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.
There were no limits to the permissible and no barriers to sensation; and there seems to have followed the “painfully familiar phenomenon in mental history” that Henry James defined as “the demoralizing influence of lavish opportunity.” The gift of Miss Alpert’s spiteful fairy had been this shower of temptations multiplied and rendered apparently safe.
The not-to-be-trusted bliss of acid, the numb peace of the reefer, the ecstatic moans of the arrived-at orgasm, and the promise of the revolution are all mixed in her chronicle as aspirations of equal value. Vices turn into virtues and virtue into a species of vice; fidelity comes to be seen as selfish and promiscuity as a sacrifice to the communal ideal. These, of course, belong to the order of lies that men have been telling women since shortly after the sun rose in the sky; but it would be sad to think that all our advances toward freedom have only meant a proliferation of the lies women tell themselves.
These ungracious observations are not meant to suggest that the young radicals of the Sixties were all that much worse than their predecessors. Sam Melville was inarguably mad, bad, and dangerous to know; and yet Miss Alpert’s portrait of him has lines strikingly like those Emma Goldman drew for Johann Most, author of “a manual of instruction in the use and preparation of Nitroglycerine, Dynamite, etc.” Emma Goldman lived with Most and ended up horsewhipping him; and although her description of the relationship is altogether more inhibited, it seems likely that their conjunction would have been more satisfactory if she had discovered, as Jane Alpert did with Melville, that Most was someone most easily to be stirred to erection by his mate’s murmur of “Yes, Master.”
Still Most was in most other ways a far less distractable revolutionary. We have not before been confronted with a generation of radicals with so high a proportion of those who became tragic figures without ever managing to seem serious ones. And yet, even though the contagion of Miss Alpert’s self-contempt works very powerfully indeed, might not her candor be one more piece of self-deception, some new operation of an incurable habit of refusing to give due notice to the complexities of nature?
The “revolution” had already passed from the assurance of universal community to fragmentation into tiny, almost accidentally coalescing colonies by the time she joined it. Chance brought her to one such group, and illusion made siblings of persons different from her, because she was a fugitive from a publishing career while the others had swum ashore from shipwreck in various streams of the rebellion.
Their comradeship sounds fortuitous and casual in everything except sexual passion or, anyway, sexual coupling. Pat Swinton went to Tanzania on her own, married an academic, left him, returned to New York where she taught in the Queens College SEEK program, judged it an instrument for infecting the black poor with middle-class fantasies, and quit to go on welfare. They met when a Swarthmore friend of Jane Alpert’s picked up Pat Swinton at the post office; and in due course Jane and Pat and Sam Melville were pursuing self-awareness in bed together. Nathan Yarrow was Pat Swinton’s lover and soon enough the four of them were on the sheets expanding one another’s consciousness.
Melville was the child of an activist communist whose withdrawal from the Party had disgusted him. His choice of Herman Melville’s surname suggests a nostalgia for the grandeurs of the Party’s Popular Front period. His only possession was his expensive guitar. He had seceded from the world of work and occupied himself with a series of scourings for nothing, the latest as a part-time circulation hand for the Guardian.
These were all partisans without a party and consequently bereft of those imitations of purpose that help distract the affiliated radical in purposeless seasons. They had entered that condition of a rebel’s affairs when there is very little that lies between inanition and terrorism.
On their first night together, Jane Alpert was surprised to find that Sam Melville wore no underwear.
“I realized just a month or so ago that I didn’t need socks either,” he told her. “But I’ve still got a bourgeois hang-up that my feet might smell.”
“How serious he was!” she reflected. “His revolution encompassed everything from the universities to the wearing of socks.”
She had, of course, disablingly mistaken the caricature for the true likeness. By the time she met him, Melville had been left with so few responses to anything except whatever impulse his senses pressed upon him that, by her account at least, he was drawn to terrorism less by its social utility, if such there be, than by what Jacobo Timerman has called its sensuality.
After various fumblings, their program was set on course only after the day she told Sam Melville that she intended to assert her independence by accepting a blind date,and he thereupon placed a bomb at the Marine Midland Bank which caused several people to be injured.
“Because I had threatened to abandon him,” she says now, “even for one night, by sleeping with another man, he had taken revenge on a skyscraperful of people.”
This note of vanity brings a certain relief from the monotony of her self-abasement; but here, as there, she remains a prisoner of her habit of imputing every effect to a single cause. Melville arrived at his madness after no end of frustrations until the universe subject to his control had shrunk down to Jane Alpert and his guitar; and rage at innumerable generalities may have been more his motor than any transient threat to the only possessions he had left. Still she was certain that nothing moved him except his anger at her; and the more sure she grew that he was crazy, the more pressed she was to take up her wifely responsibility and put her unstable husband’s business on a sound footing:
Most of the tasks associated with the bombings were extremely simple and required less coordination than preparing a dinner party. Rather than leave the stolen dynamite in Sam’s less-than-competent care, from then on I placed myself at the head of the conspiracy and prodded everyone else into action under my direction.
She was the only member of their band who had lately functioned in a responsible job, and whatever efficiency it achieved seems to have been owing to the habits of discipline she had preserved from that employment. Her intervention was a distinct service to the deprived classes; Melville was too careless a fellow to leave a time bomb and then alert the occupants of the premises to its presence; and Jane Alpert’s administration was admirably scrupulous in its concern to protect the charwomen who might otherwise be the only victims of late-night attentats against corporate headquarters from which the common oppressors of mankind had long since departed for Greenwich, Connecticut.
But without her talent for organization, Melville might have been largely ineffective and gone unnoticed and therefore unpunished. Only careerists can manage careers, even ones as bizarre and foredoomed as this one. She was unlucky to know Melville; but he was not all that lucky to know her. The firmness of her purpose could well have been more fatal to him than any instability of his; she made it possible for him to find himself for the first time in his life in command of an organization that was, in its way, a success; and he used that new eminence to ruin them all by inviting a government informant into the firm.
When caught he sank into catatonia and went numbly off to prison, where he was quickened back to life by the Attica riots and ran about the yard seeking the means to make another bomb until the state troopers killed him. Jane Alpert had already begun tending toward her radical feminist phase; and, after grieving for his death awhile, she repudiated him in a manifesto that ended:
You fast and organize and demonstrate for Attica. Don’t send me news clippings, don’t tell me how much those deaths moved you. I will mourn the deaths of 42 male supremacists no longer.
The feminist ideologue Robin Morgan had by then made her appearance as the newest of Alpert’s succession of proctors and had led her to the conviction that Sam Melville was not a communist at all but a fascist. Persons less confident of labels may wonder whether he had ever been either one or the other or anything at all except the hippie of the Fifties marooned in the Sixties that a Columbia strike veteran remembers from the days when Melville was hanging about the Students for a Democratic Society.
He had in any case conquered her from the grave as he had dominated her in life. He emerges in his craziness somehow the hero of her narrative, because he has again profited from her weakness for being led too far. He had debased her when she loved him; and now she debased herself through hating him. Simply by being there as a ghost, he had become the object of an injustice from her; and he had beaten her once again.
Miss Alpert has one of those minds that can first bless and then curse forty-two dead convicts without at any point in the swing of its pendulum exhibiting the smallest inclination to consider the possibility of differences among them as individuals.To live awhile in the company of such a mind is to grow not just bone weary but alarmingly close to thoughts as cold as hers.
A certain sense of proportion is confessedly wanting in someone who felt drawn to Miss Alpert when he met her as an indicted terrorist and who likes her less now that he has dealt with her as a writer. No one can reasonably quarrel with her renunciation of her old courses or fairly censure this new undertaking as a betrayal of her former friends.They were bad courses and bad friends who have, in most cases, been more false to her than she ever was to them. It is not simply her conduct then or now that alienates us but rather the cast of mind that she seems to have carried unaltered through multiple changes of attitude.
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 nearly 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. That imbalance was, you finally decide, a plague that all too few of her comrades had the luck or character to escape; they were in too many cases persons who brought more passion to quarreling than to coupling. Because, for all their professions of love, they could not trust one another, they could not restrain one another:
No one wanted to admit that with explosives already in our possession, we were having second thoughts about using them. No one wanted to be the first in the group to look like a coward….Not one of us was capable of handling this new power; not one of us was brave enough to back away from it.
The dream of power had displaced and overcome the fantasy of comradeship; and each of them was alone with the self. It is from such states of perceived isolation that men and women proceed to the worst of political follies, which is to follow one’s ideas to their logical conclusion and visit one’s aggression upon targets as inappropriate as Brink’s guards, airport peacekeepers, and cleaning women. Those who had begun assured of their warmth and their concern had ended cold and careless.
There is, I think, something curiously American in this incapacity to concede that you have wasted a sizable part of your life. Not to be able to make that concession keeps us somehow stunted, cuts us off from the redeeming sense of irony that rose up to rescue Swann after his long agony with Odette: “To think that…I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type.” Life runs like that in all too many of its varieties; and disablement by the self-importance that assumes that one is so special as to have deserved a better reward is a considerable handicap to reconciliation with reality. Miss Alpert would be altogether a more helpful witness if she understood that the least useful way to look back at your mistakes is to be pompous about them.
January 21, 1982