Sonja Larsen doesn’t like the word “cult.” For her, people who join cultic groups don’t simply become brainwashed zombies overnight. Larsen speaks from experience. For three years she lived in an isolated, ultra-leftist political cell, an experience she recounts in her memoir, Red Star Tattoo: My Life as a Girl Revolutionary.
These days, Larsen resides in Vancouver where she’s employed as a youth worker on the city’s Downtown Eastside. Although she has been writing and publishing since the 1990s, Red Star Tattoo – coming out in January with Random House Canada – is her first book. “I was very afraid of being so public,” Larsen says. “Not necessarily of telling my secrets but of being seen.”
Larsen was born in Milwaukee in 1965. She spent her early years in the company of draft dodgers and flower children, roaming between communes with her family. Her mother embraced an extreme form of free-range parenting, even by the relaxed standards of the day. Larsen once hitchhiked from Quebec to California with a male acquaintance when she was eight years old, unaccompanied by either of her parents. “Baby hits” of LSD for kids seemed like a harmless idea. If children came upon adults in flagrante delicto, they were casually asked if they wished to observe. Innocence was an early casualty.
Larsen’s parents separated just as commune life devolved into a failed experiment. She then moved with her mother to northern California. There, her mother joined the Provisional Communist Party U.S.A., a connection that would eventually provide Larsen with her entrée to the organization’s secretive militia wing in Brooklyn.
If such a childhood was not confusing enough, the violent death of a cousin sent Larsen into a tailspin. By the time she set out for New York City at age 16, Larsen says, “I felt scared for myself. I thought, ‘Who is going to keep me in line? Who is going to protect me from this sadness and hopelessness?’”
She had her answer soon enough. In New York, Larsen walked through the door of a Crown Heights brownstone into the headquarters of the National Labor Federation. Once inside, Larsen joined the cadres counting down the days to the second American Revolution. She threw herself into the gruelling volunteer work the NATLFED demanded of all its recruits, typing out endless directives and reports by day, followed by nights on watch duty. She attended rambling, late-night oratories delivered by the group’s charismatic leader, Gino Perente, under whose capricious, iron-fisted rule she would live for the next three years.
Larsen eventually became Perente’s lover. From this intimate vantage, she began to sense that he was a man of troubling contradictions. Perente – “the Old Man” as he was called – had a weakness for Hollandaise sauce, illicit pharmaceuticals, and the many young women of the revolution, whom he liked to doll up in lipstick and eye shadow to augment their scrubbed faces and genderless coveralls. But to receive the Old Man’s attentions meant submitting to his scrutiny and occasionally his wrath. He issued late-night beatings to misbehaved followers and failed escapees in the basement.
“Some days,” says Larsen, “he loved us for our dedication. Other days he despised us because he thought that we were stupid, that we were fools.” The NATLFED was a closed system. No one got in or out without permission. Larsen saw her opportunity for escape one winter’s night when a comrade on watch slipped away from her post. Larsen fled. She was barely 19.
As it turns out, Gino Perente was a con man whose real name was Gerald William Doeden, a one-time DJ and ad salesman who rechristened himself as a Sandinista-styled union leader, Eugenio Mario Perente-Ramos. He ran the NATLFED from the ’70s until his death, in 1995, of congestive heart failure. Perente’s obituary in The New York Times had to be corrected to accommodate the dodgy past lives and multiple aliases that failed to surface on the first pass.
Larsen might have written critically or accusingly of Perente. She might have covered Doeden’s previous arrests, or ranted about
the days of her youth wasted in the NATLFED’s solipsistic and paranoid bureaucracy. She might have devoted chapters to the claim of physical and psychological abuse from former members, or the police raids, or the stockpiles of guns that were never fired, but served only as stage props for a coup that never came to pass.
Instead, Red Star Tattoo, which took eight years to complete, is written with simple honesty, without judgment, from a girl’s point of view. For Larsen, this was a deliberate creative choice. She says, “I grew up with nobody explaining to me why things happened. That’s really the story I want to tell.” – Charlotte Gill