When Nice Idealistic Kids Become Homegrown Terrorists

Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left, by Susan Braudy. Alfred A. Knopf, 460 pages, $27.95.

In the summer of 1965, a college student interning for The Cleveland Press undertook as his first-ever journalistic assignment the activities of some young people doing social work from a ramshackle commune in a hillbilly slum. There were a dozen of them or so, all in their early 20’s, all from “good families” and all very earnest-seeming. Their motto was “Let the People Decide,” and they belonged to what the intern’s story described as “an admittedly ultra-liberal group.” Then not very well-known, it was called Students for a Democratic Society-S.D.S. for short.

Among their number was a recent Bryn Mawr graduate from New York. She had a low brow and dark, large eyebrows, was quite articulate and smart, and appeared to regard the intern as extraordinarily naïve-which, in fact, he was.

Because it was a slow news day, the intern’s upbeat story made page 3, and a few weeks later he went back to finish his studies at Notre Dame, where-inspired by the young people he’d written about-he enlisted in the antiwar movement and got himself arrested a couple of times.

Time passed. The intern became a journalist, fattened into middle age and pasted his radical past in the scrapbook. Every now and again, he’d read about the Bryn Mawr girl he’d met in Cleveland, who always seemed to be up to something. In 1968, it was being busted for planting a stink bomb during the ’68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In 1969, it was helping to start the Weathermen and fighting the cops during the “Days of Rage.” In 1970, it was escaping the explosion at the Greenwich Village bomb factory that obliterated three of her friends, as well as busting Timothy Leary out of the pen. In 1971, it was blowing up an unoccupied loo in the U.S. Capitol.

A decade underground and on the lam followed, highlighted by aiding and abetting assorted “revolutionary” stickups pulled by her comrades, most of whom were cokeheads. Then, on Oct. 20, 1981-two years after apparently renting one of the vehicles used to break cop-killer Joanne Chesimard out of prison-she hit the criminal big time as part of a ring that knocked over a Brinks truck in Nanuet, N.Y. One guard was killed on the spot, another critically wounded. In the shootout that followed with police in nearby Nyack, two more officers were blown away by automatic weapons.

The no-longer-so-young woman from Bryn Mawr-who’d been in the front seat of the getaway truck-was arrested, along with most of her confederates. After a plea bargain arranged by her father, a famous left-wing lawyer, she was sentenced to a term of 20 years to life.

Her name, as you’ve probably figured out by now, is Kathy Boudin. And the cub reporter who’d been so taken with her all those years ago? That was me.

I thought I’d heard the last of Ms. Boudin until last August, when she was paroled from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. Many thought her release grotesque, yours truly among them. But being the daughter of Leonard Boudin-legal lionheart for such notables as Paul Robeson, Daniel Ellsberg, the brothers Berrigan and Dr. Spock-still cuts considerable ice, never mind that he’s been dead almost 14 years. Being a self-interestedly determined “model prisoner” doesn’t hurt, either. Nor does purportedly having a lesbian relationship with the prison warden.

In any event, the hoo-ha has switched from Ms. Boudin’s being loosed to the propriety of her Bryn Mawr dormmate, Susan Braudy, writing a book about her life and crimes. Without troubling to read so much as a sentence, Ms. Boudin’s attorney, Leonard Weinglass, blasted Family Circle’s accuracy and suggested that its author is in acute need of psychiatric care. “[Susan Braudy] is a somewhat frustrated and repressed person who has never been able to outgrow her awe of Kathy,” Mr. Weinglass told The New York Times. “For various reasons, which another discipline-not law-could probably provide an answer to, she feels the need to take Kathy down and further her writing career. Her methodology reflects her sense of angst around Kathy Boudin.”

Mr. Weinglass is a distinguished advocate with a deserved reputation for being the smart radical’s lawyer of choice. (Dopes who didn’t mind jail hired William Kunstler.) But in this instance, Lenny Weinglass speaks twaddle. Ms. Braudy is a veteran journalist and author. Moreover, the case she makes is buttressed not only by extensive interviews and reams of correspondence and documents, but the cooperation of Ms. Boudin’s long-suffering mother, the late poet Jean Roisman, out of whose mouth come some of the most damning quotes. (My favorite: “What a birthday gift that was, when Kathy bombed the Capitol.”) You don’t need the help of Freud or Jung to explicate Family Circle: It’s simply a damn good book.

Not perfect, mind you. Ms. Braudy’s source notes are maddeningly vague; she overindulges in pop psychoanalysis (Kathy blowing things up was all about pleasing Daddy, wouldn’t you know); and her version of Movement motivation omits an item or two (like the fact that a million Vietnamese were being killed, with no end to the bloodletting in sight). It’s also apparent that Ms. Braudy blames Ms. Boudin for the fate of another Bryn Mawr dormmate, the impressionable Diana Oughton, who was reduced to DNA traces by the 11th Street townhouse blast. Not surprising, then, that Family Circle refrains from spreading rose petals at the feet of Mr. Weinglass’ client.

Truth is, very few people-in or out of the Movement-had much use for Ms. Boudin, who in her daily dealings with even the most well-intentioned was an arrogant, contemptuous, more-radical-than-thou pill. Compared to her, Mark Rudd was a prince, Huey Newton a sweetheart. In the superheated atmosphere of the moment, some admired her compulsion to go to ever more lunatic lengths. But eventually, even those closest to her-like Bernardine Dohrn, whose miniskirts sans panties were the S.D.S.’s best recruiting poster-got fed up with the “Custeristic” gestalt.

By the time of the Brinks job, Kathy Boudin was pushing 40, and the Movement was long since dead, done in by multiple assailants: the end of the war, the “repressive tolerance” that reduced revolt to an advertising slogan (“Join the Dodge Rebellion”) and-the coup de grâce-the inescapability of growing up. “Good news for American business,” Playboy proclaimed. “Those young men who wouldn’t sell out in 1967 are buying in in 1977 …. They’ve traded the S.D.S. for IBM and ITT and DDB …. They’re jealous about their success.”

The handful of holdouts like Ms. Boudin and David Gilbert, her boyfriend and wheel man that fatal day, were reduced to babbling about “white skin privilege” and the purity of “offing pigs” (whose accidents of birth precluded Ivy League refinement). In rhetoric and deed (and certainly in self-involvement), they were not far removed from the Manson family; indeed, their pal Bernardine lauded the butchering of nine-months-pregnant Sharon Tate. “Dig it,” she told the audience at a Weather “wargasm.” “First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach. Wild.” Ms. Boudin lectured the same crowd about “pig mothers.” She later demonstrated her own maternal instincts with a son fathered by Mr. Gilbert: Named Chesa (after Joanne Chesimard), he was 14 months old when his parents parked him with a baby-sitter while they tooled up to Nanuet.

How nice, idealistic kids with nice, idealistic parents descended to this point is the story Ms. Braudy tells in Family Circle. There are no heroes in these bleak, well-crafted pages, with the sole exception of Kathy’s uncle, the irrepressible I.F. (Izzy) Stone. Leonard Boudin was hardly a saint: His repeated trysts with his daughter’s friends amount to incest without the mess. Mother Jean (Kathy’s chief instructor in conning prison authorities) comes off as well-meaning but pathetic, a description that fits many of the characters in Family Circle, not least the good-hearted, gullible Ben Spock.

The fact that there’s no one to cheer for here is depressing-particularly if, you came of age in the 60’s and remember the “gad S.D.S.” of Todd Gitlin, Paul Potter and Rennie Davis. It’s especially disheartening to discover how little seems to have been learned. For notable example, Movement lights Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, who raised Chesa while his mom was a guest of the State of New York (his dad-who declined Leonard Boudin’s importunings to commit perjury for Kathy-comes up for parole in half a century), appear not to have changed a whit. Bernardine has been locked in revolutionary struggle with Northwestern University, which employs her as (of all things) a law professor, while Bill has written a jaunty memoir of his bombing days-he told The Times it might be necessary to repeat them. (Bad timing for Bill: His remarks appeared in print the morning of 9/11.) Chesa, a summa Yale graduate now studying at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, has been talking to The Times, too. “My parents were all dedicated to fighting U.S. imperialism around the world,” he said in December 2002. “I’m dedicated to the same thing.”

As for Kathy (who lied promiscuously at her parole hearing, according to Ms. Braudy), she’s now working with H.I.V. patients at St. Luke’s Hospital. No word yet of an Oprah appearance.

Robert Sam Anson, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, reviews books regularly for The Observer.