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Cathy Wilkerson, Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman

(Seven Stories Press, 2007; ISBN 978-1583227718; 416pp; £13.99)

 

Flying Close to the Sun tells how Cathy Wilkerson transformed herself from a nice middle class girl to a violent revolutionary. Describing how she became involved in left-wing politics as a student, the book charts her developing understanding of the political issues of the 1960s and ’70s and how she begins to see violence as a possible tool to respond to injustice.

Wilkerson is at her best when she describes the debates around the formation of the Weather Underground and the strategies they begin to evolve. She is painfully honest about the organisational weaknesses: the muddled thinking, lack of clear goals, inherent sexism and cult-like behaviour. She is no less honest with herself. By participating in group processes, she bullies others.

As her collective plans to blow up an army barracks show, she won’t think about people dying because “denial is essential in warfare”. When someone begins to think like that, you can see how easy it is for them to shoot innocent people or plan a suicide bombing.

At times I found the book somewhat frustrating. The early sections are quite dull and could have done with a lot of pruning. Wilkerson seems to view Weather as a cult, but has little insight into why she was susceptible to this; nor does she chart her recovery. She often seems emotionally distant. I would have also liked to hear more about how she repaired her relationship with her family; how she dealt with prison life and what her views on violence are today.

Having said that, this is an important record of dramatic times. It gives a fascinating insight into how committed, passionate people can drive themselves towards violent solutions, and how easy it is for movements to be corrupted.

Possibly a “how not to” guide to activism, but worth looking at nevertheless.