Book Excerpt

I was born in 1955, in the aftermath of the Second World War. I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, an only child. My father, known to his friends as Manny, short for Emanuel Rosenberg, was a World War II veteran and a dentist. His dental practice was in Spanish Harlem, where he worked with the most underserved and marginalized communities. There were occasions when he got paid in goods and services rather than money, and he would bring something home that had "fallen off the back of a truck." He had traveled to Selma to help during the civil rights movement and had always volunteered his skills. My mother, Bella, was a theatrical producer and former film editor. She helped struggling visual artists and writers to begin their careers. My parents believed in civil rights, the early anti-nuclear movement, and they were against the Vietnam War.

In 1964, when I was eight years old and attending the Walden School, Andrew Goodman, who was to become one of its most famous alumni, was slain by the Klan for his participation in the voter registration drive in Mississippi. Even though he was my senior by more than ten years, his younger brother was in the class ahead of me, and his family was very active in school affairs. The school became a base of support for the civil rights movement, raising money and recruiting people to go south. James Chaney was assassinated along with Andrew Goodman. His family was from Mississippi, and his brother Ben, who was twelve years old at the time, was sent north and later enrolled at Walden. He became my friend, and for the next several years I acutely watched events with the added perspective of what I imagined to be Ben's experience.

I continued at Walden through high school, during the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement. At first I went to anti-war demonstrations in New York with my parents. But, by 1970, I was attending with others from my school. That year, I went to the big anti-war mobilization in Washington and I got separated from my friend Janet and walked into a police action against people who had raised a North Vietnamese flag on the Justice Department building. I had never seen people getting beaten with clubs and dragged into wagons, except on television. Then the police let loose tear gas to disperse the crowd of thousands. I ran to get away from the gas and the police until I fell on a grassy slope and pressed my head into the grass to stop the searing pain and tears that I had gotten from just a small whiff of it. When I returned home, I discovered that other Walden students had been beaten up by the police. Furious, I joined the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, an anti-war group that was organized by college students who were members of Students for a Democratic Society. My high school chapter organized teach-ins and actions against the war in schools all over the city. The Vietnam War, specifically what our government was doing against the people of Vietnam, was predominating all of my thinking about the world and my own responsibility in it. Daily, I watched on TV the carpet bombings, the napalming of whole villages, and the tiger cages that were built out of bamboo that were smaller than a bathtub and used to torture pro-Vietcong villages. As the body counts got higher and higher on both sides, I groped for any justification that made sense.

I was fifteen in 1970, and along with millions of other people across the globe, I wanted to make change, stop war, and build clearly drawn sides between war profiteers and supporters of the establishment and the majority of people who were resisting and demanding transformation.

Perhaps my choices and life course were the result of a combination of nature and nurture. Despite being surrounded by middle-class privilege, I seemed to be aware of injustice and inequities around me. At the age of five I had first seen a legless man on a skateboard and refused to go into a store to buy shoes, because, as I angrily explained to my mother, how could I buy shoes when the man had no feet. Maybe from that moment when I understood the oppression of others, followed by the images from Selma, Alabama, and Haiphong, Vietnam, and the rows and rows of burned-out houses along Morris Avenue in the Bronx, my skin had become so thin that the pain and suffering of others penetrated my own blood and mingled with it and drove me to an agony of distraction that meant I had to act.

Fourteen years later I still believed in the need for change. I began to converse with all those radical spirits, comparing what I imagined they had gone through to what was happening to me. I thought, If it isn't worse than this, I can manage it. But then it got much worse.