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A Rebel Mother, Remembered

A Brown professor publishes his memoir of his highly unusual, revolutionary childhood

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When Peter Andreas was nine years old, his mother returned late to their apartment in Peru from spending time with her 21-year-old boyfriend. Upset and worried about her, Peter greets her in tears. “Don’t be so rigid and authoritarian like your father,” she tells him.

Debates over political conviction between Carol and those around her, held across South America and the United States as Peter and Carol move from place to place in search of the workers’ struggle, are the stuff of Peter’s first memoir, Rebel Mother: My Childhood Chasing the Revolution. A Brown professor in international studies, Peter has nine other books under his belt, all academic, that encompass topics including smuggling, crime control and border policing; the through line from those to Rebel Mother, he says, is that “everything I write about has to do with politics” – and “this book might be the most intensely political book I’ve ever written.” Carol Andreas believed fervently that the person was political and lived that motto to the utmost. The book relies on Carol’s journals and on the reams of correspondence that Carol and Peter’s father, Carl, both kept – to their families, their children and each other.

The book’s arc is shaped by the clash between Carol, a radical feminist and Marxist, and Carl, a staffer at the United Automobile Workers Union (a position based on his technical knowledge of pensions and health benefits, not pro-labor radicalism) who derides “all that women’s lib crap” and is baffled by Carol’s accelerating shift to the political left. When the two divorce and a court proclaims that Carl has won custody of their three children, Carol kidnaps Peter, the youngest, from school, the first of several kidnappings by his mother that Peter will experience before the book is over.

After a stint in California, Carol and Peter head to Chile and then Peru, where Carol meets her second husband, the much younger Raul – a street performer who acts out vivid parables of class struggle for onlookers. Carol and Raul frequently fall into late-night screaming matches about the relative importance of gender, racial and economic oppression.

Upon reaching adulthood, Peter finds himself drifting away from the radical left and the doctrine his mother has taught him. He finds policy work in DC, eventually working at the Brookings Institution. Communication with his mother, who views his participation in this DC world as capitulation to capitalism, becomes increasingly strained.

More than a decade later, his mother dies suddenly, of a heart attack. The seeds of the memoir are planted when Peter returns to her house and finds more than a hundred of her journals. In them are daily chronicles of her activities, her thoughts and her political convictions. “What hit me hardest initially was realizing from her diaries the degree to which she considered me betraying the cause – that I’d been kind of a sell-out,” he says – something at which she had hinted but never made explicit. “Her diaries make it clear that she’s very unhappy that I’m not the radical she was hoping I would be.” He also discovers her powerful need, evident in the journals from the last years of her life, to be told by her three sons that she is a good mother.

The years of political debates and resulting interpersonal conflict, often irreconcilable, have steered Peter away from “having some kind of label that identifies me with a particular ideology or school of thought or mode of thinking.” But, he admits, “in some ways I’m jealous of my mother.” “She really was a true believer,” with a conviction that echoed religious fervor. “She was so strongly self-confident in her beliefs and in her vision.”