After a few words on the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, Daniel recalls his and Susan’s first trip to prison to visit their parents. Daniel had trouble breathing and Susan was convinced that Paul and Rochelle had been killed by “bugs and death.” Her certainty disconcerted Daniel. Arriving at the prison, the gifts they intended to give their parents were confiscated and they spent a considerable amount of time in a small room waiting for their mother to appear. Daniel’s discomfort manifested itself in his urgent cries for the guard to search him, although the guard told him it was unnecessary.
Daniel stares out the window, contemplating how he would escape if he were imprisoned when he noticed his mother watching him. She looked older and thinner and Daniel realized he no longer found her pretty. Her hug did not feel the same and she did not smell the same. Daniel tried to tell her normal things about his life and was secretly distressed to realize she was quick to believe them; it made him feel like the way “you lie to very sick or old people to make them feel good.” Daniel blurted out that they were going to live with a new family in Westchester and Rochelle replied that she was happy. She and Paul had chosen that couple.
When her time was up, Rochelle kissed and hugged her children and promised she would be with them again soon. Paul came into the room next; he was loud, boisterous, “red of face,” and conspicuously insane. He immediately showed the children something he was excited about and had been working on, which turned out to be a cigar box filled with a variety of dead insects. Paul explained how marvelous he found the insect world and how he spent hours trying to catch them, suffocate them, and pore over their every feature. Susan was disgusted and said she hated dead things.
Paul pulled back from his exuberant display of the insects and told his children how much they looked like their parents. He spoke of how he passed time in prison and mentioned that he was writing a book. Ascher had to tell him to calm down when he got too excited, and Daniel was slightly disturbed at his father’s behavior. Daniel saw that his father found prison less degrading than his mother did. Nevertheless, the awkwardness of the first meeting subsided somewhat as the children were permitted to return numerous times. A routine fell into play, normal subjects were discussed with relative ease, and one day all four members of the family reunited together in one room for the first time since Paul was arrested.
Following this episode is a small passage on the starfish, which at one time had been the thirteenth zodiac sign. The starfish symbolizes “the union of the physical faculties. It referred to the wedding in the heart of the five senses. It implied the unification of all feelings. Belief was joined with intellect, language with truth, and life with justice.” Needless to say, modern man did not like to mention this absent astrological sign because he was apt to confuse the self-sufficiency of the starfish with death.
Daniel continues the contemporary narrative in October 1967. Daniel, Phyllis and their child travel to a protest in Washington D.C. Daniel drives Susan’s Volvo into the city; he feels as if he is entering a foreign country, driving across borders, moving into a “heart of darkness.” The gathering of thousands seems academic at first - there were a lot of students, professors, church ladies, etc. Young men, including Daniel, drop their draft cards into a pouch to turn over to the Justice Department. Even though he feels like a fraud among the radicals, in a fit of self-righteousness, he announces his name as “Daniel Isaacson”.
The centerpiece of the protest occurs the following day. Thousands of “freaks” of all persuasions and many famous figures, such as Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell, congregate at the Lincoln Memorial. Daniel looks for Sternlicht to no avail. Sensing the event would turn violent, Daniel orders Phyllis to take baby Paul back to the house they are staying in. After some argument, she agrees.
Night falls and grows cold. Reporters and photographers begin to leave. The young people remaining are stubborn and impolite; these Quakers and radicals and new adherents to the cause were ready to follow through. Violence ensues and Daniel gets caught up in the scuffle. He “drank his own blood.” On that “Pentagon Saturday Night”, as he deemed it, Daniel was thrown into jail. He later learned Sternlicht had been hospitalized following his beating at the hands of police. Daniel pays his fee and is released. He returns to Phyllis. She cries at the sight of him, fussing over his black eye and swollen mouth. Daniel tells her the bruises look a lot worse than they really are and that “it is a lot easier to be a revolutionary nowadays than it used to be.”
While the novel spends plenty of time delving into the effects of the trial and execution on Daniel and Susan Isaacson, it also gives a window into how Paul and Rochelle were affected by their time in prison and the pressures of the trial. Of course, it is important to remember that we are only seeing them through the lens of Daniel’s narrative; his memory may be imperfect or his impressions not commensurate with the actuality of what occurred. This reinforces the instability of the text and the impossibility of ever truly arriving at that ever-elusive truth.
Nevertheless, Paul and Rochelle clearly have adapted to life in prison differently. While Paul seems to find being in prison less degrading than Rochelle does, he is the one who has come closer to madness. Daniel notes that he “looked very young. Smaller than I remembered him. Red of face. Insane” (246). Most disturbing is his cigar box collection of dead insects, which he shows to the children with unadulterated zeal. Only Susan’s visible disgust snaps him out of his delight with his “dead things” (247) and makes him address the children more rationally and reasonably.
Rochelle is not afflicted by the same madness but she too is affected by prison. To Daniel, she has lost her beauty and sensuousness. Her gaze was inscrutable and intense. She was shorter, thinner, and pale. Her smell and her hugs were not the same as they had been. The most heart-wrenching moment for Daniel is when his platitudes and attempts at cheerful recitation of how his life was proceeding actually pleased her and existed without suspicion of falseness. Daniel commented that “these were the lies of my letters, and to my disappointment she seemed to believe all of them. It is the same way you lie to very sick or old people to make them feel good, and let them believe that their pain has at least brought some order to the world” (244). What Daniel ultimately concludes is that his mother looked already dead, that she was “so unlike herself that I became discouraged about the possibility of communicating with her” (244). Daniel’s childhood, at this moment, firmly comes to an end.
Book Three ends with Daniel’s engagement with the New Left and its march on the Pentagon in October 1967. He and his family travel to Washington D.C. to join their peers. On the peaceful and communal first day, Daniel calls himself an Isaacson and burns his draft card with “an inner surge of righteousness and fear” (252). The second day, however, concludes with violence. By the time the chilly evening rolls around, “most of the older people are gone, and the reporters are gone, and the cameras are gone, and what the later hours of evening find – perhaps it is already midnight – is an accidental community of hard-core Quakers and rads and new boys and new girls of the new lifestyle” (256). Protestors clash with police and Daniel himself suffers blows to the mouth and broken teeth and an arrest. This mirrors his own father’s injuries at the hands of the men who stopped the bus after the Paul Robeson concert. Daniel is engaging in the politics of his own time and simultaneously honoring his parents’ memory the best way he can. The fact that he claims to be Daniel Isaacson, not Daniel Lewin, is very significant.
The October 1967 March on the Pentagon was of course a real event; it was organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (Mobe) and attracted 100,000 people to the initial rally and then 35,000 to the second day’s actual march to the symbol of the American government’s war machine. About 300 people were arrested for civil disobedience. Some of the attendees, who would later form the Yippies (Artie Sternlicht’s ideology and personality are modeled after members of the Yippies) attempted to levitate the Pentagon that evening. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and Allen Ginsberg were all present and complicit. Writer Norman Mailer’s work The Armies of the Night details the events of the protest and march and can be read along with the Book of Daniel to bring this historical moment to life as well as to further delve into the questions Doctorow poses regarding history and fiction.