Eyes in the Back of My Head

Judith Clark was arrested on Oct. 20, 1981, after an attempted robbery of a Brinks truck in Nyack, New York that left a Brinks guard and two policemen dead. Accused of being one of the "get away drivers," she was indicted on three counts of second-degree murder. She was found guilty, sentenced to three consecutive terms of 25 years to life, and has spent most of the last 28 years in Bedford Hills Prison in upstate New York. The following is a fictional letter from the author to Judy. They do, in fact, have a non-fictional relationship, mostly in the form of prison visits and collect phone calls. Readers can learn more about Clark at http://www.judithclark.org/.

 

Sept. 13, 2009

 

Dear Judy:

 

I’m sorry I keep missing your calls. I decided, kind of last minute, that I could get away to the Cape for a week. I had dreams of birds and ocean walks but mainly had to deal with a rusty brake-line leak and a broken dehumidifier. "The idiocy of rural life," as Ferd would say, spoofing Karl Marx.

I wanted to talk about unfinished leftovers from all those conversations about 1968. When I think about it, I feel like I have eyes in the back of my head. In front of me, no horizon, just a dark, fuzzy vista—murky and thick, with no discernible shapes. I’m stuck sorting ephemera from past lives, hoping to rescue something from the debris before the lights go out.

I know I risk a sort of backwards nostalgia here—a desire to dig up a mess of failure and defeat, hoping to redeem it. Much of this comes from my gut. But the gut has a brain, with more nerve-endings and emotional triggers than our brain-brain. Feeling sick is what happens when you ignore sensory memory.

I want to talk, not about adventures I never had nor trials we both endured (albeit in different spaces, different scales). I want to understand what we thought we were doing.

Was it only a year ago? We were all so fixated, for awhile—a persistent, hopeful but critical conversation. It stopped when what we call "the economy" collapsed. (Capitalism? We wish.)

1968 came rushing into the present when Ted Kennedy died (what about Mary Jo Kopechne?). When Robert Kennedy was killed, it was a few days before my high school graduation. 100 stunned and tearful Catholic girls from Westchester County listened to Harry Reasoner speak in somber tones, in a gym. We were over-educated in Kierkegaard, Molière, and algebra—and so unprepared for anything frightening or dangerous. Worlds were being torn apart. In another year, I would be taking part in the ripping and shredding myself.

What I really want to talk about is 1969, a year nobody seems to want to mark. All we hear about are moon-walks, moon landings, and Woodstock. No Altamont. Nobody wants to go back there, at least not yet.

Maybe it’s because, these days, the specter of the lynch mob is all too clear, much scarier than a bunch of Hell’s Angels running amok: the town hall meetings, the willful refusal of fact, the re-emergence of the "La Rouchies" as a spurious "left" instead of the fascists they really are.

1969 began with the self-immolation of Jan Palach, in Prague, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. So many Czechs saw this as a heroic act, a sacrifice. How could we imagine then what we know now, when the idea of political suicide is shrouded in horror?

It was a year of assassinations, and attempted assassinations—begun well before that, and continuing long afterwards. A year of COINTELPRO, of break-ins and black bag jobs. We would only be able to put a name to our paranoia several years later.

1969 was when things began to turn, to harden: the willful suppression of doubt, ambivalence, and joy… the determination to "turn oneself inside out." Our illusion was complete transformation: don’t look back. We imagined our own cultural revolution within the larger one. We felt the whirlwind: all swore it was churning. The weather report was all earthquakes, all the time.

There are those enraptured by the romance of it all, one big adventure, made all the more glossy and colorful by actually having missed it.

I wanted to ask you about jail solidarity at Cook County Jail, not just with your fellow war-painted, helmeted, defiant motherfucker Weather comrades, but the connections you made with other women there. "Social prisoners," we used to call them—a euphemism for the politically retrogressive "common criminals." You were there long enough to develop some friendships. We’ve never talked much about this episode, at least not recently—probably because it seems like a distant, youthful adventure compared to the thick, deadening time you’ve spent in prison these last 28 years. This mis-adventure, as you probably would be more apt to characterize it now, was the beginning of a long rocky road that you hurtled down, a journey from which you almost didn’t recover.

 

A woman in ACT UP once talked to me about the blindness of the group—when the single focus of a tight band prevents people from seeing anything except their target, and themselves.

It was a self-criticism. She was talking about her own affinity group, "Surrender Dorothy," at the FDA, October, 1987. They nearly trampled us—a ragtag lesbian contingent of dykes from Baltimore, D.C., and Chicago. There were seven of us, wrapped in stickers and red tape. Their group numbered 35 or more, leather jackets and denim, skinny, strong, and impenetrable.

 

I think I told you that I was in the audience for the premiere of the Helen Garvey movie, Rebels with a Cause, when a man in the audience asked, "The bombs in the townhouse, who were they for?"

The Weather veterans looked at each other, shook their heads, "We don’t, we didn’t know… we weren’t there. We had no idea."

We’ve talked about the other, better-known film, The Weather Underground, and its dissonant chorus: Brian Flanagan, the rueful bartender who says simply "We were crazy;" Bill and Bernardine, who glow with the good fortune of lives rebuilt and re-invented and who never seem to shed their fundamental attachments to those days; and Mark Rudd, who says, "Those explosives were for the soldiers’ canteen in Fort Dix." An answer too late, perhaps, for the man in the audience years before.

What gets elided, denied, glossed over, still, are things like rape, loneliness, the deep alienation—to the point of cracking—of the true misfit. Your rare moments of pleasure included "clandestine missions" unbeknownst to your comrades: secret furloughs to South Side bars in Chicago where you hooked up with butch women—Black, working class, "apolitical." And you had to lie about it.

What lies outside the field of vision are not just particular, irreducible stories like these, dissonant biographies, accounts suffused with something other than sexy or foolish defiance, and colorful masks of courage. (We were all so afraid.)

What gets lost is that, in 1969, the center of political radicalism in Chicago was Black, not white; poor and working class, not privileged; and at the center of the FBI’s gun-sights. In some skewed way, all our discussions of center and periphery, margin and center, only re-inscribe our own signatures on events.

So many people, including some of the most active partisans in those micro-wars, remain silent. I understand wanting to protect people, refusing to yield. I understand the fear of losing everything. But what would it mean if we had an open, no-holds-barred discussion about it all?

Soon after I moved to Chicago to "build" something out of the shards of our organization, someone in Prairie Fire asked me: "So, were you in Weather?" I was speechless. I had been trained very well—to never inquire about what I did not "need to know," to never answer a question like that. This also meant suppressing intellectual curiosity.

But you’re unafraid to talk about any of it. You "broke ranks" by expressing remorse; you named what we were doing as reckless, blind, fanatical.

As I write this, strains of throaty singing, made strange and troubled by a warbling microphone, reverberate from the church across the street. Where are the sounds from the streets now? Where is our mighty movement? Could things have worked out differently?

The people I used to know in Sojourner Truth Organization talked about what it would have meant to build a clandestine consciousness and practice, not just among fugitives, or as protection for doing extra-legal political work, but among many activists. To cultivate a way of being in the world that meant our identities, our movements, our thoughts and ideas were not available like a free buffet for the state to pick at.

Now we’re really fucked: the practice of being clandestine is in itself criminalized—in Germany, in France. In the U.S., "suspicious" is defined as anything out of the ordinary. So much for imagination.

But in the stripped-down economy of a poem, you’ve addressed all this, in ways more painfully beautiful than anyone:

 

because I could not live

in the world as it was…

because I wanted to be invisible

because I wanted to be known

because I wanted to crawl

like a snake, out of my skin

and into another’s…

because I felt weak and afraid

and wanted to dare courage into me*

 

love always,

mp

 

 

*from "Why," © Judith Clark, 1997, published in Aliens at the Border (New York: Segue Press, 1997).