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[Book reviews]

Remembering the revolutionary ’60s


Fugitive Days: A Memoir

By Bill Ayers. Beacon Press, 295 pages, $24.

The September 11 New York Times carried a long interview with Bill Ayers accompanied by a photograph of Ayers and his beautiful wife and comrade, Bernardine Dohrn. In promoting Fugitive Days, Ayers joked about his prank " bombing " of the Pentagon. Then the terrorist-piloted planes struck. Bad timing has surely obscured this valuable book, the first inside account of the Weather Underground. Fugitive Days is also peekaboo cute, but I finished it hoping that Ayers will follow this volume with the rest of his story.

Ancient history first. Ayers, a middle-class Chicago native radicalized by the Vietnam War, became a founder and leader of the Weathermen. The group took its name from Bob Dylan’s line " You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. " White, middle-class, college-educated men and women, the Weathermen saw themselves as a revolutionary vanguard. In practice this meant street fighting — the Chicago " Days of Rage " in October 1968 — and building bombs. It all culminated in 1970 in the horrific accidental explosion that destroyed a Greenwich Village townhouse, killing Ayers’s former girlfriend, Diana Oughton, and others. The result was years of living on the lam for Dohrn and Ayers.

The Weathermen did not have a platform beyond what Ayers now calls " a kind of grandiose innocence, " a dream of equality, fairness, justice, and love. Had they brought about their revolution, they probably would have been among the children devoured by it. They were that innocent. Ayers’s depiction of their wholehearted American idealism is one of his book’s strengths.

Idealists but violent in word and deed, the Weatherman roused themselves to purge their middle-class scruples. The harder this became for them, so they thought, the surer their progress must be. Ayers’s claim that their call " to kill the rich people, kill your parents " was a put-on is credible only up to a point. Whether throwing themselves into group sex as a way to shatter middle-class inhibitions or earnestly — too earnestly, Ayers sees with the advantage of age — haranguing one another about revolutionary discipline, the Weathermen were committed to self-intoxication. They needed to cheer themselves on, and they believed that their violent words would bring others, disaffected working-class youth in particular, to their banner.

In this they failed totally, and Ayers records that failure. His account of being carried along in the Chicago street fighting is funny and frightening. Chaos has its own rules, and neither Ayers nor the other Weathermen rode the whirlwind. They were thrown about by the forces they helped unleash, but then so were Lyndon Johnson and, later, Richard Nixon.

As Fugitive Days records the Weather Underground’s failure, it testifies to Ayers’s indomitable spirit. His appetite for life comes across, as does a nervy resilience that allows him to face and survive the shock and the aftermath of the townhouse explosion. He is, in Nietzsche’s words of praise, " a fighter against his time. " There is honor in this, but Ayers has not done totally right by himself and his story. He opens with a disclaimer that Fugitive Days is " a memory book rather than a transcript, " both because he wants to be true to the Weathermen collective spirit — his truth is not privileged but one of many — and because he knows that he will not in every instance deliver the goods. Legal problems for some of his comrades might arise, and so there is, in his words, a " blurring of details. "

But when Ayers repeats his warning and philosophizes about the uncertainty of memory, he undermines his claim of honesty. I felt winked at, as if now complicit in his need to maintain solidarity with his comrades. Knowing in advance that the writer will not tell the whole truth inspires skepticism. The fog of memory is one thing; deliberate amnesia is another. The memoirist’s truth is partial to begin with, so why compromise it in this way? And once it’s compromised, why attempt to get by on charm?

I hope Ayers will go on to tell the rest of his story. How did he re-enter the above-ground world? He is Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois in Chicago, the author of three other books (on education) as well as co-author of a fourth. How has he put the experiences of his youth to work in the classroom? He and Dohrn have raised three sons, two of their own and Chesea Boudin, the son of the jailed radical Kathy Boudin. Given their years underground, this could not have been easy. How have they managed? Ayers seems to be a presence in Chicago, a valued colleague and friend. How has he made his place in that city, and how have his politics and dreams stood up to the years? He has had what F. Scott Fitzgerald thought Americans are denied: a second act in life. Why not complete the story?

Issue Date: November 29 - December 7, 2001

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