By Jessica Parral
Bettina Aptheker has been many things in her life. She has been a feminist, a lesbian, a Communist, a leader in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, Jewish, Buddhist, an activist, an author, a mother, and a grandmother. Right now, she is one of UC Santa Cruz’s most popular and renowned professors. Her classes regularly fill up and students give her intimate teaching style rave reviews. David Horowitz can’t stand her, and historians question whether she is telling the truth about her childhood abuse. For Bettina Aptheker, the personal has always been political.
*Political Development* Aptheker was born Sept. 13, 1944 to Herbert and Fay Aptheker, first cousins and prominent American Communists. Fay Aptheker was a union organizer, while Herbert Aptheker is noted for writing American Negro Slave Revolts and A Documentary History of Black People in America. “It was unusual for a white person to study black history in the ‘40s,” Aptheker said of her father.
Growing up Communist had a profound effect on Aptheker. Her childhood memories include seeing her father on TV during the McCarthy hearings, and working for W.E.B. DuBois as a teenager.
“Of course, I was deeply influenced by growing up in a radical family,” she said. Her current field of study, however, did not become of interest to her until her late 20s. She experienced pressure from her family to continue the tradition of participating in the Communist Party.
“I was interested in women’s history, which [my father] paid no attention to,” Aptheker said. It was her involvement with lifelong friend Angela Davis’ trial (Davis was accused of being an accomplice to conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide) that led her to feminism.
“I knew [Davis] since childhood,” Aptheker said. “Our parents were friends. We were in the early civil rights movement.” Hearing the ideas of Davis, an ardent feminist, influenced Aptheker deeply. It also led her to Santa Cruz.
“When her trial was over, we made a trip over here,” Aptheker said. “She was interested in the history of consciousness department. She ended up doing something else and I ended up doing this.” Aptheker received her Ph.D. in history of consciousness from UCSC in 1983, and then joined the faculty of what was then known as Women’s Studies.
In 2006, Aptheker published a memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought For Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel. The book immediately shocked readers with the revelation that Herbert Aptheker had sexually abused his daughter from the age of three until she was 13. According to Aptheker, he played “games” with her, telling her not to tell anyone because “terrible things will happen.” She wrote that she had repressed those memories her entire life up until writing the book.
“I’ve read some of [her memoir] and she actually talked about it in lecture,” said Emily Encina, a fifth-year student and a teaching assistant in Aptheker’s Introduction to Feminisms class. “She talks about it a lot. She talks about being sexually abused. Dancing around that word, ‘rape’ and sexual abuse and domestic violence, it’s pretty clear we need to talk about these kinds of things because it’s still taboo and outside of what we think a women’s experience is like.”
Some accused Aptheker of lying; scholars Clare Spark, Melvyn Dubofsky, and Ronald Radosh all expressed doubts about her claims. Some argued that recovered memories were unreliable, while others argued that she was trying to demonstrate her own resilience in the face of adversity.
Aptheker maintains that she is telling the truth. However, she says she has forgiven her father. A conversation with her father on his deathbed, along with the support of her partner Kate Miller, helped her come to terms with the abuse. She writes in Intimate Politics, “I sought a middle ground between the grief of an irreconcilable break and the long shadow of denial.”
*A Radical Teaching Style* “I am going to do a lecture on compassion, healing, and social change,” Aptheker told the students in her Introduction to Feminisms class on Nov. 15. She has taught the class since 1980, when it was just a seminar of 30 students. On this day, she stood in the front of Classroom Unit 2, facing a nearly full audience (the room’s capacity is 472 people), unusual for a lazy Thursday afternoon.
“It’s always packed,” said teaching assistant Nicole Jost, a fourth-year.
Aptheker’s reputation usually precedes her. “I took this class partly because I had always heard about how wonderful it was,” said James Bording, a fifth-year. “With Bettina’s class, I kind of just sit there and absorb rather than try and scribble down notes. She has such a wide breadth of life experience that you can learn a lot from, and it’s really good to hear.”
That day, Aptheker touched on motherhood, childbirth, and abortion. She said that all three were part of the larger issue of reproductive rights, and called her lecture “a lecture on feminist Thanksgiving.”
She told the class, “We often joke about it, especially if it’s your first quarter at UCSC, that it’s a culture shock to go home after you’ve been away at UCSC – the worst university in America.” The class laughed approvingly.
Lately, one cannot talk about Bettina Aptheker without mentioning David Horowitz. Besides bestowing the title of “the worst university in America” upon UCSC this year, in 2006, Horowitz named both Aptheker and Davis in his book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. Horowitz cites her allegiance to the Communist Party (Horowitz falsely claims that Aptheker was kicked out of the party in 1991; she voluntarily left in 1981), criticism of Israel, frequent expression of anti-war sentiments, and of course, her role in changing the women’s studies department to feminist studies.
“It’s something of a joke between professors whether or not you’re on the list,” Aptheker said. She seems proud of the distinction, but exasperated when further pressed on the issue.
“You know, I don’t want to talk about him,” she said. “His argument has no merit.”
Nevertheless, she often jokes about the subject. “The first day of class, she announced that she was one of the worst teachers in the country at the worst university in the country and she got a standing ovation for it,” Bording said.
In the section of his book dedicated to Aptheker, David Horowitz cites a Rate My Professor evaluation criticizing her method of teaching. “[O]ne of Aptheker’s less than happy students complains that she focuses ‘way too much on personal history,’” he wrote.
For many students, this is the main draw of Aptheker’s classes. Fourth-year Claire Carlstroem was led to Introduction to Feminism by her interest in Aptheker’s approach to education.
“I had a TA who said it would be good to take her class because she has a different approach to teaching large lectures,” Carlstroem said. “She’ll give you meaningful statistics and ground them with actual experiences, and sometimes she’ll read poetry to give a different perspective.”
“It’s really interesting, with all the hardcore theoretical classes that I’ve taken,” Encina said. “It’s different, because the way she teaches, it’s really open to interpretation. It’s not so didactic; it’s more storytelling, so that was a really big thing for me. Instead of being fed what we’re supposed to know, we just interpret it on our own.”
An unusual feature of the class is that TAs teach sections with different themes for students to choose from, such as Feminisms and Theater, Beyond the Binary, Feminism and Body Image, and Feminist Art Expression.
“The sections are really interesting,” Bording said. “My section is ‘Confronting Gender Binaries’ and I’ve worked with queer youth, so it was fun to sit in a class with other people who were interested in that sort of gender politics.”
Jost praised the class and said Aptheker’s methods showed students a different way of thinking.
“[In sections] I hear a lot of, ‘I never thought about it before,’” she said. “I feel like the students connect to her. The stories are always grounded in course material.”
“First of all, she’s a fabulous storyteller,” Jost said, “Her book is – well, I couldn’t put it down.”
Aptheker is far from bashful when telling personal anecdotes. Today, she told the class a story about her experiences with childbirth.
“I was going through contractions and the doctor sat down with me,” Aptheker said. “He was in surgical garb, and as I went through the contractions, I grabbed the first thing I could. It happened to be his penis.”
Besides eliciting uproarious laughter from her students, as she often does, Aptheker had a point to make.
“Afterwards, he told me what happened and I apologized,” she said. “He said, ‘It’s okay. At least now I know what childbirth feels like.’”
That day, Aptheker’s class concluded with a round of applause from her students.
*Present-Day* Aptheker was a member of the American Communist Party for nineteen years. She no longer considers herself a Communist.
“I haven’t been in the Party since 1981,” she said. “But I’m influenced by Marxist ideals.”
True to her words, Aptheker often mentions class when talking about a wide variety of subjects, such as when asked the difference between teaching at UCSC and other institutions.
“I love everywhere I’ve taught,” said Aptheker. “The difference is that at, say, San Jose State, the class origins of the students are more working-class and more racially diverse. But the students are wonderful everywhere I’ve been.”
Aptheker considers herself “both culturally and religiously Jewish,” and is also a practicing Buddhist. It was her Buddhism, she says, that helped her forgive her father for the pain he inflicted on her as a child.
“It cultivates compassion,” she told the Mid-County Post in December 2006. “And a certain kind of training of the mind, a certain understanding how feelings are ephemeral, so they can change. I really think if once they really love you and express real remorse it is possible to heal from the hurt.”
Kerry Westcott, who took Introduction to Feminisms while Aptheker was in the middle of writing her memoir, remembers Aptheker telling her class about being sexually abused.
“She was very sincere and vulnerable with the class,” Westcott said. “It was amazing; the class was over 500 kids and she could still be so personal.”