You Don't Need a Weatherman to Write the History of the WeathermenDaniel J. Flynn - 02/18/08
Review of Cathy Wilkerson, Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007), 422 pp. $26.95.
In 1962, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) called for “participatory democracy” in its Port Huron Statement. It ended the decade by spinning off into Weatherman, a self-styled vanguard that eschewed democracy, participatory or otherwise, for fantasies of violent revolution. Nerdy, well-groomed idealists in the early SDS practiced nonviolent civil disobedience to counter Southern racists. The unkempt greasers that Weathermen posed as planted bombs in solidarity with such racist groups as the Black Panthers and Symbionese Liberation Army. The organizational long, strange trip through the 1960s mirrored the peculiar journey of individual members. Cathy Wilkerson, former Swarthmore SDS activist and editor of its New Left Notes, chronicles her path from SDS activist to Weatherman terrorist in Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman. Unfortunately, Flying Close to the Sun names few names and solves no mysteries. Writing as though the government were still hunting Weathermen, Wilkerson, save for when she implicates herself, omits such crucial information as who bombed what when. This is a tell-some memoir which is more faithful to friends than to facts.
Wilkerson surrounds her ground-zero account of Weatherman’s most infamous action with a rewrite of history too recently experienced to endure such a dramatic reconstruction. Indeed, if not for Wilkerson’s friends blowing themselves up in her father’s Greenwich Village townhouse, no publishing house would have printed her autobiography. That event, which ended three of her comrades’ lives and dramatically altered her own, makes the book marketable. But there is too much missing for the book to be interesting. Wilkerson bowdlerizes the back story. The hard-to-believe narrative that emerges depicts the author as shocked, shocked by the Left’s violence and its victimization by conspiratorial forces within the government.
Whereas red-diaper babies peopled the SDS gathering that produced the Port Huron Statement, many of those behind 1969’s “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows”—the jargon-laced manifesto of Weatherman—came from incredible wealth. Political indoctrination had ushered the former group into action. Class indoctrination characterized the childhoods of future Weathermen. The abnormal upbringings of the trust-fund revolutionaries, so normal to Wilkerson, get overlooked in explaining the self-righteousness, entitlement, and elitism of Weathermen in contrast to the humility and egalitarianism of old-guard SDSers. Despite their Marxist analysis of society, Weathermen never applied their Rosetta Stone to themselves.
Cathy Wilkerson’s father served as vice president of Young & Rubicam’s international division. Wilkerson’s childhood was one of boarding schools, maids, motorboats, and extended European vacations. Likewise, the backgrounds of the two other young women whose destinies intertwined in the ruins of Daddy Wilkerson’s Greenwich Village townhouse reflected the economic privileges that Weathermen enjoyed. Diana Oughton grew up in a massive brick mansion surrounded by a goose pond, swimming pool, deer park, and one-hundred-foot-high windmill. Kathy Boudin spent her childhood in the townhouse whose façade The Cosby Show later used to convey the opulence of the Huxtables.