book review: Random Family

This weekend, I’ve been thoroughly absorbed in the book Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx. It tells the story of three young people in the Bronx, starting with the mid-80s drug explosion to welfare reform in the late 90s. Jessica, was the girlfriend of a notorious, 20 year old drug kingpin prior to his life sentence and her 10 year sentence for conspiracy. Jessica’s brother, Cesar, tightly-wound and loyal, was imprisoned as a teenager. Coco, generous and bubbly, started dating Cesar when she was 14. By the time she was 20, she had 4 children with 3 fathers.

The book is so broad in time, so vividly detailed, so finely attuned to the rhythms of life, and so faithful to its subjects’ emotions that it almost seems like a re-creation of their lives at a smaller scale and in print.

I love, for example, LeBlanc’s description of spontaneous dancing in Coco’s kitchen, reminding me of happy moments with my own family:

Even on the worst days, Coco would drop whatever she was doing and dance. Dancing never needed an excuse. Mercedes swayed, stiffly, self-consciously, but Nikki was agile and shameless – Foxy had taught her how to dance Spanish. Even Nautica, still in diapers, tried out the latest moves. She’d plant one hand on the linoleum, butt in the air, and squat in time to the music as she flapped her other arm like a butterfly. (229)

Meanwhile, the book maps out the contradictory emotions of a mother whose whole life is wrapped up in her daughters. Coco wants a better life for her children (anticipating a move out of the Bronx, Coco lists three goals on a scrap of paper, concluding “three: my four girls to finish school and get married and do not come out like me!!!”) Yet when her oldest, Mercedes, returns from three weeks at camp where she has produced a portfolio of artwork, made new friends, and decided to become a doctor, Coco seems jealous and distant, causing Mercedes to “begin to revise her camp experience, proclaiming as boring activities that hours earlier she’d loved.” (273)

The author traces the impact of changes in each person’s life on the people around them. Cesar’s first experience with heroin in prison (before prison he’d sworn to use nothing heavier than weed) develops into a habit and then constant pressure on his friends and family to send money. Even his sister, Jessica, at the time imprisoned in Connecticut, transfers $20 from her commissary to his. Frankie, Coco’s boyfriend starts hanging out with a fellow drug dealer who beats his wife. Soon he becomes more demanding with Coco.

Even as I am drawn into the lives in Random Family, I am drawn to the experience of the writer, who spent 11 years with the people described in the book. A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, described how she spent days with the families, observed celebrations and fights, and tagged along on trips to the welfare department and to prisons. The result is a book rich in detail and experience and often told in people’s own words. Coco, Jessica, and Cesar offer their private letters, notes, and impressions for the public telling of their story. And, LeBlanc seems to have applied a scrupulous standard to the text. In the author’s note, she says:

Most of the spoken words quoted here were uttered in my presence; the remaining direct quotes come from government wiretaps transcribed by me, and from recollected experiences and exchanges that were assembled and confirmed through overlapping primary and secondary-source interviews. In those cases where someone is said to have “thought” or “believed” something, those thoughts and beliefs were described and recounted to me by that person.” (405).

Although she’s present for much of the action, LeBlanc never appears in the book. But I was drawn to the book because of a first person reflection by LeBlanc in the New York Times Magazine. She compared her own middle-class attitudes toward thrift and savings to Coco’s mother’s generous, of-the-moment approach. The discord that LeBlanc admits to is something I’ve felt while providing legal assistance to folks whose life and finances seem, to me, to be desperately out of control or whose aspirations seem
heartbreakingly small. It strikes me that LeBlanc’s consciousness of a disconnect led her to probe it, ultimately shedding light on the internal pressures and reasons that govern Coco and Jessica and Cesar’s decisions. These reasons would remain invisible if their actions were prematurely judged by the standards of middle class life.

All of this has prompted me to ask why I’m attracted to real life stories of poverty, violence, and drug trade in the inner city. Why spend my weekend reading about someone else’s life? (and, this isn’t my first weekend. I’m been an consumer of narrative journalism and memoir since discovering There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other America in 1994). Why, for that matter, did the author/journalist spend 11 years carefully chronicling random families? Is it voyeurism? The sense of privilege, guilt and penance?

I hope LeBlanc wrote this book and that I’m reading it to be introduced to lives lived in poverty and to, ultimately, humanize them. The book is not just a re-creation like a dollhouse or a simulation. Nor is it a political tract – highlighting the evils of poverty. Maybe the book’s purpose is to model the author’s role as patient and persistent listener, for those of us who wish, in our own ways, to be of service to families enmeshed in violence and poverty.

hearts & stomachs: an open letter about the election

As many of you know, Gene and I began our life together as husband and
wife seven weeks ago at the University Lutheran Church here in
Massachusetts. We wanted you to know how much we appreciate the love
and support we received from all of our friends and family. We are
truly blessed.

As we begin planning our lives together, we are also thinking very much
about the Presidential election that is only a week away, because the
results of that election will have so much of an effect on our future
(and future of our children). I wanted to share with you some of my
feelings and thoughts about the election. I will say up front that
these feelings and thoughts mix religion and politics, because my
Christian beliefs have shaped my beliefs about government. 
Frankly, I’m hoping that some of you will agree with me, but whether
you do or not, I respect the choice that reflects your beliefs and look
forward to future discussions.

On November 2, I will vote for John Kerry. I will not do so because he
is perfect or because I agree with all of his positions. I don’t.
Still, I think that Kerry reflects a wiser approach to government than
our current administration demonstrates.

Our government is not perfect. I don’t believe we can expect perfect
human community until Christ’s return. But, I do believe we are
stewards of our time, talents, and treasures here on earth. And, I
think we can ask as much of our government: to be a good steward and
caretaker of God’s creation and the many blessings of this life.

I am concerned that George Bush and his government has failed to use
wisely the wealth and reputation of this nation. The most notable
example, for me, are policies that encourage us to think in terms of
personal tax benefits rather than national and community-wide welfare.
In 2001, George Bush offered the first of several tax cuts and many of
us started receiving checks in the mail. He has cut taxes twice since
then. Christianity reminds me that we are sinful, tending toward
self-gratification and convenience. So, when George Bush started
touting personal tax cuts and personal saving as the solution to large
national problems, I had to stop and ask myself, is this stewardship or
convenience? Although the President promises that tax relief will
strengthen the economy, is this more for my own comfort than it is for
making my country better?

I am worried that Bush’s tax cuts are not making our country better –
and working Americans will be hurt the most by them. Tax cuts flow most
heavily to the wealthy. My tax savings is about $900 a year; people
earning $1 million a year receive about $50,000 a year in tax relief.
At the same time that Bush issued tax cuts, he started cutting back on
public-private partnerships that help millions of poor Americans secure
housing, claiming it was too expensive. He is urging us all to invest
in our own private health care savings accounts, but what becomes of
people whose wages barely pay the rent, never mind saving for future
health catastrophe? He has no credible plan to help the 40 million
Americans, including 11 million children, who have no health insurance
at all.

Bush tells us we can apply compassionate conservatism and charity to
meet our nation’s needs. It is true that we can help heal each other’s
brokenness through prayer and service – but can we provide our neighbor
with health insurance? I tend to think that our larger concerns – like
health care and housing – require thoughtful action by private citizens
and government together. Bush’s tax cuts make this harder to do. Tax
cuts and war-related spending have produced a national budget deficit
of $422 billion – a deficit expected to grow to $1.4 to $5 trillion in
the next 10 years. Just like you or me, the government has to pay back
its debts. Today’s tax cuts borrow against our future ability to meet
the needs of Americans. To me, this reflects poor stewardship.  

I see George Bush’s preference for self-interest over stewardship
leading our conduct in Iraq as well. I confess that, even though Christ
teaches us to love our enemies, I am not a pacifist. I do, however,
feel that war is the tragic choice of last resort, when all other
options have failed. There’s a lot I don’t understand about the war.
But, the question that persists for me: is the war for Iraq or America?
Was it to free the people of Iraq or to demonstrate America’s might in
the wake of 9-11? If it was the latter, was it good, wise reason to
invade a nation and put soldiers in danger?     

George Bush tells us that we will be better off – richer, more
comfortable, safer – going his route.  To me it feels like he’s
asking me to vote with my gut – that is, out of self-interest. But I
believe that we Americans are blessed: our stomachs are full. Our greatest challenge, as it always
has been, is to love: love our neighbors and even our enemies. So as a
Christian struggling to find my place in American politics, when asked
by either party to vote with my gut, I will try instead to listen to my
heart. I pray you will do so as well – no matter who you choose on
November 2.