by Jerry Waxler
Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.
In the 60’s, I vigorously protested the Vietnam War, but like most Americans I thought the organization called the Weather Underground had gone too far. Without knowing many details, I associated them with violent, irrational extremism.
So I was surprised to hear that one of the founders of that organization was not only a free man. He was an acclaimed educator. I first heard about Bill Ayers during the 2008 presidential campaign when television ads implied that Ayers’ criticism of U.S. policy in Vietnam somehow tainted Barack Obama. The publicity intrigued me. I wanted to know more. After hearing an excellent radio interview with Bill Ayers, I decided to read his memoir Fugitive Days. Reading the book prodded me to review rusty old parts of my own beliefs.
When Ayers was a young man, his outrage against the war drove him to the brink of anarchy. In his memoir, Fugitive Days, he chronicles his violent thoughts and actions in almost poetic detail. Even after reading the memoir, it’s hard for me to decide if he was a hero who risked his life to save the world from the insanity of war, or a mad child, a criminal, bent on imposing his will on society. And therein lays the power of the memoir. It shows his world as it was, not as it ought to have been, allowing me to see for myself and ask my own questions. The description of life through his eyes provided a deeper understanding of the world than I could gain from sound bites and stereotypes.
Are young people idealistic or simple minded?
When I was young, adults taught me that people are supposed to be kind, generous, and empathetic. I desperately wanted to live in a world driven by these ideals. Too often, the difference between the world they preached and the one they actually offered made me angry. So I protested, trying to badger them into following their own principles. However, demanding change turned out to be far more complex than I first had hoped. After I participated in my first riot, I realized I was contributing to the very chaos that I wanted to stop.
The protest movement became increasingly strident at my alma mater, University of Wisconsin in Madison, until a climax in the1970 bombing of the Army Math Research Center. At 3 AM, when the bombers expected the building to be empty, a young physics researcher unrelated to the Army or the war was killed by the blast, exposing the dark side of extreme protest. More disturbing still, moral outrage against government policies can be used to justify all sorts of violent protest. For example, the Oklahoma City bombers claimed they were obeying higher principles, a justification that comes all too close to the reasoning of the Weather Underground.
According to Ayers, his group never took part in an action that resulted in a death, so the book does not justify murder. In fact, the book does very little justifying at all. Rather than analyzing his actions, or even looking back at them with the hindsight of an older man, Ayers offers an immersion experience in that period. Just as you wouldn’t expect to see cell phones in a movie about the Vietnam War, Ayers also tries to keep his thoughts appropriate for a young man during the height of the Vietnam war protests.
Feminism was still in the future
In Bill Ayers’ time the feminist movement had not yet been born, so during his story, men were freely using women and justifying it with all sorts of theoretical excuses. Women were starting to complain, and in a rare nod to the future development of the feminist movement, Ayers hints at the tensions coming to the surface.
Structure is interesting: In Medias Res
The organizational structure of the book is interesting. The opening scene pulls me in with a bang. Ayers and his cronies are on the run, and they hear about the death of a comrade, letting me know they are all in mortal danger. This technique of “in medias res,” or starting in the midst of the action, is as old as storytelling itself. Once the initial scene pulls us in, he backs up and starts from the beginning. Then gradually the story moves closer to the tragedy, and then keeps going, to his fugitive life, and on to completion.
Is shame supposed to be hidden?
In the memoir, “This Boy’s Life” Tobias Wolff writes about some really bad decisions from his youth, like throwing eggs at the driver of a convertible car and stealing stuff from his step-dad. He does not apologize or justify. He simply describes. When I first read “This Boy’s Life,” I was shocked that he would be willing to talk about these obnoxious behaviors. How does that work? I hated remembering when I did shameful things like shoplifting. Uck. It feels horrible to admit that I ever did such a thing. Similarly Ayers reports many behaviors that one would hope one’s teenage son or daughter is not doing. However, now that I have been reading memoirs for a while, I am no longer so shocked.
My more tolerant and expansive understanding of how to remember bad choices came during a lecture by John Bradshaw, the brilliant author of a number of books about healing. In the lecture, Bradshaw explained that there are two kinds of shame. Of course I knew about “bad shame.” The new information came from his description of “good shame,” a beautiful and redeeming concept I had never considered. Good shame serves a positive purpose. When you’re ashamed of something you’ve done, it’s your mind attempting to restore you to obey your own rules. So shame is a good thing, enforcing people to do their best. When people are “shameless” they can be rude or deceive each other without remorse. The absence of shame is the real anti-social condition.
Actually, not only is Ayers not ashamed of his actions. He even flips it upside down, and points a sense of shame back at the rest of society. He doesn’t feel shame for having protested the war. He feels shame for having participated in a country that was waging the war, and for example, dropping Napalm on babies. Wow! That fascinating twist makes me think long and hard about my own role as a citizen in a country that does a variety of things I wish they would do differently.
On every page, Ayers awakened memories of my own angst in the sixties. His experience stretched me to review my attitude towards social responsibility, and then, as I followed his trajectory, watched the terrifying consequences of his extreme position. It was an amazingly thought provoking and successful book.
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This Ayers fellow is fascinating. Heck all of us demonstrated in the 60’s. If we hadn’t of kids in school would still be wearing trousers, not jeans. LOL
Nice review Jerry.
Thanks, Steve. Yes, we were crazy. (Well I don’t know about you but I sure was). One of the privileges of growing old is that I have more information, so I can try to figure out how all of that worked. Ayers’ book gave me lots of insights and food for thought. I’m glad you liked the post.
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