Emily L. Quint Freeman has appeared on CNN Evening News and NPR’s All Things Considered; interviewed by numerous progressive radio stations, such as KPFA; and covered/quoted in The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, National Catholic Reporter, Associated Press, InfoWeek, Wired, and The John Liner Review, among others. When she isn’t writing, you might find Emily planting veggie seeds in her garden or at her piano playing Scriabin.
Failure to Appear: Resistance, Identity and Loss recounts the turbulence, struggle, and moral clarity of activist-turned-fugitive Emily L. Quint Freeman. After nearly a lifetime of silence, Freeman bursts forth with the fast-paced, street-smart, story of her life. After burning over 40,000 draft notices in Chicago, Freeman was forced underground, dodging the FBI, taking on aliases, and never revealing her true identity and actions for nearly two decades. Her only memoir, Failure to Appear tracks Freeman’s evolution through her many different iterations of self: the misfit Jewish child, the anti-Vietnam activist in the 60’s and 70’s, the single lesbian on the run, the vocal truthteller, and more recently, the pianist and gardener.
I spoke with Freeman about that night burning draft notices, the burden of hidden identities, and why she’s finally telling her full story.
Sara Youngblood Gregory: Emily, let’s start at the beginning. Your dedication opens up Failure to Appear and reads, “let me be perfectly queer, my story isn’t ancient history. Actually, it’s more like same shit, different day.” At first, I laughed, but then I sobered up thinking about how this dedication frames your memoir, your work, and the nineteen years of your life spent running from the law. Failure to Appear isn’t just your coming of age story as a lesbian in the ‘60s to ‘80s—it’s a testimony of civil disobedience, activism, and righteous troublemaking. Talk about what brought you to writing this book. Why write it now? What does Failure to Appear offer those us still fighting the “same shit” all these years later?
Emily L. Quint Freeman: For many years, I kept the real story of my life from age 24 to 44 a secret, divulging it only to my closest friends and partners. The fugitive years, the years living under three different aliases being pursued by the FBI and U.S. Marshals, all that was strictly my private narrative. I justified that decision as a necessity, as I was a single lesbian with no other financial support, employed in a senior position within a conservative and regulated industry. My book describes how I landed in a business field that required a talent for evaluating risk in evolving circumstances (ironically, a vital skill for a fugitive). Thus, until my retirement, I continued to live two lives, one public, the other private.
After retirement, I focused my life on my love of classical piano, reading, and organic gardening. But all that changed in 2016. To my disgust and horror, the Trump era began after a hate-filled, hacked “election.” It seemed a déjà vu of the white backlash I saw during the Nixon years. This time, the Republican ruler is even more racist, unethical (if that is possible), even more determined to smash any semblance of decency, compassion, and fairness.
Literally everything that we gave our energy, livelihood, even our lives, to transform society during the late ‘50s through the ‘70s is once more on the line: peace, social justice, civil rights, abortion rights, voting rights, to name a few. We have to struggle all over again. Thus, my statement “same shit, different day.”
As I write this, the difference today is climate change, the existential and core crisis of the 21st century. We must fundamentally alter our lives and confront powerful global corporations and the politicians they own. It’s on our doorstep, the everyday news of flooding, plastic-filled oceans, drought, and massive wildfires. There is no Planet B.
In this tumultuous and terrible time, I couldn’t remain silent about my life and the lessons therein. Perhaps it might motivate and move readers that I surely will never meet. If my life says anything at all, it says to have hope, to have a conscience, and to resist. I wanted this book to be released in March 2020 during Women’s History Month, during the year of the next critical election in this country.
SYG: In 1969, you and seventeen other pacifists stole and burned around 40,000 records of draft-eligible men from the draft board office on the South Side of Chicago. The burning was an act of non-violent civil disobedience against the Vietnam War, racism, and the American war machine. Tell me about that night and the urgency of your actions. Why did you feel a sense of responsibility to protest the war? Does that responsibility relate to your whiteness, your Jewish heritage?
EQF: Even though I grew up in a white, heavily Jewish neighborhood, I always felt a sense of otherness. I was a different kid, a nascent lesbian who would emerge out of her shell in college. I knew what it felt like to be bullied during my senior year in high school, because I had a crush on a girl. With otherness, I was open to the gift of empathy. I believe that empathy is the starting point of conscience and personal responsibility; and later, to protest and speak truth to power.
Like my great-grandfather, the immigrant forebearers of American Jews huddled on steamers headed to this country. I wonder how would we have felt if our children were taken away at Ellis Island and put into cages. I believe that when we forget the history of ourselves, we lose touch with our humanity.
Jews understand that hate politics and bigotry led to the Holocaust. Dictators exploit scapegoats to wield power; and people, seemingly civilized, can abandon reason, accept bizarre conspiracy cant, and become the instrument of murder. We know this to be true. I know this to be true. As I write this, another act of violence against Jews just occurred in New York for the seventh day in a row. A stabbing rampage at a gathering at a rabbi’s home during Hanukkah. This isn’t a random event. Our domestic terrorists, emboldened by contemptible ranting from the president, want to “Make American Hate Again.”
As a child, on Saturday mornings, I was bundled off with my sister to the synagogue school, even though my parents weren’t religious. There, I absorbed the ethical foundation of Judaism, however compromised it is in practice. We had lessons about the Ten Commandments. “Thou shall not kill.” “Thou shall not steal.” I asked the rabbi if that included stealing the labor of others, i.e. slavery in America. He said yes; and by extension, we should never oppress others on the basis of race, whether it’s called Jim Crow, segregation, or something else.
That child became the woman who joined seventeen others one May night in 1969 to break into the draft office, haul thousands of records, ledgers, and draft files into an adjacent parking lot and burn them. We targeted the Southside draft boards to make the point that the war depended on an involuntary draft, a draft that resulted in far more African Americans being forced to fight and die for the country that denied them social justice at home. We understood that whiteness, money, and college was the way out of the Army, denied to so many poor and minority guys.
In Failure to Appear, one passage in particular speaks to empathy, urgency, and a sense of personal responsibility. I described a conversation I had with Father Phil Berrigan, the night he raised the possibility of a draft action in Chicago:
“Have you been arrested yet, Linda?”
“Last year, I went limp with a few hundred protestors at the Chicago Induction Center. They booked all of us, but later dropped the charges.”
Looking down at the floor, I add, “I never think I’m doing enough to stop this war. I feel like I’m a spectator to slaughter.”
I can’t forget a photo on an anti-war leaflet. A naked Vietnamese child runs down a dirt track in panic. Her village has been set on fire by napalm, dropped by our aircraft. I hear her terrible screams, almost audible on the page. We are responsible for so much suffering and death.
SYG: While on the run you write, “no one in my life has real names anymore,” including yourself. As a fugitive, you took on multiple aliases and disguises to safeguard your past and true identity, even as you watched your comrades arrested and raided by the FBI. How did this constant transformation affect your sense of self as a young woman? Your sense of survival? What was your process like to recall and conjure up your different selves in order to write Failure to Appear?
EQF: Loss of your real name, your real identity and past, is a profound and lasting shock to the spirit. Being a fugitive was a kind of Siberia of the soul for me that lasted over nineteen years. It was an impenetrable barrier of separation that couldn’t be bridged even with my closest friends and partners. I felt a deep shame and grief for deceiving them, but I justified my silence as protecting both them and me.
On one occasion, my alias was a dead child, a Polish Catholic from Milwaukee. I was employed by an architectural firm whose principal was a Holocaust survivor. I relate the time he asked my permission to have a menorah out in the front lobby during Hanukkah. A conversation that still echoes to this day.
My romantic relationships with women were, of course, doomed from the start, because I was pretending to be someone else. I confessed only once to a woman partner; that backfired when we split up and she asked for money to keep silent. Only when a dear friend named Stan was dying, did I confess the truth to him.
Finally, in 1988, after more than eighteen years on the run, I ran out of emotional gas and had a break-through with my therapist. I let it all spill out. I could be silent no longer.
The words choke in my mouth. “I’m not who you think I am.”
She drops backwards. She shuts her notebook. “Who are you?”
“Linda Quint, an anti-war pacifist…and a fugitive for over eighteen years.”
The room is still, like the eye of a hurricane. My disclosure sends a shockwave down my spine. My face flushes, my heart pounds. My innermost room opens at last.
I take a deep breath to gather myself and tell my story, which begins with the draft action. As I talk, I watch the changing expressions on her face, like clouds racing across the sky. I don’t disclose the previous aliases I’ve used, cities of residence, or the real names of those who knew me prior to Emily Freeman. A necessary caution.
Her eyes mist over when I speak about my gay friends who died of AIDS and the loss of Stan. Indeed, grief led me to Bakersfield and ultimately to her.
Her soft voice. “Why are you telling me now?”
“It’s a relief to turn the key of my cell, Abby. I know this—what I called freedom—is really an invisible prison. My secrets inevitably stunt any normal relationship, and the loss of my real self is devouring my soul. Going to the gay synagogue in LA ripped off the scab and showed me my wounds, still raw, still painful. I can’t go on like this.”
I started with the structure of the book, thanks to my author friend and writing teacher, Louise Nayer, which is organized by my original name and aliases. I came up with the idea of writing the entire memoir in present tense, giving it an immediacy that left no room for my older self to criticize or qualify. I added and subtracted dramatic scenes until I found the right ones, then wrote dialogue and physical descriptions fairly easily.
I showed the draft chapters to Louise and other mentors. They came back with the same point: I need to show myself and my feelings without slowing down the story. At key points in dialogue, I tried to go deeper, retrieve myself as I was, without judgment or disguise. It was all there, waiting for me to be honest.
An excerpt of Failure to Appear is available at Narratively.