Books of The Times: ‘Cuz’ Mourns a Loss and Denounces a System

Among the most valuable contributions Allen makes is forcing us to ask: To what end are we locking up our children? Are we not foreclosing their options before their lives have even begun?

To a 16-year-old, Michael’s original sentence “was equivalent, in psychological terms, to the whole of his life,” Allen notes, considering that children can barely remember what happened to them before the age of 3. For the young prisoner, traditional milestones are skipped; newer, grimmer ones take their place. “First racial melee,” she writes. “First administrative segregation, also known as first solitary confinement. First sodomization.”

One of the most disastrous consequences of spending your adolescence in prison is that it’s almost inevitable you’re going to fall in love while you’re there. That’s what happened to Michael. The romantic options he faced were limited, and not exactly savory. He attached himself to his girlfriend, Bree — a beautiful transgender prisoner with a record of violent assault — as only an adolescent can, with a wild sort of intensity. His devotion had lethal repercussions. After they were both released, Bree killed him in her kitchen.

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Danielle Allen Credit Laura Rose

Allen has a personal stake in Michael’s story. She’s his first cousin, though the distance between her opportunity horizons and his could be measured in light years. Her father, one of 12 children, was an academic. Allen is a high-flying scholar herself. (She’s a political theorist at Harvard, and the director of its Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics; she was also awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2001.) Michael’s mother, the youngest of the dozen, was a single mother who didn’t have a stable phone number and found herself in abusive relationships.

As the resource-rich superstar of the family, Allen was the “cousin-on-duty” to smooth Michael’s reentry into the world after prison. Yet she couldn’t, which leads the reader to a sickening realization. If Michael — a bright kid, disciplined enough to run the Los Angeles Marathon as a 15-year-old — couldn’t overcome the difficulties of returning to civilian life, who could? Especially with so attentive and dedicated an ally as his cousin, who was willing to guarantee his rent, help him enroll in college and rehearse job-interview strategies with him?

It must have taken a conspiracy of powerful forces to override all that.

Many readers may have first encountered “Cuz” as a magnificent excerpt in The New Yorker last month. But that excerpt was put through the magazine’s famously aggressive editorial process, one that transfigured scores of ungainly sentences. Consider this thousand-yard sequence from the book:

“If we went to ask my father a question as he worked enveloped by plumes of pipe smoke, ensconced in heaps of paper in a book-filled study in a converted garage behind our house, the moment you opened the thin wood door, orchestral harmonies perfumed with the tweedy, comforting smell of tobacco rolled over you.”

It’s boxcar after boxcar of prepositional phrases. Even Allen’s shorter sentences can be a mouthful: “The judge made his decision at the high point of the moral panic induced in Angelenos by a welter of terrifying carjackings that saturated the media.” And she can serve her metaphors mixed: “Someone’s always gotta be the safety net, and it was my at bat.”

If “Cuz” were blighted by one or two unsightly clauses, I could have overlooked them. But there are many, and each jolted me out of my reading rhythm, as if a moth had landed on the page.

She often has trouble conveying her emotions, too. Here she is telling us that Michael has been sent back to prison: “I wish I could describe how I felt when I got this news, but I just can’t.” But isn’t that the writer’s job, to come up with words for difficult experiences upon prolonged reflection?

Allen is also the first to acknowledge that she can’t adequately explain who Michael was. Her cousin, she comes to realize, led a Janus-faced life, one for his family and one for the streets, where he was known as “Big Mike” and seems to have moved between the Crips and the Bloods with surprising dexterity. His family had no idea. Few families did. “The historian’s backward gaze can capture the life-altering convergence of the drug business, gangs and a newly unforgiving criminal justice system,” Allen writes. But in real time, it didn’t register, especially to single mothers who were working long hours to make ends meet.

Allen’s analysis of gang culture — or “the parastate,” as she calls it, with its own bylaws and tragic form of appeal — may be where she’s at her ferocious best. She points out that however strong the state is, the parastate is stronger — violate its rules, and you’re asking for death. One needn’t look far for proof. At 15, when Michael was first arrested, his mother was desperate to get him out on bail. He told her no. He felt safer where he was, in jail.

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Source: New York Times

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