A Radical in the Family

The children of activists struggle with their parents' choices


One spring morning in 1989, Rob Meeropol woke up with a political vision bright in his mind. Since the mid-1970s he’d been leading an effort to reopen the case of his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 for conspiring to steal atomic secrets. The existential crisis this caused him was acute: Mired in the past, he was too busy to spend time with his own wife and children. To make matters worse, he also worked, unhappily, as an estate attorney “in the belly of American business,” as he puts it. He wanted to be politically active but he wasn’t sure how. He wanted to be a son of the Rosenbergs, but in his own way.

That morning, he suddenly knew the answer. To make his private trauma public and useful, one that dealt with the future, not the past, he would start a foundation to help children like him and his older brother, Michael, the sons and daughters who have suffered for their parents’ political choices.

Since then, Meeropol, the father of two daughters and prominent in radical circles as a Rosenberg son, has become something of a political father to several hundred children who receive money from the Rosenberg Fund for Children, the foundation he started in 1990. They’re the children of “targeted” activists who have been harassed, arrested, jailed, or killed as a result of their activities. “Regardless of tactical and political differences we may have with these activist parents,” Meeropol wrote in an early letter to his supporters, “their fate is a result of political action they took…Their children are completely innocent.”

In 13 years Meeropol has given $1.2 million to 328 children in 119 families. Most of the grants pay for activities—piano lessons, gymnastics camp, intensive Spanish classes—that restore peace and play to childhood. A smaller portion of the money pays for travel expenses so children can visit their imprisoned parents. “We don’t impose our values on any of our beneficiaries, but I think the most important thing is for children to be free to be children,” Meeropol says. “I feel we’ve done positive work if we’ve had a positive impact on a young person’s growing up to be a healthy functioning adult.”

For over a year I have contacted RFC beneficiaries and talked with them about their relationships with their parents, politics, and the RFC. They know little of the intricacies of the Rosenberg espionage case, which has re-entered the public eye: June 19, 2003 marked the 50th anniversary of the execution of the Rosenbergs for conspiracy to commit atomic espionage, and Meeropol this spring published his touching, honest memoir, An Execution in the Family. Yet like the Meeropol boys, the RFC beneficiaries are innocents whose lives have been altered, often painfully, by their parents’ political choices. They need to be protected from the often harsh judgments of mainstream society and soothed after watching their parents undergo punishment by the government. They also need to be rescued from their own parents.

One of Meeropol’s surrogate children is Sandi Pruitt, a tall, gentle woman with brown hair who was born in Washington state. She was a third grader in 1985 when her mother, Genevieve, an anti-nuclear protester, upended her childhood. Trident submarines in Puget Sound were waiting for nuclear warheads carried from Texas on the White Train, and a nonviolent group, Ground Zero, was mobilizing protesters to try to block it. Before the protest Genevieve was excited—it was her first major anti-nuke action. The next day the photo of her arrest appeared on the front page of the local paper, The Columbian. In a matter of hours Genevieve was out of a job, again, a single mother whose commitment to progressive causes taught her three children how to be poor, rootless, and ostracized in a small town in southwest Washington.

Time and again Sandi and her family were shown the door. An entire Brownie troop disbanded when Sandi’s older sister joined. When her brother graduated from high school, the family ate a celebratory picnic lunch from paper plates on top of stacked boxes filled with their belongings. The next day, they left town.

“At the time I didn’t understand why we were never part of the community,” Sandi, who’s now 26 years old, explained to me. “Now I realize it was because of my mother’s political views.”

In 1995, Sandi applied to the RFC and received $500 each semester for three years to buy books for college. She discovered an organization that supports the children of a rainbow coalition of activists who have lost jobs, suffered physical or mental injury, been harassed, jailed, or killed: Earth Firsters, Puerto Rican nationalists, Chilean political prisoners, Guatemalan torture victims, black separatists, anti-WTOers, tax resisters, and workers for peace, human rights, labor, medical marijuana, reproductive rights, and gay and lesbian rights. With grants going to practically every radical or progressive movement in the United States, the RFC has its thumb on the progressive grassroots pulse of the country, which Meeropol calls the “RFC seismograph.” Currently it’s telling him that post-9/11 repression is taking an increasing toll on families, and he expects the number of applications to rise.

In a newsletter that goes to donors, RFC staff write thumbnail sketches about the families of people who work on the front lines of progressive politics in nearly every state in the United States—including Texas, where a five-year-old boy recently received a $1,000 grant to visit his father, an indigenous rights activist, in prison. Meeropol actively scouts for deserving recipients for the more than $1.5 million the RFC has in its endowment.

Of the 41 grants they gave in the first half of 2002, $4,000 went for school tuition to the two children, four and five years old, of a peace activist who faced 6 years in prison for disrupting a ‘Star Wars’ test. (Normally the families don’t receive the money; the organization providing the service does. “We don’t want to have to play police,” Meeropol says.) A grant for $2,000 bought a computer for a college-bound 18-year-old young woman. Her father had been fired for organizing resistance to his employer’s training of military officers associated with genocide in East Timor. The RFC also gave $4,152 for music and art instruction for the three children, age 10 to 16, of a peace activist attacked by authorities for his work, as well as $2,000 for adoption costs and childcare for the 2-year-old son of domestic partners organizing for parental rights of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual community.

The RFC gets its money from individual donors and family foundations; Meeropol no longer applies for money from progressive foundations because they don’t know how to categorize his work. “They fund activism,” he says. “We fund activists, by supporting their families.” As he’s found, the Rosenberg name turns out to be an effective money-raiser. With it, Meeropol claims to have raised tens of thousands of dollars for the legal defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Even so, the RFC doesn’t receive unequivocal support, Meeropol reports. Some people think the RFC represents merely “feel-good” politics. A board member of one foundation rejected an RFC application to help pay for a retreat, asking, “Why should we give money so that kids can have a good time?” From conservatives the response is what one might expect. In 2002, writer Edward Renehan criticized Meeropol and the RFC—which he said was “named for traitors”—for links to Mumia, a “cop-killer,” and to Tom Manning, a “domestic terrorist.” “Of course, as regards day-to-day RFC grantmaking,” Renehan wrote, “the children of real political prisoners around the world need not apply. Their parents—Cuban and Chinese dissidents imprisoned for aspiring to the type of freedom that Peltier, Evans, Manning and Meeropol find so abhorrent—are not ‘progressive’ in the eyes of the RFC.”

Meeropol says the RFC has little contact with conservative groups; his biggest battles occur with other leftists. In the late ’60s he was a member of the Students for a Democratic Society arguing that student leftists should join forces, not fight each other. Another student leader ridiculed him by saying Meeropol could be the head of the “Mush-Head SDS.” Even some parents of RFC beneficiaries consider Meeropol’s political ecumenicism to be soft-headed. “I think there are parents who would say I’m too easy,” he says. “They say, ‘No! There’s gotta be a struggle, and we have to be strong, and is feel-good politics, this is not real politics.’ Most people seem to like what I’m doing, but there are people who look down their noses at it.”

The irony is that these are the people who are neglecting their families in the process of engaging the world. Meeropol thinks they’re ignoring the long-term political picture as well, because they run the risk that their children will abandon the politics of their parents. He’s too optimistic to demonize the beneficiaries’ parents, but love and honor and betrayal have intersected with political choices too many times in his own story for him to ignore where life is most fragile. The judge who sentenced his father and mother to death once accused them of loving the Communist Party more than they loved their sons, and Meeropol’s uncle, David Greenglass, who was also arrested as a part of the alleged espionage ring, implicated Ethel, his own sister, to get a reduced sentence for himself. Many years later Meeropol placed family before politics when he pulled out of the effort to reopen the case. “I want you to be my Freedom of Information attorney, not my divorce lawyer,” he told his attorney, Marshall Perlin.

It’s no modern novelty to have political ideologues more interested in ideas than people, but what is rather recent is the absence of communities to care for their children. Historically children whose parents have been jailed, deported, or killed have received succor from their parents’ community. The wife and two children of Nicola Sacco, executed in 1927 with Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were supported by immigrant Italians in New England. During the 1970s and 1980s the three children of peace activists Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister were raised by members of a religious community near Baltimore during the years their parents spent in jail.

In America’s progressive past, tight-knit political communities also supported participant families. In 1912, the Socialist Party took care of the children of families on strike, and the Communist Party from the 1930s to the 1950s sustained families as well. But urbanization, political fracturing, and the erosion of cohesive neighborhoods has taken its toll on these kinds of resources. Add to that the fact that such movements typically consist of the poor and disenfranchised, and self-supporting communities become even harder to maintain. “Since there has been no substantial political community that I know of that could serve that function,” says leftist historian Howard Zinn. “I believe the Rosenberg Fund for Children is a unique phenomenon in the progressive movement. I know of nothing like it.”

The family has long been conceived as the cradle of politics, its most basic unit. For millennia family structures have provided models for government, and in each historical age family members have taught political values to the young. What happens in many families, regardless of their political bent, is that the transmission of values breaks down. This failure is most striking in two instances: among conservative family-values types whose real families can destroy individuality, and among progressive social-values types who work so hard to realize their vision of a better world they have little time to realize it for their own spouses and children.

In a “strong, loving family that is healthy,” Meeropol says, that doesn’t happen. “If the parents actually pay attention to the children and don’t think of their children as little appendages of themselves whom they can move around like little chess pieces on a chess board, and let the children be children and grow into their own politics if they want to, the chances are they’re going to end up with a better relation to their parents and a better relation to their parents’ politics.”

This is the case for Sandi, who is descended from a long line of troublemakers on her mother’s side. She grew up waving signs at protests to which Genevieve dragged her. She wants to be political and active like her grandmother, a Communist, who jumped trains to go to rallies during the 1930s, and her coal miner great-grandfather, who was blacklisted for organizing unions. The human costs give her pause, though. “When it comes to my turn to have a family and I have two choices,” she says, “I’ll take the choice that keeps my family together, not the one that will tear my family apart.”

Sandi isn’t bitter at the people who fired her mother or who ran the White Train—not as bitter as she is at her own mother. She resents Genevieve. “Sometimes I look back and wish my mother had made other choices, and wished she’d put her energy into her family, not her activism,” Sandi says.

To Meeropol, reactions like these aren’t callow or immature, they’re a signal of a breakdown in the transmission of values. To overcome it, Meeropol believes, someone outside the family has to connect the child to his or her parents’ values in a positive way. “If you create positive connections for the next generations,” he says, “It is more likely that they will follow in their parents’ or grandparents’ footsteps to one degree or another.” He acknowledges that how a child develops politically is beyond his control. “There are children we support who will become apolitical. There are children we support who will ultimately become conservative. But I think we increase the likelihood by creating this positive connection.”

Talk long enough with Rob Meeropol, and you’ll peel back several layers of a political philosophy which, for all its common sense appeal, out-radicals the radicals. As Meeropol sees it, the romantic image of the radical type, a Naderesque ascetic in brown shoes, puts off ordinary people who aren’t ideological fundamentalists. “If we’re going to become a more activist society,” he says, “then we have to have ordinary people with ordinary lives participating in that.” In the last youth revolution the personal was made political. Now, Meeropol seems to be saying, the next youth revolution will occur when the ordinary is mobilized—a difficult struggle that the RFC kids know intimately.

Not surprisingly, there’s also a layer to this project that answers a deep need in Meeropol for revenge. “Constructive revenge,” he calls it. Meeropol sees the nascent community of progressive offspring that he has gathered under his umbrella as the next generation of critics and troublemakers. Aimed at the people who killed his parents, they are his secret weapon.

His aptitude for being public and private simultaneously is how he adapted to the circumstances of being thrust into history against his will at 6 years old, when his parents, who had been members of the Communist Party, were jailed, tried, and executed. Afterwards he and his older brother, Michael, moved from home to home for a few years until they were finally adopted by Abel
and Anne Meeropol. (Abel, a songwrite
, wrote the song Strange Fruit, an anti-lynching song made popular by Billie Holliday.) To those people who helped the boys survive, the RFC is Meeropol’s gesture of thanks. “Some of them made great sacrifices. People took chances to benefit me. So I can’t pay that generation back, but what I can do is carry their support, pay them back by doing the same thing for another generation,” Meeropol says. “It was the McCarthy era, don’t forget. If you helped out the Rosenberg children, you could end up losing your job.”

As Meeropol knows, community is more than money, so in 1999 and again in 2001, he organized two retreats so that several dozen beneficiaries could meet each other—and so he could meet them, too. “I had always been reluctant to meet many of our beneficiaries,” Meeropol writes in his memoir. “Would these young people see through my veneer and expose who knows what beneath it?” The kids, most of them people of color, put on skits, wrote poetry, and hung out. They bonded, talked about themselves, for the first time with people who understood. Hungry for attachment, many of them became close friends.

On the second or third night of both retreats, all the youngsters, along with Meeropol and his wife, Elli, sat in a circle and listened to each other’s stories. It was an exercise Meeropol had learned during the RFC’s early days, when he paid for group therapy sessions for Guatemalan children. Their parents, indigenous activists, had been disappeared, tortured, killed. A psychiatrist explained to Meeropol that the children shouldn’t be considered “victims,” but “survivors.” The measure of health, he said, was when they could share their stories. They weren’t fully recovered until they became public members of their community speaking out against what had happened to them.

Sitting in the circle were Robyn Pitawanakwat, who is now 25, and her older brother, Brock, who is 27. They had flown to the Massachusetts retreat from Regina, Saskatchewan. Robyn was three years old when her mother, Mary, explained to her in tears that she couldn’t take the people being mean to her at work any longer. Her initial complaint of sexual and racial harassment turned into a 10-year legal fight against the Canadian government. She lost her job, just as her ex-partner tried to get custody of the kids. Robyn says she was in court almost every week, sometimes in Ottawa thousands of miles away from home, where they lived in small hotel rooms.

“I definitely felt like a freak,” Brock says. “Like when other kids ask what your parents do, and you say my mom’s unemployed, she’s on federal assistance, and she’s fighting a case against the federal government.”

Mary had fought hard to escape the poverty and alcoholism of the First Nation where she’d been born, to give her kids a push into the middle-class, and now she was slipping. All these feelings, Robyn says, “it’s stuff you don’t want to tell outside of the cause, because people would look negatively on your parents. And you want to keep up the image that the whole family is together on this. But the kids were secretly wishing the parents would give it up.”

In 1996 Mary won her case, receiving the largest single settlement of its kind in Canadian history—but not before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died a year after the judgment. Through her fight she’d become a prominent voice for First Nations people. (An RFC grant program specifically for Canadian indigenous activists was established in her name.)

After her death people turned to Robyn and Brock to be spokespeople for anti-racist causes. Brock is pursuing an academic career in Native Studies. Robyn is more reluctant. Angry at the people who opposed her mother, whom she admires, she says she still doesn’t want to become a poster child. “Unfortunately I’m getting pushed more to the front,” Robyn explained to me in her placid voice. “My mom’s case is the most well-known and successful, so people want somebody to talk about her case. But I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to end up like her: stressed out and dead. So I stay in the background.”

Also in the circle sat Rosa Toro, 22 now, the only child of two former political prisoners in Pinochet’s regime, Victor Toro and Luz de la Nieves Ayress Moreno, who work for a variety of community causes in a poor neighborhood in the South Bronx. Most of Rosa’s friends’ parents are on welfare, in jail, or addicted to crack, so when it comes time to explain why her mother has scars on her body, or why she was born in Cuba, not Chile or New York, she skips it. “My friends look at me and say, ‘Okay…’ It’s hard to explain. They say, ‘why would your parents protest the government?’ I went to D.C., for a Mumia protest, and they were all, ‘why are you going to that?’”

At first Rosa kept her face shyly hidden in her hair, when I met her in a coffee shop in Albany, New York. As she explained her tense relationship to her parents, particularly her father, her face emerged, bright and strong.

“A lot of people romanticize my parents,” she said. “And I say, it’s not that easy to romanticize if you see it from the inside.”

When she was 16 years old, she and two friends mobilized the neighborhood to fix up an abandoned building where a girl, a friend, had been raped and killed. Rosa isn’t the type to shrink from what needs to be done. Still, her father, a founder of a leftist movement in Chile and one of 40 Pinochet torture survivors living in New York City, expects her to rally, occupy, get arrested.

“You have to be involved, don’t be scared,” he told her.

“It’s not about being scared, it’s that I don’t want to have kids the way I was raised,” she retorted.

He denies the problem, Rosa says. She’s still mad at him for missing her high school graduation, for which he’s apologized. “I had to be in court that day,” he says.

“But if you hadn’t gone to that rally,” she says, “you wouldn’t have had to go to court. You always make time for the meetings, but you don’t make time for me.”

As a teenager she felt they were more dedicated to their cause than to her. Then, suddenly, she realized: This is who they are. “They don’t do it for profit. They genuinely believe it,” she says. Now Rosa feels more comfortable with their work. She credits the RFC retreat for moving her in that direction.

At the 2001 retreat, Meeropol thought that the beneficiaries, in addition to hearing from each other, should hear from an adult. “Someone on the other side,” as he puts it. For the sharing circle he chose a “pretty mild person”: Betsy Corner, a tax resister who sits on the RFC board of directors. In 1989 she and her husband, Randy Kehler, were evicted from their house, which was then auctioned by the I.R.S. Their daughter, 9 years old at the time, later became an RFC beneficiary.

Rather than sympathy, Corner’s story sparked an angry response from some beneficiaries. Corner, pleading a bad memory, doesn’t remember what she said, and Meeropol called the incident “a blip.” The fact that some of the beneficiaries have strong memories of what happened is a sign of how deeply their frustration at their own parents can run.

Sandi Pruitt had been hired as a counselor for the retreats, which she describes as “revolutionary.” She recalls clearly the year Betsy Corner spoke and how the beneficiaries reacted. “People were really furious that she was there,” Sandi recalls. “It was incredible. People were: Why is she here? She’s disrupting our bonding. She’s disrupting what we have. And what we have is nonjudgmental acceptance of each other, because we weren’t the ones who made these choices. We almost don’t want to look at if the choices were bad or wrong or difficult to make or easy or what was behind them, but we accept each other because none of us made the decision. So when there was someone there who had made the decision, and who had the choice, people were pissed!”

When Sandi listened to the kids’ stories, she wondered if she was being selfish when she criticized Genevieve—who had her limits, after all. Now Sandi remembers standing in the hallway listening to Genevieve explain why she’d never, ever, become a tax resister. Some activities were just too extreme for a woman with children, her mom explained.

Sandi also realized that others had lived more painful lives than she had. That same year she sat next to Mazi Jamal, who was 22, listening to a reggae band that Meeropol had hired for entertainment. Before they played “Buffalo Soldier,” the band dedicated the song to their hero, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Sandi says she looked over at Mazi, whose face had gone totally blank.

“Some people are bitter that they’re only known for what their parents did,” Sandi explained to me. “They come to the retreat because they want to get away from that.”

Being one of these children is a long life of coming out of the closet, Meeropol explains, and you never get quite used to people assuming they know who you are on the basis of what your parents did.

He stops and muses for a second. “A number of the beneficiaries have asked me how come I don’t seem angry,” he told me. “And all the time, I always took that question as why I wasn’t angry at the government for what they did to my parents.

“It’s only recently I’ve come to realize, and this has only been through bringing the beneficiaries together, that some of them were asking me, ‘why wasn’t I angry with my parents?’ I had repressed that aspect of it so deeply that I didn’t, you know, I didn’t even realize that was the question they were asking.”

After 13 years of helping children deal with their parents’ political choices, Meeropol is still coming to terms with what his own biological parents did or didn’t do. For several decades the Meeropol brothers had persuaded the public that their parents hadn’t received a fair trial, that their mother had been set up (by her own brother), and that, above all, they were innocent. Meeropol is convinced that his mother was entirely innocent. Yet over the years, Meeropol writes in his memoir, he has confronted the possibility that his father may have conspired to pass on secrets, though likely industrial in nature, not atomic. Such a conclusion is supported by evidence recently released from Soviet archives. Meeropol does not discount the possibility that these new facts could have been concocted by the CIA or FBI. In that case, his father, like his mother, was innocent.

“The simplest way to describe my position on my father,” Meeropol now says, “is that I am an agnostic about his involvement.”

Were the Rosenbergs guilty? Such bones the old dogs of the Cold War will continue to gnaw. To Rob Meeropol’s charges, the answer matters little. And when their mentor emerges from his private garden of forking paths, if he ever does, they will be waiting for him, hundreds of them, in the clear.

Michael Erard is a TO contributing writer.