Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left
By Susan Braudy
Knopf, 2003, $27.95; 460 pages.
While reviewing several American history textbooks, I was taken
aback by the descriptions of the late 1960s. It is of course somewhat
startling to see the events of one's own lifetime described as
"history," but it is even more surprising to read admiring,
uncritical accounts of the radical movements of that era. The texts now
in use in American high schools never suggest that there was an
antidemocratic, violent impulse at work in the most radical groups. In
the conventional narrative of the era, even the "hippies" are
portrayed as the vanguard of positive social change, without questioning
whether a society can function when its potential leaders are
"turning on and dropping out."
This mythologizing of the Sixties is not good history. The
consequences of that era continue to be felt in our schools,
particularly in the disintegration of adult authority and in the fear of
setting limits on students' "rights." Gerald Grant's
superb The World We Created at Hamilton High chronicles the dramatic and
corrosive changes in the American high school that can be traced to the
Sixties. Other excellent books--such as Todd Gitlin's The Sixties,
Hugh Pearson's The Shadow of the Panther, and Thomas Powers's
Diana: The Making of a Terrorist--tell the story of that era without
sugarcoating the deeds of the radical youth who wanted to impose a
Yet a full, accurate representation of these events is missing from
the most widely used textbooks. A History of the United States, a fine
textbook written by the late Daniel Boorstin and Brooks Mather Kelley,
was in fact criticized in professional journals for its
less-than-admiring treatment of the Sixties revolutionaries. Their
textbook is now out of print, in part because of its allegedly
old-fashioned telling of American history.
Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left, a
biography of Kathy Boudin and her comrades, is a cautionary tale that
reminds us how lucky we were to escape the demented ambitions of the
radical youth movements of that tumultuous era.
Boudin was one of the most famous members of her generation, but
her name does not appear in any of the most widely used history
textbooks. The reason is obvious: Her direct involvement in bombings and
murder gives the lie to the textbooks' fawning portrayal of her
Boudin grew up in a leftist milieu, surrounded by luminaries of
radicalism. Her father, attorney Leonard Boudin, represented prominent
radicals, including accused spy Judith Coplon, Fidel Castro, and Paul
Robeson; Boudin's law partner represented Alger Hiss. Kathy's
uncle, I. F. Stone, was a celebrated left-wing journalist. Her mother
was a poet and self-described "parlor revolutionary." Much was
made in Kathy's family of the fact that she was born on May 19, the
same birthday as Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh. The "family
circle" included many famous artists, writers, and academics.
Kathy attended the parent-run progressive Downtown Community School
in lower Manhattan, founded by her father and Margaret Mead; parental
meetings were rocked by fights between Trotskyites and Stalinists,
Stalinists and liberals. At her private progressive high school,
classmates included future revolutionary Angela Davis and Michael
Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
At Bryn Mawr, the elite women's college, Kathy created a
student-run dorm to escape the dress code and parietal rules. She
radicalized some fellow students, led civil-rights protests, and
demanded higher wages for the dormitories' black maids (the college
administration responded by phasing out the maid system, which
eliminated the maids' jobs). She spent her senior year in Russia,
where her leftist political views deepened.
After graduation in 1965, Kathy entered a life of protest
activities and community organizing among the poor. She spent time in
Newark, where Tom Hayden of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)
was trying to forge an "interracial movement of poor people and
students in northern cities." She joined a similar project in
Cleveland, where she organized welfare mothers. At the 1968 Democratic
convention in Chicago, Kathy and fellow SDS radicals planned violent
clashes with the police and telephoned bomb threats to hotels.
Kathy's father had to bail them out of jail. Kathy and other
radicals formed the Weathermen, a group devoted to violent revolution.
In his biography of Diana Oughton, Thomas Powers wrote that she and
Kathy wanted to be "this country's executioners."
Boudin and her fellow well-educated, upper-middle-class
revolutionaries had numerous ridiculous ideas. One that they put into
practice was called "smash monogamy," which meant that no one
should have an exclusive relationship with anyone and everyone should
sleep with everyone. They engaged in intensive sessions of criticism and
self-criticism to ward off counterrevolutionary deviations. They admired
violence, especially when committed by those like the Black Panthers and
Charles Manson, who were willing to kill for their beliefs, no matter
Then came the fateful day in 1970 when Kathy was staying in a
luxurious townhouse in Greenwich Village with four friends. One busied
himself in the basement, assembling a powerful bomb packed with hundreds
of roofing nails so as to inflict maximum damage. Possible sites for
detonation included a department store, an army base, or the Columbia
University campus. But the bombmaker erred; the bomb exploded, killing
him and two other revolutionaries. Only Kathy and the daughter of the
townhouse owner escaped.
Kathy went underground for the next decade, advancing her cause
with an occasional bombing, living in the actor Jon Voight's
houseboat, finding shelter in safe houses wherever she went. In one
ludicrous scene, Kathy and Bernadine Dohrn set a bomb in the ladies room
of the U.S. Capitol, on behalf of the revolution. Kathy, her biographer
says, found this clandestine existence "exciting." While
underground, Kathy and her group managed prison breaks for Timothy
Leary, the Harvard psychology professor famous for experimenting with
LSD, and for Joanne Chesimard, a black radical who had participated in
the murder of police officers in New Jersey.
This fugitive lifestyle ended in 1981 when Kathy left her
14-month-old baby with a sitter and said she would return that
afternoon. She and the child's father, fellow revolutionary David
Gilbert, had agreed to drive the getaway van for a group of heavily
armed bank robbers who planned to rob a Brinks truck. (The robbers
claimed to be black revolutionaries but actually used proceeds from
their heists to buy drugs.)
They drove to a suburban shopping mall north of New York City.
While Kathy and David waited in a rented U-Haul truck, the
"revolutionaries" cornered the Brinks truck and gunned down
its guards, killing one of them and snatching canvas bags of money. The
gang drove to the getaway van and piled into the back; the plan was that
police would be looking for black robbers, not a middle-aged white
couple driving a U-Haul van.
But the police did stop Kathy and David at a roadblock. Kathy got
out and told the police to put down their guns. Foolishly, they did. The
robbers hiding in the back of the van sprang out firing; two police
officers were killed. Kathy was captured and convicted and even-tually
spent 20 years in prison for her role in the Brinks robbery and murders
(she was released in 2003). David Gilbert got a life sentence.
One reads this book with a sense of disbelief that men and women
who led such privileged lives could have been so stupid and hateful,
could have thought themselves revolutionaries acting on behalf of
"the people" when they had nothing but contempt for ordinary
working people. Encountering their petulance, their hatred of democratic
institutions, and their isolation from reality, one can only imagine the
terror they would have inflicted if given the opportunity.
Surely these are lessons that our own children should study when
learning about the 1960s.
Reviewed by Diane Ravitch
Diane Ravitch is a research professor at New York University and a
distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.