Susan Rosenberg, An American Radical
I guess it’s inevitable, when you’re at a book talk by a 1970s radical political activist who was wanted by the FBI, went underground, got arrested, and spent 16 and a half years behind bars, that someone will ask “How do you understand what you did and why?” Susan Rosenberg made an honest attempt to answer a complex question, ending with a shrug and the explanation, “That's a different book.”
This is perhaps the most striking thing about Rosenberg’s memoir, An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country. Unlike most other memoirs by 1960s-70s radicals--and I’ve read a lot of them (Jane Alpert, Bill Ayers, Cathy Wilkerson, Susan Stern)--this one isn’t a personal exploration of how one follows idealism to extremism to violence and eventually re-emerges into civil society. Instead, Rosenberg has written a book that, while deeply personal and moving, uses her own story to make a powerful case against what she calls “the prison industrial complex” in America.
Beginning with the night of her arrest as she transported 740 pounds of explosives and weapons to a storage unit, she traces her years through the prison system, much of it spent in small group isolation as the U.S. government experimented with new ways to incarcerate and break inmates they considered "terrorists" and she calls "political prisoners." Along the way, she does come to terms with her actions and rejects beliefs she once held about the need for organized, armed struggle against the government. But the focus of the narrative is not one of repentance, forgiveness, or redemption, but rather about how one person resists the dehumanization of the prison system and finds ways to retain her own identity and build relationships within a brutally repressive environment.
At Rosenberg’s reading last night in Brookline (co-sponsored by JWA), she spoke about the ways her Jewish identity deepened during her time in prison. From the night of her arrest when she was identified by the FBI as a “kike,” her experience of incarceration threw into sharp relief how much being a Jew mattered, both as a locus of hatred and as a source of personal resistance and solidarity with other Jewish prisoners.
But the focus of her remarks was the deep, ongoing injustice of the American prison system, and her book serves as a platform for her activism on this subject, raising awareness of the brutal, appalling, repressive conditions in prisons across the country. It is both ironic and absolutely fitting that Rosenberg’s commitment to fighting racism with the Black Liberation Army led to her profound encounter with the most entrenched institution of racism in this country--the criminal justice system--thereby stoking her lifelong commitment to social justice activism and human rights. Far from being broken by her prison experience, Rosenberg emerged from it with her core values not just intact but strengthened.
If you’re looking for salacious details about the life of a revolutionary, you won’t find them in this book. But what you will find is well worth the read: a call to action and a testament to what is most essential to the human experience--love, family, community, and an irrepressible desire to improve the world.