Herbert Aptheker: His daughter, a historian, says in a new book that he molested her

Historians in the News

[Christopher Phelps, an associate professor of history at the Ohio State University at Mansfield, is the author of Young Sidney Hook: Marxist and Pragmatist, published last year in a new paperback edition by the University of Michigan Press.]

... Now we have knowledge of a far more painful contradiction in the life of Herbert Aptheker than his simultaneous defense of black freedom and Soviet authoritarianism, one long buried in silence. Intimate Politics (Seal Press), the stunning new memoir by Bettina Aptheker, a professor of feminist studies and history at the University of California at Santa Cruz, will prompt a re-examination of her father, whom American historians now tend to honor as a pioneer in recognizing the centrality of the black past to American history.

Aptheker enjoys at least a fraction of her father's notoriety. She is listed in David Horowitz's book The Professors, for example, which purports to identify the "101 most dangerous academics in America." (The entry, regrettably, is replete with errors, such as the claim that she was expelled from the Communist Party in 1991, when in fact she had resigned from it a full decade earlier.)

Born in the year following publication of American Negro Slave Revolts, Bettina Aptheker was a sole child whose father was at the center of the family's Brooklyn household and of her own perception of the world's possibilities. Her mother, Fay, was her father's first cousin (their fathers were brothers), and she kept his social calendar between the tours she chaperoned to the Soviet Union.

"When I was a little girl I wanted to be just like my father," writes Bettina Aptheker. "Whatever he did, I did, or tried to do."

This powerful evocation of a child's boundless love makes the book's central revelation, conveyed in an indelible paragraph, all the more devastating:

"My father and I played other games too, besides baseball. I was three or four years old when we began playing choo choo train. We were in the living room in the apartment on Washington Avenue, crawling around on the Persian rug my mother treasured. Many years afterward, this memory came to me: My father was behind me, and then the train arrived 'at the station,' and we had to wait for the 'passengers' to get off and on. Our train rocked back and forth, back and forth, and my father had his right arm tightly around me. He was the 'locomotive' even though he was behind me. Our train shuddered just before it was supposed to leave 'the station,' except it didn't leave. I was wet and sticky and I remember my father was crying and I was sitting on the floor next to him and he had put a towel down so we wouldn't dirty the rug. I remember stroking his hair and saying 'It's okay, Daddy. It's okay.' And then he stood me up and we went into the bathroom and he washed me off, very gently. It didn't hurt. He never hurt me. And I knew not to tell. As I grew bigger we played different games, but they always had the shudder. Older still, I knew it was not a game. I still knew not to tell because he told me 'terrible things will happen.' My father stopped molesting me when I was thirteen and we had moved to a new house."

Incest is only the most painful of a series of hard truths about Herbert Aptheker that we confront in Intimate Politics. We discover that he underpaid the family's black housecleaners. We learn that his celebrations of black resistance were attempts "to compensate for his deep shame about the way, he believed, the Jews had acted during the Holocaust." We are told that to cope with Stalin, the war, the party, and his family, he "lived much of the time in a fantasy world of his own making."

What makes Intimate Politics remarkable, however, is that none of its damning truths are told with rancor. Bettina Aptheker is a powerful witness to her father's contradictions precisely because of her emotional honesty. Her baring of her own shortcomings makes the book far more shattering than any shot ever fired by Eugene Genovese. Intimate Politics could not have been published, one senses, when Herbert and Fay Aptheker were still alive, but it is not governed by a spirit of vindictiveness....

Read entire article at Christopher Phelps in the Chronicle of Higher Ed

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david horowitz - 10/4/2006

In his review of Bettina Aptheker's new autobiography, Christopher Phelps describes my profile of Aptheker in The Professors as "replete with errors." This repeats a canard that Professor Aptheker herself is responsible for. Jacob Laksin has reviewed and refuted every one of Aptheker's claims about alleged errors in my text except one. I mistakenly described her as having been expelled from the Communist Party with Angela Davis and others in 1991. I accept Professor Aptheker's correction that she resigned from the Party ten years earlier. However, Professor Aptheker has not denied that in 1991 she joined the Communist splinter group, The Committees of Correspondence on Socialism and Democracy, which was formed by Angela Davis and others who had been expelled. This hardly makes my account "replete with errors." Laksin's article on these matters is available at: