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Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times…

Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman

by Cathy Wilkerson

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I just started this memoir by a member of the Weather Underground. What's particularly inspiring about it, so far, is the measured way Wilkerson reflects on her past self, her coming-of-age as a politicized person, and her actions. This isn't some big expose of the radical movement but a critical look at what worked and what didn't from someone who still works for social justice. ( )
  anderlawlor | Apr 9, 2013 |
Flying too close to the sun

Cathy Wilkerson gives a thoughtful memoir of her life in SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and the Weather Underground. She also provides enough personal background to explain how she became involved in US radical politics in the 1960s. Her final chapter Reentry gives a brief summary of her life afterwards.

Wilkerson is famous for being one of the two people to survive the 1970 explosion of the Greenwich Village townhouse where a bomb was being assembled. This incident is described in chapter 10 of the book.

She is careful not to discuss the motivations or actions of others in the movement which, while understandable, gives a certain limitation to her story. Yet as the reflections of an American radical this is an excellent book, providing insight into her personality, the movement, and the events of the time. What stands out clearest in this writing is the support that Wilkerson and the Weather Underground wanted to show for the Black Panthers in the fight against Racism in the United States. The hardest part for readers to understand today may be the Maoist/Leninist revolutionary tactics that were the signature belief of this faction of the radical left.

In the opening pages of the book Wilkerson quotes Carl Sandburg:

"You can't hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?" ( )
  orionpozo | Dec 28, 2008 |
The author and I have much in common: our age, New England forebears from early Colonial times, political maturation in a progressive anti(Vietnam)war milieu, and - what caused me to read this book - an identical undergraduate education. We were both politcal science majors in Swarthmore College's class of 1966.

The sharing pretty much ends there, however. I know this because of Wilkerson's candid, and, indeed, soul-bearing story of her emotional and political life until she goes to jail in 1981 for her Weatherman activities. Students of American radicalism - and most aware adults of a certain age - will remember Cathy Wilkerson as a participant in the accidental destruction of her father's New York City townhouse in 1970, when the making of bombs to be used in Weatherman "actions" went awry. Three of her comrades were killed that day. Wilkerson and Kathy Boudin escaped, fled and went underground.

This well-written book explains - with sometimes tiresome repetitions - what Wilkerson was thinking and feeling as she confronted "unfairmess and injustice" in the world from high school until young adulthood. But does the book answer the question of why she came to symbolize the Vietnam protest radical fringe, while her peers proceeded to stay out of jail and get graduate degrees? The answer can be found in the book, I think, but a bit beneath the surface.

Wilkerson paints a picture of herself as a particularly empty vessel - both emotionally and intellectually - as she enters college. We hear about her being a "deeply unhappy" 13 year old, being hurtfully on the outs with a "ruling clique of girls" in prep school, and that she had "survived adolescence by elevating suffering to a quasispiritual level." The divorce of her parents during those years hurt her badly, and she and her mother had a conflicted relationship.

This unhappy girl entered Swarthmore just as student activism, mostly against racial injustice, but soon joined by antiwar activism, was forming. She made friends with those at the College who were participants in this activism and felt warmly supported by them and their organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Unlike many student activists in those early days, she did not come from radical, or even liberal, parents and had no trade union advocacy in her heritage. But the rhetoric of that activist era soon took hold. We come to understand that it was the rhetoric, ever-changing and increasingly violent, that governed Wilkerson's actions, not her own analysis. She perceptively states: "The yearning for the comfort of easy solutions leaves one utterly dependent on the intellectual and/or spiritual constructs of the authors of those solutions."

So what was this rhetoric that became her lodestar? The book gives us examples:

~ "The fundamental revolutionary motive is not to construct a Paradise but to destroy an inferno."

~ "Our strategy has to be geared toward forcing the disintegration of society, attacking at every level, from all directions and creating strategic 'armed chaos' where there is now pig order."

~ "We have to fight and show people through struggle our commitment, our willingness to die in the struggle to defeat US imperialism . . . We're going to make them pay a price, and the price ultimately is going to be total defeat for them."

~ "We want all black men to be exempt from military service . . . We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county, and city prisons and jails."

~ "To (the rebel) total change means only that those who now have all the power shall no longer have any, and that those who now have none - the people, the victimized - shall have all."

And in addition to those martial tenets, the "movement" was to construct a Marxist-Leninist state.

As the rhetoric of the movement, and often its underlying actions, became more violent and more isolating, the central cadre of active SDSers became smaller and morphed, in 1969, into a disciplined, hierarchical group called Weatherman. Wilkerson was there. By 1970 bombs were a major tool of Weatherman. The book even includes, as an Appendix, a "chronology of Weatherman bombings."

Wilkerson states that care was taken to avoid bodily harm with the bombings by detonating them late at night and/or in unpopulated areas. But as the townhouse explosion showed, there were risks. And, contrary to the "care" which she describes, Wilkerson thinks this about the bombs she was making just prior to the townhouse explosion: "[W]e could put nails in the pipe . . . the nails would wound people, too, and, in their suffering, perhaps they would develop more empathy for how the Vietnamese felt when the United States dropped daisy bombs, the antipersonnel bombs that had been dropped in huge swaths across Vietnam. Maybe this experience would set some limits on the willingness of GIs [the intended target of the bombs] to violently interfere in other people's lives."

Wilkerson's activist life came at a tremendous personal cost: Economic deprivation, deracination, shoplifting and petty thievery as a way of life, fugitive status and jail, alienation from family, few lasting personal relationships, long interrupted higher education, foregoing marriage [although she is now partnered with a woman, whom she acknowledges in the book].

Was it worth it? Tellingly, not one of the book's 393 pages mentions any significant governmental action to alter the course of the Vietnam War, or to lessen racism, as a consequence of her and her colleagues' almost twenty years of activism. But if her violence didn't affect policymakers, it apparently helped her. Defending her rage-inspired violence, Wilkerson writes: " . . . I couldn't see how civil disobedience could allow me to express my anger, and if I didn't find a way to let it out, I felt like I would explode." For Wilkerson, then, her violence was a tantrum.

There is a mea culpa, of sorts, near the end of the book. " . . . I had made some huge mistakes in my past. Rather than facing the complexity of problems, I had settled for simplistic solutions and for the fiction that we, the authors of those solutions, were somehow superior to those we sought to guide." No further specifics are given.

With respect to the fulcrum of her activist life, the townouse explosion, she expresses grief for the three young people who died, but no thoughts are given to their parents and loved ones. Sadly, she mentions not a word of remorse for destroying her father's home, ravaging a beautiful nineteenth century street in New York City or damaging the domestic lives and property of those in the neighboring buildings (which damage has been chronicled in several newspaper articles over the years).

Cathy Wilkerson now teaches mathematics to young people.
  bbrad | Jul 11, 2008 |
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Seven Stories Press

3 editions of this book were published by Seven Stories Press.

Editions: 1583227717, 1583229256, 1609800702

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