A political scientist makes sense of his uncommon childhood
April 17, 2017
Peter Andreas ’87, a professor of political science at Brown University, tells the story of his upbringing with his mother, a Mennonite-turned-Marxist who took him across South America in the early 1970s. Drawing on his own memories as well as her diaries, Rebel Mother: My Childhood Chasing the Revolution is Andreas’s moving portrayal of a unique parent/child relationship and the birth of a political consciousness.
Your previous books have all been academic. What compelled you to write a memoir?
I always knew I wanted to write something, someday, about my unusual childhood. But I kept putting it off, thinking the timing wasn't quite right. I also wasn't sure I had enough material for a book. Then, when my mother suddenly passed away, I discovered her huge collection of diaries—covering decades—and it hit me: There's a book here. Still, it took me more than a decade after that to fully jump into it.
How did your academic work informed the memoir work – in terms of research, narrative structure, writing – and vice versa?
In terms of actually writing the memoir, I think my academic work was more of a handicap. The narrative structure and writing style are entirely different—so much so that I sort of had to relearn how to write (Dialogue? What's that?). In fact, my editor at the press told me she had to convince her boss to take my project on "despite [my] being an academic." Academics unfortunately have a bad rep for being bad writers. I became a student of writing again through this project.
How was the process of writing memoir different from that of writing a scholarly book?
Completely different. A scholarly book is maybe 80 percent research and 20 percent writing. The memoir was the opposite—20 percent research and 80 percent writing. Even if those numbers aren't quite right, you get my point. The writing itself matters more for a memoir, much more. The writing is what has to sustain the story—you have to have the story, of course, but on its own it's not enough. No one (except maybe my closest friends and family!) would want to turn the page if the writing were not good enough.
Did the process of writing the book change how you felt or what you thought about the story?
Frankly, before starting the book I didn't actually spend much time dwelling on the story. I was too single-mindedly obsessed with my career, trying to stay on top of my game professionally. So I put the story in the back of my mind, always knowing it was there, ready for me to dive into, but not giving it a whole lot of thought until I was ready for it to consume my thoughts.
What surprised you in writing Rebel Mother?
That it actually got published! Seriously, when I realized the academic presses I was most familiar with don't publish this sort of thing, I worried about whether it would ever be published.
It also surprised me how much fun it was to write—yes, also hard, really hard, but crazy fun. I could work at it all day. No procrastinating, no motivation problems, always happy to keep going, morning day and night. I've never experienced anything quite like that. That's probably what sustained me when I wasn't sure about getting a publisher.
The writer Patricia Hampl has written, "Memoir is the intersection of narration and reflection, of storytelling and essay writing. It can present its story and consider the meaning of the story.” What meaning did you derive from your story after writing this memoir?
That sounds about right: an artful mix of narration and reflection. My first draft was all narration, then readers and editors pushed me to incorporate more reflection as well. I'm still working on that, even after the book is published! I'll be curious to hear what "meaning" readers derive from the story--there can be many.
One meaning I derive is that I really get it, now more than ever, when people say "all politics is personal" and "the personal is political." My childhood was totally defined by that.
Did writing this book take an emotional toll, or did it make you feel liberated—or both, or neither?
Well it was certainly an emotional rollercoaster reading through three decades of my mother's diaries as part of writing this book. Lots of highs and lows and everything in between. But yes, it also felt liberating to write the book, or maybe unburdened is a better word? I've carried this story inside me my entire life. It was never a secret or something I was hiding, but I’d never told it to anyone in any great detail either. It feels good to put it out there.
- Sarah C. Baldwin