Herbert Aptheker: Doubts expressed about his daughter's story of incest

Historians in the News

I have been thinking, with some agitation, about Bettina Aptheker's astonishing revelation of incest, as reported by Chris Phelps' review in the _Chronicle of Higher Education_ ever since it was posted yesterday. I find it even more astonishing that the review accepts this and her other claims against her father (low pay for black help, criticism of Jewish passivity in the Holocaust) at face value. Moreover, as some other commentators have noted, it is passing strange that she waited until her parents' death to tell the world. But what I find most shocking is the review's credulity. Nor did the review see the revelation as vindictive, or possibly antisemitic. (The anti-Semitic stereotype includes Jews as excessively carnal, cheap, and cowardly.) Where is scholarly skepticism? Where is common sense?

The putative child abuse was not the only trial the heroic Bettina Aptheker has endured. Here is how Professor of Women's Studies Aptheker described her educational background for Out In The Redwoods (easily located through Google):

[Aptheker:] I arrived in Santa Cruz in the fall of 1979 to begin my graduate studies in the History of Consciousness Program. I had two young children, and I was finalizing a divorce from my husband of thirteen years. I was also struggling to claim my lesbian identity. Brutalized by the police and FBI because of my Communist affiliation and radical activism in the 1960s and 1970s, ?coming out? for me was at once traumatic and exhilarating.

Recall that the review describes her sudden recollection, previously repressed, as having come to her while writing her memoir. Does this seem plausible to anyone here? Let us assume that father committed incest with young Bettina for years, yet she had no memory of what had to be traumatic. The cynic in me wonders if she is not beefing up her history to demonstrate that she has overcome yet another assault by authority, undeserved and extreme, of course. Why would she do that? Nothing like a famous and controversial father to expose as a way of getting attention from reviewers for her book, published by Seal Press, described on the internet as a small feminist press. The historian in me recalls that the feminist theory informing women's studies requires that patriarchy be viewed as the primary social contradiction, and indeed there was a job posting for teaching Women's Studies at UC San Diego while I was in graduate school, stating that adherence to feminist theory was a prerequisite for hiring. What could be more dramatic proof that the male desire to control women trumps class and other forms of illegitimate domination?

Read entire article at Clare Spark, in an email sent to H-HOAC: A Forum for scholars, serious students, and all who want to participate in a scholarly discussion of the History of American Communism (HOAC)

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art eckstein - 10/7/2006

Yes, Dr. Spark is correct: the entire primise of the CHE article, as well as Professor Lemisch's letter above, is that this terrible abuse of Bettina Aptheker by her father Herbert Aptheker actually and unquestionably happened. That is startlingly bad historiography. As I read the Chronicle of Higher Ed piece, I was struck by the fact that Bettina Aptheker is relying solely on "recovered memory" of the alleged abuse. This means that for some very significant period of time, she says, she "forgot" that for fully ten years she was sexually abused by her father, even though incidents occurred when she was as late as 11, 12 and 13 years old. She only recovered her memory of this many years later (I assume as the result of therapy, but perhaps I'm wrong).

I am sure that the writer of the CHE article, and Prof. Lemisch, and many readers here, must know that many lawyers and psychiatrists are highly dubious about this sort of "recovered memory," and juries have recently not always accepted "recovered memory" as good evidence. And there are several outstanding cases of obvious miscarriages of justice that have been based on "recovered memory"--in California (the hideous MacMartin Preschool case), in Oregon (the grotesque Wenatchee cases, which smacked of the Salem witch trials), in Massachusetts, in North Carolina (the "Little Rascals" preschool case.)

I am not saying that this terrible thing DIDN'T happen with Bettina Aptheker. But perhaps we should not rush to judgment here, and convict Herbert Aptheker of this horrible crime on the basis merely of Bettina Aptheker's "recovered memory." Rather, we should reserve some scholarly skepticism about it. In the similar case of the accusations of sexual abuse made against Daniel Ortega the Sandinista leader by his (step)daughter, there were confirmatory witnesses. That's what is needed here.

As several people have noted, it is also unfortunate that Bettina Aptheker waited until her father was dead for three years before accusing him of this terrible crime. On the one hand, maybe, admirably, she wanted to spare her father the pain. But on the other hand, the fact is that he is no longer here to defend himself.

This doesn't mean, either, that I'm accusing Bettina Aptheker of lyng--either consciously or unconsciously. People have adduced various possible motives for her to make up this story, including selling her new autobiography, published by an obscure press. It also gives her great cachet as an official "Victim of Child Abuse" now, so anything ideological she says will have significant weight.

Those concerns deserve answers, but I'm not going that far--not at all. I'm not saying the abuse didn't happen--not at all. I'm just saying we should be very careful about assumign anything, given the very limited information we have on this allegation at this point, its dubious source in "recovered memory," and the fact that the accused is no longer around to defend himself.