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What It's Like to Join a Revolution as a Five-Year-Old

Peter Andreas's memoir 'Rebel Mother' relates an incredible childhood of communes and coups across the US and Latin America.

Peter Andreas was ten years old when he took part in his own kidnapping. 

It happened on a Wednesday in 1975, at an elementary school outside of Detroit. Andreas was wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, a gray sweater, and a green ski coat—details preserved in an incident report compiled by the local sheriff. At lunchtime, he walked out of the schoolyard and into a waiting VW Beetle driven by his mother, Carol, who was disguised in a black wig and large dark glasses. "I would not have recognized her if she had not waved to me from the driver's seat," he later wrote.

From there, Andreas and his mother drove across the nearby Canadian border, and soon flew to El Paso, Texas, where they re-connected with Carol's new husband, Raul, who was holding tens of thousands of dollars in cash from Carol's life savings and her divorce settlement with Andreas's father. Their final destination was Raul's native Peru. "Stuffed with cash, the three of us walked across the border bridge from El Paso into Juarez, [Mexico]" Andreas writes. "I was flattered by my mother's trust in me, but the bulky pile of crisp $100 bills in my pants, poking out around my waist, made me self-conscious."

Today, Andreas is a 51-year-old tenured professor of international studies and political science at Brown University. An acclaimed scholar, he has written academic books on war, crime, borders, and smuggling. But this latest book—in which he recounts this kidnapping—is a remarkable memoir called Rebel Mother: My Childhood Chasing the Revolution. That childhood, as he put it mildly during in a recent conversation in his office in Providence, was "rather different."

Photo courtesy of Peter Andreas/Simon and Schuster

At the heart of Rebel Mother is an account of an astonishingly bitter custody battle. On one side was Andreas's father, Carl, "an accountant at heart" and sweater-vest wearer, who kept a steady job as an administrator for the United Automobile Workers union and lived in a house in the suburbs. In the evening when he returned from work, he would say to his youngest son, "How's my little boy Peter?" 

On the other side was a woman Andreas describes "a traditional 1950s Mennonite housewife who became a 60s radical feminist and Marxist revolutionary," who later wrote books on women's liberation and labor conditions in the Colorado meatpacking industry. A sociologist who preferred not to wear bras, makeup, or deodorant; she once told the sixth-grade Andreas, in full earnestness, "You know, learning to use a gun will prove handy for when the revolution comes." 

Young Andreas was caught in the middle of the rift his father called the "Peter Problem." And, when he describes it in the book, it seems significantly bigger than just a broken marriage. "My father, a simple, conventional 1950s man, had been blindsided by the 1960s revolution," he writes. Later, he describes how in legal filings his father cast his mother as "a radical hippie, a church-hating atheist, an anti-American communist, and an anti-male and anti-marriage feminist who promoted polygamy and was determined to destroy the traditional family." To Carl, she wasn't just an unfit and unstable parent; she was a threat to society.

The tactic worked at first, with Carl winning custody of Andreas. But Carol refused to give up on her dream of "raising a revolutionary boy, free of the vices of mainstream America." So she kidnapped him, whisking him way to Peru. Upon learning of his location, the State Department informed Carl that extradition wasn't an option.

Photo courtesy of Peter Andreas/Simon and Schuster

All told, Andreas's journey with his mom took him through a whirlwind of states, countries, homes, and schools between the ages of five and 11. There was the commune in Berkeley; the farm in Chile (when the Pinochet coup upended the country's politics, they fled). There were the stints in Buenos Aires, then Peru. Along the way, her mother had lovers who were often far younger. Sometimes she had sex while Andreas was in the room, pretending to be asleep. It was in Peru where Carol met Raul, the charismatic yet volatile actor and activist whom she would later marry.

These years on the move, engaging in protests and rallies and impassioned political discussion wherever they went, were both perilous and exhilarating. Andreas and his mother endured all kinds of physical trials: scabies, lice, mice, cockroaches. A train trip through the mountains literally went off the rails. He came to speak Spanish better than English—and he became fluent in the language of revolution. Periodically, his mother was arrested for shoplifting, protesting, and the kidnapping. But, thanks to both her luck and wits, she was never convicted. Eventually, when they moved back to the US for Andreas's high school years, his mother legally changed her name to Andrea. She settled into a relatively tame life of a college professor in Colorado, where she lectured students on the evils of capitalism and imperialism. 

Decades later, when she died unexpectedly, she left behind more than a hundred diary notebooks stretching from the 1970s until moments before her death in 2004, when she wrote, "Uh oh, I think I'm having a heart attack, what to do." Those notebooks, plus other records and letters kept by Andreas's father, offer readers an intimate view of a mind-boggling story. At one moment, teenage Andreas tries to console his mother over her estrangement from one of his two older brothers by writing a heartfelt letter. "Mami, mom, mum, mama, Carol, Andrea," he wrote to her. "She is many people at different times of her life trying to figure out which person she wants. A mother, a housewife, a swinging single, an adventurer, a lover, a feminist, a runner, a saver, a peacemaker, a revolutionary."

So how does Andreas feel about all of this now? 

"You can read her as entirely appalling and negatively, or you can read her as 'oh, what a cool mom!'" he told me during our meeting. The reactions from his friends span that spectrum. He falls somewhere in the middle. 

Photo by Rythum Vinoben/courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Now a father of two young girls, Andreas says that there was something undeniably reckless about his mother's travels with him and her overall approach to parenting. "A child should not feel that he must let his mother kidnap him in order to secure her love, or be a nightly witness to his mother's political screaming matches and marital passions, or bear the weight of her suicidal thoughts," he writes. 

But he also admits that—just as she predicted—he feels lucky for the experience. Without her, he writes, he "would have led a more narrow, insular life, less aware of other peoples and cultures and less concerned about the world's great injustices and inequalities." In a recent essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, he notes, "I probably would not have even become a political scientist if it had not been for an intensely political childhood." 

This doesn't mean that he shares all of his mother's views. Though he grew up to be what he calls a "good lefty liberal," his refusal to take a more radical stance left his mother feeling wounded. Near the end of Rebel Mother, Andreas quotes excerpts from her diaries from when he enrolled in a PhD program at Cornell in the early 1990s. "Peter is not merely misinformed," she wrote. "He is consciously misinformed and I have to accept that he is no revolutionary. I do need to deal with my grief over this."

Contained in these final chapters is one of the book's lingering lessons: that rebelling against a revolutionary mother sometimes means not rebelling. By the time he reached college, Andreas writes that he had "politically overdosed on a childhood full of marches and heated, late-night arguments about Lenin and the 'correct political line'... As a lot of my college classmates were going through their political awakenings, I was already burned out on activism."

During our interview, he described his mother as a complicated woman. And, as far as book subjects go, she's "a far more interesting character than I am, to be honest," he said. "I'm just along for the ride."

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Rebel Mother: My Childhood Chasing the Revolution by Peter Andreas is out now in bookstores and online from Simon and Schuster.