by Louis Proyect
Sayrafiezadeh, Saïd: When Skateboards Will Be Free, Dial Press, March 2009, ISBN 978-0-385-34068-7, 287 pages, $22.
(Swans - May 4, 2009) When Skateboards Will Be Free is a memoir by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh about growing up with parents who were devoted members of the Socialist Workers Party. The mother is Martha Harris, a Jew who finally leaves the party at the end of the book. The father is an Iranian math professor named Mahmoud Sayrafiezadeh, who remained a member and broke with his son over the memoir. Saïd never became a member, a fact that does not stand in the way of him devoting 287 pages to an angry denunciation of the party.
Martha and Mahmoud not only forced their political beliefs on their son but were responsible for him living in poverty. The title of the memoir derives from an incident that took place over the purchase of a skateboard that she deemed too dear at $10.99. She consoled him with the assurance that "Once the revolution comes, everyone will have a skateboard, because all skateboards will be free." Their poverty was a result of the father abandoning the family when Saïd was 9 months old plus his mother's refusal to get better jobs, despite her college education.
One can certainly understand why The New York Times and The Washington Post raved about this memoir. For the price, you get two books in one. It is a neo-Dickensian tale of childhood deprivation with the young Saïd begging for a skateboard rather than more gruel. It is also a melodrama inspired by those 1950s Red Scare movies like My Son John but turned upside down. Now it is the son (Saïd) who is the good American and the mom and dad ruthless fanatics.
After moving away from his mother, Saïd took a job as a graphic designer for Martha Stewart, a much more suitable mother figure for someone starved for consumer goods and political freedom. In an interview with New York, a weekly magazine geared to the city's declining yuppie population, Saïd made sure to make the connection between ideology and consumption when asked by the magazine: "So what do you say now when people start ranting about capitalism's dying days?" His reply: "People have been fucking saying that my whole life. I like my life, and I don't really want to change. I don't need society to be dismantled. I don't want to feel guilty about the things I have. I have a 32-inch high-def flat-screen TV. I fucking love that thing, man." One can almost picture him hunkering behind his door with an automatic rifle in order to protect his property against the city's unemployed.
One gets the strong sense that Saïd had internalized the values of the Cuban boat people who periodically wash up on the shores of Florida in search of streets paved with gold. Of course, as a college graduate with a mastery of the English language, it was far easier for him to realize the American Dream.
It is doubtful that Saïd was being ironic when he professed his love for the television set. For an author who has reduced the experience of growing up as "a red diaper baby" to being deprived of consumer goods, it is understandable why he does not "really want to change." Of course, the only reason that New York Magazine broached the subject of capitalism's "dying days" is that people have been losing not only their 32-inch high-def flat-screen TVs, but their homes and health insurance as well.
Last month, on April fifth, 60 Minutes reported on how public hospitals in Nevada were no longer allowing uninsured cancer patients to use their outpatient facilities. This prompted one lymphoma sufferer, who had lost her health insurance when she was laid off, to reflect:
I don't want to die. I shouldn't have to die. This is a county hospital. This is for people that, like me, many people have lost their insurance, have not any other resources. I mean I was a responsible person. I bought my house. I put money away. I raised my two children. And now I have nothing. You know my house isn't worth anything. I have no money. And I said "What do I do, but what do all these other people do after me?" And they said we don't know.
In the grand scheme of things, this would seem to matter a lot more than being deprived of a 32-inch television set, not to speak of whether or not society has to be "dismantled" in order for people to have both health coverage and consumer goods.
The New York Times review judged the author of Skateboards to be "amazingly even-handed and even somewhat nostalgic about his blasted childhood." As is so often the case, I find myself at odds with the judgment of an outlet that has exhibited a long-time phobia over communism. This is true most of all with respect to the Sunday Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, who wrote a biography highly sympathetic to the notorious McCarthyite and ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers. He is now working on what is likely to be a hagiographic treatment of William F. Buckley. Generally, those of a leftist persuasion might be advised to read the Sunday Book Review section as a kind of reverse guide. The more hostile the review, the more worthy the book is likely to be.
If Saïd is "amazingly even-handed" about his parents, I wonder how the book would have read if he really wanted to make them look bad. It would probably singe one's fingers to the bone. Just about every reference to his mother and father in this dreary book is written with a pen dipped in sulfuric acid.
It is not enough to deprive her son of a skateboard; Martha will not even allow him to watch television when she is off attending party meetings. He is only permitted to read, write, or draw in her absence. To make sure that he does not have access to the "boob tube," she removes the electrical cord from the back of the television when she leaves the apartment and takes it with her. This would certainly explain Saïd's romantic obsession with the 32 inch set he owns today, although I personally find it difficult to believe that any mother, even a hardened Trotskyist, would go to such lengths. It makes her look like a sadist, which was the result irrespective of the author's intention.
His father comes off even worse. Poor Saïd is angry for being abandoned when he was a baby, but judging from their brief encounters over the years, he might have been even unhappier if Mahmoud had stuck around. His father comes across as a rhetoric-spouting boor. It is difficult to figure out whether he is hated more for his sectarian politics or for the social gaffes that a Martha Stewart employee would be trained to pick out.
Saïd is appalled when his father orders chardonnay at a restaurant, only to discover that it is a white rather than a red wine. Even worse, he makes a scene at the restaurant until they exchange it for a red. During the entire dinner, Mahmoud pontificates about world politics, as he is prone to do. For Saïd, he is "a socialist missionary among proletarian savages, and all intercourse presents itself as an opportunity for conversion." After relating his annoyance over being forced to endure his father's rhetoric for an hour, Saïd offers up the perfect coda for a miserable evening: "Then my father spills the red wine down his shirt." What could be worse than a Marxist with a wine-stained shirt?
Not having been a fly on the wall to observe the interactions between Saïd and his parents, I am in no position to judge their veracity although they seem rather overdrawn and fictionalized to me. When an author attempts to render the dialog between himself and his parents when he was a toddler, you have to assume that current-day resentments will trump reportorial accuracy.
But one unhappy incident reported in the book that is repeated in The New York Times review does strike me as utter nonsense:
He is molested by a party member, in a scene he typically underplays. (When his mother reports the molestation, a party functionary shrugs and says, "Under capitalism, everyone has problems.")
As I will point out momentarily, the Socialist Workers Party had all sorts of problems in the period covered in Skateboards, but winking at child abuse while using Marxist jargon was not one of them. More to the point, the SWP's phones were likely wiretapped even after it had won a landmark court case against the FBI in the 1970s for such abuses. So for a party organizer to tell Martha over the telephone to forget about her son being raped not only went against its mores but incurred severe legal risks. What if Martha had reported the crime to the police? Covering up rape makes you an accessory after the fact. One supposes that such a lurid story might be calculated to entice an invitation to the Oprah show that thrives on such fare, but for those interested in what life was really like in an admittedly Kafkaesque sect, you have to look elsewhere.
A cartoon-like portrait of the SWP is explained by the author's animus toward his parents as well as his unfamiliarity with Marxist politics, which he as much as admits to. After the Shah is overthrown, he mouths slogans in high school that he picked up from his parents, such as "Down with U.S. imperialism in Iran." Of course, his classmates were hardly different, repeating things that they heard around the dinner table as well, except their slogans were from the opposite angle, like "Down with Ayatollah Khomeini."
But more to the point, there is a grain of truth in this memoir. Just around the time that Saïd was ten years old and able to make simple distinctions between his parents' beliefs and that of normal society, the SWP was carrying out a "turn toward industry" that effectively purged the party of all members who were still willing to think for themselves. When a teacher, librarian, lawyer, doctor, or computer programmer like me was given an ultimatum to forsake their profession and take a factory job, the result was often resignation from the party sometimes after a fitful attempt (such as my own case) to comply with orders. Those who remained got used to the idea of being moved around to different factory job assignments like pawns on a chessboard and soon lost the ability to think for themselves entirely. Some party members like Saïd's parents never took jobs in industry, but buckled under the pressure to become blind followers of the party's leader. (Saïd's brother and sister, who unlike him were members of the party, did take such jobs. Both of them, like their mother, are now out of the party.)
You would never know from this memoir that party members were often very attractive and even witty people around the time that he was born forty years ago. They were not hair-shirts like his parents and even tried to improve their lives materially as a consequence of improving job skills. I never hid the fact that I owned an expensive high-end audio system, for example. It was only after the SWP turned into a cult during the turn toward industry that living a good life became a sign of political weakness. (Exceptions were made, however, for the top leader of the party who lived in a million-dollar loft in the West Village in Manhattan.)
Beyond being a less Spartan institution in the pre-turn period, the party was involved in important struggles and growing rapidly, so much so that The New York Times Magazine decided to assign Walter and Miriam Schneir, two investigative journalists famous for their groundbreaking book on the Rosenberg case, to write about the party. After they submitted their article, the editor decided not to print it because it was deemed too flattering. Perhaps if the Schneirs had spiced it up with a tale about child abuse, it would have passed muster. They took their article to The Nation Magazine, which was happy to publish it on September 25, 1976, when Saïd was all of seven years old and supposedly begging his mother for a skateboard.
The best thing that can be said about this memoir is that it is well written. Clearly, the author knows how to sustain a reader's interest even if his story either stretches reality or in some cases breaks with it entirely. One doubts that this rather modest work of literature would have commanded the attention of the two most important papers in the United States if it had been about an unhappy childhood spent with Seventh Day Adventist or vegetarian parents imposing their beliefs on the author. There is something about the excesses of Marxist revolutionaries that gets the blood of a New York Times book review editor flowing.
For those who want to get a more nuanced portrait of life in the SWP -- warts and all -- I urge you to look for Peter Camejo's posthumous memoir that should be available from Haymarket books within the next year or so. I also invite you to look for my own comic book memoir that was written in collaboration with Harvey Pekar, the author of American Splendor and a host of other works in this genre. I promise that it will be the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
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