Running on Empty
If ever there was an event that called for reflection on what was left of the New Left, it was the 1981 Brink's robbery. After eleven years underground, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert joined a group calling itself the Black Liberation Army (after the original BLA) in a botched robbery of a Brink's van in Nyack, New York, that led to the death of two policemen and a guard. By then the group, known as "the Family" at the Lincoln Hospital detox center in the South Bronx--from which it had recently been expelled by Mayor Ed Koch--had carried out seven previous attempts. The robbery was intended to cover the mortgage of the new office that acupuncturist Mutulu "Doc" Shakur set up on Strivers Row in Harlem, but after the seventh try, it deteriorated into a drug run for most of the black participants.
The Brink's robbery was something of a watershed in the history of the New Left. Even the Weather Underground, with its twenty-odd bombings, had never killed anybody--apart from the three Weather people who died in the accidental dynamiting of the Wilkerson townhouse in March 1970. Boudin had emerged naked from the pulverized building with Cathy Wilkerson, and stayed overnight with Wilkerson at her parents' house a few blocks away on St. Luke's Place before they disappeared. She did not resurface for another eleven years, and when she did it was in handcuffs, with a twenty-years-to-life sentence for her connection with the robbery, while Gilbert got life imprisonment. Their 14-month-old son, Chesa, was raised by their comrades Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, who chose to come aboveground the year before Boudin joined Gilbert in the Brink's action.
How did Kathy Boudin, the daughter of Leonard Boudin, one of America's most distinguished left-wing lawyers, and the niece of I.F. Stone, become involved in such a crime? The question was raised anew by Boudin's release this past September 17 from Bedford Hills prison. It's also at the heart of Susan Braudy's Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left. Although Braudy's book is poorly written and shoddily researched, it has become the subject of flattering attention in the American press, which has found in the Boudin story a parable of what went wrong in the 1960s and '70s. And what went wrong, for reviewers such as Alan Wolfe in The New Republic and Thomas Powers in the New York Times, was not so much the Vietnam War or racism but rather the recklessness and sanctimony of the New Left.
After opening with a lengthy description of the afternoon Boudin and Gilbert dropped Chesa off at the babysitter, rented a truck and met their "colleagues" after the robbery in Nyack, "a group of hard-nosed criminals and self-professed revolutionaries who had just robbed a Brink's truck and killed...one of its guards," Wolfe asks a question he has "the hardest time understanding: how could the parents of a baby drop the bundle of happiness off with a stranger in order to choose death over life?" It's an odd question, or oddly put, and more revealing of the sanctimony of current attitudes toward the family than of past history. In his Times review, Powers, who describes Family Circle as "an unblinking look at what happens when people convince themselves that ideals can excuse anything," claims that "Braudy shows persuasively that it was not the system, but Leonard's disdain for 'frittering away her life by holding other people's hands,' that pushed Kathy ever further down a dead-end road."
Recklessness was, of course, hardly absent from the left, and is, regrettably, an aspect of any movement worthy of the name. But context matters, and Braudy's peculiar book is notable for its lack of historical context. Instead, it's a family story, a romance about "a family circle from hell" (Wolfe), in which the dangers of wealth, competitiveness and infidelity lead to the robbery, which is "as pointless and damaging, in its way, as the war in Vietnam itself" (Powers). A bizarre comparison, this last. And Braudy compounds the absurdity with numerous factual errors about Boudin's family, including its supposed wealth (not acquired until the end of Leonard's career, according to his longtime partner, who finds the comparison of the Boudins with the Hearsts ludicrous); its competitiveness, more style than substance; and Leonard's infidelities, which are pumped up to fantastical proportions--"Leonard loved to compete against friends and family members for first place in a pretty woman's heart"--in part, to fill the gaps in his daughter's career after she joins Weatherman and loses the tail the FBI maintains on Students for a Democratic Society. But more important, the father's domestic crimes are more comprehensible to the author than are the political deeds of the daughter.
Braudy, who lived across the hall from Boudin at Bryn Mawr and remembers hearing her shouting on the phone at her father, has an ambivalent view of her subject. She calls Boudin's politics "glamorous and dramatic" but feels put down by her positions, as if a scholarship student from Philadelphia (which Braudy was) couldn't keep up. Her theory of why her classmate ended up in jail is deceptively simple. As she told Boudin in the one interview she was granted, "I blame your father...you felt you had to risk your life...to compete with Leonard to get his attention." The idea is unconvincing, and lacks a sense of who Boudin was.