“a narcissist in altruist’s clothing”: ’60s radicalism revisited in zoë heller’s the believers

“She fucked up a bank robbery, she made a couple of dud bombs, and she didn’t use deodorant for ten years. For this she thinks she can lord it over me like she’s fucking Aleksandra Kollontay?”

Zöe Heller’s The Belivers tells the story of the Litvinoffs, a prominent socialist New York Jewish family. When when husband and father Joel, a famous radical lawyer, falls into a coma, his wife Audrey and their adult children Rosa, Karla and Lenny are forced to confront the families hidden secrets.  Here Audrey takes adopted Lenny for one of his periodic visits to his birth mother, who’s been imprisoned for over two decades for a Weatherman-style bombing…

The gates werestill closed when Audrey and Lenny arrived at the correctional facility. After Lenny had stuffed the contents of his pockets into the car door, they joined the visitors who were milling around outside the bunkerlike building. At the bottom of the driveway, a bus drew up, and a group of passengers, mostly women and children, got off. A little boy had just thrown up and his grandmother—a weary-looking woman in hot-pink stretch pants—was wiping his face roughly with a paper towel. “Be still!” she shouted at him as he squirmed. “You want to smell bad when you see your mommy?”


Audrey glanced at Lenny. As a boy, he had always been carsick on the journey to Bedford. At least once and often twice on every trip, she would have to pull into a rest stop, swab him down, and change him into a new set of clothes. He had never been sick on other car journeys; it was the stress of visiting his mother that had made him puke. Later on, in the visiting room, he would crouch in his chair, smelling of bile, asking Susan to explain, one more time, how she had got caught, what crucial planning error had led to her capture. When the bell sounded at the end of the hour, he would cling to her, sobbing for her to come home with him. “Why don’t you escape?” he had asked once. “You could climb out a window. If you ran fast enough, they wouldn’t be able to catch you.”


Audrey had found these visits almost unbearably wounding. It had enraged her that Susan should enjoy the privilege of Lenny’s devotion when it was she, Audrey, who was down in the maternal salt mines, reading him stories and singing him lullabies and cleaning up his vomit. What had Susan ever done for the boy, except abandon him to inadequate childcare while she buggered off to play urban guerrillas?


The gates were open now, and the line had begun to shuffle into the visitors’ processing area. There was a window with a counter where you could drop off food and clothes for the prisoners. A handwritten sign stuck on the glass instructed, NO THONG, FISHNET, G-STRING, OR BIKINI PANTIES. NO LACE OR SHEER BRAS. Audrey and Lenny passed through the metal detectors and walked down a corridor into a large cafeteria-like room with vending machines along one wall. Susan was sitting at one of the tables. Her face broke into a wide smile when she saw them enter. “Hey,” she said softly, elongating the syllable. She stood up and wrapped Lenny in a tight embrace, rocking him back and forth for several long seconds. Lenny, Audrey was pleased to note, looked highly mortified.


They sat down now, with Susan on one side of the table and Lenny and Audrey on the other. “It’s good to see you, man,” Susan said, taking Lenny’s hand and gazing solemnly into his eyes. During her days in the Underground, Susan had been a notoriously intimidating figure. She had worn men’s overalls and styled her hair in a fearsome Plantagenet bob. She had carried a knife “for killing pigs” in the sole of her shoe. Shortly after the arrest of Charles Manson and his followers, she had composed an infamous Cong communiqué, praising Manson as “a brother in the struggle against bourgeois America.” But incarceration, or age—or both—had had an emollient effect on her. Her hair was long and white now, and she wore it loose about her shoulders in the prophetess style favored by veteran women folksingers. The pig-killing rhetoric of yore had long since subsided into a dreamy singsong of healing and conciliation. Over the years at Bedford, she had founded several educational programs for her fellow inmates, including one on AIDS awareness and another—much to Audrey’s secret derision—on “parenting skills.” Her literacy program, in which inmates were encouraged to write and perform plays about their lives, was so well regarded that pilot programs based on her blueprint had now been set up in several prisons around the country.

“So, what’s up, man?” she asked. “What’s going on with your band, Lenny? You been playing recently?”

Lenny shook his head. “Not much.”

“Hey, Lenny, man, don’t neglect your music.”

Audrey turned away to hide her smile. Lenny’s band wasn’t really a band: it was a couple of stoner guys with guitars who got together once a month or so to ad-lib tuneless, ironic songs on miniature domestic themes. Their signature number—their anthem, more or less—was a mock-heroic tribute to the drummer’s cat:


You eat tuna and Cap’n Crunch.

You got a face like Alice in the Brady Bunch.


Susan was always trying, in her earnest way, to lend Lenny’s halfhearted pursuits a serious, progressive inflection. If Lenny got a job in a restaurant, he was “getting into food”—which was great, because it was such a special thing to nourish people. If Lenny took a free trip to Morocco with one of his rich, druggy friends, he was “exploring Arab culture”—which was fantastic, because it was so important for young people to fight American parochialism and bigotry. Audrey treasured these misreadings as proof of Susan’s inanity.


“So what else you been up to?” Susan asked now. “What’s going on in the world?”


“Well, a bunch of things have happened with Joel,” Lenny said. “But Audrey should really tell you about all that.” (Out of respect for Susan’s feelings, he did not refer to Joel and Audrey as Mom and Dad in her presence.)


Susan turned to Audrey. “Audrey, how’s it going?”


Audrey looked at her sourly. She never felt quite respected by Susan. There was a labored politeness in the way that Susan spoke to her—an awkward condescension—that seemed to imply some difficulty in relating to a woman of Audrey’s thoroughgoing conventionality. You are a very straight housewife, her tone said, and I am a fearless renegade, but I am doing my best to find a connection here. It drove Audrey nuts. “The cheek of that woman!” she had often complained to Joel. “She fucked up a bank robbery, she made a couple of dud bombs, and she didn’t use deodorant for ten years. For this she thinks she can lord it over me like she’s fucking Aleksandra Kollontay?”


“Joel’s not doing badly,” she said now. “He’s had a couple of infections, but he’s come through them very well—”


“Yeah, Joel’s a tough old fucker,” Susan remarked.


Audrey flared her nostrils, like a rocking horse. Speaking irreverently of Joel was a right she reserved for herself and very few others—certainly not for Susan. Besides which, she had not yet finished her account of Joel’s medical status.


“And how about you, Audrey?” Susan asked. “You keeping strong?”


“Yup.” Audrey thrust her hands in her pockets as a preventive measure against Susan trying to hold one of them. “We’re all doing fine, aren’t we, Len?”


Susan smiled at Lenny. “Is that right? You doing okay?”


Lenny nodded.


There was a brief pause. Susan looked around the canteen. “I got a letter from Cheryl this week,” she said. Cheryl was a young Puerto Rican inmate with whom Susan had become romantically involved some years earlier. She had been released now and was back living with her boyfriend, but she and Susan continued to correspond. Susan wrote her a lot of love poems, some of which she had been known to read aloud to Lenny.


“She’s training to be an AIDS counselor,” Susan went on. “I’m so proud of her.”

Audrey shut her eyes. The woman was shameless, she thought. Having dealt with Joel in three sentences, she was now going to revert to discussing herself and her sordid lesbian romance. Joel used to say it was unfair to criticize long-term inmates for being self-absorbed. It was inevitable, he claimed, that the outside world should become abstract and somewhat unreal to them. But Audrey disagreed: Susan had always been a narcissist in altruist’s clothing.