Janet McDonald's "Project Girl" is much more than a book about a poor black girl trying to drag herself out of Brooklyn's Farragut Houses in the 1960s. It is a story about how the projects themselves changed from a tightly knit community of blue-collar working families to a drug- and crime-ridden wasteland. The difference between then and now, McDonald writes, "was between low-income and no-income housing, between working families and welfare-dependent single mothers, between adolescent pranks and violent crime."
It is also the story of McDonald's struggle, as a bright and talented child, to find a decent education. Once she had made it into several good schools -- she was educated at Vassar, Columbia and NYU -- she fought to fit into privileged white society. And then her life fell apart: She was assaulted, hit her psychological low point and was finally arrested for arson.
"Project Girl" begins by introducing us to McDonald's family. Her parents moved north from Alabama in the 1940s to escape Southern racism and raised seven children in New York City. It was a chaotic household characterized not just by Southern cooking but also by stern punishments and Southern-style religion. This large family existed inside the larger family of the housing project, a safe and cohesive community at the time.
McDonald distinguished herself in school and wound up at Vassar, a place that would be a culture shock to anyone who wasn't from the upper crust. Not surprisingly, she had trouble fitting in. Racism -- sometimes real, sometimes imagined -- followed her around like a dark cloud. She was raped one night in her dorm room at Cornell Law School by a student she didn't know, and she suffered a nervous breakdown. Frustrated in her search for an identity that would tie together her past and present, she turned to drugs and alcohol. But she persevered: She finished law school and ended up practicing corporate law in Paris, where she lives today.
McDonald is a lucid and often witty writer, but what's most admirable about "Project Girl" is her honesty. She includes many chilling entries from her journal, such as one in which, after her rape, she buys a gun and entertains intricate murder fantasies. The book's rawness and immediacy lifts it above most memoirs. McDonald's clear-eyed assessment of her life's highs and lows lingers long after you turn the final page.