‘Did I ever hurt you when you were a child?’

BETTINA APTHEKER is a professor of feminist studies and history at UC Santa Cruz. She is the author, most recently, of "Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel."

IT IS A LITTLE disconcerting and somewhat chilling to read reviews of my recently published memoir and see my own words quoted back to me. It is not because I don’t like what I wrote, or feel shame about it. It is because I was the holder of so many family secrets, and the injunction to silence was so strong. In writing my story, I broke all of the family rules.

Growing up, I held tight to the illusion that everything would by OK if I too could project the image of the perfect family, even though my inner life was so fraught with tension. In seeing recent reviews of my book, although favorable, sometimes the child part of my mind shrinks in horror: “What have you done?” And then the calm, adult part of my mind says: “You have told the truth to the best of your ability.” Any of us who has experienced childhood sexual abuse or other forms of abuse, even as adults, knows something of these conflicted feelings.

My parents, Fay and Herbert Aptheker, were members of the U.S. Communist Party. My mother was a union organizer, and my father was often described in the New York Times as the party’s “leading theoretician,” as if it were an appendage to his name. He was also a radical historian and the literary executor of the papers of W.E.B. DuBois. He published extensively and was an exceedingly controversial figure in the historical profession, and his Communist affiliation assured that he was blacklisted from any university work, beginning in the 1930s.

I grew up in the 1950s striving to be the “perfect daughter” as my embattled parents bravely stood up to the McCarthy hearings, anti-Communist purges and trials and the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In childhood, I assumed that I would inherit my father’s dream and further his ambition. This was my parents’ expectation. As I matured, I gave up those particular dreams and ambitions, but I did not give up my mother and my father, even after the memories of sexual abuse arose. As I wrote in the memoir, “I sought a middle ground between the grief of an irreconcilable break and the long shadow of denial.”


It was when I began writing the memoir in the mid-1990s, and especially its childhood section, that I had my first memories of sexual abuse by my father, which I had entirely suppressed until then. I was mucking around in my childhood because my daughter and my partner, reading early drafts, kept saying that the narrative was emotionally flat. “Where are you?” they wanted to know. “What were you feeling?” I was the narrator, but the story read as though I was floating around on the ceiling of my childhood, watching it unfold.

The psychological term for this is dissociation. I was about 3 years old when the sexual abuse began, and it was when my father and I were playing a game called choo-choo train on the rug on the living room floor of our apartment in Brooklyn. My father stopped molesting me when I was 13. By then, of course, it was no longer a game. It was clear in my memory that my father took great care never to hurt me physically; he was, in fact, very gentle with me. But he also made clear I was never, ever to tell anyone about our games.

Once the memories erupted -- and they did erupt with astonishing, volcanic force -- I stopped writing. I needed counseling, and I was fortunate to have an experienced and loving psychotherapist. My partner was bedrock, and my children were devoted to me. That I already had something of a Buddhist meditation practice was of great benefit. Although I was too agitated to sit still in meditation, I could walk, doing mantra, reminding myself that all emotion and thought are essentially ephemeral.

That provided the foundation for the compassion with which I ultimately faced my father. And it allowed me to return to the memoir project, writing without rancor. I also came to understand that, of course, I had dissociated. As a child, I attempted to protect my parents from the political onslaught of the McCarthy era in the only way that I could: by my silence, and the erasure of the untenable, protecting myself from what a child could not bear.


A little over two weeks after my mother’s death in June 1999, my father and I talked about the sexual abuse. He initiated the conversation, asking as we were driving home from a Vietnamese restaurant. “Did I ever hurt you when you were a child?” was how he started. I had been furious with him for about five years, carrying around the memories like a truncheon and yet unable to confront him. But I said yes, and once we talked, his anguish was so great, his apology so heartfelt, that all the anger left me in a great whoosh of an out breath, and then I felt nothing but great waves of compassion for him.

There are many who knew my parents, and many more who have read my father’s work or heard him speak or taken classes with him. Since the publication of my book, many people have written to me and offered their support, while others have expressed shock. One wrote to me in great anguish, saying that he no longer knew how to think about my father or his work. Others have simply expressed their disbelief that the Herbert Aptheker they knew could ever have done such a thing. And more than one person has invoked the idea of “false memory syndrome.”

“Is there anything besides Bettina’s words to support the charge against Herbert?” reads a recent post on the Internet.

Of course, there’s little I can say in response to such allegations other than to observe that if you think it was shocking for you, imagine how I must have felt. For those who knew my father, I think there is a solution by finding that middle ground I sought for myself, between lionizing my father on the one hand or demonizing him on the other.

Why write of this sexual abuse? Why proceed with the memoir? More than just wanting to provide readers with firsthand accounts of the historical movements in which I participated, I wished to contribute to the ongoing collective reconstruction of women’s history in which the intimate oppression of women and children is revealed because it is part of the historical record.

I wanted people to know that reconciliation is possible, healing is possible. Breaking silence, I bear witness, and the child is at peace.