No way out

After 10 years chronicling the lives of teenagers in the Bronx, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc talks about inner-city hopelessness and the hypocrisy of family-values conservatives who ask poor people to abandon their families.

Published February 11, 2003 7:51PM (EST)

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent more than 10 years researching her new book, "Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx." She tossed and turned on couches while couples fought in the next room. She stole crayons from the children's visiting rooms in federal prisons to get writing materials. She scribbled notes in prison parking lots. She accepted as many collect calls from jail as she could afford. And, finally, she wrote a chronicle of teenage urban life that manages to balance journalistic integrity and objectivity with a striking compassion and respect for her subjects.

For those of us outside the world in which she immersed herself for more than 10 years, it is tempting to imagine the inner city through the images and easy categories we receive from the news, rap songs and the movies: the dope fiend, the high roller, the street punk, the ho, and of course, the welfare mom. LeBlanc instead introduces us to a group of fully fleshed-out individuals. There is Boy George -- brilliant, charismatic and, when we first meet him, one of the most powerful drug dealers in the Bronx. There's his beautiful girlfriend Jessica, and Jessica's brother Cesar, only 14 years old and already in a lifetime of trouble. And finally, there is Coco, Cesar's astonishing girlfriend, whose struggles become the story's focal point. These boys and girls -- now young men and women -- blow our received notions and stereotypes to pieces, and by the end of 400 pages, they have emerged as a group of people we would very much like to know.

The 39-year-old LeBlanc spoke with Salon from her home in New York about the dangers and rewards of writing about the young men and women whom she now says are like family.

How did you first get involved with the group of kids you write about in "Random Family"?

It was basic reporting. I worked at Seventeen magazine as an editor, and somebody pointed out to me that there was a trial of a young teenager who was dealing drugs on a very big scale. I just went to the trial, and if I remember correctly, I got an assignment from Rolling Stone. It was on spec, because I was a young freelancer. They ended up killing the piece. What I remember -- I'm not sure if this is entirely accurate -- is that I said I wanted more time. They just wanted a straight trial piece, and I wanted to keep going. You know how it is -- sometimes you know you have a good story, and if you try to write it too soon, you just derail the whole thing.

And this young man -- with the cars and the women and the stereotypically fabulous ghetto lifestyle -- this was Boy George?

Yes. I'm very interested in teenagers, to begin with, and he was just amazing: bright, charming, smart, enormously successful at business, and young. I had done a lot of street reporting about kids who were disenfranchised one way or another, and I was very struck by the difference between the perceptions of drug dealing, and what I had been seeing. The lifestyle was far more dreary, far less profitable, far less striking than what you'd expect. And Boy George's story was about what it was supposed to be about. I was also curious what it would be like as a single mother to have a young son like this bringing in some necessary income -- how that would affect the family dynamic.

So then I went to the trial and there were a bunch of kids there. In the standard reporter way, I asked him, "Who should I talk to about your life?" He had a lot of girlfriends, and one he said I should talk to was Jessica.

I just became almost immediately riveted by her. For me, a story really only works if I'm very absorbed. These young women were so different from what you hear -- about the girls being conniving, or being gold diggers. The truth was so much more complicated.

You've said in interviews that Coco became like family to you. Was it hard to stay objective as a reporter? Did you find yourself wanting to act in the drama you were reporting -- to help out or give advice?

Coco was so generous, and she gave me extraordinary access -- and I realized immediately that I was no use as an actor. I was in a world I knew nothing about, and everything that I thought I knew was absolutely useless. To say that I would be trying to do something would assume that I thought I knew better. And I didn't.

This is one thing I feel very passionately about: These people have tried every available response to an impossible situation. To survive, they have to be incredibly improvisational, incredibly resourceful. And if you bother to open your eyes in that place, you'll probably know that your ideas of what a person should do are just not applicable.

I often say to people, when they ask me didn't I just want to do something to help: "What was I supposed to do that could possibly change the situation?" This whole book is about how you can try everything, and it can still not work. I think, "Did I miss something in the writing? What do you think I could have done?" Coco tried to bail herself out all the time, constantly. She knew the ropes. How could I have changed that?

Were you ever tempted to bail her out financially?

I was broke, too. I was staying at Coco's house, and she didn't have much money. I was eating her food, so occasionally I'd bring food or take them out to McDonald's. When I visited her upstate, I stayed with her -- because I myself couldn't afford to stay in a hotel.

Some of my favorite moments were when Coco and her kids came up against the social services bureaucracy. You refrain from making political statements about New York, but I was wondering what you think about the state's policies toward the poor?

I don't feel that I refrain from making any political statements. I don't feel qualified in terms of the history, but what I could say is that right now, the system is not working. Something is very wrong if you have to wait six hours in an office, and then get a three-second interview with someone who doesn't provide you with actual help.

What one reads in the newspaper and what one sees on the street are absolutely not the same. If, for example, in a transition agency, you are told, "Oh, we provide transportation and keep in touch with you about new leads, and counsel you on careers," well, that just isn't true. And a lot of people don't have phones -- I mean, literally, there is often no possibility of contacting them -- so there is a failure of communication. The system is still "same old, same old," except now it's far more punitive. What I am seeing now is that the oldest children are inheriting the burden of parenting, because their mothers are working such crazy long hours, and for such low pay. So if you want to call the fact that they're back to work an improvement, that's just a complicated statement. With "welfare to work," I'm not sure it is.

You're passionate about your subject, but your book isn't at all strident or sentimental.

[Laughter] It took me a long time to get over my sentimentality, to learn how to get myself out of the way. I would have long, active debates with Cesar about the issue of environment vs. choice. The debates were always the same. I would be saying: "But Cesar, you were only 9, you were only 10, look what you'd been through," and he would answer, "Adrian, I knew right from wrong." And I would protest, and he would stop me again and say, "Adrian, I knew what I was doing." These debates were part of the process of me shaking my sentimentality.

But I also know as a reader, when the writer gets sentimental, you drift, because there's something fishy going on there. You recognize a moment that's largely about the writer and the writer's own need to believe in something that might not in fact exist. As a reader, you think, "Where did the story go, where did the person I'm reading about go?"

There are also some very violent moments. You talk about your characters losing their temper, hurting each other. And yet you don't shy away from those moments. How did you keep your own judgment out of it?

In Cesar's case, I came into this as a feminist, and it did indeed take me a long time to extend empathy to include some of the men. There was so much suffering, and sometimes it was tempting to hang that suffering on the men. If I hadn't worked with Cesar for so many years, I don't know if we would have ever broken through. And Cesar even said to me later, that in the beginning, it was very clear that I was very much wrapped up in Coco's point of view. "You couldn't see it from my mind back then," he told me.

Did you ever feel tempted to preach, rather than stay in your role as an observer?

Well, a lot of the time I didn't even know what was going on, I couldn't analyze what was happening, it took everything I had in me just to get it down. For example, the first time you go into prison, it's intense: every click of a door, every walk down a hall. I would see women laughing and joking, and I couldn't believe it. After a few visits I would also be laughing and joking, but then the next time I'd be dreading it. And in each of these phases, I was taking in different things, and it was just incredibly hard to keep track. So observing was more of a practical thing than me being some kind of a Buddhist. Although, yes, I do sort of go into a state of "attention," because as a journalist, the judgmental part of your brain is useless.

There's one thing I know for sure: When I'm most opinionated, my writing sucks. As my editor would say, "Oh, here we go." In the first drafts of the sections that deal with some of the younger kids, I may as well have been on a soapbox.

There were letters in response to your piece in the New York Times Magazine that essentially said, "These people should not be having babies." What do you think of this response?

Having children is not a class privilege. The moments in the book when people become pregnant and people are born are part of a lifeline. We like to freeze the frame of this lifeline at the moment when a girl gets pregnant, because that is the moment when you can turn the story of social injustice into a personal blaming session. As if you can pinpoint the social problem on a single person, and then you can get into that whole useless discussion about "choice."

But in fact, I think it starts much sooner. There's also sex education, after-school programs, gender orientation. To jump ahead and say, "Let's talk about someone when she's 15 and pregnant," I just think it's a way for people to remain situated in a judgmental place that allows them not to feel the pain, and the sadness, and the shame we should feel, really -- the shame that these young people are not protected the way they should be.

That's another thing about judgment -- it's a way to stay separate from someone else. I think people do it in policy, people do it personally, and they do it literally when then they are confronted with the facts. These comments about teenagers and sex, for example. I mean, teenagers are getting pregnant everywhere, they are having sex everywhere, not just among the poor.

So a letter like that doesn't surprise me, it saddens me. It certainly makes me angry. It makes me feel as if I didn't succeed, it means they want to keep distance from young teenage people who are part of the world we all share.

There's a moment in the book when the needs of Coco's extended family seem to be eating away at the steps she's trying to take to help herself and her own children. You compare Coco's point of view with that of the nun at the shelter where she is staying: "Coco couldn't ignore the people she cared for, which is why [they] turned to her first for help. The word that came to Sister Christine's mind was enmeshed. Coco would have said she had heart." What do you think? What's the difference for you?

It's a very serious moment, in terms of social policy, where you have a perversion of American ideals about American families. What we're telling Coco is, "If you want to succeed on the terms that we call success, meaning making money, getting ahead, you have to separate from your family." That is an impossible situation for anyone who loves their family.

What a crazy thing to do! To undermine all the connections that are a wealth of resource, comfort, love, joy, frustration -- all those things that families are. So I guess I was trying to say, yes, she does have to make a choice, and it just so happens that she's making the decent one.

Unfortunately it's at her own expense -- and Sister Christine felt the craziness of the moment, too. She said, "Here I am, telling this girl to separate from her family. What kind of advice is that?"

But youth workers often counsel that if your family is leading you to destruction, it's essential to separate. If your father's a drug addict you have to get away from him. If your mother is in a gang you have to get away from her.

Sure, that's true, but it's easy to say when it's not you, it's not your father, or your mother, or your brother. And that's a judgment call, and when faced with people in need, some people don't say no -- and others do. I'm not suggesting that sometimes separation isn't necessary. But the blindness -- again in terms of social policy -- to the vitality of these connections is remarkable.

This is a country that is constantly talking about family values, and is in fact using those "family values" to punish the very people who hold them in a much more day-to-day way than many middle-class and upper-middle-class families do. I mean, Coco had dinner with her family every weekend, even though she doesn't even live in the Bronx any more. And they take care of each other, they baby-sit each other's kids.

Who were your models while you were writing this book?

I don't really feel like I had models, but I was certainly inspired by Susan Sheehan and Alex Kotlowitz. Joseph Mitchell is often a person whose work I turn to again and again. When I would start to feel fatigued or wonder why I was doing this, I would try to read something that would get me back in the saddle again. Poetry -- I would read Adrienne Rich, or Auden, I would bring myself back to the need for the detail. John McPhee. I'd do my best to stay away from similar subject matter. And when I'm writing well -- which is rare -- I don't read much at all.

In his book "American Profiles," journalist Walt Harrington wrote, "If you aren't learning intimate details about your ordinary subjects that you believe are too personal for print, you're probably doing a poor job of reporting. If you don't often struggle with the ethics of what you will include in your profiles of ordinary people, you're either a schmuck or not really facing the ethical dilemmas." Do you also believe this?

Oh, yes. I think I worried about that from the minute I started. At the end of the day you have to make so many judgment calls. I'm glad that I grappled with it so deeply. I don't know if I succeeded, but can say that I really, really, really tried.

The most honorable thing you can do as a journalist is to try and capture everything you see as true. Often, when I would see something incredible, I'd think, "If only I saw this when I was 60, because I bet by then, my writing could hold it." I would think, "Oh, I can't carry what I just saw."

And really, I was just groping along. It's not as if I knew what I was doing out there. I don't want anyone to think that I went in there knowing what the story was, or having a clear focus. Coco was a mystery to me. Coco is still a mystery to me.

Are you going to continue to follow this story, this saga?

I would love to, especially the kids. A while back I went to bring a copy of the book to one woman -- a peripheral person in the book -- and her 8-year-old son kept asking when I was going to write about him. He said, "OK, you've written about it from the grownups' point of view. Now you have to write it as we see it." And I thought, "Wow, that would be amazing."

I mean, wouldn't that be amazing?

By Sheerly Avni

Sheerly Avni is a freelance writer living in Oakland.

MORE FROM Sheerly Avni

Related Topics ------------------------------------------