Magazine article The New Yorker

Life with Father

Magazine article The New Yorker

Life with Father

Article excerpt

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) premiered "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. …

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