In a post on her blog, Sonja Larsen reports her husband’s response when she said she needed an explanation for why she was publishing her first book at 50:
Oh that’s not hard is it? he says. You spent 10 years trying to forget it, 10 years dealing with it and 10 years writing about it.
Reading her memoir, Red Star Tattoo: My Life as a Girl Revolutionary, I could see why it took so long to find a way to think and talk about her childhood growing up in a commune and then–as a teen independent of her parents–in a cult-like political organization, the National Labor Federation. (It’s a political science student she meets after leaving the group who helps her learn to name it as a cult).
When the book opens, 8-year-old Sonja is hitch-hiking from Montreal to California with a young man in his 20s, because everyone knows it’s easier to get picked up with a kid, and she wants to do her part for the group. The commune her parents have joined has decided to move to warmer climes, and Sonja is in the advance party. Her parents arrive in California a few months later. Larsen recounts this trip (which had some scary moments, but not nearly as many as it might have) straightforwardly, from the perspective of her child self who mostly took this life for granted. But there are hints of another perspective, too:
But what did my parents say to me when it was time to go–goodbye? See you soon? See you later?
I found Red Star Tattoo a page-turner from the start, but it gained power as it went along, in part because Larsen’s time in the Communist group is so riveting and horrifying. Just what you would imagine happens to a teenage girl in a cult-like group run by a charismatic man happens to her (and this book will be triggering for some people).
But it’s also because she recounts her story in a way that reflects the maturing of the self she writes about, so the later sections are colored both by her growing awareness that much of what’s happening around her is wrong, and by generosity towards the adults in her life who didn’t fully protect her from it.
Choice was what our parents gave us when they had nothing else to give, not protection, not even sympathy. And that freedom was something they couldn’t take back, even if they’d tried.
I think that much of this book recounts Larsen’s search for the secure love and belonging she felt as a very young child, before her parents began searching for more than an ordinary life. And though she’s clear-sighted about how her parents failed her, she’s also grateful for what her life gave her.
Among those gifts are not just great stories, but compassion. Larsen now works for a community organization in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the poorest neighborhood in Canada. Of this work, she writes:
I don’t know how to change the world. I don’t know if it can be changed the way I tried. But people’s worlds change sometimes. I express this belief in the most banal of ways: remembering a name, finding a pencil, asking if everything is okay, even though I know that being asked is not the same as being brave enough to tell. These small inadequate gestures that make up my day and that will probably not be enough. Maybe most of all it takes luck. That the stranger who picks you up by the side of the road lets you go. That you survive the dangerous men who can spot a girl like you and that Little Red Riding Hood target on your back. I know this. Yet there are days when these little things feel like the only revolutionary work I have ever done.
Sonja Larsen was lucky, more or less. I’m grateful she found a way to tell her stories.