- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003

FAMILY CIRCLE: THE BOUDINS AND THE ARISTOCRACY OF THE LEFT

By Susan Braudy

Knopf, $27.95, 463 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY WOODY WEST

In publishing, as in other risky ventures, timing can make or break. Alfred A. Knopf and Susan Braudy are hoping they’ve caught the spin of the wheel: “Family Circle” is being published just a month after the release on parole of Kathy Boudin. Now 60, she participated in one of the most lurid crimes by “graduates” of the 1960s counter-culture and spent 22 years in prison after pleading guilty to murder and robbery.

The author, who roomed across a dorm hall from Kathy Boudin at Bryn Mawr in 1961, had been working on the book for a decade. It was intended, she said, to be about her generation’s “lost idealism,” but evolved into a wider focus on the radical left. Susan Braudy obviously devoted prodigious energy to research and write “Family Circle” — a richly ironic title — and perhaps no little of her own psychic energy.

The book’s thesis is blunt, and comes close to constituting psychobiography: It is that Leonard Boudin, Kathy’s prominent and frenetic lawyer father, was responsible for his daughter’s narcissistic rage and, ultimately, her participation in the killing of two police officers and an armored-car guard in a robbery by black “revolutionaries.”

For those whose interest in the toxic 1960s remains high, Kathy Boudin stands as a symbol of the astounding egotism of those then-young radicals and of their arrogant eruptions. (While on the run from the law, she announced that, “Being underground gives us an important pulpit from which to scold and lead the American people.”) Thus, despite a jumpy narrative that pursues its tale up every obscure road and narrow path — often intriguingly, be it said — Miss Braudy’s book has a bleak fascination.

Kathy Boudin is more than symbol, of course. A “red diaper” baby, though her father never joined the Communist Party as did so many of those in the social and professional environs of the Boudin family, she took to “protest” early and volubly. She left Bryn Mawr to spend a year at the University of Leningrad and did a stint in Cuba with the Castro acolytes of the Venceremos Brigade. Among the influential leftists of the Boudin circle, her uncle I. F. Stone, was a voluble fount of dissent.

Her radicalization accelerated with the mobilization of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weathermen (later just “Weather” in the jargon). She was front and center at the most turbulent of the 1960s protests — from Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention and the anti-Vietnam riots there to the violent Days of Rage and, later, the 1972 bombing at the U.S. Capitol. She became one of the fuses of the most radical elements and survived the 1970 destruction of a New York townhouse where bombs were being constructed and in which three of her “underground” colleagues were killed by their own device.

With U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, which had fueled the countercultural fury, Miss Boudin and others of her band allied themselves with the “black liberation” movement, small but dedicated to violence. The apex — or nadir — of her aberrant career was in 1981 during the $1.6 million robbery of a Brinks’ truck in a New York suburb.

Before the robbery, Miss Braudy quotes her as saying, “I am a black revolutionary, and by definition that makes me part of the Black Liberation Army.” The “army” was spending most of the loot from various robberies on cocaine, which contributed to the Brinks plan being botched six times before the deadly seventh — the one that involved Kathy Boudin.

Two police officers were killed (one of them black) when the getaway truck was stopped at a roadblock. David Gilbert — the father of Boudin’s child and now serving 75 years to life — was driving. Kathy was in the passenger seat, and the heavily armed bandits were hiding in the back. Just a few minutes before, the thugs had coldly shot down the Brinks guard.

Police at the roadblock were momentarily perplexed because the lookout was for black suspects, not two whites. Kathy got out of the truck, raised her hands and urged the police to lower their weapons — and they did so, just as the bandits burst out of the truck, firing their deadly volleys. As her trial was beginning, her father as her attorney, Kathy Boudin changed her plea to guilty in one of the homicides and one count of robbery. She was sentenced to 20 years to life.

The author relentlessly develops her theme of Leonard Boudin’s dominating role in his daughter’s destructive decades in a chaotic family from her early years (for instance, as a child discovering her mother, Jean, unconscious on the kitchen floor after taking pills and sticking her head in the oven). Writes Susan Braudy, “It was, in fact, a tragic paradox of Kathy’s life that Leonard’s competitive, ambitious spirit clashed with the egalitarian philosophy he espoused.”

Her father of course was in the big league of civil-rights protest and civil-liberties litigation. His clients included over the years Paul Robeson, Fidel Castro (with whom he shared a mistress, the author writes), Dr. Benjamin Spock and Daniel Ellsberg. He seldom was home, so committed was his time to the law and the serial adulteries he consistently indulged, and flaunted — including with some of Kathy’s friends.

Her older brother, Michael, was extremely conservative from his early years, and Leonard was delighted at his son’s dramatically ascending career despite their divergent politics (Michael would eventually be appointed to a federal circuit court judgeship). This was another vector of deep tension, Susan Braudy argues, in Kathy’s constant quest for her father’s approbation. There are many more patches in this psychologized quilt of the author’s, make of it what you will.

Kathy Boudin’s mother, now dead, was a significant source for the author. Her father, after two heart attacks, died in 1989.Susan Braudy had one interview with Kathy in prison and when she told her the proposed book would be about Leonard as the root of her problems, Kathy had her attorneys tell Miss Braudy to back off, in effect.

There’s a populous cast of the leftist “aristocracy” in these pages (Paul Goodman, Benjamin Spock, William Sloane Coffin Jr., Rockwell Kent among them). Those from the 1960s extreme counter-cultural include most prominently Tom Hayden and Mark Rudd, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. Even Patty Hearst gets a cameo — during her coerced days with the “Symbionese Liberation Army” she met secretly with Kathy Boudin.

The author provides a fairly sympathetic account of Kathy Boudin’s prison years. She was active in programs for inmates with HIV and AIDS and for prisoners with children. First turned down for parole in 2001, her “evasive answers” casting doubt on any remorse she felt, Miss Boudin came up again this summer and was again rejected, despite have been dubbed a “model prisoner.” Just two months later, however, she was interviewed by two different members of the Parole Board. On Aug. 20, Kathy Boudin was granted parole and released in mid-September. That odd process didn’t, and doesn’t, parse.

Nine children lost their fathers in the Brinks robbery and deadly aftermath. Some readers of this vastly detailed book may at the end feel that, her life “redeemed” or not, Kathy Boudin should have continued her good work inside prison — not on the outside. That’s the reviewer’s opinion as well, not Susan Baudy’s. The author, though, concludes with an oblique expression of concern that deep self-absorption combined with utopian politics is a recipe for horror — even beyond that perpetrated by Kathy Boudin and her sanctimonious associates.

There is a coda. Kathy Boudin’s son, Chesa (supposedly from the Swahili for “dancer”) was raised after she and the then-infant’s father, David Gilbert, were imprisoned, by two of her underground associates, Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers (a professed bomber during his radical years, he’s now a “distinguished professor of education” at the University of Illinois — what do you say of a society that rewards one who despises it with affluence and stature?). Chesa was graduated with honors from Yale this summer and awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

His future? “My parents were all dedicated to fighting U.S. imperialism around the world. I’m dedicated to the same thing.”

“Family Circle,” indeed.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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