Diana Oughton

While Eve Whalen is not a stand-in for Diana Oughton, Diana’s story certainly inspired me when I was creating the character of Eve. I first learned of Diana when I read Bill Ayers’s captivating (albeit self-serving) memoir, Fugitive Days, describing his early years as an anti-war activist turned revolutionary. Diana and Ayers were lovers, though they were not exclusive. The way Ayers writes of Diana, she was nothing short of a social-justice-angel-on-earth, but considering she died while building bombs intended to blow up civilians at a dance for non-commissioned officers, I sensed Ayers was engaged in some serious revisionist history. So I started researching this young woman who so captivated Ayers, first by reading Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers’s five-part series, “Diana: the making of a terrorist” documenting Diana’s short life, (The Boston Globe, 1971), and then by reading Powers’s biography by the same name, also published in 1971 by Hougton Mifflin.

Through Powers and Franks’s research, I learned a lot about this soft-spoken, generous girl who grew up a member of the richest family in her hometown of Dwight, Illinois, and arrived as a freshman at Bryn Mahr with a sterling silver tea seat in tow. (It was a tradition for girls and professors to partake in afternoon tea together.) When Diana first started college, she was a small government Republican. Her friends “were horrified to hear her criticize social security or defend Richard Nixon against John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election” (from Powers’s biography Diana: the making of a terrorist, p 21). Needless to say, Diana’s politics and ideology shifted, most drastically after she graduated from Bryn Mahr and spent two years in Guatemala volunteering through the American Friends Service Committee, aka, the Quakers, famous for their pacifism. In Guatemala, Diana witnessed the bleak hopelessness that comes from abject poverty combined with governmental suppression. This witness started her on the road to radicalization, though she held onto her pacifist beliefs for a while, channeling her idealism into her teaching job at an alternative school once she returned to the States. She was a gifted and natural teacher, but her politics were becoming more rigid and extreme. Eventually she determined that change would not come without violent revolution. This thinking eventually led her to the basement of a townhouse in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village on March 6, 1970, where she was helping to build bombs intended to kill others. Except somehow a bomb accidentally went off, and she, Ted Gold, and Terry Robins were killed instead. Later, when detectives searched the incinerated townhouse, they discovered “57 sticks of dynamite, 30 blasting caps and some cheap alarm cloks with holes drilled in their faces for the attaching of wires” (Powers, p. 3).

Diana’s life filled me with questions: How could someone so thoughtful, so dedicated, so gifted as a teacher, wind up building bombs intended to kill civilians? How do good people become radicalized? That is the question that led me to write this book, the question that led me to create Eve Whalen, who lives in Diana’s shadow, a sort of luckier literary sister, allowed to keep living after she stumbled away from the fog of extremist ideology she had been lost in.

For more on Diana, check out Powers and Franks’s 5-part series, “Diana: the making of a terrorist” or read Powers’s more exhaustive book by the same name.

Note: The two pictures shown of Diana are a high school portrait from the elite Madeira School, and a mugshot taken after a 1969 arrest. What a difference a decade makes.