David Horowitz, Regnery, 188 pages, $24.95
David Horowitz remembers the moment well. The author of Radical Son, fresh off his political conversion, was having dinner with his family one night, explaining why he had become a conservative — and why they should, too. At that point, he admits, he was still “unable to speak about such matters without passions rising unbidden that were near ferocious.” His animus was the result of a recent break with hardened leftists, after witnessing them commit a series of heinous acts and then excuse them. The problem was that Horowitz was now inclined to assail anyone to his left — however decent — and on this night, he allowed his anger to overflow.
The conversation turned toward the danger of anti-war movements, whose purpose, Horowitz believed, “was to disarm democracies and encourage their enemies.” One of his children, Sarah — a liberal, then in her 20s, and active in the peace movement — was present to witness her father’s fury that night. He describes what occurred:
The assault continued until the moment I became aware of the expression on my daughter’s face. Sarah had been silent throughout my tirade, which I hardly noticed as I barreled ahead. But all of a sudden her features came into my view with an excruciating clarity. I saw that her eyes had grown red and liquid, and her face was convulsed as though an immense weight was pressing inexorably down on her. Her expression in that instant was one of such mute and irremediable suffering that the distress of it has never left me.
Suddenly, Horowitz, the newly minted “conservative,” realized he still had the reflexes of an ideologue and saw what it was doing to himself and the people he loved: “As the conversation shifted to other voices, I hid in my silence and thought: ‘Who is this angry person? What sort of individual could do this to his child?'”
There is a lesson here. Too many people, on both the Left and Right, allow political and philosophical difference to get in the way of their relationships, even to the point of destruction. This is not to say our fundamental beliefs don’t matter: Of course they do, especially for those of us who believe in eternal life. There are times, as the younger Horowitz himself painfully learned, where people close to us are so reckless, abusive, and extreme that there is no alternative but to leave them, at least until they reform. But that is not what we are talking about here. Most relatives or friends who have a falling out are basically good people who simply see the world differently. Often, after one too many arguments, they retreat to their ideological corners, giving each other the silent treatment. When they finally realize how foolish they’ve been, they have to scramble to make amends — if there is time. Sometimes there isn’t, and they never do.
Gratefully, Horowitz’s relationship with his daughter didn’t reach that stage. It was, however, tragically cut short. In early 2008, at the age of just 44, Sarah Horowitz unexpectedly died. Her father has now written a memoir, A Cracking of the Heart, describing the lasting impact she had on those around her, not least of all himself.
The book marks a striking departure for Horowitz. Best known as the leader of FrontPageMag.com — and its high-temperature brand of conservatism — A Cracking of the Heart is a world away from those polemics. Profoundly moving and beautifully written, it is the kind of book that, once read, might actually help the reader heal a broken relationship, or at least prompt an examination of conscience. Even many at odds with Horowitz’s politics, as was his daughter, will find it rewarding.
Sarah was what is today known as a “special needs” child, but to those who knew her, Sarah was just special. She was born with a genetic disorder called Turner Syndrome, whose physical symptoms are severe: “A wide and webbed neck,” writes her father, “low-set and curled ears, low hairline, small stature, swollen hands and feet, drooping eyelids, dry eyes, cataracts, obesity, diabetes, infertility, arthritis . . . hearing loss . . . heart defects, and high blood pressure.”
Despite all this, Sarah led an amazingly productive life. She was a talented writer who obtained a Master’s degree in Fine Arts and pursued another in education; she became a childcare worker and all-around volunteer; she traveled to El Salvador, India, and Uganda on humanitarian missions, even going to Israel to climb the legendary fortress of Masada — successfully, despite her physical limitations.
Sarah’s life was eventful because she never regarded herself as disabled. She chose to forgo corrective surgery for her condition and declined disability benefits when she could have received them. She gave generously to the poor but repeatedly declined money from others, even when she could have used it. Facing challenges that would have disheartened most, Sarah not only survived but flourished, albeit in her own, unique way.
As he tells his daughter’s story, often through her unpublished writings, Horowitz reveals his own relationship with Sarah, revisiting the issues on which they clashed and converged.
The first concerned empathy. When he finished writing Radical Son, Horowitz sent a copy to his daughter, asking for comment. She generously replied, but scolded him for being one-sided, recommending he be “less dismissive of political opponents and more appreciative of their human complexity.” To Sarah, empathy — the ability to see and understand someone else’s situation, even when we may not approve of their ideas and acts — was essential to building a humane society.
Her father saw this as mere sentimentality, until his daughter opened his eyes. “If you see someone in the fullness of their humanity,” she wrote him, “you see how they are acting out their own confusion and suffering. This does not justify hurtful or evil acts. It doesn’t even always inspire forgiveness. But if you see someone this way, you respond more in sadness than in anger. And that is simply a more excellent state of being.” She persuaded her father to moderate his views on crime and punishment, and take a new look at the underclass: “When I see a homeless person destitute on the street, ” he writes, “I think of Sarah, and my heart opens. If there is a criminal shut behind bars, I force myself to remember her compassion, and a sadness shades my anger. If there is a child languishing in need, I think of my daughter . . . .”
Sarah learned from her father, too. Chastened by his experience with Marxism, she remained wary of ideology, and actually wrote a story lamenting “the Left’s silence” about Communist atrocities. She was a liberal, but not a party-liner: She opposed the death penalty because it damages a nation’s soul, not because she believed the condemned were necessarily innocent. Toward the end of her life, Sarah became more spiritual, reconnecting with her Jewish heritage and the people of Israel. This, too, strengthened her integrity. As one of her friends told her father:
She was for peace and justice but knew when things were not right in the positions and behaviors of the Left. A lot of that had to do with what she learned from you . . . about philosophies that were all-encompassing and positions that didn’t make sense. The older we got it became clearer and clearer that the Left was not our friend a lot of the time, particularly on Israel.
What united father and daughter most was their passion for justice. “Many of our discussions revolved around the Jewish concept of a tikkun olam, which means a ‘repair of the world,'” writes Horowitz. Though he pursued that goal from the Right, and Sarah from the Left, the issues that divided them actually became points of contact: “She was curious about my history, and I was eager to hear her opinions and answer her questions. Pursuing these ends, we were able to open lines of communication that our tangled family narratives had previously blocked.”
The day before she died, Sarah gave an interview to an online journal about death and dying. She spoke about the recent loss of her aunt, the pain she experienced, and the wise counsel of her rabbi: “Pay attention to the ways in which your relationship continues.”
That, in essence, is what Horowitz tries to do here, as he expresses his own grief. Replaying times he may have slighted his daughter, he pointedly questions himself. A “cracking of the heart” refers to that moment, reflecting the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, when he began a personal process of atonement, which continues to this day:
The reflections of a mourner are a relentless accounting, and there is no bottom line. What words of hers did I fail to understand when she was still there to explain them to me? What did I miss that her eyes were telling me when she fell into her silences? Losing her is too hard, and there is no way to end it.
Horowitz is hard on himself in this book, undoubtedly too hard, expressing the anguish of a father who wishes he could have done more, and given more, to a selfless daughter. But he should take heart. If it is true that the apple does not fall far from the tree, then Sarah’s inspiring life was not an accident, and her father deserves much credit for raising such a wonderful child.
By telling her story, combined with his own, Horowitz reminds us how love can always conquer politics; and how a love that unites can take us, as Sarah might say, to a “more excellent” place.