Barbara Kay: The Conservative Movement’s Lion in Winter: David Horowitz’s New Memoir

Reprinted from

Towards the end of his new memoir, You’re Going to Be Dead One Day: A Love StoryDavid Horowitz reprises a vividly remembered incident that he had previously recounted in Radical Son (1996), his eloquent manifesto of liberation from his family’s hermetically sealed ideological prison.

Horowitz’s parents had come to California to see his new home. At the time, approaching early middle age, Horowitz was emerging from years of intellectual and domestic crisis. His erstwhile comrades, the Black Panthers, had murdered an innocent supporter, Betty Van Patter, in cold blood, creating (reasonable) fear for Horowitz’s personal safety, vaporizing his ideological confidence, and setting in motion a tortured self-interrogation that in turn alienated old friends and sabotaged his marriage, leading to a divorce and temporary estrangement from his four children.

Without savings or job prospects, his modest new dwelling (financed by his mother) represented nothing more than hope that a corner had been turned in his fortunes. Yet, having briefly toured the little house, his father’s comment was, “You lead a charmed life.”

The words, so at variance with Horowitz’s temporal woes, shocked him at the time. Considered these many years later, though, and contemplating the raft of fresh tribulations that inspired this book, he sees them as retrospectively true.

For the Black Panthers did not kill him after all. Self-interrogation opened the floodgates to positive, life-altering insights. His relationship with his former wife became amicable and enriching. His writing flourished and found mass audiences. He reconnected with his children on positive, mutually gratifying terms.

And, 20-plus years ago, he married April Mullvain, considerably younger but in many ways considerably wiser than himself, whose back story, character and philosophy of life are given generous attention in this memoir. What makes for the perception of a “charmed life,” it turns out, can be the difference between totting up one’s losses and counting one’s blessings. Horowitz has suffered greatly, but he has also been greatly blessed. And in this, his fourth domestic journal, the lion in winter is attuned more to gratitude for the blessings than sorrow for the losses.

Although Horowitz claims not to believe in God, he was raised as a believer – the “destructive faith” of Communism is more demanding and all-consuming than most other belief systems – and the banishment of that failed god did not relieve him of a yearning for a “creative faith” that would confer purpose and significance on his moral crusade, as well as the hope of redemption for personal sins that hovers over all of his apologias.

You’re Going to be Dead One Day is a slender, meandering flow of anecdotes mundane and meaningful, philosophical aperçus, personal performance review, and, strewn here and there – this, even off-duty, is David Horowitz after all – mini-attacks on the utopianism of the left.

The book opens on a brilliant spring morning with a description of a luxurious reclining leather chair equipped with impressive electronic bells and whistles, in which Horowitz is sitting and pleasurably contemplating Mothers Day celebrations in progress around him.

The chair, a gift from April, will allow him to write in relative comfort, true comfort being in short supply following a botched hip surgery resulting in severe neuropathic pain and a useless “drop foot.” Horowitz appreciates April’s thoughtfulness, all the more moving in light of her own terrifying brush with death and residual suffering not many months before in a car crash.

So the book begins in a perfect storm of labile emotion and memento morimarkers: a family reunion; physical pain; the haunting near-loss in a loved one’s skidding halt on the lip of the abyss; and worrisome new evocations of his 2001 radical prostatectomy. Writing the memoir seems a natural way to console himself for his sense of general decline.

In one important way, though, Horowitz remains not only undiminished, but stronger than ever. The subtitle of the book is “A love story.” And that it is. Horowitz marvels: “I find myself in the throes of a passion that I would have thought reserved only for the young and innocent.”

Indebtedness and admiration flood the narrative when April is the subject. She clearly completes him, off-setting his pessimism with optimism, his impatience in decision-making (he chose his maladroit hip surgeon from the Internet!) with sobriety of action and his tendency to ratiocination with spontaneity.

He worries about amassing equity that will support her when he is gone; she, a seizer of the day, happily uses their “seed corn” to enhance their home’s beauty and hospitable utility (not to mention material value). As April puts it, providing the memoir’s title, “You’re going to be dead one day. I’m going to be dead. So let’s enjoy it while we’re here. Let’s be happy.” Horowitz, the great persuader, is persuaded.

Animals play an out-sized role in this book. Over the years with April, Horowitz has found himself the bemused owner of five rescue dogs, and his home a base for a horse-rescue organization. Although apolitical, April, like Horowitz, is in her own way a crusader for justice.

Some of her rescue animals were liberated from conditions so dire and apparently hopeless, only an angelic soul would see a life worth saving. Horowitz’s claims for April’s extraordinarily giving nature are backed up with evidence in inspiring tales of wretchedly starved, brutalized and even diseased dogs and horses – the details are quite distressing; man’s casual cruelty to animals is viscerally revolting – that she could not bear to abandon, and against all odds restored to lives of health and joy.

On a deeper level, this fourth memoir continues to explore the theme of parents and parenting that permeates Horowitz’s three others: The End of Time (2005)A Cracking of the Heart (2009) and A Point in Time (2011)ACracking of the Heart was the most difficult to write, as its subject was Horowitz’s relationship with his heroic daughter Sarah, following her tragically early death at 44 from complications attached to her genetic affliction of Turner Syndrome.

In that book, reflecting on his own deficits as a father, Horowitz wrote, “Her thoughts were guiding me toward the future, as though she were my parent rather than I hers.” He was struck by a lesson Sarah took from a revered rabbi, “Pay attention to the ways in which your relationship continues.”

These are words Horowitz took to heart, for You’re Going to Be Dead One Day is suffused with sensitivity to the casual pain his ambitions and ego have inflicted on loved ones, even his beloved wife. In one tense episode, an uncharacteristically angry April tells him, “You are thinking only of yourself. You don’t consider what you put me through.” Chastened, Horowitz concedes, “I could not dismiss what she had said. I did bump into walls and people.”

Amongst the most important “people” Horowitz bumps into are his remaining children, Jonathan, Ben and Anne. Though circumspect and often vague regarding details, presumably to protect his children’s privacy, Horowitz offers much to interest the reader in his recurrent fascination with fluctuating cycles in the parent-child relationship. Understandably. Horowitz’s parents loved him, but they loved Communism more, and raised him to believe that a step away from Communism was a personal betrayal of them. That he did step away is a tribute to his courage, but he paid a high price in godforsaken loneliness for choosing self-exile.

Horowitz’s 1978 divorce created “a continental divide in my life.” His parenting role sharply diminished. As he writes here – a reality every parent of adult children will recognize – parenting “teaches you about yourself, and not always in a reassuring way. You see your failings starkly, and hardest of all you have to accept the distances that the dance of life creates.”

Grateful for his reintegration in their lives, Horowitz vowed that he would never subject his own children to the kind of political bondage he had known, and kept that promise, not only because of its inherent unfairness, but also because, as he writes in reference to Jonathan, “I didn’t want my enemies to become his enemies.” (I smiled at Jonathan’s quip, “Only dummies go into the family business,” and Horowitz’s rueful admission, “I was one of the dummies….”)

Horowitz’s humility in lauding his sons’ remarkable achievements (in life, as well as in their respective entrepreneurial trajectories, captivating stories in themselves) is touching: “I didn’t have the breadth of vision of either of my sons, and consequently, unlike them, did repeat my mistakes and paid the price.”

For readers of a certain age – likely to be his most receptive constituency – Horowitz’s articulate recognition of the mutability in parent-children relations will prove the most interesting aspect of his memoir, and his stoic acceptance of his diminishing tide in their lives the most admirable. His insights, simply expressed, are perhaps not entirely original, but they ring true in a memorable way, as for example, “our children’s successes become a measure of our own decline as their exciting steps lead to a future without us.”

Quite late in the memoir, Horowitz reveals that because of hormone treatments he is undergoing to counter elevated PSA levels, this was “the first book I have written without any testosterone in my system.” This certainly helps to explain his melancholy around his sense of general diminishment, but also the preoccupation with relationships, the tenderly sketched biographies of the family animals and his deepened empathy with April’s emotional peaks and lows. “Sometimes I grow misty in my walks,” he writes. To understand in the body what it can feel like to be the opposite sex is a late-life gift, and that is the spirit in which Horowitz takes it.

You Will Be Dead One Day has the feel of a “last things” summing-up of his personal life. Knowing Horowitz, we should not make any such assumption. But if it is, we leave him in a wholesome place, proud of the “good work” he has done and proud too of the fact that he has lived “as fully as I was able.” If not always the “charmed life” of his father’s imagination, David Horowitz’s has been and continues to be a life in full, still very much in influential progress, and this memoir a charming glimpse into previously unexplored nooks and crannies therein.