What Happened Then by Paula Friedman

February 20, 2020
Even in the birthmothers’ groups, I have been told, “You had some choice.” I was no frightened teenager, after all, but a highly educated radical, “running around with those other tie-dyed, fanatic, family-dumping spongers through the streets….”
“But hey, it wasn’t really like that,” I’d tell—whom? The groups? My kid? “My ‘choice’ wasn’t ‘free’ and the baby wasn’t some glitch I just tossed.”
Only were I to tell my son this, he would shake his head: “No, no, I didn’t mean—” and politely change the subject. Yet if we still could speak, I’d recount my half of what we well understood in our silent tears and hugs, those first weeks of reunion—or would if I’d only the pristine voice of someone never trapped by the inhibitions of her times.
For while I may have been intellectually advanced, by the mid-1960s I was still caught in the self-hatred common to “‘50s repression.” I had grown up in Washington, D.C., a middle-class misfit in that first Cold War generation—a world where little girls had to be round with yellow curls, and to compete in sports and over boys with no place for anyone different. Short, thin, dark, easily made to cry, I stood alone year after year in the playground. “Unpopular.”
Fleeing to college changed little; I was too socially and sexually naive. Seeking philosophical truths, I didn’t know to attractively repackage this as style; only, when I finally found a peer group, I threw out everything to adapt. I learned to find “the parents” despicable and at fault, to drop earlier interests, and to doubt my body and mind, with the groping sex and competitive class debates precisely targeting the natural and the curious. What I could not learn was to cover emotion, and so, too obvious in love, I suffered a series of unrequited loves and was suspended—not for having missed classes in fear of bodily and intellectual embarrassment, but for wearing jeans, going stockingless to dinner—a so-called nervous breakdown. Sent back, then, to what no longer seemed my home, after a year I returned to that Ivy university a brittle, cigarette-addicted woman, sexual nerve-endings dulled, who had “gone all the way.”
It’s not that there were no beautiful days or brilliant teachings. But what I and many others experienced would be well expressed by a slogan of late-‘60s Berkeley: “Oppression means to think ‘What’s wrong is wrong in me.’” This may seem seriocomic amid today’s starkly worsened economic suffering; our insistence that internalized oppression might be basic must seem damned dumb. But was it? One can still read Fanon.
“Actually, I’m glad you don’t understand,” I have told my son of that forced self-destruction. For what was wrong, in that period when even those too philosophically sophisticated to swallow popular Freudianisms were swallowed by them, was seen as necessarily some underlying twist or dearth in one’s basic human feelings, mind or sexuality. We did one another in. It was a venerated professor who slighted my provincially dressed presentations, yet applauded identical answers from a long-braided bohemian, but it was we who took seriously the writers who denounced “aggressive/possessive” women or found frigidity in whoever didn’t “come” like the characters of D.H. Lawrence. It was the closeted young man I adored who one night took my trembling hand but soon, unable to enter me, blamed our failure on my “unconscious anger” and “castrating vagina”; it was I who, the following year, followed the theories denouncing (in a time when the concept disability rights would only have met laughs) my love for a scarred man as necessarily perverted. And it was I who questioned my closeness with the gutsy younger woman, I who tried psychotherapy when—thin and Jewish, my typing too slow—I couldn’t get hired.
But indeed in those times the webs of self-condemnation, the equation of failure or weakness with regressed personality, of sexual or economic success with maturity, and of maturity with the capacity to really love, meant few people could consider themselves whole, and not believe that “I must change what’s wrong in me before I can really judge, live, love.”
We fell for this; those in other areas knew better—who questioned segregation, bomb shelters, national security, for instance. For, when the world’s inside out: “It took,” as I may really say to this witty, grown, politically conscious son, “little intellectual slippage to fall into mirror-land.”
Then one day in the summer of 1965, 50,000 troops going off to Vietnam when in Berkeley I had been working against the war (because however trivial “meaningful” activity or dubious my inner motives, it was necessary to counter massacre), I answered the door to an older, dark-eyed man from another country.
He was radical beyond my experience, while respecting and caring for people in a way that I’d never known. I came to love him. One afternoon—he had been away—he visited unexpectedly. Afraid that trying to hide my response would seem defensive, I offered myself. (“I want you.” Did I believe something wrong in my love, to risk so much on those three words?) But he reached out his hand—“It’s all right.”
Only it wasn’t, because my offer was sexual but the love was deeper. I didn’t know if he acceded from kindness, but I sensed something and held back, saying “Wait.” (What a strange—laughable?—request even today in such circumstances, but back then self-perceived as unspeakable and unwomanly). Sensitively, he stopped; I never learned what he thought. Much later, he said that he had missed me and, later still, “There are no judges. But also you must let me be my way.”
The next weeks, waiting, I broke into ricocheting bits. “Let’s just be natural,” he had told me; I came to think that my sexual inhibitions had failed him for he did not return, yet he could only have shown such care if he loved me. Unless, I thought, his was an all-encompassing love beyond my comprehension. Not to judge meant to trust in his return—to make no judgment of what was true, no decision what to do. And any judgment came of a system of rational artifice, doubts of love from precisely that life-destroying system we opposed.
It was not, finally, only the one afternoon, the one man, but my whole past led me the next weeks through two surging crests of stunned belief: first, that even the hesitance of my body and proclamation of desire were meant to entice and sacrifice the beloved to those (parts of myself, the superego parents, as it were) who judged; and second, that I had not such an inner demand for sacrifice but, rather, clung like a child to love for some (interiorized) parent and thus to the unreal needs and unattainable loves defined by such an elder’s judgments and words. My one hope was to regrow a truer self and experience what I’d never known, thus finding new ways to care, to love—nonjudgmentally, maturely and all-encompassing.
But I can’t further explain how that loss and the ideas of that era led to this conclusion, or how, for so many of us, evolving external events and concepts—spontaneity, distrust of systemic judgments—cross-fertilized internal query and change. What is important is that interwoven with the confusion and denial were truths.
My son seems to have immediately understood this, but it’s not to him I’d say, “The quest for meaning, universal love and peace may be old, but to meld this search with the climb out from psychological oppression began, for many of us, what was a sort of revolution; our antiwar acts also sought new identity, new forms. It’s not that we joined the Movement ‘to work out [supposed] pathologies’; rather, our struggle for peace in a country at war, our search for new caring ways in a society of frozen compassion, forced us to evolve—strand by strand, and often threaded with mistakes—larger tissues of structure and self.”
But this now seems clichéd. It was too fragile then.
To “use my words for others, not to express false personal problems,” I returned to antiwar work by reporting for the Berkeley Barb—no focus of compassion, but one of only four antiwar papers in the country then. As a reporter, I could both reach people exploring new ways and also meet the urgent need to oppose the war and save lives.
As spring went on amid rumors that Johnson would soon bomb Hanoi, we began to hear of a demonstration planned for the Redwood City napalm plant, “far more than civil disobedience.” By mid-May, however, I had found no leads on the “Redwood City thing” and, as deadline neared, turned to call about a “first-anniversary picnic” of the Vietnam Day Committee. But I could not reach that organization’s headquarters.
The editor tossed me another number. “He’ll know.”
“‘A picnic—we’re about to bomb Hanoi, and they’ll end the war with their picnic. Why aren’t you covering Redwood City, if you really want to stop the war?’ This,” I may yet tell my son, “is how I remember your father’s voice on the phone.”
“You know about Redwood City?!”
“Yeah, of course. I’ve lots of stuff—photos, clips. Give me an hour or two to—”
“We’re on deadline. Get here in 15 minutes. If you really want to end the war.”
When he arrived I said, “You want some coffee?” and he replied, “Yeah” and put some clips and photos on the table. And a jar of some sort of jelly. “Guess what?”
I jumped and he said, “That scares you? They live with napalm dropping from the sky.”
Days later, we went to Redwood City and San Jose to view the bomb-storage sites; two days afterward, he took me to a movie and the same week we went to bed. With love on my part—and over the next month we found that we could have arguments without making the other go away. But there were tacit limits; I had to avoid judging, never fall into “unreal closeness,” and he could not drop his self-image of focused challenge against the war. And so we never discussed that “systems” self that is biography; everything was of the moment with only the body and emotions connected.
But they did.
After some weeks, we began to open more—and of course at that point he was gone. By then, this country had bombed Hanoi and Haiphong. That day, my pregnancy was confirmed.
So-called therapeutic abortions existed—I had the requisite contacts and the pressure of my self-doubts. My struggle for “maturity” precluded asking for parental help and, like most radicals, I was ignorant about welfare. Meanwhile, I’d been getting threatening phone calls and my fear, termed paranoid by Barb coworkers (COINTELPRO was still unknown), clearly showed that I remained trapped in self-protective judgment and so must question my decisions. Yet the outcome was never in question; it came down to life, to giving love to the growing life within.
I would have the child. I would give up the child. It was what one did, and went on. Neither I nor anyone else could regard this matter as so important as the struggle against the war.
Then Tom came to the Barb with word of a planned vigil and demonstrations at a nearby naval base. He would soon show what it is to risk one’s life from love, and who would know to reach through fear and anger, to listen and be vulnerable, to speak of his need and love for me, so that I came to see I could love, had always loved and been whole, and to glimpse a world where people trust love’s possibilities.
And once, in reunion, my son asked, “What happened at Port Chicago?”

 

The demonstration began that August, outside the Port Chicago Naval Weapons Station, shipping point for American weapons to Vietnam. There, people would block weapons trucks, even briefly, using nonviolent civil disobedience to focus attention on the war. Tom was among the leaders; I’d begun to know him well—an army veteran always aiding people, who had promised to help me through my pregnancy, who intuited the core of issues and who understood the Vietnamese were persons we must save. During long talks, I had tried to explain my changes, he to recount a lonely past. “We all need to be like children,” he would say, “curious about everything, caring about everyone.”

Outside the base that first night, we slept fitfully. With dawn came the weapons trucks, and—as protestor after protestor stepped out to nonviolently halt them—a new form of community, a love for and through each other, emerged. I understood this when Tom put his hand on one brave woman’s shoulder and I felt his care for her, our love for her and one another—even for the distant people in Vietnam.
But after Tom was arrested, I—pregnant, afraid, trying not to judge—only carried the tapes and photos to the press.
In the next days, a separation began between those arrested and those not, between those constantly on the lines and “new people.” Out there only occasional nights, I became distanced from Tom. Meanwhile, the vigilantes’ numbers shrank, and the danger from the Marine guards, sheriff’s deputies and local hecklers grew.
So we came to “that night,” I told my son, “August 16-17, 1966.”
In Washington, a few well-known activists had responded to subpoena by the House Un-American Activities Committee with widely publicized agitprop. A rally had been called in Berkeley to back them, and that night the crowd in the stifling auditorium quickly moved also to support the vigil. With two network television reporters following, the people rose and moved by carloads toward the night vigil.
I didn’t dare go with Tom. By then, this seemed to me “their scene”—those who’d been out there. Instead, I guided some new people to the base, where Tom ran toward me; we held each other across from Main Gate on the roadside grass, but only for a moment; then he moved off. “If we keep coming back and stopping the weapons,” he insisted, “more people will see it’s possible—will see they can care—and will join us; we can stop this war.” Now, with the crowd and publicity having arrived, it was necessary to act.
He loped up the slope to the crest of the road and soon I saw him standing there with several others, by the triangle of ground formed by the Overpass Road turnoff. Here, the weapons trucks had to slow to enter the base; here, people would stop them. As I walked up the hill after him, an old pacifist told me, “Tell the new people the rule—if someone tries to stop a truck and is attacked, no one should try to protect them. It’ll only make things worse.”
There was a long wait. Near the turnoff, Tom and the other vigil veterans—the fragile-looking Pamela, the tough farm mother Jo, the Barb’s cynical photographer Eliot, three others—stood apart, beside two young men who planned to stop the next truck, planning tactics. Nearby, the television crew sat smoking cigarettes. Across the way lounged Marines and police. Occasionally Eliot wandered over to where I waited, isolated between the “in” group and the “new people” across from Main Gate.
Sometime after midnight, someone pointed. Five yellow lights were approaching—a truck, coming in from Concord. Behind it, another five lights. Both fast. Too fast. As the first rushed up the hill, the two young men ran to meet it—and jumped back. It was coming too fast. Motor roaring, napalm bombs gleaming, it raced on into the base.
Again, too fast—the second truck appeared.
Someone in the television lights was running toward it.
In that moment, I saw it was Tom, and that the person would be killed. If I ran out, I might confuse his timing—was I trying to possess him? The road at my feet shone white. Something, the truck, was passing. If I took one step, he, someone (I couldn’t see, was it Tom?) might be killed; I and the baby too might die. I, these people, the baby might be hurt—and Tom might not want me there as it would intrude upon his scene, his courage. He was the one who could care; I’d only make things worse…. The truck had passed.
The demonstrator had not been killed, but the Marines had pulled him down, were striking him and, if I took one step—
Pamela had raced forward and was tearing at the nearest Marines, breaking through their lines. As the people brought Tom back, in the white television lights hands were raised in V-signs and voices sang “We Shall Overcome.” Now I am dead, I thought. Now I shall never overcome. 
Later—Pamela and Tom were each insisting on stopping the next truck—I said, “I’ll stop the next one,” but no one heard.
It was an hour later—I was standing with the photographer Eliot closer to Main Gate—when I happened to look down the road. There were five yellow lights.
“Truck,” I said. “Truck, Eliot. Truck.”
He was loading his camera. “Run,” he said.
But my feet slid on the gravel and, before I could reach it, the truck went past.
At the turnoff, already Tom and Pamela and Jo were moving toward it; I could see Marines grab the women and throw them back. Then the scene repeated; the truck with its bomb-crates blocked the television light and Tom lay on the roadway, cordoned off by Marines.
But this time my feet could move as in a dance, and I ran across the road.
Only there was no way through. Once, a Marine grabbed and pushed me toward the base. But I fought, my sandal strap broke, the Marine let go. I kicked off my sandals and ran back toward Tom. But no way opened; for long minutes we swayed there, Marines and vigil lines in silent confrontation. Then suddenly two Marines stood in the light—one was black and the other white—and then there was a space. I ran to Tom.
I leaned over him—They’ll have to hit me first, I thought. I heard him say, “I’m alright.” I knew he mustn’t—couldn’t—move yet.
But the Marines were pulling back, the demonstrators had got through; everything was safe. Except that the security guard’s half-ton truck was rolling toward us from the base. Surely no danger though; everyone just jumped aside. Only I, standing by Tom where he lay, was still in its way. I couldn’t see how to help him—grab the hood and push him sideways with my feet?—but I would, somehow. I stood between him and the little truck and its headlights. Twelve inches, two. Then it stopped. “My feet” (as I’ve said too often of this) “took root.”
(They surely must have—she hasn’t left the ’60s since, one might say, while some have. But it was to the changes and—though I did not understand—the child I have clung.)
We were still in the wonder of reunion when I told my son of that night. But it was not solely the one night (and the earlier morning’s “impossible” community of love) that soon formed for me the crucial metaphor of “getting through”—of fighting past one’s own and others’ fears, shames, guilts and denials to the love and strength in everyone—a metaphor for both personal love and a more loving society. This new comprehension came from recognizing the deep response of my love when Tom, over the next months, would say he needed me—and from the love for the baby growing in my womb.
And what became clear during this time (even as Tom, caught up in the vigil where I could no longer go, slowly left me), the message of this metaphor was that my—everyone’s—love had always been whole and real. There was nothing wrong or unreal in feelings or self. The feared aggression was a way to fight for people (even words or judgments might be tools), to struggle through barriers (of words, judgments or denial) to help where one may care. The feared empathy for a man who is vulnerable (it was still the wake of the 1950s, the moment before “women’s liberation” and this novel idea was simply tender response, even desire to renew the wholeness and strength in the beloved and receive his giving love. The terrifying possessiveness was only the struggle of concern. The deepest need—in a person laughing, in a person weeping, in a lost beloved, in a calling child—was the same; the cry to be loved and the murmur of love’s offer were one voice—child’s need and giving, mature love not distinct—for each yearned, in one’s depths, to give love.
But in this truth lay also the possibility of peaceful anarchy, the natural good life —for to know in one’s depths are love and one’s worth thus unbreachable is to step beyond fear into revolutionary hope, reaching out with curiosity and courage to care, no longer held back by barriers of doubt or interdiction, by the guilts or shames from any eyes, denials of any systems, but letting love lead even through actual lines of cops, Marines and those who kill together in the struggle to create a world of peace and the possible dream.
I know—again what once seemed liberating sounds parodic or trite. There is no way now to make intellectually convincing the wonder, the awareness (unexpected, for the struggle then was against oppression, not for or from philosophical “answers”) that everything—the beautiful, the good, the natural—could merge in the love that was most deep. Especially when these newly opened eyes could be blind to what was clear.
For while mine may have been a homespun “woman’s definition of love” (influenced, as well, two years before the women’s movement, by Helen Lynd’s Shame and the Search for Identity), I had not yet enough seen through the dominant climax-oriented version, with its insistence on the emotional primacy of lovemaking and its tacit paradigm of maturity as the “couple” with kids. I could not fully believe the deepest love was equally the agape, the heroic, even the bond between parent and newborn that—growing, speaking in my soul but the words not comprehended—hovered those months when the baby’s heart met mine and perhaps I cried his cries and dreamed his dreams and (as later in the time of our re-bonding) it was not only hope, as new concepts brought euphoric joy.
This is, of course, also the love that bears the faith to raise a child.
But early in 1967, six months after Port Chicago, 18 months after Watts, one week after the first Be-In, when the baby was born I, like my vanguard peers, still thought love for a child must be secondary and a baby needed the love of a two-parent home. When I held my newborn close, feeling nothing but tenderness, the decision had already been made; besides, the mental struggle against the years’ losses and the sorrow yet to come occluded the simple recognition: I’ll be giving my baby into the unknown.

Paula Friedman’s first novel, The Rescuer’s Path (2012), was called “exciting, physically vivid, and romantic” by Ursula Le Guin. Wesley Hogan, director of the Center for Documentary Studies (Duke University), calls Paula’s’s The Change Chronicles: A Novel of the Sixties Antiwar Movement (2018) “A triumph,” and Mei-Mei Ellerman, resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Research Center, terms it “A haunting personal and political coming-of-age novel.”

Paula’s works have appeared in over 60 literary journals and anthologies, received Pushcart nominations, and won awards and honors from OSPA and New Millennium Writing, among others.