How to Write About a Political Childhood

  • Zoë Heller. The Believers. Harper. March 2009.
  • Said Sayrafiezadeh. When Skateboards Will be Free. Dial Press. March 2009.

Communist ideologues are not known for their parenting skills. Take Marx, who saw families (especially his own) as obstructions to political ends; Che, a notorious ladies’ man who barely saw his children at all; Mao, with his four wives and ten (or more) kids; or even Stalin, who, before driving Nadezhda Alliluyeva to suicide, impregnated a 13-year-old during his Siberian exile. The family lives of these leaders were overshadowed by their political careers—but what to do with such men when they exist not in the Bolivian jungles or the oilfields of Baku but knee-deep in West Village affectations or entrenched in the monotony of the Socialist Workers Party? What happens to their kids in a time of Montessori schools and helicopter parenting?

Zoe Heller’s latest novel, The Believers, and Said Sayrafiezadeh’s memoir When Skateboards Will be Free provide some answers in their distinctly American accounts of growing up socialist. Like their revolutionary predecessors, the father figures in both books take more interest in their political causes than in the everyday needs of their wives and children. The mothers, also radicals, live in their husbands’ shadows, so the politics end up doing the parenting. Their children consequently grow up with a belief system toward which their country is less than sympathetic; the views they parrot are met with bemusement and disapproval.

As child-socialists, they are disapproved of by others, but their parents’ ideology still follows them well into adulthood. The three Litvinoff children in The Believers are in their early thirties, but two of them still make sense of the world through base and superstructure and class war. Sayrafiezadeh in his memoir recalls clinging to old sound bites out of sheer habit; he once fought with a girlfriend over the Soviet occupation of Poland “even though I knew nothing about it and my girlfriend was Polish.” Sayrafiezadeh and the protagonists in The Believers consider their parents’ politics as essential to their existence until adulthood, and as the stories unfold, we watch this certainty dissolve. Ultimately, both books present compellingly rendered personal arguments against unquestioned faith, and because of this post-ideological outlook, The Believers and When Skateboards will be Free can function as both personal narrative and generational statement: how the ’60s children’s children—or, as Godard would put it, the “grandchildren of Marx and Coca-Cola”—learned to stop worrying and coexist with the evils of capitalism.

The Believers takes place in New York in 2002. Joel Litvinoff is a successful socialist lawyer, an alleged “rent-a-radical with a long history of un-Americanism” who relishes such accusations. His wife Audrey, whom he met in London when she was a teenage typist, is loud-mouthed, tactless, and assuages her inferiority complex with a militant abrasiveness. The Litvinoffs have two biological daughters and a son they adopted after his socialist-militant mother was sent to jail for participating in a failed bank robbery. In a delightful, if a little obvious clin d’oeil to the ghosts of communists past, they are named Rosa, Karla (Karl Marx), and Lenny (Lenin).

The aftermath of the terrorist attacks acts as an important backdrop in The Believers. Just hours after the attacks, “Audrey had already been celebrating the end of the myth of American exceptionalism and comparing the event to the American bombing of a Sudanese aspirin factory in 1998,” and in the opening pages of the novel, Joel is defending an alleged terrorist in US v. Mohammed Hassani. He admits to having softened his views in his old age; he thinks it wise to defend his client’s innocence, while Audrey, in what Joel feels is a “feminine prerogative to hold unreasonable political views,” maintains he should argue on the grounds of “legitimate Arab rage.”

The reader is frequently reminded that the Litvinoffs’ socialism is not of the soy-latte variety: there are rallies, arrests, protests; tirades about the “American hegemon” directed at intimidated acquaintances; Sunday morning pancakes with a side of Marxism-Leninism. A telling lack of décor in their Perry Street brownstone is meant to reflect their commitment to their cause; they “sneered at the yuppie extravagance of such renovations … not a single item of furniture could be said to represent a considered aesthetic choice.” Still, their lifestyle is cushy at worst. Disdain for kitchen-dining floor-throughs does not prevent them from sending their children to private schools and colleges, taking cabs to work, or schmoozing with celebrities. They live in a comfortable West Village bubble punctuated with laughable criticisms from the right-wing press, but their seemingly sincere conviction that socialism will bring about greater social justice is what saves them from coming off as utterly reprehensible. It is clear that Heller sees the contradictions of leftist politics becoming an American lifestyle, but these are approached with wry humor, not contempt. It is only when Joel suffers a stroke that his wife, mother, and children are brought together and the principles they once based their life on are brought into question.

On quite the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum from the Litvinoffs, Said Sayrafiezdeh was born in 1968 and grew up between low-income Brooklyn and the slums of Pittsburgh. When he was 9, his father, a math professor who would later run for the Iranian presidency on a Trotskyist platform, left Said alone with his mother, Martha Harris. Both his parents remained committed members of the Socialist Workers Party, but unlike the fictional Litvinoffs, who exemplify how socialist politics can thrive, even profit in a capitalist system, Harris chooses poverty, moving down the class ladder out of zeal, or perhaps even to authenticate her convictions. “The difference between us and the other families in the neighborhood was that our poverty was intentional and self-inflicted,” writes Sayrafiezadeh. It was “a choice chased after, as opposed to a reality that could not be avoided.”

Radical as they are, Sayrafiezadeh’s parents and the Litvinoffs are not reproached for the specific views they hold. The authors remain remarkably neutral in this regard. There are no bitter rejections of socialism, tired references to Orwell, or reactionary endorsements of free-market capitalism. In fact, it would be overly cynical to dismiss the beliefs of Heller’s Litvinoffs or Sayrafiezadeh’s parents and comrades as false or disingenuous—they are, after all, individuals who dedicate their entire lives to an ideology which they (perhaps correctly) believe will make the world a better place. In this regard, When Skateboards Will be Free is striking in its lack of sarcasm: recalling incidents from his childhood and his adult life, the author expresses an empathy for his parents’ motivations that is critical but consistently sensitive. Heller’s novel admittedly drips with satire when describing the family’s considerable means, their condescending lectures, and their occasional slips of classism and sexism—but for the most part, their intentions are good. Socialist cameos in everyday American life are presented in a tragic-comic manner, suggesting not that socialism is immoral, but that the country is perhaps not quite ready for the Revolution—and that internalizing the struggle in elementary school makes for dysfunctional revolutionaries.

Heller and Sayrafiezadeh do, however, problematize dogmatism, and highlight the incompatibility of radical (and historically European) Marxism with contemporary America by revealing the paradoxes that arise when the two are combined. When Rosa asks her mother if she would subscribe to a bigger, better, truer truth if it revealed itself to her, Audrey says she wouldn’t seek it out in the first place—but if it did magically appear, “I’d reject it.” Sayrafiezadeh describes his father’s convictions in a similar manner: he does not look further than the writings of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, because “such exploration would be redundant and an egregious waste of time and might, at some juncture, challenge the conclusions he has already comfortably settled upon.”

This goes to show that as well-intentioned as this socialism may be, it nonetheless does benefit Heller and Sayrafiezadeh’s characters personally: in both books, socialism stands in for self-help. Audrey Litvinoff does not work—so spending days volunteering at Coalition for the Homeless saves her from being just another stay-at-home mom. Martha Harris, an intelligent, college-educated woman who once aspired to write novels, works as a secretary, “consoling herself as the years passed by basking in the sweet shade of belief.” When Harris, urged by her therapist, leaves the Socialist Workers Party, she develops another dependence—therapy itself. Her shrink’s departure actually drives her to overdose on antidepressants.

This thinly veiled individualism is what gives the socialism in The Believers and When Skateboards Will be Free a distinctly American form. It is vocational, a very serious hobby; it manifests itself in its extremity. After the US bombed Iraq, for example, “the Socialist Workers Party called an emergency meeting to map out a strategy on how the working class should best respond,” as though it would make a difference. The irony is that for these true believers, Americanness is to be resisted at all costs. Their politics also grant them an extended adolescence—another particularly American condition. Audrey Litvinoff’s politics “functioned for her as arcane tastes in alternative music had once functioned for Rosa’s eighth-grade friends: they were a badge of specialness. She proselytized for her causes, but she did not really want to gather adherents, any more than Rosa’s school friends had wanted their beloved indie bands to become chart-topping successes.” Sayrafiezadeh is stunned when he is encouraged to steal and eat a grape, that, for ideological reasons, they would not buy: “It struck me suddenly how peculiar it was that an adult would actually endorse thievery, and I somehow sensed that I was following a peculiar set of rules.” He is, of course: “Any crime against society is a good crime.”

Sayrafiezadeh realized that his mother had more money than she cared to admit when she sent him on a costly SWP trip to Cuba at the age of 12. As a child, he was present for many Party meetings and magazine sales, which won him the affectionate epithet “the little Revolutionary.” But outside the confines of the Party, coming of age as an Iranian communist during the 1979 hostage crisis was difficult, and his attempts at activism were seldom applauded. In elementary school, he urged his sympathetic bus monitor to vote for the socialist mayoral candidate. “Oh, sweetie,” she told him, “he’s not going to win.” When asked at a friend’s house what he thought of the situation in Iran, 11-year-old Said blurted out: “I support the struggle of the Iranian workers and peasants against US imperialism.” In a mock-election his eleventh-grade class organized, all of his classmates vote either for Mondale or Reagan—except Said, who, to their great amusement, wrote in “Mel Mason, Socialist Workers Party.”

But no amount of SWP propaganda can sate his appetite for American normalcy. Young Said fetishizes Twinkies and comic-books, gazes with envy at his friends’ parents’ houses and cars, and yearns for his own bedroom and regular packed lunches. He often invokes guilt when discussing desires for material objects: skateboards, (literally) forbidden fruit. After his trip to Cuba, his relief is only equal to his self-criticism: “How absolutely happy I was to be back in the United States. How thankful. And while I thought this, I knew—as I have many times in my life—that this was the wrong thought to be having.” As a result, he develops a habit of petty thievery. He does not steal things he can’t afford; he steals things he cannot allow himself to buy.

As children, Rosa, Karla, and Lenny Litvinoff were taught similar imperatives. Karla, the dowdy older sibling, tries for years to win her parents’ affection, but upon being informed of her gift for nurturing—the only positive reinforcement she ever receives from them—she chooses to pursue social work, a “caring” profession which, however, ranks low by her parents’ standards. Perhaps in part to keep up with their politics, Karla marries a union organizer, and much of the couple’s time is spent campaigning. Lenny, his mother’s favorite, appears unscathed by ideology, but his drug use and lack of direction are a constant problem throughout the novel. Rosa, the younger daughter, is the most militant of the three; at the time of her father’s stroke she has recently returned from four transformative years in Cuba. Like Sayrafiezadeh, she is alienated from the country she grew up in, and intrigued by its most commonplace details—in this case, her roommate Jane:

As a child, [Rosa] had broken bread with Daniel Ortega and sung freedom songs with ANC activists … by the age of 18, she had seen both her parents arrested for acts of civil disobedience and had twice been arrested herself. Yet, in truth, her worldliness applied to a very narrow band of the world, and there were large areas of ordinary American life about which her impeccably progressive, internationalist upbringing had left her astonishingly ignorant. Most things about Jane—from the “Best Daughter in the World” certificate hanging on her wall and the dog-eared library of Chicken Soup books lining her Pier One bookshelf, to the holiday cookies she baked for Eric and the thrice-weekly, hour-long phone conversations she had with her concerned parents in Ft. Lauderdale—posed an appalling anthropological mystery for Rosa.

Disillusioned, Rosa “finally surrendered her political faith”; but this throws her “back to the ignominious ranks of bourgeois liberalism.” Wracked with guilt and unable to justify her actions through some greater purpose, she is pushed even further into self-doubt by her father’s absence. While Joel is dying in his hospital bed and Audrey is coming to terms with his rampant and recently revealed infidelity, Rosa and her siblings all experience another very American rite of passage: the identity crisis.

Joel Litvinoff never wakes from his coma, and while Audrey swears to continue the class struggle, her children turn away. To her mother’s horror, Rosa takes up Orthodox Judaism and moves to Jerusalem to study the Torah. Karla succumbs to the most American of crimes—fatness—and leaves her cookie-cutter liberal, union-organizing husband for a reassuringly chubby newspaper salesman. After his drug addiction becomes so problematic that even his blasé mother intervenes, Lenny moves to the country and is transformed, perhaps a little too seemlessly, into an earnest teetotaler who attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings religiously. He turns into the worst kind of fanatic: a propagandist for jogging, clean air, and gardening.

Said Sayrafiezadeh enjoys a slightly less overdetermined fate. Because he has always associated politics with family—notably, his father, whom he still adores—the emotional weight of politics grows too burdensome for him, and eventually makes him apolitical. While his father remains a source of anxiety, Sayrafiezadeh learns not to take his sporadic contact too personally. He recounts his feelings before a local mayoral election: “I’ve never voted in any elections—mayoral, presidential, or otherwise—and I don’t intend to do so now. To cast my ballot for Olga Rodriguez would be to bend to my father’s will; to cast my ballot for someone else would be to betray him.” And so the ex-communist son of a revolutionary takes a job as a designer for Martha Stewart, buys himself an overpriced stainless-steel tissue holder, and marries Karen, a nice girl from New Jersey.

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