Beacon Press, 2001 www.beacon.org
Cloth ISBN: 0-8070-7124-2, 296 pages
Penguin Group, 2003 us.penguingroup.com
Paper ISBN: 0-14-200255-0
At least since Truman Capote's In Cold Blood it has been acceptable to mix history and fiction. Not that the line between the two has ever been terribly bright. Numerous histories—and innumerable autobiographies—have contained conscious half-truths and outright falsehoods.
So, the first thing that Bill Ayers does right in Fugitive Days: A Memoir is fess up to the fact that he is smudging the facts. He isn't telling all that he remembers. And there is much that he has forgotten. He's remembered things badly, if at all. He has deliberately changed names and locations. You have been warned: this is not history and it is not—despite the subtitle—a memoir. It is a smudged memoir.
So don't come looking for all the facts. They aren't all here.
There's another way in which Fugitive Days is more like fiction than history. It's narrative, not reflective. Ayers tells stories, he doesn't probe motives. It's first-person narrative all the way; we are wrapped by the subjectivity of Bill Ayers. Objectivity has no place here; there's never a glimmer of the world glimpsed through the eyes of anyone else.
Above all this is not a book for those looking for well-considered facts. This is not a book of dispassion. Some thirty years later Ayers is still trying to justify—as he did then—the core Weatherman belief that some forms of violence are tactically useful to achieve just ends.
Not that all forms of violence are legitimate—nor even that all the forms of violence that Weatherman deployed during its relatively brief lifetime were legitimate. The streetfighting tactics unleashed for the Days of Rage in Chicago in October 1969? A strategic mistake. Building a bomb intended to maim or kill soldiers at Fort Dix? A terrible mistake. Setting and detonating bombs that only harmed property? Well…
So much depends on context. This book had the misfortune to be published in September 2001, when the idea of anyone trying to justify the use of bombs seemed monstrous. But 1970 was a different time. The acts of Bill Ayers and the rest of the Weatherman crew can only be understood—if anywhere—within the context of that time: the concurrent violence at home and abroad in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Though of course, for most people at the time—including most anti-war activists—the acts of Weatherman made no sense. The story of Fugitive Days is not a typical story of a radical of the 1960s. Relatively few supported Weatherman tactics and far, far fewer joined them—at most 300 people were ever members of the Weatherman organization.
Nonetheless "few" is a relative term. Millions of people actively opposed the war, so those relative few that engaged in tactics as miltant as those of Bill Ayers still numbered at least in the thousands. There are very few published memoirs by self-confessed bombers of the era, but Ayers was certainly not alone in bombing. According to data in government reports, there were at least hundreds, and perhaps thousands of successful bombings during the period of January 1969 to mid-April 1970. But Weatherman carried out only six of those. The Weatherman organization—or as they called themselves later, the Weather Underground—was only the most well-known of that era's bombers. Other bombers took the lives of bystanders, something Weatherman never did. Other bombers also blew themselves up, as did some in Weatherman, famously.
It was the most significant act by the members of the Weatherman organization that they blew themselves up.
Significant, meaning not only and not essentially the most well-known act by Weatherman, but significant for the history of America and the new left in the 1970s. And significant as well for Bill Ayers.
On March 6, 1970, an explosion rocked Eleventh Street in Greenwich Village; the townhouse at number 18 was reduced to rubble. At least five members of the Weatherman organization were in the townhouse at the time of the explosion. Three were killed—Terry Robbins, Diana Oughton, and Ted Gold. Kathy Boudin and Cathy Wilkerson escaped with minor injuries and quickly disappeared. The cause of the explosion was a bomb packed into a briefcase. The bomb was composed of dynamite surrounded by roofing nails. This was not a bomb meant to only destroy property; it was intended for a non-commissioned officers' dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Probably it was mishandling of the wiring that caused its premature detonation, though no one knows exactly what happened.
Ayers takes the reader through the townhouse destruction three times in the course of his memoir. His narrative opens with the explosion—or more accurately, his hearing about the explosion in a telephone call placed to a phone booth in a desert location. The second time he relates the explosion in the chronological context of his memoir. A third time he re-imagines the explosion and so reinterprets its significance. The whole point of his memoir, plausibly, is just to set the stage for that final re-imagination.
In his re-imagined townhouse disaster, Diana Oughton is not a victim of misplaced wires but a savior of the lives of the bomb's intended victims. Cognizant of the lives that the bomb would destroy as well as foreseeing the awful trail of destruction that would be created by a whole series of bombings by Weatherman and those who would be inspired by them—not to mention the moral and spiritual, if not physical destruction that would undoubtedly be visited upon the bombers themselves—Diana chooses to connect the wires she knows will destroy the bomb, herself, and her companions. In the dream of Bill Ayers her death was tragic but not absurd: it was noble and virtuous sacrifice.
It is an illusion to imagine a better ending for the tragic young dead, but at least for a moment it's consoling. In such illusions at least some of the parents or spouses or lovers of the 58,000 American soldiers who died in Vietnam must also haved consoled themselves. Imagine the war was not a mistake and they died for a noble and virtuous end. Or imagine the war was a mistake, but by their sacrifice in that misbegotten war the world was spared the excesses of American hubris for a generation.
It is an illusion that history can be run backwards. As it was lived—forwards—the people of Weatherman, like McNamara, like Johnson, when faced with a confusing and frustrating situation, made some wrong decisions and as a result young people died who should not have died so young.
Only those with an ideological ax to grind can regard this history and see only black and white, pure good and absolute evil. Reality is more complex, like the consequences of the townhouse blast.
Three in Weatherman blew themselves up, so the bomb was never delivered to Fort Dix and that carnage never came to pass. Three in Weatherman blew themselves up, so the rest of the Weatherman organization, in consequence, carefully placed subsequent bombs so as to do only damage to property. Three in Weatherman blew themselves up, so tens of thousands on the left denounced the tactics of bombs and violence. Were these good ends? In context, certainly. Do they absolve the actors? Certainly not.
In the end—though not so straightforwardly that the ideologically opposed have noticed—Bill Ayers has made plain the errors of Weatherman, has made plain how good intentions go awry, has made plain how difficult it is to act justly in the glaring headlamps of both fame and self-righteousness.
September 18, 2004; revised May 20, 2005
Reviewed by Dean Blobaum
Copyright © 2004 by Dean Blobaum. All rights reserved. This review may be quoted in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of the US Copyright Act. It may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that no fee is charged for access and provided that this entire notice is carried and the author of the review is notified. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.