From Teacher to Terrorist
The tragedy of Diana Oughton
by Cendra Lynn
Diana Oughton's death still makes no sense, even after forty years of pondering. She was a bringer of light, of joy. Yet the FBI found the tip of her right little finger in the rubble that was left of a Manhattan townhouse. How do you get a good fingerprint from a dead pinkie? Where did the rest of her go?
Four years earlier, Diana brought sudden sunshine into the American Friends Service Committee office where I worked, in the basement of Ralph Kerman's home on Woodlawn. Her tawny hair and light gold skin seemed illuminated by her huge smile. She came to visit our intern, Art Koeninger, who had worked in Guatemala while she was volunteering there in Chichicastenango. Both had been deeply moved by their experiences, and they had formed an immediate bond. Her first words to me were a gentle correction of how to pronounce her name. She leaned forward, her hair swinging over her shoulder, and said carefully and quietly, "OW-ten. OW-ten." Her smile and genuine friendliness took the sting out of her words, and I was caught in her aura.
Like all of my friends in the 1960s, she was outraged by the world situation--poverty, injustice, the Vietnam War. But she was also full of enthusiasm for her causes: her boyfriend, Bill Ayers; the Children's Community, the alternative primary school they ran; and the antiwar movement. Intelligent, articulate and committed, she kept inviting me to come see the school, to become part of her work. So I left AFSC at the end of 1967 to join the staff in the school, which met in the basement of Friends Meeting House.
The Children's Community was modeled on Summerhill, the famous alternative school in England. The six of us on staff worked hard to create an open atmosphere. Bill lectured us about poverty, capitalism, racial integration, social class, and child development. But I watched Diana to learn teaching. She brought the love and gentleness that kept the
school and staff together, despite our not knowing much at all about what we were doing.
Our students were a mix of academics' kids and children recruited from Ann Arbor's black neighborhoods, many of whom lived in poverty. They all adored her. She usually had one or two in her arms. She fed, smiled, cleaned, wiped tears and runny noses, comforted, and explained. We didn't believe in forcing children to act a certain way, so many of them behaved with the violence they lived with at home. But when Diana was there, the atmosphere was much gentler, and the children stopped fighting and learned.
For more than a year, Diana and Bill revived my faith in the future. Our mission was to give all the kids an equal education and to rescue some from the hopelessness of poverty. When they were wild or abusive, we accepted it as our due for our privileged upbringings. The more we slaved, the more we were saved. When Bill was jailed after a sit-in at the local draft board, we walked around the jail's urine-yellow cement walls and were thankful for such a doable penance. But after his release, there was no relief. We had abased ourselves, had suffered the righteous penalties of working for minute pay and living minimally. And still the war went on.
It was the war, not the school, that became Bill's focus. He was there less and less often. When he showed up for staff meetings, he filled them with his political diatribes.
By the summer of 1968, everything was changing. The Quakers told us we could no longer rent their space due to breakage, dirtiness, and general chaos. While Diana organized us to search for alternative locations for the school, Bill tried to recruit us into a commune. He called for total submission to the cause: communal living and an end to monogamy.
At this, I balked. Share my boyfriend? Let go of my teddy bear? How would that stop the war? I couldn't; I just couldn't. The thought of lying naked next to one of those unwashed bodies was too disgusting.
Diana joined the commune, but she was never dirty. She whispered to me, "I stopped shaving my armpits! I smell worse than Bill!" I sniffed discretely but smelled only her normal, mild scent. Even though she was trying desperately to shed her own privileged past, she still couldn't smell bad.
When I first visited the house on Felch Street where Bill, Diana, and another staff member had moved, she came running--tall, beautiful, and naked--from the shower to their bedroom, giggling and saying, "I hope none of the kids come in." The house was in the neighborhood where many of our students lived, and they came in and out at will. I wish I could have sniffed her once in the weeks right before she blew up to find out if she had managed to at least escape the smell of unwashed bodies.
Those early days on Felch were halcyon compared to what came next. Bill and Diana were trying to have a child. People came and went from the house, and there were music, talk, laughter, dope, kids, stray pets. It wasn't until later that I learned some of the darker truths, such as Diana's tears over Bill's absence every month during her fertile days. She had given up monogamy in principle, but in practice wanted Bill and their baby. Diana was caught between what she could see, hear, and touch and the powerful polemics from Bill.
She had little choice but to stick with Bill and the cause. The school was not likely to continue. The spring and summer of 1968, with the violence at the Democratic National Convention, the escalation of the war, the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, was a time of total disillusionment. By fall we had lost the future we had once believed in, and desperate acts seemed logical and sensible.
By the end of September, we formally closed the school. We had not located a place to rent, and we had lost our focus and fervor. But Diana had found a new identity. She went from confused but optimistic to dictatorially preaching the party line.
I have a snapshot memory of her dropping by my house on an unusually balmy day at the start of December. With great fervor she announced that we were no longer going to listen to the Beatles. Startled, I asked why. Because of their song, "Revolution," she replied. Still confused and as naive as ever, I asked why again. "Didn't you listen to the words?" she replied scornfully.
In fact, I had--and thought they made pretty good points about violence, hate, destruction, and the difficulty of what we were trying to do. But I didn't dare then to tell her that. Her hair was still golden, but her heart was hardening, and her smile was gone.
Would it have made a difference for our futures if I had spoken up? I can't know, and even now I can't find a quick comeback in the face of hostility. But I do have a voice now, and I know that my opinions matter. And I remember how often in the 1960s and 1970s those of us who took the peaceful values of the counterculture to heart and tried to live them in non-political ways were outshouted, ignored, and scorned by self-important activists who got their words and pictures in the media.
My last clear memory of Diana is of her calling to me from the back of Bill's motorcycle. He was charging through the gravel in a construction zone along the river, where the city was building what became Gallup Park. I, on my own too-large, foolishly purchased BMW, was terrified of sliding out. I slowed down and watched as they vanished in the dust. Diana was holding Bill with one arm and waving with the other, laughing at the thrill.
I wondered how she could do that, how she could set aside awareness of danger, how she could enjoy taking such risks. But I never got the chance to ask.
Diana was not present at the giant Thanksgiving feast held in a house on Ashley that year. When I arrived, Bill shouted out proudly that the woman in the kitchen had shop-lifted the entire meal, enough to feed twenty, including the turkey. Flabbergasted, I asked her how she had done it, but she turned her back and said she didn't want to talk about it. The group was mostly male, the talk was incomprehensible politics, and without Diana there was nothing there for me.
Then I lost touch with them. When the Students for a Democratic Society split, Bill and Diana were in the violent faction, the Jesse James gang. From there they formed the revolutionary Weathermen and disappeared underground.
The war kept growing, and young men were still being drafted to fight. As a volunteer draft counselor, I had to give them the information they needed to make their own decisions about whether to go or flee to Canada. The horrendous burden of knowing that each man I talked to could so easily end up dead added to the fear that engulfed us.
They say that if you can remember the Sixties, you probably weren't really there. It was such a traumatic time for those actively involved in social and political issues that memory often comes in unmatched fragments.
For me the horror had begun at the Washtenaw County Courthouse in 1967 when I was a monitor on a picket line. It was a demonstration of welfare mothers demanding more...what? Something innocuous, like more Aid to Dependent Children, or milk for their kids. Mothers and children, black and white, circled the courthouse peacefully, carrying signs, pushing strollers, holding toddlers' hands.
Sheriff Doug Harvey responded by calling in the Detroit Mobile Tactical Unit--the riot squad. As people marched peaceably past me, obeying my calls to keep moving and not block the sidewalk, I heard screams of terror. I looked behind me and saw the barrel of a shotgun aimed at my nose. Above the black, gloved hands that held it was a masked face with eyes that looked back at me with a cold, impersonal stare. At a word of command he would blow me away as one squishes a mosquito. I was not a person, a woman, a scared little girl. I was the enemy.
I turned away and heard myself again urging peacefulness and order. More screams. The streets were sealed off, and giant vans were unloading more policemen from the K9 unit. Many women were sobbing with terror. I heard my voice reassuring them that the dogs were on leashes and would not hurt them. How young and stupid I was. The dogs were not, in fact, unleashed that day but were every bit as lethal as the shotgun: only a word away from action.
That was the day the lights of my world started blinking out. Our brains won't let us recall too much at once. It was a horrible, impossible world, which none of us survived intact. I remember the rest of that era in fragments, like patches torn from a quilt.
I see some patches clearly. On the evening of March 6, 1970, I go into Cottage Inn, and my arm is grasped by one of the old staff members from the Children's Community. Breathlessly she tells me that there has been an explosion at a townhouse in New York and that people think Diana and Ted Gold had been in it.
My brain shoots a dozen questions: New York? What townhouse? Blew up? Who is Ted Gold? Why is this woman whispering? But my mouth refuses to work, and in that instant she and her friends race out the door and disappear for another couple of years.
The next day the newspapers confirm it: Diana and two other Weathermen, Ted Gold and Terry Robbins, were believed to have been making bombs in the townhouse basement and to have died in the explosion. I alternate between numbness and a voracious need to read everything I can find about the Weathermen, Diana, and what they found in the rubble, including her pinkie. But the more I read, the more senseless it becomes. That wasn't Diana; she couldn't have been making bombs. I live in a fog of terror. The world now makes no sense whatever.
In another scene, I'm in a room at my friends' apartment in Chicago. It's some weeks--a month?--after Diana died, and I'm phoning her parents. It's a small room, with a dark leather chair and a red carpet.
I know nothing about her family except the town in Illinois where they live. I am surprised to find their number and more surprised when her father answers and gets her mother on the extension.
In our grief we are all eager to talk about her. They are very touched that I have called. They tell me they held a memorial service for her and many people came, but none of her recent friends. I am the only one to contact them. I am embarrassed for us. I don't yet know the extent of the craziness of the Weathermen, but I already know none of them will call; they are terrified the FBI will find them.
What her mother wants most to know is why: Why did this happen? Why was her daughter there? Of course I have no answers. I try to tell them how I met Diana, what we did together, but that was years ago. Since then, I had watched that group of people dissolve themselves into nuttiness and violence: an inchoate cult. There is no way I am going to inflict that on these grieving people. How can I tell them about mandatory group sex, about the lessons on how to kill police dogs?
I stand between two worlds, lost for words, when her mother bursts out: "It was Bill, wasn't it? It was Bill! He led her into this, didn't he? It was Bill."
Although it isn't that simple, it also is that simple. "Yes," I reply. "It was Bill."
For several years after Diana died, a friend from the school and I got together on March 6. We met in a booth in the basement of the Blind Pig, ordered cappuccinos, and held a private service of remembrance. It felt vital to keep her memory alive, to not lose all that love and light she had brought us.
Even now, my memories of Diana return each year when the days get gray and slushy. I see her smile, hear her laugh again, and feel my spirits lift as in spring's returning sun. This February I drove to Williamston to meet that same friend in a small restaurant overlooking a river--a beautiful place for our fortieth-year memorial.
That sharp, searing, stinging pain of her death is just as bad as it was at first, but it now lasts only minutes. Mostly we are happy at having even just this much of Diana--these memories--still active in our lives. We talk about little things, funny things, and difficult things. As always, we each recall something the other had not known, details of an era that we can neither forget nor fully remember.
Survivors of the Weathermen have published theories about what went wrong in that Manhattan townhouse. They've suggested that the bomb-makers grew careless, or even that Diana, concerned about killing innocent people, chose to kill the bomb-makers instead.
I tell my friend about a dream of Diana that came to me a few months after the explosion. Wanting to understand what had happened, in the dream I begged Diana for an explanation. She laughed ruefully, saying that they had put some of the bomb-making materials too close to a heat register. Nothing dramatic, just something small and stupid. And then she was gone, leaving the lightest scent of her natural fragrance, which still lingers.
My friend and I agree that it doesn't matter whether the dream was true. Because there is absolutely nothing about Diana's death that could have been real, except that they found a tiny piece of her little finger.
[Originally published in March, 2010.]
On April 2, 2010, Sara Seidel Buckley wrote:
I, too, knew Diana in 1967 and 1968, mainly times when she and Bill came to SDS meetings. But she always talked about the school. I was in the group that argued against the Weathermen and was so angry at their "political" positions which as we came to know had far-reaching consequences. To be honest, just like you, whenever I think and/or hear about Bill in the years since Ann Arbor, I become very angry. What a waste for the beautiful person Diana was!
Thank you for sharing your memories.
On April 14, 2010, deb wrote:
Thank you sharing your memories of my darling sister, Dos.
On April 7, 2011, Cie wrote:
Thank you for sharing your story. I truly enjoyed reading this.