Review of Peter Andreas, Rebel Mother: My Childhood Chasing the Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017)
Rebel Mother: My
Childhood Chasing the Revolution is the story of Peter Andreas’s early
relationship with his mother, Carol Andreas, a descendant of the 1870s Russian
Mennonite migration to Kansas and a graduate of Bethel College. Aside from his
family background, Peter’s book is of interest to Mennonite readers because of
how Carol tries to embody the Mennonite ideal of living out her beliefs through
her actions, although theology ceases to be her motivation for doing so early
on in her narrative. The book is divided into 41 short chapters across eight
chronological parts that detail Carol’s conversion to Marxism in graduate school
during the 1960s, the subsequent messy divorce from her still theologically
Mennonite husband, the ensuing custody battle over youngest son Peter, and
Carol and Peter’s life on the run in South America (Chile, Argentina and Peru) and
the western United States (California and Colorado) after she kidnaps him when
the court awards custody to his father. It is illustrated with black-and-white
photographs throughout, a helpful feature – and unfortunately made necessary
because Andreas’s prose does much more telling than showing. Memoir is a
difficult genre – one has to make one’s personal experiences meaningful for
someone else. While there are moments of real emotion in Rebel Mother, enough that it is worth reading, Andreas ultimately
fails to make a bridge between readers and himself.
Andreas was inspired to write the book after discovering, following her death from a heart attack, Carol’s diaries from the period of his childhood. He uses excerpts from the diaries throughout the book. The concept of the book as a product of sifting through his mother’s archive to try and understand her better is a good one. Rebel Mother’s best sections are Andreas’s accounts of his parents’ child custody battles because they include heart-wrenching passages about how Carol feels losing Peter after two different trials. Her diary excerpts are consistently fascinating. I would love it if Andreas would edit a collection of them, to share more of her journey in her own words.
When Andreas relies on his own voice, the book plods along, especially in its first half. Frustratingly, such is the case even in his account of living in South America during his elementary school years. There is reportage about this time, but not compelling storytelling. Rebel Mother needs more commentary about how all of this travelling affected Peter’s relationship with Carol toward its beginning, to frame their story. Such explication never comes, even at the book’s end. What results is a list of occurrences with hardly any analysis. In general, the book feels more like a travel itinerary than a narrative with a purpose.
The whole book is written from a seemingly insulated position despite Andreas’s globetrotting experiences. He does not get outside himself enough for Rebel Mother to be the shared story he claims it is in the “Author’s Note.’ He cleaves to mainstream standards of propriety, showing a lack of empathy for Carol’s struggle against those same standards. For instance, he complains about several instances of Carol having sex at night with him in the room, while in South America. Aside from the disturbing way he slut-shames Carol throughout the book by repeatedly using a scandalized tone to document her enjoyment of sex, Andreas fails to recognize that such shared sleeping spaces are the norm in much of the world – having one’s own bedroom is an economic luxury. In the current U.S. political climate, writing from such a narrow outlook is especially problematic. This attitude manifests itself in the book’s title. Andreas does not really investigate his mother as a radical – that is, he does not give a serious hearing to her beliefs – but simply as a “rebel,’ a figure akin to a disobedient teenager.
Rebel Mother is also missing an investigation of how growing up in a faith community in which both living simply, and living overseas for years at a time, are normal, and may have helped Carol envision as a possibility for her life moving to South America to work alongside locals. In effect, she does a Marxist version of MCC, so from a Mennonite perspective her journey is not nearly as shocking as it would be for non-Mennonite readers (who are, admittedly, Andreas’s primary audience). While there are many ways that the two traditions seem incompatible, at its best, Mennonite thought shares the passion for economic justice that Carol derives from her Marxism. Peter Andreas’s status as an outsider from the Mennonite community, a result of his non-religious upbringing, shows in this lack of discussion about the Mennonite/Marxist overlap. Overall, though, his treatment of Mennonite elements throughout the book is credible, and it does not feel exploitative. He does not employ the “Aren’t Mennonites weird!’ attitude that some other recent Mennonite-related memoirs do.
I find Rebel Mother thought-provoking, but maybe not for the reasons Andreas intends it to be so. I am interested in Carol’s revolutionary beliefs and her struggles to live them out, and I would also like to read more of Andreas’s thoughts about Carol as an intellectual. She had a Ph.D., worked as a professor both before and after their travels, and published several books. Peter Andreas is now also a professor and prolific author, and thus I wish he would further discuss questions such as: How has his career journey influenced the way that he currently sees Carol? Is he able to relate to her more now that he understands the life of an academic?
But the book does not discuss her beliefs or her career enough, and ultimately it does not make me care about the relationships it portrays. I care about Carol, and perhaps that is enough. If Andreas’s goal in writing the book is to memorialize his mother, he succeeds. But overall, Rebel Mother feels like a missed opportunity. It is a decent read, but a frustrating one because it could be something more.