Father of History

Father of History

Bettina Aptheker’s recent memoir has incited fierce debate over her father s legacy.


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.

Since Intimate Politics was published, last November, it has garnered modest attention in gay and feminist circles, including nomination for a Lambda Literary Award. Its greatest reverberations, however, have been among radicals, historians and African-Americans, particularly those who knew and respected Herbert Aptheker. Johnnetta Cole, the only person to serve as president of both Spelman and Bennett, the nation’s two historically black women’s colleges, professed at a February forum in Santa Cruz that she has been struggling to square “my image of Dr. Herbert Aptheker, the scholar-activist who taught me so much about American history, including American slavery,” with “his daughter’s description of her father’s own enslavement to a sexual perversion.”

Timothy Patrick McCarthy, a Harvard lecturer, met Herbert Aptheker in the 1990s as a graduate student at Columbia University and adopted him as a mentor, revering him as “a white guy doing African-American history at a time when white guys weren’t doing African-American history.” When McCarthy picked up Intimate Politics in a bookstore, his heart sank. “I was really devastated,” he says. “It was the feeling that I had when I found out my hometown priest was sleeping with my peers and had been for a number of years.”

Others were not quite able to believe the news. “I read the publisher’s blurb and my jaw dropped,” says Gary Murrell, a historian at Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen, Washington, who conducted sixty hours of interviews with Aptheker and read deeply in his papers for a biography in progress. “It just seems out of character that he would have molested his daughter.” After reading Intimate Politics, however, Murrell finds it “totally believable” and is grappling with how to reconcile its contents with the man he knew.

Kathryn Kish Sklar, co-director of the Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender at Binghamton University, sees Intimate Politics as continuous with a tradition dating to the American Female Moral Reform Society of the 1830s of women making “public what previously had never been spoken” and challenging “behavior that turns people into means toward somebody else’s ends.” She is struck by the memoir’s “generosity,” its “clarity as an antecedent to forgiveness.”

The compassionate, redemptive tone of the memoir is also appreciated by those who knew both father and daughter. Roger Wilkins, scion of the famous civil rights family, says, “I hate that it happened, to both of them. But I don’t see Herbert as a monster, and I don’t think that Bettina portrays him as such.” John Bracey Jr., an African-American studies scholar at the University of Massachusetts, says, “If somebody had come to me and said that Herbert had done that, I wouldn’t have believed it, but I also know that Bettina wouldn’t make up something like that.” Bracey admires her for not publicizing the matter until after her parents’ deaths: “I think that we should thank her for the courage and selflessness in putting it out this way so that it saved her but it also didn’t hurt anybody else. That’s pretty rare, to take the weight herself for that long.”

Online, however, critics rapidly expressed doubts about Bettina’s revelation. Participants on the H-Net discussion list of the History of American Communism homed in on her admission that she had failed to remember the abuse for decades. “Without corroboration, Bettina’s recovered memories are less than convincing evidence,” wrote Melvyn Dubofsky. FrontPage Magazine‘s David Horowitz went further: “I happen to suspect that the incest story is probably made up–because of everything we know about the repressed memory genre.” Though less disbelieving, Ronald Radosh suggested, “She should have done this when he was alive, so he could answer.” Clare Spark suggested Bettina Aptheker might be inventing tales “to demonstrate that she has overcome yet another assault by authority” or as “a way of getting attention from reviewers for her book.”

The skeptics include both conservatives (Horowitz and Radosh were raised on the Communist left, became New Leftists, then turned rightward) and left-liberals (Dubofsky and Spark). They converge in viewing Bettina Aptheker as an accuser regardless of her memoir’s tone of equanimity, in desiring evidence beyond her testimony and in doubting the worthiness of recovered memory.

Leading the countercharge in Bettina Aptheker’s defense was Jesse Lemisch, a red-diaper baby and defender of Herbert Aptheker’s academic freedom in the mid-1970s, when Yale’s history department, led by C. Vann Woodward, refused to permit him to teach a seminar. On the History News Network (HNN), Lemisch held that a mostly “male gender solidarity” of deniers across the political spectrum had shown “emotional deficit” by failing to acknowledge the extent of inappropriate sexual contact in families. He noted that Bettina’s claims were made not in a court with strict rules of evidence but in the realm of history and memoir, which deal in the likely. Observing the “shame and stigma” surrounding child sexual abuse, he pilloried the image of a family seated “around the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving dinner table, and as Dad carves the turkey, they ask, ‘Dad, why did you do that to me? Mom, why did you let him?'”

As debate unfolded across the Internet, those inclined to believe the revelations within Intimate Politics, often women, cited their own abuse experiences and pointed to proven scandals such as those of the Catholic Church and Representative Mark Foley. Critics invoked James Frey’s fabricated memoir A Million Little Pieces and the “false memory syndrome” typified by the McMartin Preschool case of the 1980s, when children under suggestive therapy accused caregivers of Satanic ritual abuse. Opinion divided over what HNN termed the Aptheker revelations–a phrase evocative of the 1956 Khrushchev revelations, when Soviet admission of Stalin’s malevolence sent American Communism into a tailspin.

Bettina Aptheker’s accent, although sanded by four decades in California, still carries traces of her Brooklyn upbringing. “I expected much worse,” she says of the criticism to which her book has been subjected. “But I wanted it to be honest or there was no point. This shaped a tremendous amount about my life.”

Since sexual abuse occurs in private, its verification is always difficult. In this case, a half-century has passed. No diary, letter or photograph is likely to turn up to mollify doubters. Without siblings, enjoined to secrecy, Bettina Aptheker confided in no one. “The closest corroboration you get,” she says, “is the conversation with my father.”

That conversation took place in a car on the way home from a Vietnamese restaurant in 1999, soon after her mother’s death. (Her 2003 eulogy dated the exchange as ten days later; Intimate Politics dates it as seventeen days later.) Out of the blue, her father asked whether he had ever hurt her when she was a child. After a moment’s hesitation, she responded, “Yes.” He asked, “What did I do?” “You were sexually inappropriate,” she replied. When? he asked. When we were playing together? Yes. Did he arouse himself? Ejaculate? Penetrate? To each question except the last, she answered in the affirmative.

Witnessing this exchange from the driver’s seat was Kate Miller, Bettina’s partner. “It was one of the most extraordinary conversations I’ve ever been privy to,” says Miller, who agreed to be interviewed only after persistent requests. “I have never seen anyone so filled with remorse. And that speaks to a strain of goodness. It was absolutely unendurable to him, and that’s what he kept saying.”

So effusive was his contrition, says Bettina Aptheker, that she let go of her anger. Her forgiveness was eased by her conjecture that he may have been abused as a child. She maintained her conciliatory disposition even when he began to backpedal that very night, saying he could not accept her account. “He never accused me of lying,” she states. Miller confirms, “He never felt Bettina was accusing. He never felt that, that I ever saw. He would keep saying, ‘It can’t be so.’ And then she would say, ‘But Dad, it was so.’ He would say, ‘I can’t stand it.’ And she would say, ‘Sure you can. I’ve stood it all these years.’ But he never, ever came close to saying anything like, ‘You’re making this up.’ Never.”

Aptheker’s memories flooded back in the 1990s, when she was in her 50s. “I could have written this as though it was not recovered memory,” she observes. “I didn’t do that, because I wanted to tell the truth.” She was not in therapy at the time. She was writing her autobiography, and the segments on her childhood seemed “flat” to her partner and daughter, who encouraged her to reveal more of her interior thoughts. At about that time, she happened to watch a Hollywood movie (not on child sexual abuse) that struck an emotive chord, prompting her recollections and causing her to enter a period of deep pain and coping that her 32-year-old daughter, Jenny Kurzweil, then in college, describes as extraordinarily difficult to watch.

The scientific and psychological literature on memory and abuse is contested, but a number of studies have concluded that it is not rare for those abused in childhood to lose memory of it for long stretches. Although survivors suffer adverse psychological effects, they often forget the abuse, particularly if they did not feel physically threatened by it. “You can have something that is morally reprehensible, like sexual abuse, but the child doesn’t understand it,” says Richard McNally, a prominent memory researcher at Harvard University. “They’re not traumatized. They may be upset, they may be confused, but they’re not traumatized in the sense of experiencing terror and the release of stress hormones that render the memory unforgettable.”

McNally and other psychologists disparage the notion that awful memories are erased by “repression,” the Freudian terminology that Bettina Aptheker employs. They explain such memory lapses by other processes, such as atrophy, absence of retrieval cues, lack of rehearsal (as when a topic is secret and not discussed) or avoidance. Few psychologists, however, dismiss entirely the plausibility of forgetting and later recalling childhood sexual abuse. Insofar as the “memory wars” have yielded any common ground, it is that recovered memories of child sexual abuse should be neither accepted credulously nor denied peremptorily.

If radicalism means going to the root, a great deal of digging is now required to locate Herbert Aptheker’s legacy. Someone someday may pore over every line Aptheker wrote, searching for hints of his conduct on the living-room floor. The search is likely to prove arid, for his scholarship was quintessentially Old Left. “I remember one time having a conversation with him about how to incorporate gender and sexuality into one’s worldview and one’s analytical framework,” says Timothy Patrick McCarthy. “He kind of scoffed at that, as if it was a detour from what was really at stake.”

Most historians, all too cognizant of human failing, will concur that Aptheker’s writings should “stand or fall on their own merit,” as states Eric Foner, co-editor with Manning Marable of the anthology Herbert Aptheker on Race and Democracy, recently issued by the University of Illinois Press. David Levering Lewis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of W.E.B. Du Bois, calls his debt to Aptheker “incommensurable” and asks, “Is he any less a decent Marxist scholar for having done what he did? No question about his paternal deficiencies.”

The motif of Intimate Politics that personal life has public implications, however, would seem to make a thoroughgoing reconsideration of Herbert Aptheker inescapable. That moral inventory would necessarily include not only his treatment of his daughter but also the incongruities of the midcentury Communist project he championed, with its admixture of authoritarianism and liberation. Along with paeans to black freedom, Aptheker penned a host of pro-Soviet apologetics, justifying, for example, the crushing of Hungarian workers’ councils in 1956. Even his African-American histories found their critics. C.L.R. James regretted his works as “weapons in the Stalinist propaganda armory.” Harold Cruse objected to “the sentimental slave hero worship of the Aptheker cult.”

Few today, however, would deny that A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States (1951) was a resource without parallel in its time or that American Negro Slave Revolts (1943) helped overturn the stereotype of the singing, contented slave. Historian Ira Berlin says that because slave insurrections were “extraordinarily rare events,” Aptheker may have overstated their prevalence, but he adds that Aptheker’s work was “very, very important” in “breaking the silence on the resistance, and particularly the violent resistance, of slaves.”

“If I am right,” says Bettina Aptheker, “and he was abused as a child in some manner, shape or form, he may well have had his own memories of that but never talked about it. We don’t know. If that were true, one way of sublimating that would be in terms of fierce opposition to oppression, as in slavery. You can see there’s a correlation there. But that’s entirely speculative.”

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