Chambers’s tale is one of suffering and high drama out of Dostoyevsky. “Life is pain,” he wrote to his children in the letter that prefaces “Witness,” and “each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself.” For Chambers, politics was religious, a continual struggle between good and evil, and the only form of political commitment was absolute. His story has already been told extremely well twice—first in the morbid exaltations of “Witness,” then in Sam Tanenhaus’s magisterial biography, from 1997, both essential sources for Oppenheimer. Chambers was born in 1901 and grew up on Long Island, in a middle-class family whose chaos and decay gave the boy intimations of a wider illness in the modern world. His father, a half-closeted homosexual, was cruel to Whittaker; his mother was a loving but deeply neurotic woman; his brother was a future suicide. The Chambers house fell into disrepair, along with Whittaker’s teeth. Oppenheimer devotes a lot of space to Chambers’s early years, because they explain his flight into the encompassing arms of the Communist Party, in 1925. “It offered me what nothing else in the dying world had power to offer at the same intensity,” he wrote in “Witness”—“faith and a vision, something for which to live and something for which to die.”
“Talk about Byzantine—try pulling a permit for a flying buttress in this neighborhood.”
In 1932, Chambers became an agent of the Communist underground, and within a few years he was serving as a courier between a cell of officials in the Roosevelt Administration and their coarse, brutal Soviet handler, Boris Bykov, who could have come from Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon.” While passing along microfilmed government secrets to the Soviets, Chambers, married and a father, was able to indulge his attraction to men. Cruising followed some of the same patterns as spying: “A large part of his job was to move in the shadows, to exchange meaningful glances with strangers, to take midnight ambles punctuated with intervals of purposeful loitering.”
There was no single reason that Chambers ceased to be a Communist. In “Witness,” he says the break began when his daughter was eating porridge in her high chair, and he came to the realization that she—and, more specifically, her ear—had been created by some design.