TO THE New York newspapers the story of the expulsion of a woman Communist was merely one more story. It was handled in the routine way. I winced, however, when reputable papers headlined the Communist Party charges and used the words “fascism” and “racism,” even though I knew these words were only quoted from the Party resolution.
I braced myself for further attacks from the Party, and they came soon in terms of economic threats. Some of my law practice came from trade-union and Party members, and here action was swift. The union Communists told me there would be no more referrals to me. Party members who were my clients came to my office, some with their new lawyers, to withdraw their pending cases.
Reprisals came, too, in the form of telephone calls, letters, and telegrams of hate and vituperation, many of them from people I did not know. What made me feel desolate were the reprisals from those I had known best, those among the teachers whom I had considered friends. While I was busy with Party work I sometimes thought proudly of my hundreds of friends and how strong were the ties that bound us. Now those bonds were ropes of sand.
What I had failed to understand was that the security I felt in the Party was that of a group and that affection in that strange communist world is never a personal emotion. You were loved or hated on the basis of group acceptance, and emotions were stirred or dulled by propaganda. That propaganda was made by the powerful people at the top. That is why ordinary Communists get along well with their groups: they think and feel together and work toward a common goal.
Even personal friends, some of whom I myself had taken into the Party, were lost to me now, and among them were many of my former students and fellow teachers. If rejection by an individual can cause the emotional destruction which our psychiatrists indicate, it cannot, in some ways, compare with the devastation produced by a group rejection. This, as I learned, is annihilating.
In vain I told myself that this was a big world and that there were many people other than Communists in it. It brought no consolation, for the world was a jungle in which I was lost, in which I felt hunted. Worst of all, I felt a constant compulsion to explain myself to those I met who were still in the communist circle. I tried at first, but soon gave it up.
I had always been an independent person and rarely gave my reasons for doing things. Now I wrote letters to people, some of whom had lived in my house or had been frequent guests there, and in whose homes I had been welcome. Those who replied were either abusive or obviously sought to disassociate themselves from me. Two friends replied in one sentence on the back of the letter I had written them only this: “Please do not involve us.” Many did not answer at all.
Before long my office was empty except for snoopers and creditors. I gave up my home and moved into a dingy room near my office. I would go early to my office, read the Times and the Law Journal, and then sit and look out at Bryant Park, at the classical lines of the Public Library. I had spent many hours in that library as student and teacher, hungry for knowledge. Unfortunately I never really satisfied that hunger, for my reading in later years had been only communist literature and technical material. There is no censorship of reading so close and so comprehensive as that of the Party. I had often seen leaders pull books from shelves in homes and warn members to destroy them.
But I had no desire to read now. The one book I did open was the New Testament which I had never stopped reading even in my days of starkest Party delusion.
I stayed late in my office because there was no place to go other than my room, a dark, unpleasant place, with the odor of a second-class hotel. I still remember the misery and darkness of the first Christmas alone. I stayed in my room all day. I remember the New Year which followed, when I listened with utter despair to the gayety and noise from Times Square and the ringing bells of the churches. More than once I thought of leaving New York and losing myself in the anonymity of a strange town. But I did not go. Something in me struggled with the wave of nihilism engulfing me. Something stubborn in me told me I must see it through.
The New York Post asked me to write a series of articles on why I had broken with the Communist Party, and made me a generous offer. I agreed. But when I had finished them and read them over I did not want to see them published and found an excuse for refusing the offer. When a weekly magazine made an even more lucrative offer, I refused that, too. There were several reasons for this, as I now realize: one was that I did not trust my own conclusions, and another that I could not bear to hurt people I had known in the Party and for whom I still felt affection. Some I knew were entrapped as surely as I had been.
It was a strange and painful year. The process of completely freeing oneself emotionally from being a Communist is a thing no outsider can understand. The group thinking and group planning and the group life of the Party had been a part of me for so long that it was desperately difficult for me to be a person again. That is why I have lost track of whole days and weeks of that period.
But I had begun the process of “unbecoming” a Communist. It was a long and painful process, much like that of a polio victim who has to learn to walk all over again. I had to learn to think. I had to learn to love. I had to drain the hate and frenzy from my system. I had to dislodge the self and the pride that had made me arrogant, made me feel that I knew all the answers. I had to learn that I knew nothing. There were many stumbling blocks in this process.
One afternoon in March of that year an old acquaintance, Wellington Roe, came into my office. He breezed in with a broad smile and said he was just passing and had decided to say hello. I thought nothing further of his visit. “Duke,” as we all called him, had been one of the Party’s front candidates in the American Labor Party. He was the leader of the Staten Island forces and had run for office on its ticket. He had helped in the fight against Dubinsky when the Party was struggling to get complete control of the Labor Party. I had not known him as a Party member but as a liberal and a friend of the Party, one who did not mind being used for their campaigns.
It was reassuring to talk about the Party in terms of the average newspaperman, and laugh at its strange antics which he lampooned. I told him about my articles and he said he wanted to see them and even spoke of a possible book contract. Then he talked of events in Washington. I told him I had been so immersed in my own troubles that I had paid little attention to current events. If I had any opinion about Senator McCarthy, of whom he spoke, and of whom the country was just becoming aware, it was that I thought of him as the opening gun in the Republican campaign.
He asked if I had ever known Owen Lattimore. I said I had not. Had I ever known him to be a Party member, he asked, and again I said no. I had heard of him vaguely, I said, as a British agent in the Far East.
A few weeks later Duke walked in again and this time asked if I would be willing to help Professor Lattimore. I replied I did not see how, since I did not know him. He talked of the importance of having all liberals unite to fight reaction wherever it was manifesting itself. This left me unconvinced. I had problems of my own and for once I did not wish to get involved with those of others. But he came again the next day, this time with a man he introduced as Abe Fortas, Lattimore’s attorney. I did not know him, but I had heard of him through mutual friends as a man who often defended civil-service employees faced with loyalty probes.
After a short talk the attorney said he thought he would have to subpoena me in the defense of Lattimore. When he saw my reluctance he asked if I would be willing to give him an affidavit saying that I had not heard of Lattimore while I was a leader in the Communist Party. So I signed an affidavit to that effect, and I thought that was the end of it.
I was naive to think so. A few days later I was served with a subpoena by the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate. Dumfounded, I called Duke. He said it was no surprise to him. Since he was going to Washington he would be happy to make a reservation for me. He would even rent a typewriter so that I could prepare a statement.
At the hearings I saw Lattimore for the first time. Duke was there too. At a table with Senator Tydings sat Senator Green of Rhode Island, Senator McMahon of Connecticut, Senator Lodge of Massachusetts, and Senator Hickenlooper of Indiana. Back of them sat Senator McCarthy, and next to him Robert Morris, whom I had known as one of the attorneys for the Rapp-Coudert Committee.
I studied the senators before me. I knew that Senator Tydings was related in some way to Joseph Davies, former ambassador to Russia, who had written the friendly Mission to Moscow, and who had been active in Russian War Relief, receiving an award from the Soviet propaganda center in the United States, the Russian Institute. I knew of Senator McMahon’s proposal for sharing our atomic knowledge with Russia. I felt that these men in the seats of power had facts not available to the rest of us, and were going along with the postwar perspective of co-existence with the Soviet Union, a position easy for me to accept since it was much like the communist propaganda during the years of my involvement with the communist world. When Senator Hickenlooper began to throw hostile questions at me I reacted with the hostility of the Communist, and I gave slick, superficial answers, for I did not want to be drawn into what I regarded as a Democratic-Republican fight.
There is no doubt in my mind that on facts of which I had knowledge I told the truth. But when it came to questions of opinion there is no doubt that before the Tydings Committee I still reacted emotionally as a Communist and answered as a Communist. I had broken with the structure of the Party, but was still conditioned by the pattern of its thinking, and still hostile to its opponents.
Something, however, happened to me at this hearing. I was at last beginning to see how ignorant I had become, how long since I had read anything except Party literature. I thought of our bookshelves stripped of books questioned by the Party, how when a writer was expelled from the Party his books went, too. I thought of the systematic rewriting of Soviet history, the revaluation, and in some cases the blotting out of any mention of such persons as Trotsky. I thought of the successive purges. Suddenly I too wanted the answers to the questions Senator Hickenlooper was asking and I wanted the truth. I found myself hitting at the duplicity of the Communist Party.
I returned to New York alone and as the train sped through the darkness I looked out at the dim outline of houses in small towns and my heart went back to the memory of myself walking about the little Episcopalian cemetery as a child and putting flowers on the graves of American heroes. And suddenly I was aware of the reality of what was facing the country, a sobering fear of the forces planning against its way of life. I had an overwhelming desire to help keep safe from all danger all the people who lived in those little towns.
My appearance before the Tydings Committee had served one good purpose: it had renewed my interest in political events, and it had the effect of breaking the spell which had held me. I had at last spoken openly and critically of the Communist Party.
To those who find it difficult to understand how a mind can be imprisoned, my puny indictment of the communist movement before the Tydings Committee may have seemed slight indeed, for I no doubt gave some comfort to the Party by my negative approach. But it takes time to “unbecome” a Communist.
But the event had been important to myself. I could now breathe again. I could read critically, and I lived again in the world so long lost to me.
I read the congressional report of the hearings on the Institute of Pacific Affairs. I found I was again able to interpret events. In my time with the Party I had accumulated a large store of information about people and events, and often these had not fitted into the picture presented by the Party to its members. It was as if I held a thousand pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and could not fit them together. It irritated me, but when I thought of the testimony of witnesses before the Congressional Committee, some of whom I had known as Communists, much of the true picture suddenly came into focus. My store of odd pieces was beginning to develop into a recognizable picture.
There had been many things I had not really understood. I had regarded the Communist Party as a poor man’s party, and thought the presence of certain men of wealth within it accidental. I now saw this was no accident. I regarded the Party as a monolithic organization with the leadership in the National Committee and the National Board. Now I saw this was only a facade placed there by the movement to create the illusion of the poor man’s party; it was in reality a device to control the “common man” they so raucously championed.
There were many parts of the puzzle which did not fit into the Party structure. Parallel organizations which I had dimly glimpsed now became more clearly visible, and their connections with the apparatus I knew became apparent. As the war in Korea developed, further illumination came to me.
We in the Party had been told in 1945, after the publication of the Duclos letter, that the Party in the United States would have a difficult role to play. Our country, we were told, would be the last to be taken by the Communists; the Party in the United States would often find itself in opposition not only to the interests of our government, but even against the interests of our own workers.
Now I realized that, with the best motives and a desire to serve the working people of my country, I, and thousands like me, had been led to a betrayal of these very people. I now saw that I had been poised on the side of those who sought the destruction of my own country.
I thought of an answer Pop Mindel, of the Party’s Education Bureau, had once given me in reply to the question whether the Party would oppose the entry of our boys into the Army. I had asked this question at a time when the Communists were conducting a violent campaign for peace, and it seemed reasonable to me to draw pacifist conclusions. Pop Mindel sucked on his pipe and with a knowing look in his eyes said:
“Well, if we keep our members from the Army, then where will our boys learn to use weapons with which to seize power?”
I realized how the Soviets had utilized Spain as a preview of the revolution to come. Now other peoples had become expendable — the Koreans, North and South, the Chinese soldiers, and the American soldiers. I found myself praying, “God, help them all.”
What now became clear to me was the collusion of these two forces: the Communists with their timetable for world control, and certain mercenary forces in the free world bent on making profit from blood. But I was alone with these thoughts and had no opportunity to talk over my conclusions with friends.
The year dragged on. Spring changed to summer and summer into autumn, days and problems were repeated in weary monotony. The few people I came in contact with were as displaced as myself. There were several, out of the Party like myself, who were struggling to find their way back to the world of reality. One was being psychoanalyzed and several were drinking themselves into numbed hopelessness.
More than once I wondered why I should go on living. I had no drive to make money. When I did make some, I paid creditors or gave it away. I paid the persons who pressed me hardest. Sometimes I went to visit members of my family, my brothers and their children. But from these visits I returned more desolate than ever. I had lost my family; there was no returning.
Every morning and every evening I walked along Sixth Avenue and Forty-second Street. I came to know the characters who congregated around there, the petty thieves, the pickpockets, the prostitutes, the small gamblers, and the sharp-faced, greedy little men. I, too, was one of the rejected.
Early in the fall of 1950 I went to Washington to argue an immigration appeal. I had planned to return to New York immediately afterward. It was a clear, crisp day, and I walked along Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol. Near the House Office Building I ran into an old friend, Christopher McGrath, the congressional representative of the Twenty-seventh District, the old East Bronx area of my childhood. I had not seen him for more than a year. When I last saw him he had taken me to lunch and given me some advice. He greeted me warmly and invited me to his office. I was happy to go with him. There
I found Rose, his secretary, whom I had known. When we were in his private office he said abruptly: “You look harassed and disturbed, Bella. Isn’t there something I can do for you?”
I felt a lump in my throat. I found myself telling him how much he had helped me the day he had taken me to lunch, and how good it had been to talk about my mother to someone who had known her.
I recalled how strange that luncheon visit had been. For the first time in many years and in a noisy restaurant in Manhattan someone had talked to me reverently about God. The people I had known in my adult life had sworn in the name of God or had repeated sophisticated jokes on religion, but none had talked of God as a living personal Reality.
He asked me if I wanted FBI protection, and I must have shivered noticeably. Though I was afraid, I was reluctant to live that kind of life. He did not press the issue. Instead, he said: “I know you are facing danger, but if you won’t have that protection, I can only pray for your safety.”
He looked at me for a moment as if he wanted to say something else. Then he asked: “Bella, would you like to see a priest?”
Startled by the question, I was amazed at the intensity with which I answered, “Yes, I would.”
“Perhaps we can reach Monsignor Sheen at Catholic University,” he said. Rose put in several calls and an appointment was made for me late that evening at the Monsignor’s home.
I was silent as we drove to Chevy Chase. All the canards against the Catholic Church which I had heard and tolerated, which even by my silence I had approved, were threatening the tiny flame of longing for faith within me. I thought of many things on that ride, of the word “fascist,” used over and over by the communist press in describing the role of the Church in the Spanish Civil War. I also thought of the word “Inquisition” so skillfully used on all occasions. Other terms came to me — reactionary, totalitarian, dogmatic, old-fashioned. For years they had been used to engender fear and hatred in people like me.
A thousand fears assailed me. Would he insist that I talk to the FBI? Would he insist that I testify? Would he make me write articles? Would he see me at all? And then before my mind’s eye flashed the cover of a communist pamphlet on which was a communist extending a hand to a Catholic worker. The pamphlet was a reprint of a speech by the French Communist leader Thorez and it flattered the workers by not attacking their religion. It skillfully undermined the hierarchy in the pattern of the usual communist attempt to drive a wedge between the Catholic and his priest.
By what right, I thought, was I seeking the help of someone I had helped revile, even if only by my silence? How dared I come to a representative of that hierarchy?
The screeching of the brakes brought me back to reality. We had arrived, and my friend was wishing me luck as I got out of the car. I rang the doorbell and was ushered into a small room. While I waited, the struggle within me began again. Had there been an easy exit I would have run out, but in the midst of my turmoil Monsignor Fulton Sheen walked into the room, his silver cross gleaming, a warm smile in his eyes.
He held out his hand as he crossed the room. “Doctor, I’m glad you’ve come,” he said. His voice and his eyes had a welcome which I had not expected, and it caught me unaware. I started to thank him for letting me come but I realized that the words which came did not make sense. I began to cry, and heard my own voice repeating over and over and with agony, “They say I am against the Negro.” That accusation in the Party resolution had made me suffer more than all the other vilification and 1, who had for years been regarded as a hard Communist, wept as I felt the sting anew.
Monsignor Sheen put his hand on my shoulder to comfort me. “Don’t worry,” he said. “This thing will pass,” and he led me gently to a little chapel. We both knelt before a statue of Our Lady. I don’t remember praying, but I do remember that the battle within me ceased, my tears were dried, and I was conscious of stillness and peace.
When we left the chapel Monsignor Sheen gave me a rosary. “I will be going to New York next winter,” he said. “Come to me and I’ll give you instructions in the Faith.”
On my way to the airport I thought how much he understood. He knew that a nominal Christian with a memory of the Cross can easily be twisted to the purposes of evil by men who masquerade as saviors. I thought how communist leaders achieve their greatest strength and cleverest snare when they use the will to goodness of their members. They stir the emotions with phrases which are only a blurred picture of eternal truths.
In my rejection of the wisdom and truth which the Church has preserved, and which she has used to establish the harmony and order set forth by Christ, I had set myself adrift on an uncharted sea with no compass. I and others like me grasped with relief the fake certitude offered by the materialists and accepted this program which had been made even more attractive because they appealed for “sacrifice for our brothers.” Meaningless and empty I learned are such phrases as “the brotherhood of man” unless they have the solid foundation of belief in God’s Fatherhood.
When I left Monsignor Sheen I was filled with a sense of peace and also with an inner excitement which stayed with me for many days. I flew back to New York late that night, a beautiful, moonlight night. The plane flew above a blanket of clouds, and over me were the bright stars. I had my hand in the pocket of my blue wool coat and it was closed over a string of beads with a cross at the end. All the way to New York I held tightly to the rosary Monsignor Sheen had given me.
For the rest of that year I remained alone in New York, limited in my contacts to the few clients I served and the occasional friend who dropped in. Now and then I stepped into a church to sit there and rest, for only there was the churning inside of me eased for a while and only then fear left me.
Christmas, 1950, was approaching, an I again my loneliness was intensified. I was now living in a furnished room on Broadway at Seventy-fifth Street and still shuttling from my room to my office and back again every day and night.
On Christmas Eve, Clotilda and Jim McClure, who had lived at my house on Lexington Avenue and who had kept in touch with me and worried about me, called and urged me to spend the evening with them. After I sold my home they had had a miserable time finding accommodations. Harlem and its unspeakable housing situation was a cruel wilderness cheating the patient and undemanding. The McClures had moved to a one-room apartment on 118th Street where the rent of the decontrolled apartment was fantastic for what it offered. But Jim and Clo made no apologies for their home, for they knew how I grieved at their predicament.
It was cold when I arrived, but I forgot that in the warmth of their welcome. They rubbed my cold hands and put me in their one easy chair, and Clo served a simple supper. Jim said grace as he had always done at our house. We talked about Christmas, and as I listened to them I knew why bitterness had not twisted these two. They had made the best of what they had. They were gay and full of life, and above all they were touched with a deep spirituality which made their shabby room an island of harmony. There in a squalid building on an evil-looking street with its back areas cluttered with refuse and broken glass they had found spiritual comfort.
After we had eaten, Jim opened his well-worn Bible and read a few of the psalms and then Clo read several. As I listened to their warm, rich voices sounding the great phrases I saw that they were pouring their own present longings into these Songs of David, and I realized why the prayers of the Negro people are never saccharine or bitter. Jim handed me the book and said: “Here, woman, now you read us something.”
I leafed through the pages until I found the one I wanted. I began to read the wonderful phrases of the Eighth Psalm:
“For I will behold the heavens, the works of Thy fingers ... What is man that Thou art mindful of him? ... Thou hast made him a little less than the angels ... Thou hast subjected all things under his feet.... Lord, our Lord, how admirable is Thy name in all the earth.”
For a few moments after I had finished no one spoke. I handed the Bible back to Jim. Clo poured another cup of coffee for me. Then I said I was tired and ought to get home since it was almost eleven o’clock. I promised I would come again soon, and Jim walked with me to the Madison Avenue bus and wished me a “Merry Christmas.”
The bus was crowded with chattering and happy people. I sat alone in the midst of them, with my face against the window, watching the drab streets go by. On many of those corners I had campaigned. I had walked many of them in a succession of months of meaningless activity, a squandering of my creative years in sham battle. So many wasted years, I thought, drab as the streets!
So immersed was I in my thoughts that I forgot to get off the bus when it reached Seventy-second Street to transfer for the west side. I realized I had gone too far, but had no real desire to get off the bus at all, and I watched Madison Avenue turn from stores and flats into smart shops and hotels, and when we crossed Forty-second Street I still did not get off the bus.
I have no recollection of leaving the bus at Thirty-fourth Street or of walking along that street to the west side. My next recollection is of finding myself in a church. The church, I learned later, was St. Francis of Assisi.
It was crowded. Every seat was filled. There was hardly room to stand, for people packed the aisles. I found myself wedged in the crowd, halfway between the altar and the rear of the church.
Services had begun. From the choir came the hymns of Christmas. Three priests in white vestments took part in the ancient ritual. The bell rang three deep notes; the people were on their knees in adoration. I looked at the faces etched in the soft light, faces reverent and thankful.
It came to me as I stood there that here about me were the masses I had sought through the years, the people I loved and wanted to serve. Here was what I had sought so vainly in the Communist Party, the true brotherhood of all men. Here were men and women of all races and ages and social conditions cemented by their love for God. Here was a brotherhood of man with meaning.
Now I prayed. “God help me. God help me,” I repeated over and over.
That night, after Midnight Mass was over, I walked the streets for hours before I returned to my rooming house. I noted no one of those who passed me. I was alone as I had been for so long. But within me was a warm glow of hope. I knew that I was traveling closer and closer to home, guided by the Star.