Fugitive Days is, if nothing else, honest. A conflicted memoir about a confused young adulthood in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Bill Ayers’ book does not purport to deliver the definitive tale of Vietnam-era radicalism. In fact, it doesn’t even claim to tell the truth. “Is this, then, the truth?” writes Ayers after the dedication page. “Not exactly,” he responds. “Though it feels entirely honest to me.” The truth that Ayers is attempting to tell concerns his activities as one of the key organizers of the Weathermen, a radical leftist activist group the focus of which was ending the war in Vietnam and attempting to overthrow the United States government, to “bring the war home.” Labeled terrorists by many and often landing on J. Edgar Hoover’s 10 Most Wanted List, the Weathermen were a loosely organized handful of young revolutionaries who ended up on the run from the law.
One strength of Fugitive Days is that Ayers knows what to focus on. He forgoes the indulgence of lengthy tales of his conventional childhood, and wraps up shortly after the dissolution of the Weathermen. The majority of the book takes place between 1965, when Ayers gets involved in militant anti-Vietnam protests, and the mid-’70s, as the remaining fugitive Weathermen settle into lives with fake identities, spouses and dogwalking.
Ayers is unapologetic about his activities as a radical activist, and writes with pride, “Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the Pentagon.” He also gleefully recounts his role in breaking Timothy Leary out of jail. While he seems to regret nothing about his activist past, he has become distanced from his youth, and is open about his disbelief (in retrospect) at his and his colleagues’ bravery and naivete. Ayers has had to change some names and places, which he is open about, and he is even more open about the gray areas of memory and the incompleteness of his memoir.
This transparently subjective approach to autobiography works to open a relaxed dialogue with the reader, one in which Ayers confesses that his memory is no definitive history. But it sometimes reads like a cop-out, a way for Ayers to dodge the responsibility of serving up a reliable document from a first-hand witness and participant. Ayers repeatedly points out how limited his account is, which sometimes comes close to defeating the strengths of the rest of the book.
One of the best chapters is the second one, which begins, “There’s something about a good bomb.” Here the author subtly points to the American fascination with–and psychological distance from–violence and warfare. Quoting Harry S. Truman’s unapologetic statements about the bombing of Hiroshima, then describing his fascination with Fourth of July fireworks, Ayers points out that the Weathermen, as radically leftist as they were, mostly came from all-American upbringings where there was nothing more patriotic than an explosion. Furthermore, he implicitly links his revolutionary tactics with the great atrocity committed on Japan. He ends the chapter with “Bombs away,” which becomes a somewhat tongue-in-cheek refrain throughout the memoir.
Ayers critiques the near-foolish idealism of his youth often in the book, at one point writing, “Our courage and purposefulness is a marvel from here. We took ourselves so seriously–OK, a little too seriously, we were too earnest by half and way too insistent–but we felt, personally and specifically, the full weight of the catastrophe unfolding before us.” Such self-flagellation is common in such a memoir, but sometimes Ayers’ self-critique seems indulgent. The clearest examples of this are the italicized portions, which contain Ayers’ musings on memory itself, where he writes things like, “Remembering is also a way of forgetting, a way of filtering,” which is true enough, but also obvious, and gives his often firm voice a romanticism that tempers what is an otherwise forceful memoir.