REVIEW: When Skateboards Will Be Free

Said Sayrafiezadeh’s When Skateboards Will Be Free is a painful memoir about a child whose parents were self-absorbed revolutionaries. His book reveals quirky parents whose separate lives revolved around the Socialist Workers Party. He paints a vivid picture of the party’s campaigns from the vantage point of a child dragged to meetings, street sales and demonstrations. Most vivid is his take of the SWP’s annual summer schools and conventions at Oberlin College, where the party’s children roamed the grounds and buildings, stuffed themselves at the all-you-can-eat cafeteria, and watched the rallies where members responded to the promissory speeches with sustained clapping, cheering, feet stomping and big collections.

Like all children, Said desired his parents’ love and attempted to incorporate their values even when those were fiercely at odds with the world around them. Like many of us from dysfunctional families, Said could not understand the dynamics that drove his parents and ended up having to raise himself.

As someone who was a member of the SWP during much of this period and who has a walk-on part in his memoir, I find the story deeply moving and profoundly true, although written from the point of view of a child who couldn’t understand everything he saw and heard, and gets some parts wrong.

Every child wants the family to be happy together, and for those of us whose families split apart for one reason or another, we didn’t want that to happen and, as a result, feel extraordinarily alone. Not only did Said’s “Pop” leave when he was a baby, but then his sister, and later his brother became part of another household, of which I was a member. Outside of the wonderful summer days of Oberlin and the kids he played with after school, Said remembers his childhood in gray tones: his life was a series of worries. Would he take the right side? Would he say the right thing?

Would he fail the expectations of his parents? Of course most of us do, in one way or another.

Said’s memoir also took my breath away because the adults in his life did not protect him when he needed them to do so. He perceived his parents as campaigning for justice and equality yet failing to nurture him. His memoir shouts: the political is personal too!

Some have expressed doubt that he was sexually molested; as if they simply can’t believe that party cadre could do such things. I mentioned that to a woman who’s been a socialist almost all her life; she told me that as a child another party’s leader molested her. In my case it was a nice next-door neighbor.

Said never became an activist, nor even explored radical politics, as he eventually admits to his girl friend. And although his life choices are different from my own, I could identify with his attempts to emerge out of the increasingly sectarian shadow world of the SWP and find his way into adulthood.

Sympathetic Figure or David Horowitz wannabe?

Another interesting review and take on this book can be found at, Socialist ex-SWPer and relentless critic of SWP politics, Louis Proyect's blog here:
http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/04/01/said-sayrafiezadeh-david-horowitz-wannabe/
It's worth a look.

Molestation

But the issue is *not* whether he was molested or not. It was rather whether an SWP full-timer would tell his mother that nothing can be done because "under capitalism everybody has problems". This was stated over the phone, btw. The SWP was a fucked up organization but I seriously doubt--no, I deny--that somebody in a position of responsibility would take this stand. Not only was the question of sexual exploitation involved, there was also the risk that the police might get involved. We are not talking about a momentary fondling but RAPE. What if Martha Harris had decided to take her case to the police after being dismissed in this fashion? True, the SWP was a cult but there are limits.

And as far as Said Sayrafiezadeh is concerned, I find nothing sympathetic about him. Nobody hates the SWP more than me, but I was ready to go out on plant gates sale after reading this meretricious and fictionalized memoir.

Molestation

There are things in When Skateboards Will Be Free that I know, from my own experience, are incorrect. But I can understand how a child may have concluded this or that. If you ever played "Telephone" at a children's party, you will understand how something that is said, when repeated, is misunderstood. The book is not about the SWP, except as seen through the eyes and ears of a child.

When Skateboards Will Be Free

I am inclined to believe that the molestation story is true, and the organization's response to it is truly the account that the author was given. Remember, he does not claim to be telling us anymore than what, after many years, he remembers his mother said she was told.
I also don't believe you can infer from the nature of the SWP what the response actually was. An organization is in a sense an abstraction; what is concrete are the individuals who comprise it, and, for better or worse (for better and for worse) the organizations on the left are made of a wide range of individuals. Even if for the sake of argument we assume that 95 percent of the party's members would not have responded that way to Harris's call, isn't it possible that she happened to speak to someone in the remaining 5 percent?
But I think we are all spending too much time on this one incident and the response to it. What is more disturbing is the fact that the author's mother failed to look after him repeatedly, in all kinds of contexts. The ugly truth is that Martha Harris was guilty of child neglect. The book is full of examples of his mother failing to look after him emotionally and physically. (An example at random: failing to dress him in warm clothes for a winter demonstration in Boston).
Remarkably, Sayrafiezadeh is very balanced in his description of his mother's treatment of him and compassionate toward her--perhaps a little too compassionate. One thing that he brings to light is the fact that Martha Harris herself, as a child was not taken care of. The fact that, as an adult, she treated her younger son as she did, Sayrafiezadeh implies, had more to do with the family history than her politics. I think he is right about this, and I think he is to be commended for not taking cheap shots at the party and for showing such balance. Contrary to what some readers feel, the book is not bitter, not self-pitying, not self-aggrandizing, and not politically reactionary. Indeed, although the memoir deals with highly political people, the author's own point of view is largely apolitical. Remember: he ended up working for Martha Stewart, not the Republican National Committee. There is a big difference!
I think many readers who were in the SWP or YSA have had a subjective response to this book that misses many of its nuances. If you read the book with some detachment and care, you'll see that he is actually respectful of the idealism of many people on the left; what he rejects are the less admirable qualities that many have, such as their readiness to speak with authority on subjects that they only understand superficially.
As reviews go, I think Dianne is lot closer to the mark than Proyect.

when skateboards will be free

I finally just read When Skateboards will be Free, and appreciated Sayrafiezadeh’s skill in showing us the world of his family and the SWP from his child's perspective. Writing from a kid's perspective is not an easy thing to do, and this book manages to be authentic and intellectually engaging at the same time.

As for the thread above -- the exact nature of the molestation incident (or any other scene recalled in the book)is obviously beside the point! This writer is telling us something about his own experience, he's not writing a text book on SWP history.

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