’60s radical offers unapologetic autobiography in ‘Fugitive Days’
By Jonah Raskin
LIKE SO MANY members of his generation, Bill Ayers was seduced by the serpent of revolutionary romanticism. In the 1960s, while at the University of Michigan, he shed his upper-class upbringing–his father ran Commonwealth Edison, the energy giant–and became a vocal antiwar activist, intoxicated by his own rhetoric.
Later, Ayers helped create Weatherman, a radical splinter group. Soon thereafter he became a leader of the Weather Underground, the clandestine organization that set off mini-bombs–they damaged property, not people–in the U.S. Capitol Building and the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam.
Now in his 50s and a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Ayers is still spouting revolutionary rhetoric as though it has never gone out of fashion. Indeed, the language of insurrection and defiance washes all over Fugitive Days (Beacon; $24), Ayers’ unapologetic account of his years as a rabble-rouser and a saboteur.
“I was born into an orgy of explosions,” he writes at the beginning of this autobiography, which also serves as a fiery political manifesto and a legal brief for Ayers and his ex-comrades, who turned themselves in to the authorities in the early 1980s and made their peace with America.
Ayers’ dilemma as an author is that he wants to talk, but can’t–not without incriminating himself and others. Of course, he is fully aware of the literary burden he bears. In the process of telling his tantalizing tale, he provides provocative comments about the nature of lies, secrets, and silence. His book is, in part, the compelling story of a man struggling to tell a story he knows he can’t tell without recourse to myth and fiction. Ayers changes names, dates, and places–and alters more than a few facts, too, which is distressing.
The first part of Fugitive Days feels genuine. Here, Ayers relates his activities in the early and mid-1960s, when he was a member of Students for a Democratic Society. He describes real people and events, the laws he broke, the occasions when he was arrested and jailed–all of which he seems to have enjoyed tremendously.
When the story follows his underground exploits in the 1970s, it seems less trustworthy. Indeed, while this book can be fascinating and entertaining, it’s also a highly romanticized view of life as a fugitive, and I wouldn’t want anyone–especially anyone going underground–to take it as gospel.
Ayers insists that he and his ilk were “exiles in America,” but that’s not how I remember it. I knew most of the members of the Weather Underground, and, in my recollection, they were in close contact with friends, family members, and the aboveground antiwar movement. Indeed, they were probably never more in touch with America than when they were wanted by the FBI.
Ayers insists that he and his comrades lived a more or less working-class life on the lam. Again, that’s not my recollection. I remember visiting fugitives in comfortable surroundings in Marin County and Brooklyn Heights. Hippie chic was more their style. And though Ayers likes to think that the Weather Underground was invincible, that just isn’t true either. Several fugitives were captured by the FBI, and Ayers himself was nearly caught in New York, though he doesn’t seem to remember that occasion.
Is this book worth reading? Yes, it is! Despite flaws, it’s the best book there is on the Weatherman and the Weather Underground. What redeems it is Ayers’ loving portrait of Diana Oughton, one of three Weather Underground members who accidentally killed themselves in 1970 when a bomb they were making exploded in a New York townhouse.
Ayers describes Oughton as a Quaker, a teacher, and an activist, without recourse to revolutionary rhetoric. He also returns again and again to the explosion itself and tries to understand why his friends blew themselves to kingdom come.
With a prose style that can make you positively dizzy, Ayers recaptures the surreal sense of a time when young people from elite families began to make bombs. “The serpent of rage was loosed in the wide world,” he writes. “It sank its passionate fangs deep into our inflamed hearts.” And so it did.
Sonoma State University professor Jonah Raskin is the author of ‘For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman.’
From the September 13-19, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.