Bettina Aptheker: My Father the Icon, My Father the Molester

[BETTINA APTHEKER is a professor of feminist studies and history at UC Santa Cruz. She is the author, most recently, of Intimate Politics: How I Grew up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel (Seal Press, Emeryville California, 2006).]

IT IS A LITTLE disconcerting and somewhat chilling to read reviews of my recently published memoir and see my own words quoted back to me. It is not because I don't like what I wrote, or feel shame about it. It is because I was the holder of so many family secrets, and the injunction to silence was so strong. In writing my story, I broke all of the family rules.

Growing up, I held tight to the illusion that everything would by OK if I too could project the image of the perfect family, even though my inner life was so fraught with tension. In seeing recent reviews of my book, although favorable, sometimes the child part of my mind shrinks in horror: "What have you done?" And then the calm, adult part of my mind says: "You have told the truth to the best of your ability." Any of us who has experienced childhood sexual abuse or other forms of abuse, even as adults, knows something of these conflicted feelings.

My parents, Fay and Herbert Aptheker, were members of the U.S. Communist Party. My mother was a union organizer, and my father was often described in the New York Times as the party's "leading theoretician," as if it were an appendage to his name. He was also a radical historian and the literary executor of the papers of W.E.B. DuBois. He published extensively and was an exceedingly controversial figure in the historical profession, and his Communist affiliation assured that he was blacklisted from any university work, beginning in the 1930s.

I grew up in the 1950s striving to be the "perfect daughter" as my embattled parents bravely stood up to the McCarthy hearings, anti-Communist purges and trials and the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In childhood, I assumed that I would inherit my father's dream and further his ambition. This was my parents' expectation. As I matured, I gave up those particular dreams and ambitions, but I did not give up my mother and my father, even after the memories of sexual abuse arose. As I wrote in the memoir, "I sought a middle ground between the grief of an irreconcilable break and the long shadow of denial."

It was when I began writing the memoir in the mid-1990s, and especially its childhood section, that I had my first memories of sexual abuse by my father, which I had entirely suppressed until then. I was mucking around in my childhood because my daughter and my partner, reading early drafts, kept saying that the narrative was emotionally flat. "Where are you?" they wanted to know. "What were you feeling?" I was the narrator, but the story read as though I was floating around on the ceiling of my childhood, watching it unfold.

The psychological term for this is dissociation. I was about 3 years old when the sexual abuse began, and it was when my father and I were playing a game called choo-choo train on the rug on the living room floor of our apartment in Brooklyn. My father stopped molesting me when I was 13. By then, of course, it was no longer a game. It was clear in my memory that my father took great care never to hurt me physically; he was, in fact, very gentle with me. But he also made clear I was never, ever to tell anyone about our games.

Once the memories erupted — and they did erupt with astonishing, volcanic force — I stopped writing. I needed counseling, and I was fortunate to have an experienced and loving psychotherapist. My partner was bedrock, and my children were devoted to me. That I already had something of a Buddhist meditation practice was of great benefit. Although I was too agitated to sit still in meditation, I could walk, doing mantra, reminding myself that all emotion and thought are essentially ephemeral.

That provided the foundation for the compassion with which I ultimately faced my father. And it allowed me to return to the memoir project, writing without rancor. I also came to understand that, of course, I had dissociated. As a child, I attempted to protect my parents from the political onslaught of the McCarthy era in the only way that I could: by my silence, and the erasure of the untenable, protecting myself from what a child could not bear.

A little over two weeks after my mother's death in June 1999, my father and I talked about the sexual abuse. He initiated the conversation, asking as we were driving home from a Vietnamese restaurant. "Did I ever hurt you when you were a child?" was how he started. I had been furious with him for about five years, carrying around the memories like a truncheon and yet unable to confront him. But I said yes, and once we talked, his anguish was so great, his apology so heartfelt, that all the anger left me in a great whoosh of an out breath, and then I felt nothing but great waves of compassion for him.

There are many who knew my parents, and many more who have read my father's work or heard him speak or taken classes with him. Since the publication of my book, many people have written to me and offered their support, while others have expressed shock. One wrote to me in great anguish, saying that he no longer knew how to think about my father or his work. Others have simply expressed their disbelief that the Herbert Aptheker they knew could ever have done such a thing. And more than one person has invoked the idea of "false memory syndrome."

"Is there anything besides Bettina's words to support the charge against Herbert?" reads a recent post on the Internet.

Of course, there's little I can say in response to such allegations other than to observe that if you think it was shocking for you, imagine how I must have felt. For those who knew my father, I think there is a solution by finding that middle ground I sought for myself, between lionizing my father on the one hand or demonizing him on the other.

Why write of this sexual abuse? Why proceed with the memoir? More than just wanting to provide readers with firsthand accounts of the historical movements in which I participated, I wished to contribute to the ongoing collective reconstruction of women's history in which the intimate oppression of women and children is revealed because it is part of the historical record.

I wanted people to know that reconciliation is possible, healing is possible. Breaking silence, I bear witness, and the child is at peace.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

art eckstein - 10/21/2006

In contrast to the article as we have it above, if you read Bettina's book itself you will see that Herbert Aptheker always denied the abuse--he had no memory of it. He never admitted any sexual abuse. Bettina in the book even says there is a voicemail message from Herbert to her some time after the scene in the car where Herbert again denies the abuse happened--as (in the book but not here in the article) he denied it in the car. The voicemail is thus objective evidence that Herbert denied the abuse. If you read the book you will see that he NEVER admits it happened. He had no memory of it.

At the time of the confrontation in the car Herbert Aptheker had had a major stroke, and his wife of some 50 years had died two weeks earlier. He was over 80 years old. It would be understandable if he was confused about what Bettina was talking about when he asked--in the book it is a conversation SHE initiates, it seems to me--if he ever hurt her. But he doesn't mean sexual abuse. In the book, he's outraged that she suggests it. In the book, he consistently denies it in the car. . When he was dying from his heart attack he apparently also apologized for "hurting her"--but there is no reason to take this apology from a dying man who had had a stroke as an admission of sexual abuse. He always said he never had a memory of it.

But that, as I've said, is in the BOOK. What is unconscionable HERE--in the article--is the implication in the following paragraph that Herbert ADMITTED guilt. I quote the relevant paragraph of the article:

"A little over two weeks after my mother's death in June 1999, my father and I talked about the sexual abuse. He initiated the conversation, asking as we were driving home from a Vietnamese restaurant. "Did I ever hurt you when you were a child?" was how he started. I had been furious with him for about five years, carrying around the memories like a truncheon and yet unable to confront him. But I said yes, and once we talked, his anguish was so great, his apology so heartfelt, that all the anger left me in a great whoosh of an out breath, and then I felt nothing but great waves of compassion for him."

As far as I can tell, this is incredibly misleading. It implies to the reader that Herbert admitted the abuse ("his apology was so heartfelt..."). No. He NEVER admitted the sexual abuse.

This is important to understand. It is equally important to understand that the way Bettina has written the article, she implies to every reader that Herbert admitted the sexual abuse.
That part, at least, is a lie.

A. M. Eckstein - 10/20/2006

All of what Mr. Noonan writes is pertinent. We have only Bettina's word, apparently, with no corroborating evidence: she admits this in her article. And that word from Bettina (and let us assume she is being honest in believing this happened) is based on the notoriously unreliable "recovered memory": in her case, memories of continual sexual abuse by her father from age 3 until age 13 yet which she had "forgotten" for at least 40 years before suddenly remembering them. And 11, 12, 13 are ages awfully old to forget traumatic events for 40 years. This long gap constitutes the weakest kind of "recovered memory" in terms of evidence in court.

Even more disturbing is that thanks to the way Bettina has done this, we have ONLY her version of her conversation with her father. He was alive and still energetic (though 80) when (she says) she confronted him. Wouldn't it be far better to have HIS version of this conversation (assuming it occurred)? Couldn't Bettina have brought all this forward while Herbert was still alive and able to defend himself if he wished to? Now he cannot defend himself at all--and NOW is when she brings it forward. What is anyone to do with this?

Bettina Aptheker is a professional historian. Her behavior here just on grounds of waiting until the dead could not defend themselves from an accusation of the most serious and destructive kind is not professional behavior on her part.

Do I think it happened? Frankly, I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that Herbert Aptheker's reputation as a human being will never be the same. And yet the basis of all this destruction is simply "recovered memories", memories which previously had somehow been forgotten for 40 years--the type of evidence that juries have increasingly found insufficient.

Vernon Clayson - 10/20/2006

Mr. Chamberlain, like TVs Joe Friday I say "just the facts, sir", Ms. Apthecker could have written about her father without mentioning the alleged abuse. If he was indeed such a beloved figure because of his views that alone should have been enough to draw a readership. I didn't say she was dishonest, I say that including the alleged abuse in a biography/autobiography was gratuitous and especially that "the child is at peace" is pure gagging hype. Seems she's an old woman stuggling with guilt, perhaps over her choice of lifestyles, is she wondering if this will explain something to her children?

Paul Noonan - 10/19/2006

Like others who have written on this I think thatthe charges Bettina Aptheker makes against her late father are dubious, particularly as they are derived from "recovered memories", but let's assume for the purposes of argument that everything she says is true.

Bettina "recovered" her memories of horrific abuse in the mid-1990s. Herbert Aptheker was about 80 then (he was born in 1915). Apparantly he was reasonably healthy then (he was well enough to go to a restaurant with his daughter in 1999). Given what she claims had happened to her didn't she understand that her father was a terrble danger to children? True, an 80 year old man's sex drive isn't the strongest, but many men that age are still capable of sexual activity. If Herbert had stopped molesting Bettina when she was 13 most likely the reason for it was because on hitting puberty she no longer had anything to offer that he could not obtain from an adult woman. If he had a desire for prepubescent girls most likely he would have tried to satisfy it elsewhere. Did Bettina ever try to discover if he had other victims, particularly current or recent victims (i.e. victims who were still children) and who could benefit from therapy? While statues of limitation would presumably precluded the prosecution of Herbert for what he had done to Bettina, how could she possibly be justified in not warning her extended family and her parents' social circle of her father's proclivities and how it was imperative that he not be left alone with children?

Robert Smith - 10/19/2006

Because I didn't write a book about it?

Besides, I didn't reach that conclusion. The conclusion that I reached was that regardless of the truth of the accusation, it really had no impact on the HISTORICAL importance (or lack thereof) of Fay and Herbert Aptheker. Even Bettina would probably agree.

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/19/2006


You have no firm evidence to support your statements. For that matter, I don't even see any unfirm evidence from you, so what is driving you?

Why accuse of someone of dishonesty when you cannot even hope to have proof of it?

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/19/2006

Robert, Vernon, why should I not infer that you have questioned her integrity out of a cheap desire for publicity?

I have the same amount of hard evidence for that conclusion as the two of you have for yours.

Vernon Clayson - 10/19/2006

Sorry, Mr. Platt, Ms. Apthecker is taking advantage of the times. Dragging up abuse allegations occurring in her childhood to report she was abused half a century ago has currency now because so much of it is reported. She sounds much like the pathetic middle aged men saying a priest touched them "right here" in their youth. And she drags up her father's Communist beliefs because he was news in the old days, it's a one-two punch, sex and sedition in the typical Communist professor's homelife. And you will probably reply that Joe McCarthy lied when he said the Communists had infiltrated colleges and the government. Her less than incredible story won't be made into a movie anytime soon.

Tony Platt - 10/18/2006

Bravo to Bettina Aptheker for writing honestly, passionately, and politically about her past. The Left needs this kind of reflection and debate about its contradictory past. And I'm sorry that she has to read such hateful and ignorant posts as the ones on this site.

Vernon Clayson - 10/18/2006

I agree with Robert Smith, it's difficult to believe anything except Bettina Apthecker embellished an otherwise completely mundane subject by adding the sex quotient, for no more reason than sex sells better than stories of long-dead American Communists and their likewise dead agendas.

Robert Smith - 10/17/2006

Is there anything besides Bettina's words to support the charge against Herbert?

This isn't a accusation, it's a question. The answer to which is apparently "no".

My inclination is to be dismissive. The allegations, whether or not they are true, really have no bearing on the political and historical influence of Fay and Herbert Aptheker. As they are now dead, it is merely fodder for gossip.

History News Network