The Doctor Is In

Book Review

Outlaw Woman : A Memoir of the War Years
by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz,
published by City Lights Books
440 pages, $17.95
ISBN: 0872863905; (April 2002)
Review by Anitra Freeman
Originally published in Real Change


Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes of living and making history. She is open about both her personal life and her public life, her failures and her victories. And she writes with the sensibilities of a novelist. The story of her journey from timid teenage bride to radical revolutionary parallels the journey of the country through the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam era. The way she tells it is intellectually analytical at times, gripping and often emotionally jarring at others.

Unlike the memoirs of our local activist Bob Santos (Humbows Not Hot Dogs!), which I reviewed for this same issue, I did find several reviews of Outlaw Woman that I could cheat from. However, I disagreed with all of them.

It would be difficult to squeeze enough into 440 pages to satisfy all readers. For instance, Roxanne’s account wasn’t intimate enough to satisfy Publisher’s Weekly. Yet she does get intimate, as in her emotional turmoil over leaving her husband and child; shoplifting "like a natural" for a drug-dealing boyfriend; her anguish over the death of her good friend Audrey Rosenthal in the apartheid struggle; her reactions to the rape of another friend during the founding years of the feminist journal No More Fun and Games. But if she detailed her subjective reactions to all events from 1960 to 1975, this would be fifteen 1500-page journals instead of one book.

She doesn’t describe the Left’s agenda explicitly enough for one of the Amazon reviewers. In my experience, only simplistic philosophies can be summed up in a small pamphlet to be handed out on street corners, and remain the same for all time. What Dunbar-Ortiz describes is the evolution of a radical: from a liberal working for reform, to an armed revolutionary, to a root reevaluation of the legitimacy of the American system itself — a dismantling of "the American origin myth" that supports white male supremacy, corporate capitalism, class oppression, and McDonalds for all.

She grew from being one of the first advocates of the militant feminist platform — that all men are the oppressor, that violence against the patriarchal system is not only moral but morally mandated, that female biology confers a mystic wisdom and innate superiority upon all women — to questioning and finally openly opposing these precepts when advocated by others. She continues to be a passionate feminist, but considers herself to be working for human liberation, liberation for all.

Over the period narrated in this book, Dunbar-Ortiz wrestled with issues that the Left movement has and still does wrestle with, including: the legitimacy of violence vs. non-violence; the frustration of working-class and non-white people with a movement usually dominated by middle-class white intellectuals; rumors and propaganda designed to make members suspicious of each other; being passionate about what you believe and still able to work with others who aren’t "100% Ideologically Pure." Another reviewer laments that she has not yet resolved these issues. I am pleased that she confronts them, because not enough of us do.

This is a valuable book, in my opinion, for anyone who wants to understand an important period in our nation’s cultural history. It is also a good book for any liberal, radical, progressive, or other Lefty to invigorate their own confrontations with the issues that still trouble the Left, like class divisions and other infighting.

Roxanne doesn’t have any final answers. You and I may not come up with any either. I have seen a lot of damage done by clear and simple answers, and more good done by people who continue to wrestle with the questions.

Another good book on the independent radicals of the 1960s and 1970s, recommended by Dunbar-Ortiz, is Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, by Max Elbaum, Verso Books.

You can see and hear Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz herself speaking about the period if you can get hold of a copy of Rebels with a Case: a Documentary of the SDS Years, by Max Elbaum, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and Susan Martinez.

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