Did you know that I was lovers with Eldridge Cleaver? You didn’t?
The crazy thing is, neither did I! Not until this past year when my cousin Neil told me, asking point blank,
“Did you have an affair with Eldridge Cleaver?”
What??!! Who told you that? I gasped.
We all thought you had. My mom told me you and Eldridge were lovers.
Apparently for the last fifty years, this was family lore. I’d been Eldridge Cleaver’s lover.
my first passport photo, taken in Berkeley, California, the summer of “68. I’d just turned 21.
Talk about fake news!
Back in 1969, Eldridge Cleaver was famous. He ran for President on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket in 1968 with my former upstairs Chicago neighbor, Peggy Terry. He wrote a widely-read book “Soul on Ice”, in which he confessed, among other things, to being a rapist. For a time, he was an active member of the Black Panther Party. By 1969, he was a fugitive living in Cuba, and eventually Algeria, and France.
The closest I’d ever gotten to Eldridge Cleaver was selling a pair of Laurel Burch earrings to his wife, Kathleen. Alone, she entered the biggest and best hippie jewelry store Happiness Unlimited on Haight Street, where I was a salesgirl. It was 1968. The Black Panthers were a big deal and she was one of the seemingly powerful Black Panther women. Despite her petite appearance in the above photo, I was struck by her model-like height and slender build, as well as her beauty and confident demeanor. I totally recognized her and thought her fabulous.
I never met Eldridge who, by the way, became an endlessly morphing human being — from rapist, author, Black Panther, fugitive, to creator of a line of penis-inspired men’s clothing, starting his own church, joining the moonies, joining the LDS – Mormon Church, and becoming a conservative Republican. In that long list of incarnations, I can promise you, he was never my lover.
When I wasn’t at the store, I made every effort to be a Revolutionary. Besides frequent anti-war demonstrations and endless committee meetings (or smoking marijuana with my roommates around our pathetically mal-functioning space heater), I worked on the Editorial Board of a radical, San Francisco-based newspaper called “The Movement”, associated with the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC). They were the black arm; we were the white. Our workspace was in the back of a Greek Orthodox church —which still stands in San Francisco’s Mission District — on 14th Street, half-way between Guerrero and Valencia. I don’t recall ever seeing one prayerful or priestly person there, but maybe we just weren’t there on Sundays. I still notice the Church as I drive down 14th Stret these days to go to Rainbow Grocery. Back then, however, it was a hub of revolutionary activity, brimming with intellectual people, mostly men, who wrote, edited, and published the newspaper. Like most of women on the “Board”, I did the secretarial work and lay-out of the paper. It was totally sexist, but that was the norm. We didn’t expect different. No one was paid anything. It was a labor of love and political commitment.
That year I slept with any number of radical, young men. In the free-for-all-chaos of so-called sexual liberation, I was no doubt hoping to find my revolutionary version of a prince charming. I did not find him. Instead I had sexual encounters that were occasionally as pleasant and casual as meeting a friend at a cafe for hot chocolate. Sometimes there’d be a follow-up date, not always. In addition to the casual sex and the hoped-for love connection, other sexual encounters occurred because I felt guilt-tripped or I’d simply waited (what I thought was) too long before I said no, and then felt I couldn’t.
Often I didn’t know my own feelings, but I was always careful of the feelings of others. I was in a frequent state of self-doubt. Confronted with some young man’s interest in me, I could say, I’m not sure, or I don’t know, or simply try to act as if I hadn’t noticed, but I had no clue how to say No. No clue how to have appropriate boundaries, and how to stand by them. I was 20 years old, a child with a seductive young woman’s body and no skill or guideline for self-protection, especially if I thought someone was a moral and committed revolutionary.
I was essentially a cross between Anne Frank and Blanche (from Streetcar Named Desire), wanting to believe that people are basically good, and knowing I would need to rely on the kindness of strangers. As it turned out, most people were kind and basically good. But what about American soldiers in Vietnam? Policemen swinging batons at me and my fellow protestors’ heads and into our kidneys? What about J. Edgar Hoover and Cointelpro? And what about the radical, young men who saw me as simply another sexual conquest, a notch on their belts? Not fully human at all? My Anne-&-Blanche stance wasn’t exactly sustainable. My wide-eyed trust got me out of some difficulties, into others. I learned by luck and error.
This was a year before the women’s liberation movement took hold. That movement would help some, but it’s been a tortoise-paced process waking and re-claiming our right to live with safe boundaries, equality, and respect. So many of us feel alone in our unacknowledged oppression. As well as alone in our feelings of self-doubt and/or self-blame. For a long time, it seemed like nothing would ever change, but now, with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, I think there’s real hope. In 1970 a book came out titled Sisterhood is Powerful. But it was a wish, not reality. Sisterhood did not feel powerful; now it begins to. On my own, it would take me decades to learn the skill of boundary setting (with men, my family, and friends). Years to find my voice, and use it… and still learning.
And the family story of me and Eldridge? My best guess is it was born the day my beloved Aunt Rose and I walked to the grocery store and stopped off at the post office. I had just returned from a six month hitch-hiking tour of Europe, exhausted, broke, and on my way back to Phoenix for R&R before returning to San Francisco. The Lufthansa landed at JFK and I decided to spend a few days visiting the Brooklyn branch of my family — Aunt Rose, Uncle Sid and their kids in Sheepshead Bay. It was March, 1969. I vaguely remember there being a wanted poster on the bulletin board at the post office. I remember it being Bernadine Dohrn, a person I’d crossed paths with the year I lived in Chicago, but apparently it would be another year til she made the List. It must have been a poster of Eldridge Cleaver because the government had recently filed charges against him. Because he was vaguely part of the “revolutionary” community I understood myself to belong to, I imagine my aunt and I probably had a conversation about this. Somehow (and to this day I still don’t understand the particular workings of my family’s brains) that very conversation must have morphed into Gayle was Eldridge Cleaver’s lover.
Fast forward: 1975. I was 28. My parents had just arrived in San Francisco and we were sitting in my kitchen and sharing a pot of tea, when my mother asked,
Do you mind if I ask you a question?
No, of course not, I replied, happy to be having this lovely sharing of tea with them.
Would you still kill us if the “Revolution” told you to?
Me, in total confusion, bewilderment, and fear, Whaaaaat???? WHAT! are you talking about???
We know you said, it, but do you still feel the same way??
I never said it. I never thought it.
How did I know this? Because, I never thought about killing anyone. Anyone. Ever. I would definitely remember had I ever made a decision that I was willing to kill someone.
Who told you this? I asked.
Your brother. He said you told him.
Alas. My brother. Ten years earlier, when he was still a Republican, he thought my ideas treasonous.
You’re a traitor!
he declared after I’d spent one afternoon sitting with him in the dark room at my father’s photography studio, trying to explain my thoughts on Vietnam. His condemnation scared me. He scared me. I left the dark room as soon as I could, trying not to look like I was fleeing. I decided then and there it’d be wise to never again talk politics with him.
Still, fake news gets told then believed.
Eventually I guess my parents chose to believe my version of the story. Which, was only fair, but not a given. Or… maybe they just thought I’d changed my mind.
One more fake news story. A personal one. There was this guy I was attracted to. Not so long ago. But he really wasn’t available in oh, so many ways. After a brief flirtation, I wanted to end the flirting, but didn’t know how to do it without hurting his feelings. (I’ve always been afraid of hurting guys’ feelings. Because they can get SO hurt and/or SO angry). One day he gave me an out. He suggested that we shouldn’t proceed because he felt I was vulnerable. Now, I have no problem being vulnerable, but this isn’t how he meant it. He meant fragile and weak, easily hurt. In fact I am vulnerable (in a positive way) — and proud of it — and, I’m also strong. But I chose not to contest his assessment. You’re right, I am, I said, because well, it was easier to take the issue on myself than say there was even one, let alone, several qualities about him. I was happy that he thought it was his idea to dis-engage. Shortly after that, when I saw him, the attacks started. He said you have to be right all the time. He called me vulnerable, fragile. victim. All these gas-lighting words. I got confused. Lost to myself. The lostness didn’t last long, but it scared me.
Do you see what I’m talking about here? I’m talking about fake news. How stories get told, and how one can even be complicit by not seeing clearly what’s going on. Who other people take us to be, who we take ourselves to be, especially in the moment of mis-understanding, or the creation of fake news. What I’m saying is, a person can get tangled up in it.
Boundaries have always been an issue of interest. I want to be open, but not stupid, not someone to be taken advantage of. As researcher, speaker, and author Brene Brown brilliantly teaches that trust has to be based on something real… Something she calls B.I.G. Boundaries, Integrity, and Generosity. Having boundaries, respecting your own, and having them respected leads to a sense of Integrity, which leads to being able to generously and wholeheartedly engage in trusting relationships. (This is the briefest of summaries; if you’re interested, and I hope you are, you have to read her.)
Brene is incredibly popular, and for good reason. All her books are excellent. Her most recent ones “Rising Strong” and “Braving the Wildnerness” have great new research about vulnerability and bravery and guidelines for living a better, truer, braver life.
Here, you can listen to Krista Tippet’s recent interview of Brene Brown at On Being.
I’ve also been listening to and reading Deborah Tannen, an amazing linguistics professor/ researcher/writer on how we communicate. “You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships” is a revealing and rewarding offering — a description of obstacles to clear communication, even between the closest friends. You’d be surprised how often, despite the best intention, fake news gets substituted for honesty. It’s practically tragic.
Fake news is finally out of the closet. I mean, we all know about the fake news out there. Trump, the GOP, Fox News, trolls, etc.
But fake news is also in here. It comes from within and without, from self, friend, and foe. Stories that never see the light of day can still darken our waking hours and keep us from being our own bravest and compassionate selves. I’m certain it behooves us to understand the terrain, so we don’t have to waste our energy fighting paper dragons or becoming bedfellows with real ones.
Because of the inter-disciplinary nature of the latest brain research, we know SO much more than we used to when I was a girl or even twenty years ago, when I was fifty! We know that vulnerability is a GOOD thing, that courage comes WHILE facing fear, not pretending we are not afraid. We now know that healthy boundaries are necessary for healthy relationships. We know all this, and at the same time, intellectual knowing doesn’t translate into an automatic and magical transformation. It takes hard work to un-do our long-ago-created fake news stories, and those in progress.
So, what’s a girl to do? I remind myself to be kinder and more curious in my internal conversation with myself. I take Blanche and Anne out for the most delicious plant-based lunch I can find and we talk things over. Sometimes I take them for a ride in the country to see baby lambs so they, as city girls, can remember how beautiful nature is. I have no interest in proving them wrong; just want them in the company of a grown-up — me.
I intend to continue engaging in the larger conversation and by my own work on myself, help move that conversation in the direction of more kindness, curiosity, and honesty… because… why? Because I need this kind of belonging — to myself and to a world where people are kind, curious, brave and… yes, vulnerable.
I’m excited; I think we’re on the brink of some important work, as individuals and together. Personally, I’ll be doing this work and I’ll be marching in solidarity with the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this coming month. Because they — Emma Gonzalez and the other students — have called BS on the lies and fake news of Trump and the GOP. And do you see Emma’s big hot tears of rage and grief and bravery and tenderness? That’s all in there too. I’m calling BS on all the fake news — Trump, the GOP, the NRA, and the patriarchy — that says women are weak and not strong. I’m calling BS on our own (fake) stories that hold us down. With love and hope in my heart, I’m calling BS.