Running on Empty

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.


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.

In many ways, Kathy Boudin was one of the best. Reading Family Circle, we’re reminded that here was a young woman who used her advantages to fight for a world in which such advantages would cease to exist. Starting in high school, at Elisabeth Irwin in Greenwich Village (where Angela Davis, misidentified in the class photo, was a classmate), she picketed Woolworth’s, protested air raid drills and crusaded against “conspicuous consumption.” At Bryn Mawr in 1961, she agitated successfully on behalf of the college’s black maids, and the following school year organized the “Second American Revolution,” a conference on race relations in the United States. Working with Swarthmore’s Cathy Wilkerson and Connie Brown, who later became SDS comrades, Boudin helped establish a temporary “freedom school” and was arrested on charges of “unlawful as-sembly and affray” for blocking the entrance to a nearby public school.

After spending her senior year at the University of Leningrad, where according to Braudy her father hoped to rid her of any lingering interest in Soviet-style Communism (not hard, if I remember correctly from an essay she wrote for a magazine I edited in 1969), Boudin graduated in absentia at the top of her class at Bryn Mawr. She moved on to SDS though she never joined, Braudy says, as Leonard never joined the Communist Party; but most SDSers never “joined,” and Leonard Boudin had no interest in joining the CP. It is one of many comparisons between father and daughter that are fabricated out of thin stuff, or from conversations with one of Braudy’s chief sources, Kathy’s mother, Jean, who, before her death in 1994, gave Braudy the benefit of her reflections about her imprisoned daughter and the affairs of her husband (who died in 1989).

In the book, Braudy unfurls a plot about a dynasty of lawyers that makes no room for the rebel daughter. And a subplot: The middle figure in the patriarchal trio, the father, is unfaithful to his wife and to his daughter, by way of sleeping with at least one of her friends, and by undermining her. “What no one at Bryn Mawr suspected was that Kathy’s stance was not as secure as it looked,” writes Braudy. “Her equilibrium depended on Leonard’s intoxicating approval, and this was not a sure thing.” The Boudin legal dynasty features the great labor lawyer Louis B. Boudin (“B” for Boudinovitch), 1874-1952; and his nephew, Leonard, 1912-89, who represented Paul Robeson, Judith Coplon, Daniel Ellsberg, Dr. Benjamin Spock and the Cuban government; and Kathy’s older brother Michael, a conservative whose stellar legal career made him a judge of the First (not the Second) Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. Kathy, Braudy points out, originally wanted to be a doctor, not a lawyer, but no matter.

In a prepublication interview with David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times, Braudy maintains that Kathy tried to outdo her famous father in notoriety, or goodness, or badness. “Ms. Boudin wanted to attack the sanctity of the law that her father held dear,” writes Kirkpatrick. “But [Braudy] also argued that Ms. Boudin wanted to win as a client the attention she missed as a daughter. She may have also wanted ‘to see him trumped by a case he could not win.'” Even though Boudin first called William Kunstler for the Brink’s case, she soon settled on her father. “To horrified and fascinated friends,” writes Braudy, “Kathy and her father seemed to have been preparing for the family tragedy for decades.” But this makes little sense, and masks the fact that until shortly before the robbery, when Boudin had started meeting with her father to discuss the legal terms of her possible re-emergence, she’d had almost no contact with him.

When the trial finally comes, we’re tired of the psychobabble about father and daughter (“Kathy was more terrified than ever that if stripped of her glamorous and dramatic revolutionary attachments, she would be the dullest person in Leonard’s circle”), which fills in for the untold story. We’re ready to sink our teeth into the courtroom drama, but instead we get jailhouse news–which is fascinating, and opens up twenty-two years of teaching, writing and AIDS counseling, twice as long as the underground period, and prepares us for Boudin’s release. But first we need to know why she stayed underground when most of her Weather mates did not, and why she agreed to rent the getaway truck for the Family’s boss, “Doc” Shakur.

Braudy leans heavily on John Castellucci’s The Big Dance: The Untold Story of Weatherman Kathy Boudin and the Terrorist Family That Committed the Brink’s Robbery Murders (1986) for material on Boudin’s experience renting vehicles for the Family, and on how her attention to Family politics began to wander after Chesa was born. There is more about the ties between the New York Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army and the Family she might have used, but the focus on Assata Shakur (a k a Joanne Chesimard) seems right. Boudin had admired her for years, and wrote poetry about her; but two years before the Brink’s robbery Assata had been broken out of prison and flown to Cuba.

According to Braudy, Boudin lacked the kind of access to the Family that might have warned her of their slide into drugs. Braudy focuses instead on the tug of war between Leonard and David Gilbert in the months before Brink’s over whether Kathy should turn herself in. Kathy’s own mind is missing from this drama, and it’s no easier to imagine it now–except to point out the obvious connection between Boudin’s early involvements with civil rights and her admiration for Assata Shakur, and to suggest that she felt it was her duty as a white revolutionary to offer uncritical support to the Family. In this commitment to rid herself of “white skin privilege” she differed from most of her political generation, and for the manner in which she fulfilled her duty, she has paid the price.

Braudy has a weak grasp of Boudin’s formative years with SDS and Weatherman. She relies on FBI reports of dubious accuracy, and on two memoirs of questionable propriety, by Susan Stern and Jane Alpert, who share her underlying belief that the personal is political. The alternative paper The Rat is cited for the coverage of SDS’s last hurrah, in Flint, Michigan, at the end of 1969, and the collage Braudy pieces together is barely recognizable. I was there for the Venceremos Brigade, which was recruiting students to go to Cuba, and saw the huge cardboard gun lettered “PIECE NOW” but didn’t see punch spiked with LSD (I don’t remember any punch), or dance with Dohrn and Diana Oughton (whom Braudy keeps calling by her Bryn Mawr nickname, “Das”), or lead Weather songs like “I’m Dreaming of a White Riot,” or shout about “political assassinations.” Later that night, Braudy has Boudin joining “women making love on the dance floor,” and dancing again, copying young blacks, punching and kicking, jumping “high, winking at admirers, her face red, her curling hair flying and damp with sweat, stamping her bare feet, and shouting at the top of her lungs in unison with the other young people, ‘EXPLODE, EXPLODE.'” An awfully long sentence, and one of the better ones. But true? I recall Tom Hayden leading karate, but in this version Hayden is no longer part of the scene she tries to re-create.

It’s hard to do justice to a book about history that ignores history. It’s not a place where Braudy goes, and when she does, as in “President Harry Truman suddenly declared a ‘cold war,'” it precedes a statement about a family member: “Jean was a self-described parlor revolutionary. ‘I’ll pay you come the revolution,’ she would say, hanging up on a bill collector.” Braudy writes (with Jean as source) that in the early 1960s Kathy joined Leonard in Havana, and then went off to harvest sugar “as a member of the Venceremos Brigade, made up of students from Cuba and the United States with stars in their eyes…” But the Brigades didn’t start until 1969. With no discussion of what’s actually happening in the world that interests the activists, it’s hard to judge their actions. What makes a second-rate exposé the stuff of first-class reviews–most of which more or less agree with Braudy’s conclusion that Leonard Boudin’s daughter was lost before she started–is the prevailing dismissal of the protest movements of the 1960s and early ’70s. The circumstances behind the movements are forgotten, gone, and so the book is free to tell another story, closer in mood and temper to the present.

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