Life with Father

by Peter Stevenson June 28, 2010

The New Yorker
The other evening, two sisters sat in the back yard of their Park Slope brownstone and talked about their childhoods.
“We never felt safe,” Emily, a blue-eyed thirty-one-year-old with dirty-blond hair, said.
“Our father was always sharing with us his distrust of government,” Sarah, a thirty-three-year-old brunette with brown eyes, added.
“Some kids fear ghosts and monsters,” said Emily, who had on flip-flops and red toenail polish. “I feared the police, the President, and the F.B.I.”
Sarah (flip-flops, gray toenail polish) said, “All our father’s stories about Attica, about Wounded Knee—”
“Those were our bedtime stories,” Emily interrupted. “Singing songs with Dr. King in the South, with the lights out, so they wouldn’t be shot. You hear these as a child, they give you the sense that at any moment everything can be taken from you. I never slept through a night in childhood. I’d jump into bed with Sarah.”
Their father was William Kunstler, the civil-rights lawyer, who died in 1995, and whose clients ranged from Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Chicago Seven to El Sayyid Nosair, who was accused of assassinating the militant Jewish leader Rabbi Meir Kahane, and the drug dealer Larry Davis. (Nosair and Davis, who was charged with shooting six cops, were both acquitted.) In 1993, while defending a terror suspect charged in the first bombing of the World Trade Center, Kunstler boasted to the Times, “I’m more loved and more hated than I ever was.”
“The day he died, I picked up the phone and someone said, ‘Is it true, is Kunstler really dead?’ ” Emily recalled. “And I said, ‘Yes.’ And they said, ‘Good riddance,’ and hung up.”
The sisters, who are filmmakers (Sarah also works as a criminal-defense attorney) premièred “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” at Sundance last year. It will be shown on PBS this week.
The Brooklyn brownstone became home to the extended Kunstler family last year, after Kunstler’s widow, the equally radical lawyer Margaret Ratner Kunstler, moved out of the couple’s town house in the Village. While the sisters set the table out back for dinner (Emily had made watercress soup and spinach-pesto pasta salad), they talked about life with their father.
“He was a hugely embarrassing person,” Emily said.
“We died a million deaths standing next to him on the street,” Sarah said. “When I first got my period, he announced it to the ticket-holder line outside the Waverly Theatre, exclaiming, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, my daughter is now a woman. She has just gotten her comma.’ ”
“Whenever a gentleman caller came to the house,” Emily said, “my father would open the door, make some sort of joke, and then let the door close in the man’s face.”
In the kitchen, Sarah’s husband, Jesse Ferguson, a musician, was keeping an eye on their toddler. Emily is expecting a baby in November, and her partner, a documentary filmmaker named Sebastian Doggart, arrived. The house is also home to a family friend, two dogs, three cats, and a rotating cast of house guests.
Last month, the sisters signed a full-page ad in The New York Review of Books, headlined “CRIMES ARE CRIMES NO MATTER WHO DOES THEM,” which attacked President Obama for authorizing the C.I.A. to kill the Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen hiding in Yemen.
“Our father would talk about the long list of terrible things that have been done in the name of law,” Sarah said.
“People ask us how he would have felt now that we have a black President, and we know he would have been ecstatic,” Emily said. “But the day after the Inauguration he would have been taking Obama to task, because that’s what he felt all of our jobs are, as citizens.”
“We were in Sundance with our film during the Inauguration,” Sarah said. “There was a parade up Main Street, and we were so disturbed by what we were hearing.”
“People were saying that racism no longer exists in this country,” Emily said. “That America had transcended race.”
She described a film clip of her father that they found, an interview he gave after Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader, was killed by the Chicago police. “This piece of footage brought home to us what our father meant when he taught us that all white people are racist,” she said. “Our father is looking directly into the camera, and he says, ‘I killed him, I killed him.’ That made us realize the ways in which we all are responsible, and that, unless you are doing something against it, you are participating in it.”
It was getting dark. Ferguson came outside holding a beer and a baby monitor. In the back yard, someone had tied one end of a hammock to a tree.
“I think I’m anti-hammock,” Sarah said. “Hammocks are kind of like rocking chairs on porches, this vision of serenity people want their lives to embody.”
“That no one ever actually uses,” Emily said. ♦