During the last century, from about the mid-1960s to the early ’80s, revolution was in the air.
Cultural and political norms around the globe were experiencing a shakeup and, in the West, the civil rights, antiwar and free speech movements were all gaining momentum, as were feminism and gay rights. Thousands of young people, rebelling against the “button-down” way of life of their postwar parents, joined causes, became activists, and went “back to the land” in a wholesale challenge of mainstream social and political ideals. The cultural landscape was changing fast and the gentle, dope-smoking hippie emerged as one of the dominant symbols of the era.
It wasn’t all peace and love, however.
There were also a number of underground political organizations forming in the U.S. and attracting fledgling young revolutionaries committed to changing the world. The Weathermen (1969-77), with their aim of overthrowing the U.S. government, and the Symbionese Liberation Army (1973-75) with the infamous Patty Hearst caper, were two examples.
In the late ’70s, the Communist Party USA (Provisional Wing) was formed as an offshoot of the anti-poverty group, the National Labour Federation. A left-wing cult, its leader was a former disc jockey and con man from California named Gerald Doeden. By then he had changed his name to Eugenio Maria Perente-Ramos and it is Perente-Ramos, or the Old Man as he was called by his followers, that is the main subject of first-time author Sonja Larsen’s memoir, Red Star Tattoo.
Larsen was a true child of the era. Infrequently schooled, she lived in communes in the U.S. and Canada with a continually changing band of hippies. The younger of two daughters, her separated parents were seldom around to guide or nurture her. Her father was a drug dealer in Montreal and her mother, a committed Communist, lived mostly in California. Larsen’s older sister fled communal life when she was 15.
Growing up, Larsen was given an excess of freedom and was even used, at nine years of age, as a hitchhiking ploy for commune members because people would stop for a child holding a teddy bear. During this time she endured the horrific murder of her teenage cousin, Dana, and her own sexual molestation by her mother’s boyfriend, Karl. Her 13th birthday was spent as a “comrade in arms” in California handing out leaflets about the revolution with her mother.
“Choice,” she writes, “was what our parents gave us when they had nothing else to give, not protection, not sympathy.”
Though slow to begin and written with a narrative style that is, at times, flat in tone, Larsen’s memoir eventually engages. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a brainwashed devotee of a mad charismatic leader, look no further. At 16, Larsen became the youngest full member of the Communist Party USA (Provisional Wing) and was living in her leader’s command post in Brooklyn. By 17 she was one of his many lovers. The revolution, he proclaimed, would happen on Feb. 18, 1984.
Perente-Ramos’s activities included giving lectures to volunteers about the writings of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. The volunteers, all with a common hunger for a better world, were, as Larsen tells us, “the bent, the damaged, the scarred … Fresh from jail, runaways, or just rundown, people joined and left every month.”
Larsen stayed. Though unpredictable in his attentions to her, she believed Perente-Ramos had a deep interest in her life, something she had never experienced from another person. She stayed with him and the movement as well, because once rudderless, she now “had a reason to get up in the morning … This revolutionary life I had been on the edge of since I was a child now had a place for me.”
The first time she saw Perente-Ramos, “he was wearing aviator glasses, a Hells Angels biker vest and a black T-shirt that claimed he was the ‘meanest motherf--ker in the valley.’” This boast proved to be true as Larsen unflinchingly chronicles the physical and sexual abuse he inflicted both on her and other female volunteers. Perente-Ramos controlled people with a mix of hyperbolic idealism, fear and guilt, heavy workload, poor food, and sleep deprivation, the classic modus operandi of messianic cult leaders.
Feb. 18, 1984, came and went. “We didn’t win. Nothing happened,” Larsen tells us. She was 19 by then and, disillusioned by the movement’s failure, drifted away. In the years since, she has struggled to make sense of those times. The result is Red Star Tattoo, an insightful and moving memoir.
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