Over the years, I have read a few memoirs about growing up in cults. Usually it involves the fundamentalist Mormon Church or some other religious sect. Sonja Larsen’s tale is different. For not only did she live in two different environments, neither of them were religious-based.
Her story begins at eight years old, hitchhiking with a musician named Dale from a commune in Montreal to one in Redding, California. Her parents were coming after her. I’m already hooked. What kind of parents do that to a child? But that is just the tip of the iceberg. For after living in the states for several years, Sonja and her mother end up in New York working for the head office of the National Communist Party of the USA. Sonja was 15 when she started and was there for four years.
I have read some hard-to-believe stories, Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors comes to mind, but what makes Larsen’s Red Star Tattoo different is the style in which she presents her tale. She writes very matter-of-factly, without satire, often giving the reader a step-by-step of her daily routine inside communist headquarters. She also doesn’t shy away: whether it’s the death of her cousin Dana, her somewhat concubinal relationship with the group’s charismatic leader, and stories of murder, sexual abuse, and drug trafficking, Larsen claimed much more life experience in 19 years, then many people go through in a lifetime.
In the 1970s and 80s communism was everywhere and was everything. Talk of revolution and radical change was on everybody’s minds and lips, yet in the end proved to be anti-climatic. What makes Red Star Tattoo an interesting if sordid tale, was how it made examine communism on a philosophical level.
I studied Marx a little bit in college and have also traveled to Cuba. I have been struck by how different Marx’s theories are when they are allegedly put into practice. Sonja seems to agree. She acknowledged that she is still not sure she knows what communism actually is, in part because no country has implemented Marxism in it’s purest form, though Cuba would probably the country and government that has come the closest.
As someone who was a bit of an ideologue in college, I can sympathize with why Larsen felt like she was a part of something. It feels good to be wanted, to feel like you are really doing something, changing the world. And yet, it is hard to maintain that idealism when there are so many other people involved, fighting for power, where the greater good trumps individuality. That, Larsen believes, was the groups most inherent flaw. Cadre – as members were called – weren’t valued as individuals, rather many simply known by numbers, job title or position within the organization.
For someone her age, Larsen was able to rise quickly within the NOC, becoming at times the leader’s “assistant” as well as being in charge of placing other cadre into jobs. Yet, by getting so close to the higher-ups in the organization, she was finally able to see it for what it really was: a Sham, a farce, a cult (a term she only found comfort with years later).
But all is not lost. Although it took Larsen many years to learn how to live in society – especially when it came to love and romance – she put her good heart to good use; she is now working with youth in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Yet the memories or her past will always be there. She owns these past memories. And for that she receives not a red star, but a gold one. She is part of the new revolution.