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Wild Thing Lost

Tall and leggy, with enormous green eyes and a generous, mobile mouth, my friend Anne Mendelson had presence to burn. At 17 years old, she carried herself like a queen and cultivated a thatch of black curls long before big hair became hip. Even in the shapeless men’s sweaters we affected in the mid-‘60s, she projected an unselfconscious glamour while the rest of us were attending to our zits. Yet she was never one to suck up all the air in a room. A loyal and devoted friend, she’d also absorbed a powerful social conscience from her actively Labourite family. Still, there was something anarchic and unilateral about Anne that I sensed would never be contained by the socialist youth movement in which we became fast friends.

After high school we both started college at hubs of the campus revolt: I at the London School of Economics, a center of the orthodox Left; she at Essex University, which in 1967 already had a reputation for the politics of the spectacle. By the time she came to visit, Anne had become Anna, was heavily involved in fringe drama and, she confided, had fallen in love with a handsome Latin American radical. We lost touch as the student revolt swung into full gear -- but while I was at campus sit-ins dutifully yelling, “Free, free the LSETake it from the bourgeoisie,” Anna‘s name kept cropping up in stories of wild partying and urban-guerrilla happenings when various agents of the repressive state apparatus came to Essex to speak.

Asked to leave the university, Anna disappeared. I graduated, got married and went to live abroad. I’d heard vague rumors about the Angry Brigade, a Situationist group committed to the violent overthrow of the ruling class, and a wing of the Left that I saw -- and still do -- as marooned somewhere between irrelevance and pathos in the context of the relatively open society in which we lived. Still, it came as a shock on the day, in late August 1971, when I opened the newspaper to find that my gentle friend had been arrested with three others in a North London flat containing a cache of arms and gelignite. The group was charged -- along with four others -- with conspiracy to commit 25 bomb attacks, mostly on commercial and industrial targets throughout the country over a period of four years, including the home of the new Tory minister of employment, Robert Carr. After one of the longest conspiracy trials in British legal history -- it lasted 109 days, during part of which Anna insisted on conducting her own defense, and in which the judge allowed her to receive a birthday cake in court -- she and her three friends were found guilty and sentenced to 10 years for conspiracy and possession.

We began corresponding again, and during several family visits to London, my husband (Anna‘s former boyfriend) and I visited her in Holloway Women’s Prison, a grim establishment designed by the 19th-century Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham: I remember we were allowed to bring in plants and cigarettes as gifts, but not tights. Anna seemed her usual warm, wry self, but she was also noticeably subdued. A model prisoner who worked in the library and taught English to the mostly working-class women who were in for petty crime, she had become friendly with its most notorious inmate, the Moors murderer Myra Hindley -- a relationship I took more as a measure of Anna‘s eternal openness of mind than of her radar for extremity. We talked about anything but the trial -- which the defendants had insisted was political, claiming also that the police had planted the guns and ammunition -- but on our last visit she murmured wistfully that when she got out she was thinking of joining the Labour Party.

That was the last I saw of Anna. Prison had taken a severe toll on her health, and she was released after five years. When she got out, my cousin, a prison social worker who had gotten to know her while visiting Jewish inmates, tried in vain to keep in touch with her. She’d vanished -- wisely, since the media would have hauled after her like attack dogs had they gotten wind of her whereabouts. A mutual friend who ran into her in a southern resort town in the mid-1980s reported that Anna had had two or three children by different fathers but appeared to be living alone. Because of her past she‘d had great difficulty getting work and had been refused a visa to the United States, where many of us Brits have reinvented ourselves with or without a criminal record. She was writing poetry and had some sort of affiliation with a university.

To this day doubts persist about the integrity of the forensic evidence found at the defendants’ flat, and about whether, for that matter, Anna and her flatmates were functioning members or mere fellow travelers of the Angry Brigade, storing their guns. If she was involved in any of the explosions, then her dreams may be haunted for life. I imagine she must thank her lucky stars nightly that there was only one injury, and no one killed. I hope to God her life has not been destroyed. But I will say this: There have been no cookbooks or tell-alls; no attempts to seduce or manipulate the media; no public efforts to finesse whatever she may have done; no recriminations about her colleagues, from whom she‘s long been estranged. Nor did she presume to impugn the capacity for objectivity of a jury composed, after all, of the very people her movement championed. Anna, beautiful Anna, if you’re out there -- may you live forever.

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