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.

5 thoughts on “book review: Random Family

  1. I heard about “Random Families” but just belatedly read it (March2006) I lived in NY in 1980.
    Great book, I wish LeBlanc had included photos – as a writer she would likely resent the idea.
    But she talks about photos a lot in the book, & I know how important photos are to (especially) poor people.

  2. i read ur book and i lived on treatment with my aunt in the basement with roxanne i love the book and i wish so much things would have turned out diffrently i also meet i will say the characters name ceaser his daughter is big and beautiful she looks just like her dad

  3. I couldn’t put this book down! Very well written. I would LOVE to have seen photos. I hope they are all doing well.

  4. After reading “Random Family” I was left with an emptiness in the pit of my stomach. Poverty and drugs destroy’s individuals and their families. The struggle’s these individuals faces are very real and often lead to crimminal behavior. Being in the same age group and marrying young myself, I hope that through all the hardships they are on their feet and doing well. Pics would be great.