Life and Life Only

A good memoir should be more than an autobiography and less than a confessional but contain elements of both. As a reader, I am less interested in being overwhelmed with family trauma and pathos except when it informs the greater tale being told. Quite often, it is the memoirs that feature an excess of pathos that make it to the bestseller lists in the United States. One could speculate that these tales, which are often relentless in their recitation of trauma and go beyond self-reflection into a space comparable to narcissism, are so popular because US readers exist in a culture that puts individual ego over everything else. Like the television shows where people reveal their deepest secrets to an audience they do not know, these memoirs seem to be more written for the voyeurs among us. On the other hand, if a writer includes the greater world and its circumstances in their recollections, that narrative becomes much more than a potential exercise in solipsism. Instead, their work takes a place in the written history of our world.

Bernard Nicolas was born in Haiti in 1950. His family moved to the United States in 1961 after his father was released from detention. As his memoir, titled Our Unknown Revolutionary tells it, the reason for his father’s detention had something to do with the government of Baby Doc Duvalier’s decision to get rid of all military and law enforcement members who had not sworn allegiance to him. The family moved to Los Angeles, where Bernard and his sister attended school and his parents rebuilt their lives in the United States. As is often the case, the move involved the family figuring out how to navigate the racist nature of US society. By the time Bernard was in college, he identified with the growing revolutionary Black nationalist movement of the time. In 1966 he became a member of UCLA’s Black Student Union. This membership brought him into the National Association of Black Students (NABS), which was linked to the National Student Association (NSA). The latter organization was rocked in 1967 when Ramparts magazine revealed that NSA was infiltrated and even partially funded by the CIA. The NABS left the NSA, grew more radical in its politics, even becoming a signator to an advertisement in the New York Times supporting Palestinian liberation—a stance even less popular then than it is today.

By 1970, Nicolas was a main representative of the NABS. He had moved into a collective in Washington, DC, married his girlfriend at the time and through his political work, met Jean Genet, Jane Fonda and numerous activists and revolutionaries with lesser known names from around the world. In 1971, he was selected to travel to China with a group of other leftists from the United States as part of a US-China friendship delegation. That trip took place months before Richard Nixon’s considerably more public visit. Upon his return, Nicolas’ politics became more international in scope; his support for Palestinian liberation being one such manifestation. Another was the interest in his activities from the FBI and other Contelpro agencies.

Meanwhile, his marriage had ended. Throughout the book, Nicolas acknowledges his inability to maintain fidelity in his relationships. As his narrative continues, he describes his relationships with different women while examining why those relationships took the twists and turns they did. This conversation comes and goes throughout the text, revealing a growing self-awareness. Part of this self-awareness also involves addressing his alcoholism; substance abuse being a common enough response to the stressful nature of his personal and political life. Reflective without being confessional, this element of the book is often quite intimate, but never in an uncomfortable way. His loves and friendships with women are an important part of his story and of his growth as a human. It is largely through those relationships that he learns to understand his weaknesses and ultimately to address them.

As the 1970s moved on, the political left in the United States devolved. Radicals and revolutionaries who had dedicated their lives to organizing in the movement found themselves adrift. Nicolas was among them. In response, he enrolled in film school. Between school, making film, and raising a family with his lifelong friend Nailah, he explored the medium and its possibilities. The fact that he remained working in some aspect of the film industry for the next couple decades seems to reveal that he had found a means to communicate what he wanted to say. Indeed, some of his films won awards and he became known as a part of what became known as the New Black Cinema. However, given the mostly anti-imperialist and pan-Africanist nature of his work, their circulation was quite limited. He also ended up living in the newly independent nation of Zimbabwe. His ten months there included making a friend for life with a woman named Freedom. His film work and interaction with the new government also gave Nicolas an understanding of the differences between the ideals of a liberation movement and the venality of some humans—even those who claimed the lofty ideals of the revolution.

For many people, the life I have summarized here is beyond any they could conceive of for themselves. However, Bernard Nicolas was still seeking for something more. This memoir continues his tale of acceptance and resolution.

Douglas Murray is a contemporary of Bernard Nicolas. Born and raised in the small town of Napa in what was then the quite rural Napa Valley of California, Murray begins his story there. In what can best be described as a unique approach to memoir, Murray tells his life story through the stories of those whom he has met throughout his life. After a few prefatory paragraphs telling the reader why he decided to write his story, titled We Can Change the World, Murray begins his tale with a biography of Reverend Andrew Juvinall, a Methodist minister whose services Murray begrudgingly sat through as a teenager.

It is a fascinating tale. Born in the early 1900s, Juvinall graduated from college in 1928. He and a friend then set out on a journey around the world. Taking ships, buses, trains and even a motorcycle, this trip expanded Juvinall’s mind. When the trip was over, he returned to school and graduated with a degree in divinity. Unlike most ministers then or now, Juvinall’s ministry was one that placed social justice and ministering to the outcast and the discarded. This meant he opposed racism, the excesses of capitalism and militarism. Of course, in 1950s white America, his ministry ticked off the powerful. So much so that in 1962, the KKK placed a cross on his church’s lawn in response to this support for an open housing initiative that would forbid racial discrimination in buying and selling homes in California.

Not long afterwards—and after a couple more such incidents by the KKK—Juvinall left Napa for the Mississippi Freedom Summer. He ended up in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, working with the Diggers and other community groups among the young people flocking to the city. Murray graduated high school in 1964 and went off to college. He received his draft notice in 1966. Luckily for him, he was given a medical deferment for an ulcer. In a heartwrenching series of vignettes, Murray remembers the fate of members of his Boy Scout troop in Napa whose luck was considerably different. The growing awareness of the murderous brutality of the US war in Vietnam and the actual reasons for it being waged crept into Murray’s consciousness. It was a consciousness that had been pricked first by the nature of Reverend Juvinall’s ministry, even though Murray did not know that at the time.

Another individual that influenced Murray’s life journey was his younger sister Helen. Like many older brothers, he never really appreciated his sister while he lived at home. One can imagine his surprise upon discovering his sister had become deeply involved in the women’s movement when she went off to college. It was an even greater surprise when she came out as a lesbian. Helen died at a young age, but not before making a difference in the women’s health movement and her older brother’s understanding of feminism and LBGT life in the United States.

Murray’s political and human journey was just beginning as the 1960s slipped into the 1970s. By 1975 he was teaching at a community college in California and living in a politically-driven commune near Napa. The political influence of the commune reached beyond its confines and tended to cover up any internal conflicts. Murray’s lucid prose eloquently describes the origins of the commune, its members, their politics and how it was financially supported. For anyone who has lived in a similar situation, those descriptions will seem familiar. Questions around child care, division of domestic tasks, relationships between members and more are discussed. Likewise, Murray explains the influences of the greater society and the changing nature of the leftist and countercultural movements on the commune and its members. That explanation includes a discussion of the growing role of identity politics and the corruptive influence certain varieties of those politics have on community and communal endeavors on the Left.

After the commune dissolved, Murray turned to Latin America and the Caribbean. He signed up for and was chosen to join the Venceremos Brigade on one of its work journeys to Cuba. The experiences he and his comrades had during their time in Cuba would inform his later work with the Sandinistas and other revolutionary forces in Nicaragua after the defeat of the dictator Somoza in 1979. Once again reverting to his methodology of telling someone else’s life story to reveal something of his own, Murray details the time he spent in Nicaragua working and living with Gladys and Noel, a couple of coffee growers who were supporters of the Sandinistas and their revolutionary project. Their work brought the murderous attention of the US-sponsored counterrevolutionary Contras, who murdered Noel in the jungles. Gladys turned her grief into organizing in the US against the contras and other US-funded reactionary forces in Central America.

Like Bernard Nicolas, Murray’s political work brought him into contact with people he probably would not have met otherwise. One such individual was a man who taught Murray how to free dive and called himself Guido. As it turned out, Guido had been a member of Italy’s Red Brigades who had been a member of the cell that kidnapped Italian minister Aldo Moro during the period of tension in Italy’s 1970s. Another man he worked with was Ben Linder, a young man from the US whose work building small hydroelectric dams in Nicaragua made him a target of the contras who murdered him in 1987. Of course, the US government did little to nothing in response since Linder was on the “wrong” side.

Murray’s work moved in a different direction, working with legislators and financial folks in a campaign to end the investment of University of California endowment funds in companies associated with apartheid in South Africa. More removed from the grassroots than in any of his previous political work, Murray’s descriptions of the work on pressuring the University of California vi company shareholders. Although his narrative does not mention the shantytowns and other protests which kept the issue of apartheid in the public eye, it does reveal how both the shantytowns and the economic elements of the movement worked in tandem.

Murray finishes We Can Change the World with a couple more profiles of individuals he knew and worked with, including a fellow who leaked certain Canadian government documents that changed Canada’s immigration practices regarding refugees from the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and a woman determined to find justice for the families of those murdered by the El Salvadoran military in the 1980s.

Both of the memoirs discussed here are as much about the world the authors lived in as they are about the authors. The difference in the each author’s trajectory is certainly related to their skin color, their place of origin and the manner in which these phenomena are considered in US society. Nicolas’ childhood in Haiti and working class Los Angeles as a Black youth was certainly different from Murray’s in Napa, a rural farming town north of San Francisco. At the same time, the similarities in those trajectories—defined by a search for and commitment to fighting for social justice and a lifelong desire for understanding themselves and their world—speak to a world shaped by youth and the time these men grew up in.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com