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Unsentimental Education

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 nine books have all been academic. What compelled you to write a memoir?

Lots of things happened to come together. My last book [Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America]—by far the longest, most ambitious book I'd ever written—took a lot out of me, and I really wanted to try something new and different. Maybe I was getting a little bored with myself? Midlife crisis, perhaps? It was also good professional timing: The tenure and promotion hoops were far behind me, and there was no blank box left on my academic publishing profile that absolutely had to be checked off.  

How did your academic work inform the memoir work?

My academic work both helped and hurt me with the memoir project. As an academic, I immediately realized when I discovered my mother's extensive diary collection that I had a wealth of research materials to work with. That gave me the initial confidence to even think about doing a book. I have no idea how anyone ever writes a childhood memoir without research materials—memory alone is not enough. Also, one thing my academic books and my memoir have in common is that they are all, at core, about politics. The memoir is obviously not a work of political science, but it is certainly political—and indeed, my intensely political childhood no doubt helps explain how I became a political scientist. 

Was the process of writing a memoir different from that of writing a scholarly book?

Completely different, even physically different. I wrote all my academic books on a desktop computer, sitting at my desk. I wrote the memoir on my laptop, sprawled out on a sofa, in a lounge chair, or even in bed. Being more physically relaxed produced more relaxed writing. I would also work at it for 12-to-14-hour stretches, seven days a week, shutting out the world. That was before I became a parent!

What lesson did you draw from your story after writing this memoir?

There is not one “right” form of parenting. Societal views of what is appropriate parenting can be radically different from one era to the next—what today we would consider outrageous and outlandish parenting was much less so back in the ’60s and ’70s. Similarly, the sort of hyperprotective helicopter parenting that is so common today would look strange from the perspective of that earlier era. But even back then, I have to admit that my mother’s parenting style was on the extreme end of things. One more meaning from my story—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.

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