When mourners filled Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan on October 16, 2003, to commemorate the life of Herbert Aptheker, the Marxist historian of slavery who died at 87, they did not lack for panegyrics. Eulogists celebrated Aptheker’s commitment to interracial equality. They deplored the cold war stigma that precluded him, as a Communist Party member, from pursuing a scholarly career despite his Columbia University doctorate. They spoke of his collaborations with African-American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois and of his deep love for Fay, his cousin, to whom he was married from 1942 until her death in 1999. Stanford historian Clayborne Carson bestowed upon Aptheker the honorifics of “white black red” and “white black historian.”
Scarcely noticed amid the praise was an enigmatic, disquieting note introduced by the Apthekers’ only child, Bettina, near the end of her own address. “Ten days after my mother died,” she said, “Dad asked me if he had ever hurt me as a child. ‘Yes,’ I said finally, he had. And so we talked. For someone who never expressed personal emotion, who never processed anything, he was amazing. He stayed with this conversation with me for over an hour. He was filled with remorse and anguish. He asked me to forgive him. Of course I did. And then I wanted so much to help him to heal. But he closed off the subject. It was too much for him. Shutting down was what he had always done.”
The precise nature of that painful past remained obscure until one year ago, when Seal Press published Bettina Aptheker’s memoir Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel. Its central revelation, that her father had sexually molested her when she was a child, set off a furious, still-unsettled Internet debate over the veracity of those memories and came as a bombshell to admirers accustomed to thinking of Herbert Aptheker as a stalwart opponent of oppression.
In Intimate Politics, Bettina Aptheker estimates that from the age of 3 or 4 until the age of 13, her father induced her to play “choo-choo train” on the rug of their Brooklyn apartment. In this game, he would press against her back, hold her tight, rock back and forth, and shudder, leaving her “wet and sticky.”
“It didn’t hurt,” she writes. “He never hurt me. And I knew not to tell…because he told me ‘terrible things will happen.'”
Her memoir traces a life’s journey from a childhood insulated in New York’s Jewish Communist left to Berkeley’s 1964 Free Speech Movement and beyond. In its pages, Bettina Aptheker, now a feminist studies professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, reveals a great deal more: her inner desperation even as she projected herself as part of a “perfect family,” her self-mutilation and suicidal inclinations, her never fully consensual affair with a Communist Party district leader and her transformation–hesitating at every step–as she became a feminist, divorced, came out as a lesbian, quit the Communist Party and adopted Buddhism.
Omnipresent in her life was her father, routinely described by the New York Times as “the leading theoretician of the American Communist Party,” although the compliment was backhanded, appearing in an article with the title “Aptheker Hanged in Effigy.” The Aptheker surname was a complex burden to bear. In the McCarthy era of Bettina’s childhood, it meant subversion, but by the time of her young adulthood in the 1960s, a new generation of radicals faulted the Communist Party for insufficient radicalism.