In response to:
Bombs Away from the January 21, 1982 issue
To the Editors:
Murray Kempton’s review of Jane Alpert’s Growing Up Underground [NYR, January 21] is even more vicious than the others I have read because he hides his cruelty under a mask of personal interest, even affection, and subsequent disappointment. He does not keep his sympathies secret; he identifies with the fine character of Jane Alpert’s parents, to which he attributes Jane’s ability to give the impression of being “at bottom a good woman.” His oddly personal, parental disappointment in Growing Up Underground, after his initial fondness for Jane as a person, prevents him from reading the book clearly. I can speak most authoritatively on one of his points of willful misinterpretation: he says that “she remains someone so overloaded with grievances that she cannot distinguish between those that are proper and those that are beside the point. It is that confusion, I think, that accounts for the extraordinary absence of generosity that seems to compel her to name every man who ever seduced and abandoned her and then shroud the identity of pretty much everyone who helped to hide her when she was a fugitive. Resentment remains a more powerful force in her nature than gratitude.” First, Jane hardly claims to have been seduced and abandoned. One of the most admirable qualities of the book is her refusal to exonerate herself, her relentless acceptance of responsibility for her own actions. Second, the perfectly obvious reason why she does not name the people who helped her is that she wants to protect them from possible embarrassment or difficulty. Is that too hard for Murray Kempton to figure out? I am one of the people who sheltered her and know that no charge could be more preposterous than a lack of generosity.
Kempton’s review is merely the latest in a series of misreadings. In twenty years of looking at book reviews, I have never seen anything like the repeated, relentless vilification of Growing Up Underground. Most books receive mixed reviews; many are virtually ignored. Why should the autobiography of one woman who was by no means central to the politics of the Sixties receive such intense and such hostile attention? Something is wrong in the reviews I have seen. They are all full of outrage, and the outrage is misplaced and inappropriate. I doubt the sincerity of those people who claim to be on the left and to feel betrayed by their heroine’s exposure of her feet of clay; neither Jane Alpert nor Sam Melville was a leader of the American left, and the number of people who ever approved of bombings is minute. Jane never claims to be exposing or discrediting the whole American left, and it is unjust to attack her on this trumped-up charge. I also find it difficult to believe that people really care that she broke what is referred to as the fugitive’s code of silence, since she made sure that nothing she said in the book could lead to anyone’s arrst. Codes of silence were not invoked by those who reviewed books by Philip Agee and Daniel Ellsberg.
And as for the more conservative reviewers—why is there no sympathy for confession and repentence? You do not have to be a Christian to believe in forgiveness. My God, Richard Nixon is being treated like a revered elder statesman even though he permanently degraded the political life of this country. And Patricia Hearst, who admits, now, that she actually joined a gang which had no recognizable political purpose and which actually killed people—as no one connected with Jane Alpert did—is treated rather tenderly, as a pathetic victim. Why should Jane Alpert’s heart-breaking story of sorrow and desperation and repentance be treated with scorn and anger?
Few people really care about the antiwar politics of the Sixties anymore; and Murray Kempton, like the other reviewers, gives relatively scant attention to political issues. What everyone talks about is the sex in Growing Up Underground. Yes, the book does describe sexual relationships, though hardly what anyone could reasonably consider bizarre or promiscuous sexuality. People who buy Growing Up Underground for pornographic titillation might well demand their money back. I believe that Jane Alpert is inciting reviewers to fury not because she says what they do not want to hear about radical politics, but because she says what Americans in the 1980s do not want to hear about sex. She says what Euripides and Shakespeare and even Jane Austen do—that sex can be dangerous. The danger is not the simple one proclaimed by Murray Kempton and some feminists—that girls are put upon by men—and so even women have turned on her.
The reviews are not a simple puritanical reaction against the so-called sexual liberation of the Sixties, however. The activity of sex without benefit of clergy has ceased to be what radicals espouse; it has become the theme of our entire popular culture—television, movies, advertising, music, and endless books and magazine articles on how to eliminate jealousy and maximize orgasm. Sex is very, very big business. (The Moral Majority is out there campaigning against it, certainly, but they are not the ones reviewing Growing Up Underground.) Sex is a commodity which everyone wants as much of as possible, and which we are led to believe is perfectly safe.
No one who reads Growing Up Underground could believe that. The book reminds us of what our parents and grandparents warned us, and what we want to dismiss as foolish prudery. It reminds us that sexual attraction is deeply irrational and that sexual bonds can supersede intellectual and moral judgment, for men as well as for women. Freud knew this too, of course, but the purveyors of pleasure have thrown him out along with Shakespeare. Growing Up Underground is a joyless, degraded, terrifying story. It is also what one brave, intelligent woman, who has been my friend for twelve years, understands as the truth. The reviewers would not be so hysterical if they did not have a grim, ugly intimation that she may be right.
Syracuse, New York