An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country, by Susan Rosenberg (Kensington Publishing Corp. 2011), 400 pages, $14.95 paperback
Susan Rosenberg was raised on the 1950s anti-segregation movement, became an activist within the 1960s anti-war movement, and believed in armed resistance throughout the 1970s global liberation movement. March 8, 2011 marked the 40th anniversary of breaking into a Pennsylvania FBI office and discovering the phrase COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) – a government project being used to systematically destroy the American civil rights movement. By the 1980s, Rosenberg was on the COINTELPRO-inspired short-list; a list that, over the years, included many who were assassinated, imprisoned or forced into exile.
Susan Rosenberg’s memoir, An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country, is a bit more than reflections from prison by a former member of the Weather Underground. To be blunt, it is the story of a 1970s activist who was neither assassinated nor outgrew her “idealistic youth.” She was punished, made an example of, and had her soul suspended in a prison gulag for 16 years. More than anything, this book is honest. Being sentenced to 58 years for mere possession of weapons is enough to make anyone question their tactics and associations.
Having spent 12 years in prison myself, this book speaks to many of the universal conditions in prisons and America’s political-driven policies that have resulted in 10 million people being placed under government control. Whether a federal women’s joint or a men’s state pen, conditions such as abysmal medical treatment, psychological torture, physical abuse, racism and retaliation know no bounds. Most prisoners, like myself, did not enter a cell based on our political beliefs and actions; we did not have a “position” on the government such as Susan and other political prisoners in America. Books by prisoners historically trend towards the political, as there is generally an element of community support or sympathy for their actions.
Being a female prisoner, Susan brings to light certain gender-specific issues, along with the fact that HIV/AIDS is of epidemic proportions on the inside of the fence. Both rape and “consensual sex” (itself debatable) between guards and prisoners are predominantly a female issue. Susan forces me to question if a male prisoner, with all his ego and machismo, could tell a tale so bravely and revealing. She deals with her roles as a daughter and friend with startling openness. The very things she strived for so long not to reveal inside the walls, by keeping her “convict stare,” she shares with readers of her enlightening memoir.
“One of my best friends inside had lost her son and her broken heart never healed. I felt that awful sinking feeling for Pamela.
I sat down on the floor cross-legged and said, looking at her through the slot, ‘Pamela, come here please.’ She got up and came to the slot and squatted. I put my hand through the slot and she gave me hers. I pulled her hand through the opening and kissed her hand.
‘Anything I can do, just ask,’ I said. I stood up and banged on the dividing door between the medical department and where we were. A CO came and keyed the door to let me out.”
Susan wants to teach us, in whatever walk of life. The young activist, policy-maker, social worker and prisoner all have much to gain by following the trajectory, beliefs and insights of this one American patriot. I am reminded of both Nelson Mandela (Long Walk to Freedom) and Fyodor Dostoevsky (The House of the Dead) as Rosenberg takes us to a place coexisting with a natural extension of the yearning to end oppression, racism and imperialism. Even success stories like Mandela are rarely spared from the carnage.
No matter the ways Susan has been portrayed in the media before, from documentaries to headlines to 60 Minutes, all pale in comparison to this timeless work from one American with sincere, selfless intentions.
For ordering information for An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country, visit: www.anamericanradical.com.
Bruce Reilly is a member of Direct Action for Rights and Equality (Providence, RI) and the author of “NewJack’s Guide to the Big House.” He is a national steering committee member of The Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People’s Movement, and with the help of his years as a jailhouse lawyer (and reader of Prison Legal News) he received a scholarship to Tulane Law School without having earned an undergraduate degree.