To be the child of true believers—whether religious zealots, political ideologues, or Cubs fans—is to learn from the cradle that beliefs have consequences. For Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, whose parents joined the Socialist Workers Party a few years before he was born in 1968, those consequences included poverty, abuse, and a promise of revolution as empty as it was constant. His tale of how utopian dreams led to both the dissolution of a marriage and a disillusioned childhood, When Skateboards Will Be Free, plays out like the fate of the past century’s revolutions in miniature: When things fall apart for the Sayrafiezadeh family, one can only look back and wonder how they ever stayed together in the first place.
Sayrafiezadeh’s mother, Martha, is the daughter of a Westchester County Jewish family with literary leanings. Her brother is best-selling novelist Mark Harris, and she hopes to be a writer, too —before, that is, denouncing such bourgeois fancies. Martha meets Mahmoud Sayrafiezadeh, a charismatic Iranian graduate student, at the University of Minnesota. It turns out to be a meaningful spot: To the comrades of the Socialist Workers Party, Minneapolis in the ’60s is the “cradle of the movement,” just as Saint Petersburg was the “cradle of the revolution” fifty years before.
As Sayrafiezadeh recounts it, the family’s political awakening, and domestic downfall, begin casually enough. While walking across campus one day, the young couple—already the parents of Sayrafiezadeh’s two siblings—stop for a moment to hear what a gang of sidewalk Socialists have to say. Martha buys a copy of their newsletter, The Militant. It is the fateful opening that sends her tumbling down the rabbit hole. Within weeks, she is a member of the party and a regular participant at protests and meetings. And with that first issue of The Militant, Sayrafiezadeh’s father likewise tumbles—faster and deeper—into the Socialist wonderland. By the time his third child is born, Mahmoud is ready to shed his family to devote himself fully to the movement. When the author is just nine months old, the would-be revolutionary walks out the door.
While Martha weeps at his absence (“Great sobs. Shakespearean. Her wails shook our tiny apartment and the other tiny apartments in our building”), she prefers to play the martyr’s widow rather than just another victim of a deadbeat husband. Her party-line version of Mahmoud’s abandonment of the family is that he was determined to put the revolution first—trailing its glorious promise across the United States and eventually back home to Iran. Her self-deception was infectious: “There was something so immensely redemptive and exciting for me to imagine that my unknown father was not just a man who had abandoned me but a noble man of adventure who had no choice but to abandon me,” Sayrafiezadeh writes.
After his siblings grow up and leave home, Sayrafiezadeh comes of age alone in his mother’s care, a fellow traveler on her increasingly sad journey. Sayrafiezadeh’s story focuses less on his parents’ dreams than on how he survived them— especially the myth of revolution as a means of rationalizing otherwise indefensible choices. His child’s-eye view of these questions serves as a poignant reminder that, for all the romantic visions of childhood as a time of fantasy, it’s often children who are forced to deal with the real-world implications of the stories adults choose to live by.
“My mother actively, consciously, chose not only for us to be poor,” he writes, “but for us to remain poor, and the two of us suffered greatly for it. Because to suffer and to suffer greatly was the point. It was the fulfillment of ourselves.” This suffering—which Martha speaks of with clear reverence—mainly takes the form of selective deprivation: not eating grapes because of the United Farm Workers boycott, not accepting help from her successful brother because all wealth is tainted, and refusing her son a ten-dollar skateboard because, well, when the revolution comes, “everyone will have a skateboard, because all skateboards will be free.”
Not surprisingly, Martha can never bring herself to see how her unbending sense of revolutionary rectitude has brought so much trouble to herself and her son. In her one barely mustered attempt to explain Mahmoud’s disappearance, she cannot help but make the story of everything into their story: “The roots of suffering are in the capitalist system,” she tells her son. “We must do away with capitalism in order to do away with suffering.”
The adult Sayrafiezadeh clearly didn’t cotton to such revolutionary monism; indeed, one of the jobs he held before becoming a writer was as an assistant to the empress of domestic excess, Martha Stewart. He makes up for the revolutionary austerity of his formative years by buying himself a brushed-metal tissue holder— compulsively, gratuitously, gratefully—as soon as he can afford it. In another fitting set piece, the grown-up Sayrafiezadeh meets his father in more or less the place that started it all: poised over a copy of The Militant, now a sidewalk Socialist himself, selling the revolutionary pamphlet that changed two lives more than thirty years before. Even as Sayrafiezadeh asks the price, he wants nothing more than for Mahmoud to give one to him, as if to do so would be to give something of himself, finally, freely.
“A dollar fifty,” his father says. But they both know that revolution costs more than that.
Peter Manseau is author, most recently, of Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter (Free Press, 2008), winner of the National Jewish Book Award for fiction.