Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman, Cathy Wilkerson, is a recounting of the author’s experiences in various movement groups, mostly SDS and Weatherman. Along the way of fighting against the war and the military industrial complex, she struggles with inter-movement issues of gender equality, the relations between white and black movement groups and a perpetual lack of an end-game plan for change by the various organizations.
It is most of the way through the book when we get to the beginnings of Weatherman, the townhouse explosion and the Weather Underground. Along the way, Wilkerson describes successfully working for a congressman, organizing students in D.C. and elsewhere, publishing the SDS paper and meeting Vietnamese officials on a trip that supposed to end in Hanoi but couldn’t due to increased U.S. bombing. Throughout the book, it is clear that Wilkerson, at least as she looks back now, is frustrated by the lack of a plan. After rushing the steps of the Pentagon, she asks, “What good were we doing sitting out here, chanting against those impenetrable stone walls? We were hippies, students, and angry young people without a strategy.” Later, as Weatherman leadership restricts information and membership in the newly organized, cultish collectives, Wilkerson is frustrated by the fact that “…Weatherman, for all its eloquent economic and political analysis, didn’t have much of a strategy for moving beyond the immediate actions.” However, unlike some others who were involved with SDS leadership and now bitterly claim that Weatherman ruined their dreams of accomplishing change, Wilkerson is emphatic in stating that SDS had a similar lack of end-game planning and refused to take the time to discuss such basic things, preferring instead to discuss actions and short-term strategies.
Things come to a head early in the Weatherman saga for Wilkerson, who is among the first to go underground as she and the other survivor climb out of the burning rubble of her father’s townhouse after the explosion. Unable to go out into the public for security reasons and depressed over the loss of her comrades and her lover, she spends more than a few years in relative isolation, close enough to the leadership of the Weather Underground to occasionally assist and to be protected but outside the top circle and left out of the loop. After a few years (seems to be around 6), Wilkerson starts to step out, taking jobs on the outside, having a child and having a life of her own, albeit under a variety of assumed identities. Ten years after going underground, Wilkerson turns herself in, is convicted on explosives charges and serves her time in prison.
In case it is not clear from the above summary, this recounting almost totally lacks the intrigue and voyeurism of other accounts written by the leaders of the Weather Underground. Wilkerson wants to talk about the decisions that were made, the struggles that she and others faced, and the war and other events of the day that led them to take the steps they took. There is no bravado, no delight at avoiding the FBI for so long, no secret meeting on a street corner to accomplish a bombing or to reconnect with family. Wilkerson seems never to be comfortable with the cult-like, controlled atmosphere of the collectives, neither early when she was in an anonymous group in Chicago nor later when she was close to the leadership in the townhouse. This telling of the Weather Underground story from the perspective of a member who was there for everything, for longer than most of the eventual leaders, but remained outside the inner circle, takes all of the romance out of the story. To me, this provides a good counterpoint to the video documentaries and other published books.
That is not to say that Wilkerson regrets being there and doing what they did. She remains proud of doing the best that she could find to do based on what she believed about the ongoing injustices. Even the townhouse explosion, she says, finally allowed “the intensity of [their] anger” to be “heard throughout the country” (it also provided focus for the organization and drastically improved their strategy in the future). In the end, she wouldn’t have stood idly by, stating that while she did not, in the book, shy “away from exploring the weaknesses of SDS and the Weather Underground, then, like now, the gravest mistake is inaction.”
As for the methods used and the growing lack of faith in democratic change, Wilkerson astutely notes that “Many of those ideas, like Leninism, arise again and again because democratically led radical change is exceedingly difficult and slow moving.” Revolution will remain an attractive option for young radicals, especially given the example in smaller countries where small groups were able to oust rulers backed by foreign powers. Yet, she has a healthy appreciation of what the U.S. possesses in its democracy, even while she learns its less than admirable interventions around the world. Early in her journey, she states: “I had been fascinated with the origins of our secular, constitutional democracy in college, but the more I learned about the damage we had done, the easier it was to forget what an accomplishment it had been. The US system had cobbled together many of the most progressive ideas of the times in a powerful combination, ideas from Native American federalist government, from utopians, from the philosophers of emergent capitalism, and from advocates of religious tolerance.” She returns there at the end of the book, noting appreciatively that thousands of ’60s radicals took to their neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, churches, etc., in the following decades to make real in little, progressive, individual ways the change they had all sought with marches and violence in those movement years.