Posted April 23, 2009
Said Sayrafiezadeh’s When Skateboards Will Be Free is a painful memoir about a child whose parents were self-absorbed revolutionaries. His book reveals quirky parents whose separate lives revolved around the Socialist Workers Party. He paints a vivid picture of the party’s campaigns from the vantage point of a child dragged to meetings, street sales and demonstrations. Most vivid is his take of the SWP’s annual summer schools and conventions at Oberlin College, where the party’s children roamed the grounds and buildings, stuffed themselves at the all-you-can-eat cafeteria, and watched the rallies where members responded to the promissory speeches with sustained clapping, cheering, feet stomping and big collections.
Like all children, Said desired his parents’ love and attempted to incorporate their values even when those were fiercely at odds with the world around them. Like many of us from dysfunctional families, Said could not understand the dynamics that drove his parents and ended up having to raise himself.
As someone who was a member of the SWP during much of this period and who has a walk-on part in his memoir, I find the story deeply moving and profoundly true, although written from the point of view of a child who couldn’t understand everything he saw and heard, and gets some parts wrong.
Every child wants the family to be happy together, and for those of us whose families split apart for one reason or another, we didn’t want that to happen and, as a result, feel extraordinarily alone. Not only did Said’s “Pop” leave when he was a baby, but then his sister, and later his brother became part of another household, of which I was a member. Outside of the wonderful summer days of Oberlin and the kids he played with after school, Said remembers his childhood in gray tones: his life was a series of worries. Would he take the right side? Would he say the right thing?
Would he fail the expectations of his parents? Of course most of us do, in one way or another.
Said’s memoir also took my breath away because the adults in his life did not protect him when he needed them to do so. He perceived his parents as campaigning for justice and equality yet failing to nurture him. His memoir shouts: the political is personal too!
Some have expressed doubt that he was sexually molested; as if they simply can’t believe that party cadre could do such things. I mentioned that to a woman who’s been a socialist almost all her life; she told me that as a child another party’s leader molested her. In my case it was a nice next-door neighbor.
Said never became an activist, nor even explored radical politics, as he eventually admits to his girl friend. And although his life choices are different from my own, I could identify with his attempts to emerge out of the increasingly sectarian shadow world of the SWP and find his way into adulthood.