Time Heals No Wounds
Jonathan Lethem traces a family’s radical legacy
In “Down with Childhood,” perhaps the most provocative chapter in her 1970 classic The Dialectic of Sex, the feminist-Marxist radical Shulamith Firestone argued that revolutionary women, rather than rejecting motherhood altogether, could find common cause with their children: “The mother who wants to kill her child for what she has had to sacrifice for it,” she wrote, “learns to love that same child only when she understands that it is as helpless, as oppressed as she is, and by the same oppressor: then her hatred is directed outward, and ‘motherlove’ is born.”
Motherlove: the love that comes after the desire to kill is suppressed; the love entwined with pity and “hatred directed outward.” For Firestone this was only a step toward the elimination of reproduction itself, clearing the way, as she says, “for a fully ‘human’ condition.” But for some of us born and raised in the late ’60s and early ’70s, this brand of love is a vivid and precise memory: our childhoods a strange mixture of experiment and isolation—macrobiotic school lunches, antinuke marches, custody meetings, latchkey afternoons—in the service of a cause, or causes, we never fully understood.
In The Fortress of Solitude (2003), Jonathan Lethem chronicled a ’70s childhood close to his own: a young white boy growing up in predominantly black, pregentrification brownstone Brooklyn, constantly bullied and humiliated, his artist father sunk into oblivion, his idealistic, scatterbrained mother unwilling to face the consequences of her choices. In Dissident Gardens, Lethem skip-hops us to Queens, widens the scope by