources of her distraction with intervals when the patient cries out, “There, now I see; that’s it,” and the “it” turns out to be nothing more profound than Ayn Rand.
After her graduation from Swarthmore, Jane Alpert spent six weeks at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens:
When it was too hot to sleep at night, we took refuge in the lounge that opened onto the porch, where there was a record player and a small collection of American records, of which two by the Lovin’ Spoonful were favorites of those of us under thirty. I played “Day-dreamin”’ so many times I could hum it all the way up the steps to the Acropolis.
Hers was a journey with trash as too constant a companion.
The barrenness of culture that she carried from inchoate thought to all-too-coherent deed seems to have been a characteristic she shared with all her lost comrades. But the triviality of motive just has to be unique. Her earlier involvements had been as tentative as they were fleeting. She traveled to the 1967 Vietnam protest at the Pentagon and fled back to New York from rumors of tear gas. She was a Columbia graduate student during the 1968 strike and was so far from being an activist that she almost crossed one of the picket lines when she was enjoined not to “let those people intimidate” her by a teacher she revered—as she was conditioned to revere all teachers, including Sam Melville, whose only credential was the air of command. A year afterward, she was living with Melville and had become an urban guerrilla. She did not so much rise to the challenge of her time as yield to infection by its vagrant air; and it would be too much to call any such history typical.
Still she does not seem utterly singular; and after a while one commences to hear notes that belong to the orchestra more than the soloist and to sense that Jane Alpert’s might be, while not the voice of her generation, at least a not uninstructive voice from it. The children who came to adolescence when the Fifties ended seemed at the time more to be envied than any great number of the young who had lived in America before them. They breathed the air of a nation whose children were recognized as judges rather than the judged, as the young had generally been before that deliverance.
The year 1960 was an annus mirabilis for the unchallenged possession of the national imagination by the illusion of happy families and golden childhoods. Miss Alpert’s account of her own growing up is packed full enough with the normal miseries and insecurities to suggest that she ought to have known the reality better. But then the atmosphere of those times may have been so over-mastering as to make each unhappy child think his family an exception in the great herd of idyllic ones. In any case, her parents, for all the multitude of their misfortunes, do not seem to have recognized, or anyway admitted, that theirs was an unhappy family. A large part of their insulation from that uncomfortable knowledge was owed to their assurance that their children would lead lives easier and more fulfilling than their own; and it is a very short step from thinking that someone is luckier than yourself to imagining that he is better.
Along with an almost reckless love, there is an element of tribute to presumed superiority in the sacrifices Jane Alpert’s parents made and the trust they continued to extend to a daughter who, by every evidence, had fallen, if only transiently, into a state of possession where she could neither appreciate the sacrifices nor deserve the trust. The impression of being at bottom a good woman that Jane Alpert conveyed even when she was a fanatic and that can still somehow survive the otherwise alienating tone of her autobiography can in some measure be credited to the fine character of her mother and father; but, their virtue aside, there was common sense in their stubborn adherence to a delusion, because to reject a child is to abandon most of the hopes of life.
And then, if the young had been as mistaken as their parents in thinking of their childhood as a blissful dawn, could there have been the proliferation of those communes whose most plausible attraction must have been the promise of re-creating the Fifties babyhood, that myth enduringly mistaken for a fact?
Not to have known a happy childhood home may even have spurred in Miss Alpert a special intensity for contriving its counterfeit when she might more usefully have engaged with the demands of maturity. It seems then only natural that we enter the realm of the domestic memoir when she recalls the ragtag and bobtail of the purposelessly violent with whom she traveled to her supreme crisis:
For my part, I came to think of the four us as a family. At times we seemed a single consciousness, divided randomly into four bodies, four biographies, but sharing a vision to which we had implicitly sworn loyalty…. Our revolution would create a universe in which all consciousness was cosmic, in which everyone would share the bliss we knew from acid [my italics].
The note here struck is one new to the recollections of a radical experience that, if it ended all too often in withdrawal into self-absorption, had seldom begun there. But then Jane Alpert arrived at revelation in an hour when the only real revolution was the one that chemistry had achieved with the Pill and the hallucinogen.