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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.