FLYING CLOSE TO THE SUN: MY LIFE AND TIMES AS A WEATHERMAN
By Cathy Wilkerson
Seven Stories Press, 422 pages, $26.95
Cathy Wilkerson opens her memoir literally flying through the air inside her parent’s Greenwich Village townhouse—massive dynamite explosions are ripping through its four floors. Just a few seconds earlier on that March morning in 1970, she’d been blithely ironing bedsheets, tidying up before her parents returned home from their Caribbean vacation. It’s as if the evidence she was trying to hide was merely the detritus of a raucous kegger, and not the presence of her Weather Underground collective, busy making bombs intended for a U.S. Army officers’ dance at New Jersey’s Fort Dix as well as for Columbia University’s Low Library.
An accidentally crossed wire later, three of the Weathermen lay fatally mangled. Ms. Wilkerson led fellow survivor Kathy Boudin out of the rubble.
Why had these sons and daughters of privilege been moved to declare war on “Amerikkka”? Thirty-seven years have passed, and Ms. Wilkerson is still pondering “how my friends and I came to be there at that moment and what I believed we were trying to do.” As for those friends, “their deaths led me, and many others, to begin to turn away from responding to violence with violence … to search for a different paradigm for change.”
A stirring thought. Except it never actually happened. There was little soul-searching within Weather over how murdering Fort Dix’s soldiers or Columbia’s administrators truly advanced the cause of social justice. Tactics, not ethics, drove the subsequent debate. Ms. Wilkerson admits that her initial reaction to the townhouse explosion was to begin studying electrical engineering: The new party line would focus on symbolic targets, not people—though now the bombs would have safety switches.
Ms. Wilkerson was part of a Weather team that went on to detonate a bomb inside the Bay Area’s Marin County Courthouse: “The success of the action—no one was hurt and the issue of the prisons was put squarely in the public’s eye for another moment—went a long way to assuring me and others that indeed I was as competent as the next person.”
Got that? Not only was she back in the good graces of her comrades, but somehow blasting apart a courthouse bathroom had struck a bold blow for prison reform. Welcome to “a different paradigm.”
In fact, slotting Flying Close to the Sun into the ever-expanding library of New Left chronicles makes for a case of literary Rashômon. Recalling a January 1968 antiwar rally outside Western High School in Washington, D.C., Ms. Wilkerson gushes that she “loved the energetic spirit” there: “I could see that the students were invigorated.” A co-organizer remembers that afternoon quite differently, telling The New York Times that “some greasers started to fight with the demonstrators. People were pushing and shoving and punching. I said, ‘This is terrible.’ Cathy looked at me, surprised, and said, ‘Oh, no, this is terrific. People are communicating.’”
The delusions continue: Ms. Wilkerson says she felt “completely rudderless” in January 1970 when the Weather leadership packed her off to a Seattle collective; she did little more, she tells us, than engage in some desultory firearms practice. How morally convenient. In a recently reissued memoir, With the Weathermen, the late Susan Stern—a member of that Seattle cell—describes Ms. Wilkerson as an enforcer sent to “separate the wheat from the chaff”: A cult-like program of group sex and all-night “criticism sessions” was intended to weed out those not fully committed to becoming a homegrown fifth column for Hanoi.
Today a 62-year-old high-school math teacher in Brooklyn, Cathy Wilkerson engages in the requisite hand-wringing over Weather’s ideological excesses before insisting that with its 25 bombings from 1969 to 1975, ranging from Queens’ 103rd Police Precinct to the basement of the U.S. Capitol, “tens of thousands felt heartened by our voice of outrage, our sacrifice, and our ability to elude capture.”
Looking back on that same slice of Weather history, Stern was willing to consider that her fervor for the glorious people’s revolution may have stemmed as much from a desire to dodge middle-class white guilt as from selfless idealism. Don’t expect to find any reckoning that honest in Flying Close to the Sun.
Brett Sokol writes on the arts for The Miami Herald and Ocean Drive. He’s at work on a book about hip-hop in Cuba. He can be reached at email@example.com.