From Guerilla to Grandmother

Guerrilla DiariesBeing a parent of children in the Boston Public Schools can eat up a lot of the meaning of parenthood for people like the Parent Imperfect, but there is much more to being a parent than figuring where your child goes to school and how to survive the experience. I got a challenging reminder of that this past Friday night at the Jamaica Plain Forum.

The JP Forum brings all sorts of interesting speakers to the First Church UU. I get all the announcements and often commit to going, only to have life intervene in some way. But I had a special interest in hearing Kathy Power talk about her journey. So interested was I that I actually showed up at the church on a rainy Friday the week before the event, only to find a wet and empty building.

To my surprise, I made it a second time, this time with a group of people large enough to send the organizers looking for additional chairs. This was not a youth gathering. Most of those in attendance were old enough to remember the day in 1970 when Power and four others robbed a bank in Brighton, killing the policeman who showed up to stop the robbery. I am certainly old enough to remember that day, but was much too focused on high school football at the time to be paying attention. A Catholic high school valedictorian and Betty Crocker cooking award winner from Denver, like tens of thousands of others (and many in the room on Friday night) Power became swept up in the moral outrage felt by young people opposing the war in Vietnam. She and her comrades weren’t robbing the bank to get $$$ for nice cars or a trip around the world: They were the Revolutionary Action Force, trying to help fund the efforts of the Black Panthers to overthrow the U.S. government.

What does this have to do with imperfect parenting, you ask? The other four got captured quite quickly, but after 9/23/70, Kathy escaped to a “normal” life in Oregon for 23 years. Harkening back to the Betty Crocker days, she worked in restaurants and taught cooking classes at a local community college. Somewhere in there, she hooked up with a local meat-cutter (who else?) and had a son. She was so successful at creating a new identify that the FBI actually removed her from its Most Wanted list. She even eluded the Feds longer than Whitey Bulger.

As her son reached the teen years, things became more complicated for Power. In her telling, she realized that she “would never have moral authority with her son if she couldn’t face her own past.” This parental quandary (we know about parental quandaries) was apparently a big part of her decision to “come in” and face bank robbery and manslaughter charges in Boston. Her choice came with a 12-year sentence to be served in Framingham State Prison.

As Power told the tale on Friday, her son exited, stage right, after the surrender as the story turned to her own transformation into a “peacemaker,” changing the world with an open heart, rather than captured weapons. Her time in prison and her relationship with the family of the man killed in the robbery took her through a change that she had never achieved in 23 hears in hiding, or four years in the slammer.

In the Q & A session, I asked if she’d fill us in on what had happened her son. “He’s living in Oregon, with his partner and two children, 12 and 14. They are all doing quite well in life, which gives me a great feeling of peace (hence the ‘Guerrilla to Grandmother’ title).”  That was a very happy ending, but too tidy, in some way. It didn’t satisfy my curiosity about the moral authority of the parent. After the talk, I waited until the crowd around Kathy subsided, and then stumbled up to ask if she had achieved moral authority with her son by giving herself up, and whether or not that ended up being important.

I was not the first one who had been persistent about this with her, and she definitely saw me coming. In short, both her husband (whom she had married just before surrendering so that he could adopt Jaime) and her son went through very hard times after she went into prison. Moral authority has its price. “Sometimes we don’t understand how much we are holding everything together.”

Her son quit school, left home and sunk to some pretty low places for a number of years. During this time, Power was in prison, probably having many days when she wondered about the wisdom of her decision to surrender. She continued to pursue an early parole petition based on a persistent sense that her actions on that fateful September day had been morally justified by the terrible evils of the war. Then, in a turning point that seems to have been as powerful for Kathy as her decision to give herself up, Power withdrew the parole petition, based on the opposition of the family of the victim of her crime. For Power, this step represented finally assuming responsibility for her actions in a way that even surrendering had not achieved. Her son had just turned 18 when she took that step.

Some time after that, her son came to her to report that he had finally turned his life around and begun to get past the challenges he had faced over the intervening years. According to Power, he said to her that her decision to accept responsibility for what had happened in 1970 had helped him overcome his own troubles. She relayed this part of the tale with great emotion. Apparently that was a turning point for him, eventually leading to the life that now gives his mother that “great feeling of peace.” It still seems a little too even-keeled to be entirely real, but that’s where the story will sit until I find out otherwise.

The talk on Friday night was about the transition from being a proponent of a very impractical revolutionary war to a promoter of what Power calls practicalPeace. The story touched me on many levels and left me with many questions than it answered, not least those about parental perfections and imperfections without which there would have been no story.

As I talked to Kathy after the show, I noticed that she was clutching a few copies of a thin book under her arm. She probably had these to give to the several old friends that showed up, but I asked and she gave. The first poem in the book is one written for her son, reflecting on her decision to go away. Sestina for Jaime is too long to put here, but worth a peek.



Filed under Just Parenting

9 responses to “From Guerilla to Grandmother

  1. thanks…..I too was quite affected and moved by Kathy’s message. We have no idea what forgiveness, atonement, redemption really mean. She does, I think. That might just be why her story holds such a strong message for peacemakers. Dean

    • Thanks, Dean. Nice to see you and Jennifer the other night. I, too, was moved by the message and the whole story. I do, however, think that there has to be something between the blind politics of rage and what Kathy describes as “showing up” to address injustice “with an open heart.”

  2. Thanks for sharing your insights in this post. I was surprised, though, to see mention of the specific details of my son’s challenges. I had stopped telling the details of his struggles in public talks, but now I realize that even when I am speaking with one person, whatever I share might end up broadly published. I still think that what he said is powerful and an important element of this story, but I realize I will have to speak in a way that doesn’t disregard his privacy, doesn’t put his story out there for my own purposes.
    Once again I realize how delicate a parent’s power is and how easily it can be thoughtlessly abused.

    • Thanks. I’ve changed the post, but need to think more about your comment before I have anything to say about it.

    • I’m very sorry, Kathy, if I violated your confidence by writing about your talk and what you said to me, afterwords. As I said then, your decision to really highlight the role played by your relationship with your son in your decision to “surrender” really stuck in my mind. It made me want to know if you had achieved the desired “moral authority” through your extraordinary decisions and actions, which is why I hung around to ask that question. As the talk and the conversation stayed with me the next day and I read some of the book, I decided to try to write down my thoughts. Given all that you said in the talk, and have said other places, it is difficult to know exactly how you define your private space (or that of others) in relation to these stories. What was written obviously failed to grasp and respect those lines of demarcation between public and private, but it did not do so thoughtlessly.

      • Thanks for giving all of this some thought. In my comment, I was really trying to look clearly at my own actions, my own use of my son’s stories. I wanted to caution myself that, thoughtlessly or thoughtfully, they might become more public than I have any right to make them.

      • Thanks. I understood that after reading it again (and again). I do see what you are saying. The episode has put me into a little period of positive reflection about what I’m doing here.


  3. Steve

    Hi pi we enjoyed this …. Very interesting.
    Steve and Kath, in the uk. We don’t know much about this history of yours…

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