Honor Thy Radical Mother and Thy Radical Father

A Review of Zayd Dohrn’s Provocative Podcast

Unlike Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd, Carl Oglesby, Cathy Wilkerson and other New Leftists, including Bill Ayers, the author of Fugitive Days, Bernardine Dohrn has never written an autobiography or a memoir. It’s unlikely she ever will, especially now that Mother Country Radicals tells much of her story and the stories of her comrades, such as Ayers, her husband, from both the inside looking out and the outside looking in. Autobiography isn’t Bernardine’s style. Writing essays and articles about herself isn’t her forte, either, though she has been and still is an eloquent and impassioned public speaker. “My mother always was a private person,” her son, Zayd, explains in Mother County Radicals, from Crooked Media (available on Spotify and elsewhere). Zayd adds, “Sound bites don’t capture her,” Still, the mass media has often tried to reduce her to a simple sentence or a flat phrase, much as reporters have rarely failed to describe her wearing a mini-skirt, as though the miniskirt defined her. No way.

Zayd is the creator, executive producer and host of the “Mother Country Radicals” podcast which has just won an award for “Best Audio Storytelling in Non-Fiction” from the 2022 Tribeca Festival. To make the podcast, he had help from Jon Favreau, Sarah Geismer, Lyra Smith, Alison Falzetta, Misha Euceph, with sound design by Arwen Nicks, Stephanie Cohn, Ariana Gharib Lee, and Misha Euceph, and music by Andy Clausen.

I met Bernardine in 1969 when she was an activist working for the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), the radical organization for attorneys who defended men and women no one else would defend in and out of court. During the 1970s, I saw Bernardine on and off when she was underground and living under an assumed name in both New York and San Francisco. She had changed her appearance, though I had no trouble recognizing her.

A day we spent together at Coney Island is still etched in my memory. So are the three days I stayed with her and Ayers at their home in Chicago in 1990, a decade or so after they surfaced from underground, when I was researching a biography of Abbie Hoffman, the Yippie, gadfly and imp, who had been a thorn in Bernardine’s side. When night fell and I began to think of sleep, Bernardine suggested I bunk for the night in “the boys’” bedroom. The boys were Zayd Ayres Dohrn and his brother, Malik, plus Chesa Boudin, whose biological parents were both in prison, and who lived with Bernardine, Bill and their biological sons.

“Won’t I be depriving them of their sleeping quarters?” I asked. “Oh, no,” Bernardine said, “They always sleep on the floor outside Bill’s and my bedroom in their sleeping bags to protect us from the FBI.” It was rough growing up with parents who had been fugitives wanted by the FBI, even years after they were no longer fugitives. It was rough for Chesa who knew that his mother had parked him with a babysitter while she went off with comrades to rob a Brink’s vehicle and get into big trouble.

But the boys also grew up like ordinary American kids. I watched Chesa play softball in a Chicago park, and I also watched Bernardine make matzo ball soup for the boys. They had requested it, perhaps because they wanted comfort food, and they devoured it as though they were starving and as though it had been made with love. I’m sure it was. I have often felt that I know too much about Bernardine, Bill and their boys, too much about the Weather Underground and too much about my wife, Eleanor, who belonged to the organization, but who has rarely if ever revealed her life as a fugitive.

I used to say, “I’m married to the underground.” Indeed I saw and heard things few if any others  saw and heard because of my link to Eleanor, who went on to become a lawyer and a judge and has mostly kept her mouth shut about her fugitive days. “Don’t Talk” has been her mantra. “Talk” has been Ayers’.

 Like Bernardine, Eleanor has never written her autobiography, though her son Thai Jones has written about her and his father, Jeff Jones, another Weather person. On the subject of smashing monogamy and “free love,” Zayd tries to be even handed. That lifestyle,  if it can be called that, created bonds that were necessary to a clandestine organization, but they also led, he says, to “dark territory.”

Now, thanks to Zayd Ayers Dohrn, who has made a sensational and informative podcast titled Mother Country Radicals neither Eleanor nor Bernardine will have to write their life stories. Zayd has told their stories for them and told them exceedingly well. He has persuaded Bernardine, Eleanor and other Weather folk like Eric Mann and Cathy Wilkerson to open up and talk about experiences, ideas and memories they have never shared publicly with any reporter or historian. On the podcast, Eleanor doesn’t mention me by name, but she talks about her decision to walk away from our marriage and our monogamous relationship. She has never been so honest with me directly.

Because of its revelations about personal history, as well as its insights into the social, cultural and political movements and causes of the 1960s and 1970s,  Mother Country Radicals is an essential podcast for anyone and everyone who wants to understand Weatherman, SDS and the Weather Underground, which operated clandestinely for about a decade, placed bombs in corporate offices and government buildings like the US Capitol and the Pentagon. The bombers phoned in warnings and issued communiqués denouncing imperialism and racism and taunting the FBI. Mother County Radicals describes how Zayd’s mom and dad became radicals against the backdrop of the anti-war movement and the rise of Black Power, though it doesn’t explain to my satisfaction why only a few dozen New Leftists became Weathermen, while most SDSers found other ways to express their radicalism, like going to factories to organize the unorganized.

Mother Country Radicals begins with the first communiqué from underground which was issued in May 1970. It’s titled “A Declaration of  a State of War.” Bernardine says, “Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks. If you want to find us, this is where we are. In every tribe, commune, dormitory, farmhouse, barracks and townhouse where kids are making love,  smoking dope and loading guns—fugitives from Amerikan justice—are free to go.” In 1970, Bernardine explained to me that the underground wasn’t declaring war on America (she spelled the word with a k not a c), but rather pointing out that a state of war already existed: race war, class war, sex war, and war between the imperial powers and the colonized nations of the world.

I included that May 1970 communiqué, along with many others, in a book titled The Weather Eye, which was published in 1974 and was dedicated to Amilcar Cabral, the African revolutionary who declared, “If I should disappear tomorrow, it would not change the inexorable evolution of the struggle of my people and their inevitable victory.” At the time it was widely assumed that Bernardine and company had given me orders to gather the communiqués and publish them in a book. I didn’t have to be told. I didn’t like anyone in any organization to tell me what or what not to do. I initiated The Weather Eye on my own. My friend Minton Brooks designed it. The art on the cover was borrowed from a rainbow and an arrow that Eleanor drew.

In the podcast which is divided into four chapters, Zayd looks at his parents through the eyes of the child he once was and through the eyes of the adult he now is. That double vision helps to provide a complex portrait of Bernardine and Bill, though in my view Bernardine emerges as a more complex person than Bill. Her own comments reveal her multi-dimensionality.

Curiously, she often has the habit of laughing abruptly and briefly immediately after making a remark as though to say she sees its limitations and perhaps absurdities, even while she endorses it. In that respect, she is akin to Abbie Hoffman who was both impassioned and ironical, a professional troublemaker and a comedian. Mother County Radicals is a brilliant piece of journalism and history because Zayd gets up close and personal with his mother and also stands back and sees her from a distance and with critical detachment. “I don’t think like her,” he says. “I became a writer not an activist.” He adds, “I’ve seen the costs of the struggles up close.” In another insightful observation he says, “I’ve never quite figured out who my parents are.”

Mother County Radicals is in part about Zayd himself as the loyal son of famous (and infamous) radicals. Sometimes he engages in hero worship and at other times he plays the part of the critic and the iconoclast. He honors his parents but he also uses the word “terrorism” and “terrorists” to describe them and what they did with a little dynamite and big balls. Ayers describes the bombings as “extreme vandalism.” About the explosion at the townhouse in March 1970, which resulted in the deaths of Ted Gold, Diana Oughton and Terry Robbins—who tends to be demonized in the narrative—Bernardine says, “It still hurts me.” She adds that it’s important to remember “the worst of what we did.”

Some of the podcast is predictable, especially for anyone who lived through the era. It marches through the civil rights and anti-war movements, the rise and the fall of SDS and the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King’s ascendancy and assassination, the FBI’s illegal, immortal and unethical campaign against the left and Hoover’s violations of civil rights and civil liberties. There is mention of Weather orgies and the use of LSD and speed, but few details and no real stories. Zayd has downplayed the sex and the drugs, largely ignored the rock ‘n’ roll and emphasized the anti-imperialist and anti—racist politics of his parents and the collectives to which they belonged.

Some might be surprised, though I was not, by Zayd’s emphasis on the Panther 21, the New York wing of the organization that was founded in Oakland by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Arrested and jailed, they went on trial when I was living in New York. I sat in the courtroom and wrote about the clash between the defendants and the judge for Liberation News Service. I also worked with Michael Tabor, one of the 21. I wrote a preface to his brilliant manifesto, “Capitalism + Dope = Genocide” which linked drug addiction to the economic system. It was published by the defense committee for the NY Panthers.

I have rarely if ever felt dispassionate about the Weather Underground, my own ambiguous involvement with the organization and with Eleanor. In fact, we were reunited in an odd sort of way, when she was underground and I wasn’t. Or was I? About that chapter in our lives and our ongoing unconventional marriage she says nothing. There are too many Weather stories to tell all of them. With help from his parents and their pals, Zayd tells some of the best stories with passion and critical acumen that has helped to clarify matters for me. The stories in Mother Country Radicals are worth listening to and thinking about. Though some are old stories, they seem as new and relevant as Black Lives Matter, January 6th, podcasts, the undying legacy of Fred Hampton, the New York Panther 21 and what Bernardine calls “the stench of America.”

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.