Red Star Sister: Between Madness and Utopia
Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Tuesday, May 15 2001, 1:15 PM
"...We persisted in the delusion the world had already been remade, and we were its newest stewards." -- Leslie Brody
In this line Leslie sums up the worldview of hippie or hippie-attentive teenagers of 1970, which I so like to think included me. It was born of a thoughtless conviction that the Revolution had been won, secured by our older brothers and sisters the students and flamboyant radicals like Black and White Panthers. All honkies and pigs (including the U.S. military in Vietnam) were clearly in contentious but bleating retreat, and that it was now only a matter of the Baby Boom demographic taking stewardship to enjoy the fruits of the short metaphysical struggle while conscientiously keeping the bongs and pipes of the teenagers filled and lit.
Uh...but we musta been stoned or sumpin'. As we danced in the disco or shrieked in the Punk basement, the conservatives crept back and made sure the doors were securely locked. Reaganauts swiftly took over and erased the text by which we lived. And in the 1980s the world grew to a colder, nastier place than the summertime free rock concerts where Leslie Brody assiduously hawked the White Panthers' multicolored and impassioned Ann Arbor SUN newspaper to impressionable kids like this author.
Brody's tale may be shared in the spirit by a lot of intelligent young women and men of the era. She was a middle-class girl from Long Island who expressed her rebelliousness by running away from home and turning to radical politics. Her junkyard-owning father was always reading paperback novels he kept around the house and his truck, encouraging a daughter who was also shaped by literature. Defiant towards a bonehead teacher who underestimated her ability to understand the nuances of Middlemarch, she soon envisions life as a revolutionary as comradely as the fraternity of aristocratic Russian officers she found in Tolstoy.
Brody tells of her stint as a teenage member of the White Panther Party, living in its communes. She perceptively recounts personal and sexual dynamics in a Chicago White Panther household, and her experiments in their manipulation in order to find her own place. Traveling east to Ann Arbor, she spent several months in the Panther's infamous communal Hill Street headquarters, home of their house bands the MC5 and the Up, a big yellow Victorian house at the edge of the University of Michigan campus surrounded by fraternities, churches, synagogues and ladies' clubs. Essentially Brody was the servant of manipulative older guys and girls there, and came to be educated politically and sexually in exchange for performing plenty of chores. She emerged wiser out the other end of the experience, and moved on when it was time. Her journey then takes her to Berkeley, California where she publishes in the Berkeley BARB under the name "Buckwheat Groats" and finally (for this volume of her memoirs) to Europe where she meets survivors of the Second World War who teach her with even greater refinement to savor life.
By thinking carefully about those years while not denying the range of strong feelings that animated them for her, Brody has written a fine memoir. It's not just the sexy radical content of her tales that astonish, but also her skilled, sensitive language; California's University of Redlands is privileged to have her as an English instructor. Leslie Brody will note of a friend, "She had the sort of embonpoint that Joshua Reynolds often painted" comparing this poised girl "from top-drawer California" to an eighteenth-century English aristocrat. At other times she knows she is "in George Bernard Shaw's words, 'yielding and dreaming instead of resisting and doing', absorbed by the delicious state he calls 'the sweetness of fruit that is going rotten.'" Unlike many memoirs of the era -- especially those of repentant neoconservatives! -- she handles the past with delicacy as well as firmness.
As one whose teenage eyes were scorched by White Panther John Sinclair's firey politico-cultural prose as well as the expansive, personalized Rock apologia of Lester Bangs in Detroit's CREEM magazine, I sometimes wonder if the ensuing decades of chilling, stultifying conservatism on all fronts is also responsible for our era's preponderance of tepid or coolly detached prose. Dionysus has been stuffed in a little box, to only jingle trivially on ads for Sony electronics or GAP khakis. It is Leslie Brody's soul and sensibility that makes Red Star Sister a bright and sparkling garment, like those multicolored peasant vests or skirts with little mirrors that hippie girls bought or shoplifted from the boutiques and headshops thirty years ago. In the book's unstinting and clearheaded insights offered to readers -- especially younger ones -- is a warm and protective garment at that.
Red Star Sister was first published in 1998 by Hungry Minds Press