Monday 30 July 2018

Rebel Mother by Peter Andreas; Book Note

Rebel Mother: My Childhood Chasing the Revolution, by Peter Andreas: Book Note

Peter Andreas is the John Hay Professor of International Relations at Brown University, an elite private university in the US.  Born in 1965, he had an extraordinary childhood following his mother, Carole Andreas (author of Sex and Caste in America) as she chased “the revolution” through Berkeley communes, three countries in Latin America (Chile, Argentina, and Peru), and finally into “revolutionary” leftist politics in Denver.  In Rebel Mother (Simon and Schuster, 2017), he has reconstructed that life through his own memories, his mother’s diaries, and family letters.

Born a Mennonite in 1933, at age seventeen Carole married a much older Mennonite man, and then left him in the late 1960s after having had three sons. Her husband obtained legal custody of Peter, but she kidnapped him twice, once when he was five and again, with his co-operation, when he was ten. Meanwhile the two much older sons pretty much did want they wanted from the age of about 14. One, Joel Andreas, at the age of 15 drew a famous graphic novel about the wealthy Rockefeller family; 100,000 copies were distributed by NACLA, the leftist North American Committee for Latin America.

Throughout her life Carole Andreas was consumer by three things: love for her children, sex, and politics. While most people who were active in “revolutionary” politics in the late 1960s and 70s got over it later in life, she did not. She took Peter to live in a commune in Berkeley, California, where one of her lovers was Richard Feinberg, an economist who twenty years later hired Peter for an internship in a Washington, D.C. think-tank. Later she moved to Allende’s Chile, after the 1973coup d’├ętat decamping to Argentina and then Peru. In Peru she took a lover twenty years her junior named Raul, whom she eventually married. She also had some contacts with the Maoist leftist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), later revealed to have committed many crimes against humanity. Peter spent much of his childhood listening to Carole and Raul engage in violent political arguments, followed by raucous love-making in the same room where he was supposed to be sleeping.  Often they lived in very crowded conditions with generous peasant families.

Eventually Carole and Peter settled in Denver, living in accommodations that at least had the advantage of indoor plumbing, but were otherwise quite meagre. Carole devoted herself to studying all forty-five volumes of the collected works of Vladimir Lenin, and being involved in political events such as a 1977 strike at Coors Brewing Company, for which Joel drew another graphic comic book.  Carole and Joel had political screaming matches too: he took a more Maoist line, while she claimed that women, and especially gays, were the real vanguard of the revolution.

Peter Andreas

Peter was largely left to his own devices, his mother ignoring his school performance other than to warn him that to do well in school was to be elitist. At the age of twelve he was given a loaded gun by a man he’d met at a bar, and when he showed it to Carole she simply said “learning to use a gun will prove handy for when the revolution comes” (p. 242). In his room, thinking the gun empty, Peter lifted it to his head, but then he decided to check and sure enough, there was one bullet: he gave the gun back the next day. A supportive teacher made sure that he attended a higher quality high school than the one Carole wanted him to attend because it was working class: from there, he made his way to university.

Reading about Peter Andreas’ extraordinary childhood, I wanted to rescue him from Carole. I wondered whether his mother had violated any of what we now know as children’s rights, following the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. There is no children’s right not to have to use primitive, outdoor toilet facilities. Nor is there any children’s right not to sleep in a crowded room with several other people, and even farm animals. Nor is there a right not to be in the same room when parents are making love: presumably, this happens all over the world in households that live in one room. Perhaps there should be a children’s right not to live in a home with a gun or have access to one, but there’s isn’t.

Nor is there any children’s right to be loved, although it is much better, of course, if a child is loved. As far as I could see, Carole Andreas genuinely loved her son, even though her behavior with him was extremely erratic.

So many of my reasons for wanting to rescue Peter Andreas from his mother reflected precisely the middle-class values that she rebelled against. These were values held by his father, with whom Peter stayed for brief periods, with his own room, clean clothes, indoor plumbing and a regular routine. Despite enjoying this security, he agreed to conspire with his mother on his second kidnapping because he thought she needed him more than his father did.

Peter himself wrote of his mother:

“In some ways she did fall into some ‘bad mothering.’ A child should not feel that he must let his mother kidnap him in order to secure her love, or be a nightly witness to his mother’s political screaming matches and marital passions, or bear the weight of her suicidal thoughts. A child should not be allowed to play with a loaded gun because it is ‘good training for the revolution’….He should not have to defy his mother’s ideological insistence that he attend a bad high school because it is more ‘working class.’ All in all, a child needs more stability that to live in three states and five countries in more than a dozen different homes and schools between the ages of five and eleven.” (p. 319)

Yet throughout the book, it is clear that Peter and his mother loved each other very much. And he could not be the scholar he is today had he not had these extraordinary childhood experiences.