A Family of Dissenters: History From the Inside Out

A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience, by Thai Jones. Free Press, 321 pages, $26.

Where I come from-Upper West Side, Jewish intellectuals-you lean left. There’s a spectrum to that, of course: left to lefter to leftist. Growing up, I knew my folks were liberal, but it didn’t take long for me to learn that they were stodgy compared to other families.

My best friend’s family was lefter than ours. At 7, she told me that her parents had thought of calling her Emma, rather than Sara, to honor Emma Goldman. When I said, “Who?”, she was able to rattle off a mini history lesson on the feminist/anarchist who hung around with assassins and was pegged by J. Edgar Hoover as “one of the most dangerous women in America.” Other friends had parents who were in the S.D.S. (Students for a Democratic Society). They met at hunger strikes and fell in love. They’d taken the trip down South in 1964. They’d marched on Washington. Organized, picketed.

And then there were the leftists, the radicals. They hadn’t just marched-they’d blown things up. These folks were known as the Weather Underground. They didn’t just want to reform things-they wanted to overthrow the government, incite a revolution. And their kids had an aura. Sure, they’d come over for birthday parties, eat cake, play Uno. But there was something serious about those kids. Something you couldn’t touch.

Thai Jones was one of those kids.

I didn’t know Mr. Jones, but we’re the same age. I heard about him, through friends, and I knew that we were worlds apart. In 1981, we were both 4 years old-but while I was busy playing make-believe, Mr. Jones’ family was getting raided by the F.B.I. At the time, Mr. Jones was known as Timmy Maynard, and he lived in the Bronx with his parents, Sally and John Maynard (their real names were Jeff Jones and Eleanor Stein). In October of that year, when the Maynards had just finished a spaghetti dinner, F.B.I. Special Agent Lawrence Wack called to inform them that he had their apartment surrounded. The F.B.I. doesn’t usually make courtesy calls. But in this instance, Agent Wack knew there was a child involved and decided to call ahead to give the family advance warning.

Mr. Jones describes the scene vividly in his memoir, A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience. The apartment was overrun by police officers dressed in riot gear. Timmy Maynard’s father was crawling across the hallway’s tiled floor (at gunpoint), his mother was fighting with the police, and little Timmy was lost amidst the chaos. He escaped into his room: “I made a fast survey of my possessions: a cowboy outfit, a coloring book, a stuffed Tyrannosaurus. I opened the drawer of my little desk and picked up my child’s scissors. The ends were rounded, and the blades were covered by blue plastic guards. Bouncing them in my hand and snipping at the air, I considered putting on the cowboy hat and charging into the hallway with scissors blazing to defeat these men who had come to hurt our family. Even then, I knew it was a battle against long odds. But I didn’t realize it was a question that many in my family had already faced. They had chosen to fight.”

For Mr. Jones, this was the defining moment, when he first became aware of his family’s involvement in politics.

He has a fascinating story to tell, and he covers a lot of ground, giving a history of the radical left from 1913 through 1981. The text weaves its way through McCarthyism, the civil-rights movement, S.D.S., the “Days of Rage.” But what makes Mr. Jones’ account so enthralling is that it’s history personalized-history from the inside out. You don’t just see how individuals effected political change, but how the act of making history affected individuals-their families, their romances, their hearts and minds.

The characters Mr. Jones portrays sacrificed a lot. We learn of Mr. Jones’ grandfather, Albert, a conscientious objector during World War II, who was forced to leave his life behind to spend years in a work camp. Later on, Albert was separated from his outlaw son, Jeff. They went nine years without seeing one another.

Mr. Jones doesn’t rely on content alone to pull the reader in; the writing is crisp and evocative: “Annie’s father had a widow’s peak like a ship’s prow. He could comb it forward, backward, or to the side, and still it would point down unmercifully to the bridge of his nose.” Of Brooklyn in the hot ache of summertime, Mr. Jones writes: “On the street below, nothing stirred unless it had to. Glass, steel, stone, concrete: everything in the borough absorbed the sun and was too hot to touch.”

What people seem to remember about the radical politics of the Weather Underground is the accidental explosion that leveled a New York City brownstone, killing three members of the group. Or the Brinks robbery, which left innocent people dead. It’s too bad that Mr. Jones doesn’t spend much time on either of those sad incidents; he’s missed the opportunity to explore their meaning from the inside.

Mr. Jones is smart to leave out any predictions about our political future. It’s promising, however, to read about our nation’s sinuous past: violent swings both left and right, some powerful mistakes and some equally powerful achievements. And reading A Radical Line, you remember that even in the hardest, darkest moments, certain individuals are willing to stand up, no matter what the cost, no matter which way the wind blows.

Shaina Feinberg is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn.

A Family of Dissenters: History From the Inside Out