A requiem for my daughter
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A Cracking of the Heart chronicles the life of a remarkable woman who came into this world with formidable handicaps and lived an extraordinary and compassionate life. It is also the story of our relationship, I more conservative and she more liberal, our estrangement and reunion.
The parental bond is a vexed one: the bird must fly from the nest but also land safely. Consequently, a parent’s instincts are often at odds with the desire to see his youngster free. In our case, this dilemma was complicated by others also beyond our control. On my side there was guilt towards a child who had so many strikes against her I could not be certain she would survive them; on hers was the stubborn will with which she faced the threats to her independence that never let up. An additional factor was the choice she made to become a writer and thus to compete in a field where I was already established. And there was also the fact that we found ourselves on opposite sides of many political conflicts.
In December 1974, when Sarah was ten years old, a woman named Betty Van Patter disappeared from a local bar in Berkeley, and was never seen alive again. Betty had worked for me as a bookkeeper at Ramparts, the radical magazine I edited in the early Seventies. I had recruited her to keep the accounts of a school run by the Black Panther Party, for which I had raised a large sum of money. In that toxic era, the Panthers were celebrated on the left as a “vanguard of the revolution” and were looked on as the innocent victims of a racist state. Five weeks after Betty’s disappearance, the police retrieved her body from the icy waters of San Francisco Bay, and I knew in my bones that the Panthers had killed her. The political community who claimed “social justice” as its cause, and to which I had devoted my adult life, now protected the murderers and posed an immediate danger to my family and myself.
While I attempted to cope with this unsettling reality, other events multiplied its omens. A Berkeley radical named Fay Stender, with whom I was also acquainted, was shot when she refused to smuggle a weapon into prison to help a Panther leader named George Jackson escape. Fay had been an attorney in a celebrated case defending the party’s founder, Huey Newton, filing a suit that overturned his conviction on a manslaughter charge. The attack left her paralyzed and terminally depressed over her betrayal and diminished existence. After her assailant was tried and convicted, she took her own life. Shaken again by these events, I attended her funeral service, which was held in the Mount Sinai Memorial Chapel in the same room where I gave the eulogy for my daughter thirty years later.