Feminist Rebel Reveals Past of Incest
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Part of this review appeared on Dec. 3 in the book review section of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Bettina Aptheker adored her political, erudite father, who was a well-known Communist. "When I was a little girl I wanted to be just like my father," Aptheker writes. "Whatever he did, I did, or tried to do." And one thing that Herbert Aptheker did extremely well, according to Bettina, was to deny any reality he didn't want to acknowledge.
Emulating her father, then, meant sharing his denial of the many questionable political realities, evading intellectual complexities she could not yet articulate, ignoring her own feminist observations of women's lives, restraining her sexual desire for women and, most of all, repressing childhood memories of her father's sexual abuse.
Determined to be his loyal, perfect daughter, Aptheker writes that she repressed this memory, so that she could function in her father's world. Her denial allowed her to become one of the few female leaders of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in 1964 and to play a major role in the trial of her childhood friend and comrade Angela Davis, who was acquitted of murder charges. Her denial of her deepest desires and memories also allowed her to marry and raise two children.
But denial eventually catches up. Outside, Bettina Aptheker appeared confident and productive. Inside, she lived with constant anxiety and serious depression. "Incest survivors know despair," she writes. "It is not your ordinary run-of-the-mill despair. ... It's a different feeling. All through childhood, all through my twenties, I had this feeling. It was bottomless, endless, bone-deep, down to the marrow. I choked on it, fell prostrate with it. It was connected to a self-loathing so deep, so limitless, so without end that suicide seemed the only possible relief."
As she began to sift through her childhood materials and memories to write her memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech and Became a Feminist Rebel, Aptheker suddenly remembered what she had repressed all those years. The memory was not recovered by therapy; it just suddenly appeared, and she collapsed to the ground:
"My father and I played other games too, beside baseball. I was three or four years old when we began playing 'choo-choo train.' ... My father was behind me, and then the train arrived 'at the station,' and we had to wait for the 'passengers' to get off and on. Our train rocked back and forth, back and forth, and my father had his right arm tightly around me. He was the 'locomotive' even though he was behind me. Our train shuddered just before it was supposed to leave 'the station,' except it didn't leave. ... And then he stood me up and we went into the bathroom and he washed me off, very gently. It didn't hurt. He never hurt me. And I knew not to tell. As I grew bigger we played different games, but they all had the shudder. Older still, I knew it was not a game. I still knew not to tell because he told me 'terrible things will happen.' My father stopped molesting me when I was thirteen and we moved to a new house."
Soon after I read this shocking revelation, a colleague asked me whether it was really necessary for her to reveal this incest to the world. The answer, I believe, is that Bettina Aptheker's life and intellectual biography make no sense without understanding what she suffered and repressed. Although she describes this incest in one short account, it is a thread running through her efforts to become her own person.
Her revelation is not an act of vengeance. Nor does she write with rancor, but rather with boundless love and forgiveness that grew as she acknowledged her love for women, embraced feminism and moved in new intellectual directions. She never brought it up for discussion with her father. On the contrary, it was Herbert Aptheker, during the last year of his life, who asked if he had hurt her during her childhood. She told him the truth, and assured him that she had long forgiven him. He believed her, but couldn't remember the events. Gradually, that changed:
"After his heart attack, still in the hospital, he said, 'you've forgiven me.' It wasn't a question. It was a statement. I said, 'Yes, I have forgiven you.' He made the statement repeatedly in the months following, reassuring himself. That was how I came to realize that he had hid own knowledge of the incest. It was always present in his consciousness, just under the surface, as it had been in mine."
To be a successful and loyal daughter, Bettina Aptheker needed to repress these childhood memories. As she freed herself of her father's rigid Marxist worldview, she gained a new freedom to integrate a feminist analysis into her intellectual work, to embrace aspects of her Jewish heritage, as well as Buddhist practices, and to create a lasting partnership with a woman who "taught her the meaning of hope."
Though she describes episodes of debilitating despair, Aptheker's stunning memoir is not primarily about incest; it is ultimately a political, intellectual and emotional story of one woman's redemption. Once read, it is not easily forgotten.
Ruth Rosen is a historian and journalist who teaches public policy at UC Berkeley. She is a senior fellow at the Longview Institute.