Peter Andreas’s childhood was more than unconventional: It was at times appalling, thanks to a mother who seemed to care more about her involvement in revolutionary causes than her youngest son’s well-being.
Yet his moving memoir, “Rebel Mother,” makes the case for a mother-son bond powerful enough to transcend economic hardship, emotional missteps, intermittent absences and, ultimately, differences in values and politics.
“I always felt that my mother loved me and wanted me,” Andreas writes. “She was sometimes negligent, even recklessly so, but I never felt neglected.”
Readers may take issue with Andreas’s charitable assessment of his mother’s behavior, which included twice kidnapping her son, withdrawing him from school, housing him in vermin-infested Latin American slums, and making love to various men in their shared room while he feigned sleep.
Andreas’s compelling and unusual story is based on “more than a hundred diary notebooks” he found after his mother’s death, as well as personal correspondence, interviews, and his own memories. He admits to taking some creative license in re-creating and extending dialogue and scenes.
His “first memory . . . the beginning of my parents’ war over me” was his father driving him away from nursery school just before his fourth birthday with his mother tailing them. “My father won that opening battle,” Andreas writes, “but he would lose the war.”
Like her husband, Carl, whom she married at 17, Carol Andreas was a Mennonite from the Midwest — an unlikely revolutionary. But at her wedding she already was expressing doubts about monogamy.
After having two sons, the couple moved to Pakistan, where Carl coordinated a US government-funded medical school program, and Carol fumed at the constraints of housewifery. Back in Detroit, she enrolled in a graduate sociology program, read Marx and other radical theorists, and had her third child — Peter. Her first political campaign was a crusade against war toys.
While the 1960s were transforming his mother into an ardent leftist and feminist, Peter’s father, a negotiator for the United Automobile Workers’ Union, remained “stable as a rock, but just as difficult to penetrate.” Frustrated, Carol had an affair and threw out all her bras. The marriage was doomed.
Like most children, Peter wished he could live with both his parents. Forced to choose, however reluctantly, he chose his mother. Together, they embarked on a picaresque journey that led first to a Berkeley commune, then Chile under the democratic socialist Salvador Allende, and Peru in the formative days of the Shining Path guerrilla movement. “We’re going to be part of a revolution,” she tells her son.
With Peter in tow, Carol joined volunteer work brigades, researched a book, taught and protested. She also fell in love — most profoundly with a fiery, charming, and sometimes violent Peruvian university student, Raul, whom she married. Despite Raul’s paternal overtures, Peter longed for his real father, who also had remarried and was fighting for his son’s return. (Peter’s mother also had custody of his teenage brothers, Joel and Ronald, who “though too young to be on their own,” mostly were — Joel opting to remain behind in Berkeley and Ronald striking out on his own in South America.)
Andreas’s descriptions of his living conditions are vivid. In Guayaquil, Ecuador, he recalls “[g]iant flying cockroaches [that] rose up through the sewer system and infiltrated our home, crawling through the drain when I showered, appearing somehow inside the toilet bowl while I was sitting on it.”
He also remembers happy stays on a Chilean farm, despite bone-chilling cold, and his fruitless struggles with Peruvian lice, fleas, and mice. By contrast, during an interlude in the States with his father and his entirely admirable stepmother, Rosalind, he luxuriated in suburban calm and comfort before his mother, with his collusion, again whisked him away.
Now the John Hay professor of international studies at Brown University, Andreas emphasizes the value of his peripatetic childhood. Without his mother, he writes, “I would have led a more narrow, insular life, less aware of other peoples and cultures and less concerned about the world’s great injustices and inequalities.”
He also notes that as he grew older, their politics diverged, and their relationship grew strained. In fact, “Rebel Mother” is not just an adventure story, but an act of posthumous reconciliation, “one last chance . . . to say good-bye.”
Its poignant final passages recall the closing lines of Anne Sexton’s poem “All My Pretty Ones,” written in the wake of her parents’ deaths: “Whether you are pretty or not, I outlive you,/ bend down my strange face to yours and forgive you.”
My Childhood Chasing the Revolution
By Peter Andreas
Simon & Schuster, 322 pp., illustrated; $26
Julia M. Klein, the Forward’s contributing book critic, was a finalist this year for the National Book Critics’ Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.