West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 19 | October 10 - 16, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Cathy Wilkerson spoke with a class of New York University graduate journalism students outside 18 W. 11th St. at the end of last month.

Activist spark is still burning for a survivor of explosion

By Alyssa Galella

The petite, 62-year-old woman on the sidewalk in front of 18 W. 11th St. was a convicted felon, an ex-fugitive and a radical. Standing there quietly, she found it difficult to picture herself tumbling out of her father’s townhouse onto that very sidewalk 37 years ago, after her friends accidentally detonated a bomb that destroyed the brownstone. Today, Cathy Wilkerson seems uncomfortable and slightly shy about her legacy.

“This has become a memorial site for some people,” she said of the angular, modern, brick townhouse that is clearly newer than the others on the block. “But for me it’s not a memorial; it’s someone’s house.”

Wilkerson, now a math teacher who lives in Brooklyn, has just finished creating her own tribute to her turbulent past — a memoir called “Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman.” Although most people who lived through the 1960s are already familiar with Wilkerson, the radical groups Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground and the famous brownstone explosion on March 6, 1970, she hopes they will read her book to get the facts straight.

“I got so tired of reading my story from the mouths of fiction writers,” Wilkerson said. She was especially concerned that her history was being “romanticized” in books and documentaries that were perpetuating myths about her story. For instance, various sources (including The New York Times) have said that Wilkerson ran down 11th St. stark naked after the explosion, when in reality she was clothed but barefoot — she had been ironing bed sheets before the bomb went off.

“Who irons in the nude, anyway?” she laughed.

Wilkerson’s 400-page tome begins with her childhood in Connecticut, where, while attending a Quaker camp, she had her political awakening.

“The Quaker camp was important, because it brought the issue of passionate pacifism into focus for me at a very young age,” Wilkerson said, although she later forgot her pacifist background when the Weathermen turned to violence.

While attending Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, she rebelled against her puritanical upbringing and traditional gender roles by becoming involved with S.D.S., a radical student activist movement.

“I was raised in the ’50s — I was to be a teacher, secretary or stay-at-home wife, so how could the movement not have been fun?” Wilkerson said. “I wanted to tear down the old structures of society and live freely and be a passionate political activist, and I got to do all of that.”

Wilkerson, who wrote for the S.D.S. publication New Left Notes, was spurred on by the turbulent atmosphere of the ’60s and the anti-Vietnam War movement.

“We had a more intimate relationship with [the war in] Vietnam than you have with Iraq, because we saw it every night on TV,” she said. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do — sit behind my white privilege and let all these other people get killed?’”

By 1969, Wilkerson and the more radical S.D.S. members had split off into a new organization called Weatherman, inspired by the lyric, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” from Bob Dylan’s song “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” But it wasn’t wind so much as a tornado.

“We had been in an escalating spiral of rhetoric that had gotten out of control, and we couldn’t tell the difference between rhetoric and reality,” Wilkerson said. “Rage is not a political strategy, and Weatherman didn’t have one.”

In 1970, the rhetoric of rage resulted in a plan to bomb a soldiers’ dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Wilkerson’s friends began to build a pipe bomb filled with nails and dynamite in the basement of the townhouse owned by her father, who was away on vacation. Something went tragically wrong and three Weathermen were killed when the bomb detonated prematurely, while Wilkerson and fellow member Kathy Boudin (who later served 22 years in prison for her involvement in a robbery that left three people dead) escaped unscathed.

Although she lost three friends in the accident, Wilkerson said she is grateful every day that the bomb never made it to Fort Dix, where it could have killed many more people.

“Life is full of irony,” she said grimly.

After the explosion, Wilkerson went into hiding and lived underground in California for a decade, during which she gave birth to a daughter, Bess.

“I was pretty much a zombie for at least a year after the explosion,” she said. “I didn’t get my bearings until the second half of the ’70s.”

In 1980, she turned herself in, pled guilty to possession of illegal explosives, and served 11 months in prison.

“I had a great time in jail,” Wilkerson said, citing her friendships with women she otherwise would not have come into contact with, like former Mafia drug mules. “I would’ve stayed longer, but I had this kid.”

However, Wilkerson’s criminal record still haunts her today. Due to her convicted-felon status, it is difficult to find work as a math teacher; she currently teaches part time at the Bank Street College of Education. Also, she cannot legally foster children — although she has taken in several over the years. And she has no pension or retirement fund.

But Wilkerson, who now lives in Brooklyn with her partner, criminal defense attorney Susan Tipograph, did not see writing her memoirs as a way to make a quick buck. Over six years, she spent her life’s savings while taking time off to research and write at her country house in Hudson, N.Y.

“This book was not a financial investment,” she said. “I’ve done nothing but pour money into it, and I never expect to get it back.”

Despite her new status as a published author, Wilkerson still sees herself as “primarily and fundamentally a political activist,” although she doesn’t have time to attend all the rallies and protests she would like. Over all, Wilkerson seems at peace with what she called her “chaotic” life.

“When I look back at my life, I ask, ‘Every day I got up, did I do the best that I could?’” she said, acknowledging that there are some things she wishes she had done differently.

This 20/20 hindsight is reflected in the title of her book, an allusion to the Greek myth of Icarus, who fell into the sea after flying too close to the sun with wings made of feathers and wax.

“We wanted change to happen tomorrow,” she explained. “And you can’t change things too fast, or it heats up too much and melts your wings.”

However, Wilkerson recently saw an Emily Dickinson poem on the subway that she thinks would have been a better fit.

“‘The truth must dazzle gradually,’” she nodded to herself, reflective. “‘Or every man be blind.’”

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