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  • Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel
  • Debbie Goldman (bio)
Bettina Aptheker Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel (Seal Press, 2006)

In the prologue to her remarkable memoir, Bettina Aptheker explains her purpose in writing her life story: she wants to contribute to an individual and collective healing process. Immediately we ask: what is the source of her pain and why does she need to heal? After all, her biography reads like a who's who of an accomplished leader of the New Left. She was the red diaper daughter of renowned Communist historian Herbert Aptheker and herself a prominent Communist for 19 years, leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, anti-war and civil rights agitator, organizer of Angela Davis' defense committee, feminist [End Page 131] scholar, author, and lesbian activist who (in the words of the book jacket) "has taught one of the country's largest and most influential introduction to feminist studies courses for 24 years" at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Immediately, we are engaged. What is the source of her emotional trauma—was it her family, McCarthyism, the Communist Party, her sexual orientation? How are her troubles connected to those of others, and how can memoir writing contribute to an individual and collective healing?

We don't have to read much further (page three, actually) to discover that Aptheker was molested from childhood through age 13 by her famous father whom she adored. She was told not to tell because "terrible things would happen." So she buried the memory deep in the recesses of her mind, forgetting the incest, but retaining an ever-present feeling of dread and guilt and anxiety.

This was not her only secret. Her parents were Communists in that most rabidly anti-Communist decade of the 1950s. Herbert Aptheker, who pioneered the study of slave revolts and the African-American fight for freedom, was blacklisted and could not get an academic job. The FBI followed her family and tapped their phones. At age five, her mother told her that she and her father were Communists. "You must never tell anyone," she instructed. This was ironic, since her parents never kept their Party membership a secret. In fact, Herbert served in the Communist Party leadership, remained a firm Stalinist, supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and only left the Party in the '90s after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

There was one more secret, one Bettina knew by age five. "I loved women."

Aptheker's secrets were separate strands woven together in a powerful and complicated life story. The childhood incest and McCarthy-era repression came together in her mind. "Looking back now," she writes, "I know I couldn't have allowed for any memory of my father's 'games' with me [he played choo-choo train with her to arouse himself] if I was going to survive the fear that he would be taken away" (p. 20). Her father testified before Senator McCarthy's witch-hunting committee just six weeks before the Rosenbergs were executed. These events merged in her mind.

Aptheker held it all together by becoming the "perfect daughter." She grew up in the New York Communist Left, organized her first socialist youth group at age 13, was beaten by police at a nuclear test ban treaty rally at the ripe old age of 17. She went to Erasmus High School in Brooklyn with Angela Davis; during her senior year in high school she served as 91-year-old W.E.B. DuBois' research assistant.

Her healing required unraveling and overcoming the fears that entrapped her, separating from her father, her parental pressures, the communist imperatives, her closeted love for women, and most deeply, the childhood sexual abuse. How she came to live her own life is the story she tells in this masterful 450-page memoir. [End Page 132]

Bettina Aptheker left New York City to attend UC-Berkeley. She arrived as a "minor celebrity," at least in Communist circles. She quickly joined the Northern California Communist Party...


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pp. 131-138
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2012
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