Susan Braudy. Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left. New York: Knopf Publishing Group, 2003. xxiv + 460 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-679-43294-4.
Reviewed by Vincent Cannato (Department of History, University of Massachusetts, Boston)
Published on H-1960s (June, 2004)
What do left-wing journalist I. F. Stone and rapper Tupac Shakur have in common? This unlikely pairing will make sense after reading Susan Braudy's Family Circle, a history of former Weather Underground member Kathy Boudin and her illustrious radical family.
Family Circle is a Gothic family drama wrapped around a political morality tale. Braudy works backwards from Boudin's imprisonment in a Bedford Hills, New York, prison for her part in the 1981 Brinks robbery that left three people dead. In the process, Braudy draws a convincing portrait of both the Boudin family and the left-wing social and intellectual set in which they moved. The book's central question is: How did Kathy Boudin, the daughter of a prominent lawyer, get involved in such a mess?
Braudy begins her tale with Louis B. Boudin, a socialist labor lawyer, and the uncle of Kathy's father, famed civil-liberties lawyer Leonard Boudin. Relying heavily on interviews, most centrally those with Jean Boudin, Leonard's wife and Kathy's mother, Braudy paints a picture of a dysfunctional family rooted in the world of the American intellectual Left. Names like Paul Goodman and Clifford Odets appear as romantic interests in the young lives of both Jean and Leonard (Braudy claims that Leonard Boudin and Goodman carried on a passionate love affair.) Jean's sister married I. F. Stone.
But the central figure in the book is Kathy Boudin. We see her at Bryn Mawr and, after college, drifting through the world of SDS and radical politics. This is by far the strongest part of the book, as Braudy captures the fervor of the young radicals. Throughout the book, Kathy is paired with her brother Michael in a sibling rivalry that is stranger than fiction. Where Kathy protested the Vietnam War and veered toward violent revolution, Michael went to Harvard, clerked for conservative Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, and became a corporate lawyer. Today, Michael Boudin is a Republican-appointed federal judge.
Given such a family, it is not surprising that Braudy relies on psychological interpretations of the Boudins. Was Kathy competing with her successful brother for their father's approval? Was Kathy trying to live up to her father's own grandiose image of his family? In Braudy's narrative, Leonard (City College, St. John's University) bonded with Michael, seeing his son's Harvard education as a vindication of the family's greatness. Despite his affinity for radical clients, Leonard appears more taken with Michael's corporate success than with Kathy's radical politics. In her quest to find out what makes Kathy Boudin tick, Braudy says that everything stems from her troubled relationship with her father.
What makes Kathy interesting is not just her family and her well-known father, but the fact that she was present during the two most fatal events related to the Weather Underground. The first event came in March 1970, when a naked Kathy Boudin barely escaped with her life after a nail bomb her friends were constructing in their Greenwich Village townhouse exploded prematurely. The bomb killed Kathy's Bryn Mawr friend Diana Oughton and two others. As the Weathermen went "underground," they continued a bombing campaign which targeted the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, the home of a New York State judge, and the New York City Police Headquarters.
The second event, which occurred more than a decade later, provides the central event of this book. While others in the Weather Underground, like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, began to pull themselves away from violence by the mid-1970s, Kathy become involved with a group of radical African Americans whose code name was "the Family." (One leader of "the Family" was Doc Shakur, the stepfather of rapper Tupac Shakur, hence the three degrees of separation from I. F. Stone.) Eventually, Boudin and David Gilbert, an SDS activist at Columbia University and the father of Boudin's child, would aid members of the Family in a holdup of a Brinks truck in Rockland County, New York, in October 1981.
A Brinks guard and two Nyack, New York, policemen were murdered during the botched robbery. All of the suspects were eventually arrested and convicted, including Boudin and Gilbert who, although not directly involved in the killings, were part of the planning and getaway. Although Boudin was recently pardoned and released from jail, Gilbert remains in jail. The Boudin pardon reignited old passions regarding Weatherman violence and was bitterly opposed by the families of the dead men and others in the Nyack community. The tragedy was made even more baffling by the fact that the Brinks robbery had little to do with politics--it was motivated primarily by the need of some members of the Family to procure money for drugs.
Today, the Weather Underground remains a controversial topic. To some, it is a parable of the excesses of the 1960s, where the earlier idealism of the era degenerated into irrationality, nihilism, and violence. The Weather Underground's obsession with bombs and revolution, then, was a natural progression of their radical politics. To others, the townhouse explosion and Brinks robbery were aberrations, where good people were driven toward mad actions by an immoral war in Vietnam and the other evils of America. "Some will understand that in terrible times, otherwise smart and decent people can commit terrible atrocities," writes New York Daily News columnist and former Columbia SDSer Juan Gonzalez. Others see little wrong with the group's violence. Former Weatherman Bill Ayers seems to believe that he and his conspirators were "freedom fighters" and he wonders how long it will take for his dead comrades from the Greenwich Village townhouse to be so remembered by the nation.
Braudy's book does not fit so easily into these categories. Though the book has received largely positive reviews and attention, some have questioned her motivation in writing it. Was Braudy, a scholarship student at Bryn Mawr who lived across the hall from Kathy, envious of the older, self-confident, and well-connected Boudin? Braudy admits she "wilted" during her first encounter with Kathy and her "condescending adult views" during college (pp. xiii-xiv).
Predictably, the reviewer for The Nation panned the book, calling it part of the "prevailing dismissal of the protest movements of the 1960s and early '70s." But Braudy's politics appear to be solidly liberal. Though her goal is not to discredit liberalism, the book sheds light on some of the difficulties of the American Left. Nobody comes off well in this book. Leonard is portrayed as someone more concerned about being seen as a great man, a serial philanderer bordering on sexual predator. Jean Boudin is a suicidal, emotionally distant enabler. Even Izzy Stone appears as an intellectual bully. Kathy is a humorless, moralistic scold and her fellow Weathermen come off as pedantic, overbearing, and overly sure of their own brilliance. There is not a single likeable person in the book.
These personality issues, according to Braudy, were problematic for their politics: "It was, in fact, a tragic paradox of Kathy's life that Leonard's competitive, ambitious spirit clashed with the egalitarian philosophy he espoused" (p. 119). Class is the underlying issue of much of Braudy's book. Nearly everyone in the Boudin clan came from upper-middle-class families. Devotion to radical politics was made possible by money derived from the successful businesses of parents, while lives dedicated to helping the poor were cushioned by bourgeois comforts. Braudy writes that the life of Louis Boudin, Leonard's beloved uncle, was "buttressed by the objects and security of class privilege, and this anomaly led him to sometimes talk as if he were trying to destroy himself. Seventy-five years later, Kathy Boudin claimed to see her birth to a family of well-to-do whites as an agonizing defect to be obliterated by rationalization, violence, and self-deprivation" (p. 5). In one of the more ironic tidbits in the book, Braudy has young Leonard Boudin collecting rents and evicting working-class tenants during the depths of the Great Depression.
For historians, this book joins a small but growing list of books on the Weather Underground. The recent release of a documentary of the group has led to a renewed interest in their history. However, it was poetic justice that the New York Times article publicizing Bill Ayers's slippery 2001 memoir Fugitive Days appeared on the morning of September 11, 2001, a day when Americans were in no mood for romanticized tales of Pentagon bombings.
Ultimately, Braudy's psychological interpretations only can take us so far. As we move further away from the 1960s, historians will have to grapple with how to place the Weather Underground into the overall context of the era. Are they a crucial part of the history of the 1960s and 1970s or a sad footnote to those times? Are we interested in them only or primarily because of their largely white, upper-middle-class backgrounds?
No doubt some Weathermen--maybe even Kathy Boudin herself--will write their stories in the coming years. But given the track record of the Ayers memoir, the recent statements by Boudin and her lawyers about the Brinks robbery, and the recent public utterances of some Weather Underground members, an honest appraisal might not come any time soon.
Still, this is hardly a perfect book. Braudy is a journalist, not a historian, and it shows in a number of small errors of fact, as well as of historical interpretation. Her book contains endnotes, but they can be confusing and make tracing some of her assertions difficult.
Nevertheless, this book's unflinching portrait of the Boudin clan places the 1960s in a larger historical context and provides important insights into this tumultuous era and the nature of radical politics. Braudy ends her book with a quote from Walt Whitman about the nature of radicals: "I am not asleep to the fact that among radicals as among the others there are hoggishnesses, narrownesses, inhumanities, which at times almost scare me for the future" (p. 384). It is a fitting ending for a sad tale.
. For more on the Brinks Robbery, see John Castellucci, The Big Dance: The Untold Story of Weatherman Kathy Boudin and the Terrorist Family That Committed the Brinks Robbery Murders (New York: Dodd Mead, 1986).
. New York Daily News, September 18, 2003.
. Thomas Powers, Diana: The Making of a Terrorist (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971); Susan Stern, With the Weathermen: The Personal Journey of a Revolutionary Woman (Garden City: Doubleday, 1975); Ron Jacobs, The Way the Wind Blows: A History of the Weather Underground (London: Verso, 1997); Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days: A Memoir (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-1960s.
Vincent Cannato. Review of Braudy, Susan, Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left.
H-1960s, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.