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- November 09, 1981
- Vol. 16
- No. 19
Behind the Violence, Says Jane Alpert, Was Sex
Alpert, now 34, is the first to break the strict code of silence that enjoins other radicals from revealing the details of their lives on the run. The result is a revealing, sexually explicit account of the people and events that transformed a comfortably middle-class honors student at Swarthmore into a fervid activist bent on violence. A native New Yorker whose father was a dental supply company executive and whose mother taught mathematics in a public school, Alpert had graduated from college in 1967 and taken a job as a junior editor in a New York publishing house. Then she met Melville, an uncompromising revolutionary whose magnetism inspired in her a similar dedication. When Melville was killed in the 1971 Attica uprising, she became a sort of gold star widow of the radical left, an honor she rejected in 1973 when she issued a fierce feminist manifesto. In it she denounced her ex-lover and the male leaders of the Weather Underground as "male supremacists." Her onetime espousal of violence, she came to realize, had as much to do with sex as with politics.
"For me, the difference between being a liberal and a radical activist was Sam Melville," says Alpert. "Once I found him, radical commitment came very quickly. If I ever had questions about the political activities we were involved in, I overcame them to hold onto the relationship." When Melville took up with another woman, Alpert countered by beginning a lesbian affair with her. When the woman brought another boyfriend into the ménage, the four of them engaged in group sex and plotted bombings in a perversely competitive spirit of radical one-upmanship. The leaders of the Weather Underground, she believes, followed a similar pattern of constantly shifting sexual alliances. "They went underground as an organization and it was very important for them to stay together as an organization," she says. "That took priority over almost anything else. It didn't leave much room for anyone to differ as an individual or for the women to examine their relationships."
Actually, Alpert's life in hiding was not filled with risk and excitement but with long stretches of boredom. Because she and Melville had never been part of the Weather Underground, she lived on the lam. Using six different aliases, she held a string of jobs as a waitress and a secretary while moving from one drab rented room to another. "As time went on, the sense of being cut off not only from my roots but from a normal emotional life was much more difficult than the running and hiding," she says. "You make some friends, but you are very limited in what you can tell people." She was, however, able to acquire a new perspective on radical politics. "Ironically, I had been more isolated living on the Lower East Side being a radical activist than when I had to live in Middle America [New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Colorado and New Mexico] for the first time," she recalls. "Being a fugitive led me out of isolation and into touch with a larger reality. I found out that the rest of America was far from wanting the government overthrown."
Weary though she became of her time as a fugitive, Alpert found it infinitely preferable to her years in prison. Branded as an informer—unfairly, she insists—Alpert was ostracized by former radical comrades and beaten by antagonistic fellow prisoners. Once she was threatened with a knife. "I'm glad I went to prison when I was 27 rather than 21," she observes, "because I don't think I could have survived the experience emotionally when I was younger, even if I could have physically."
After her release in 1977, Alpert took a Greenwich Village apartment and began work on her memoir. Currently a writer on public issues for a family planning agency, she has traveled to Washington to lobby against antiabortion bills now in Congress. "It made me feel like a renegade again," she says, recalling the turbulence of the antiwar years. "I had never been on Pennsylvania Avenue before with less than 100,000 people."
If Alpert has one great regret about her radical past, it is not for her involvement in the bombings which injured 20 people and did extensive property damage. Instead, her regret is that she fell in love with Sam Melville and subjugated her will to his. "As far as the bombings were concerned," she declares with an unnerving flash of pride, "I don't think they were a terrific thing to have done. I am very pleased that at that point in my life, I didn't stay on the sidelines and berate myself for being a coward. It was important that we speak out at that time about Vietnam, and although I'm not entirely happy about the way in which I did it, I'm glad that I did something."
April 18, 2015
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