Why I Write


It is Thanksgiving, 2011. The family is seated around the fireplace in our mother’s new home.  Nearly all of us, drawn from the deep South, the Midwest, and the mid-Atlantic. Our youngest brother, named after that clever sprite, is missing, and it isn’t clear when he’ll get there. He is the least predictable of our unpredictable lot, but, still, there is reason to worry. On impulse, I pull out my phone, open up google news, and search for his name.

With a lump in the throat, I find what I expect to find: his mugshot, along with an accompanying news story.  Reading it as a group, we learn that he had been arrested for “nine break-ins and seven larcenies,” all committed over the two month stretch leading up to the holiday.  More specifically, he’d been using bolt cutters and small tools to strip away semi-rare metals from air conditioning units and household plumbing from vacant or renovated homes.  He had been selling his haul for cash, which he then used, the police surmised, to fuel a drug habit.  “He wants some prison time, so give it to him,” one commentator added at the bottom of the story.

The youngest of our assemblage was born into the south Bronx of legend and raised, for his first few years, in the apocalyptic shadow of burned out buildings. The son of a crack-addicted, alcoholic mother, his body weak and marked by physical and psychological imperfection, he was defined as “brain damaged” by the state, cast aside by his grandmother, and cycled through a carnivalesque sequence of foster homes.  All this, of course, before he was abruptly incorporated into our family, brought in to to fill out our cast of racial characters.

When he joined us, he became legible and readable in a very particular way.  Under normal circumstances, left alone in the Bronx, he might have become a foot soldier in the coming drug wars, a bit player in the all-too-real New Jack City of the early 1980s. Forsaken and left behind, he would have drifted in and out of the prison system from the start, his childhood quietly revoked without comment, his blackness, his urbanity, his impoverishment all assigning to him a prematurely aged criminal justice profile.  In this alternate universe, if he lived to be eighteen, he might have run a corner, or a street, or a block. He likely would not have lived to be thirty.

Ripped from this inevitable future and relocated to the American idyll of white picket fences and little red schoolhouses, his story took a different turn. The public presumption was that he could be reformed, reanimated by that extraordinary engine of success: the all white suburban school.  His childhood – including his right to public education, to innocent bike rides, to tinkling laughter on the playground – was to be protected. The inevitably of his criminality was, in principle, suspended.  And the world, scarred by race riots and economic downturn, seemed to wait for – and to want – another bootstrapping narrative to emerge, one that celebrated the white-headed household.

My brother’s adoption – our last – was preceded, rather formally, by a family meeting, where we discussed our aims and ambitions as a group. I was thirteen. We hoped – like many others – that a small child could be extracted from a vast dystopian landscape, his natural goodness restored to its original brilliance, his future assured. Such hopes were shored up by the oft-expressed popular sense that cities were terrible places, and that the public wasn’t racist for wishing that a blackened mess of housing projects and basketball courts and graffiti would burn itself out of existence.  (Later, of course, this was the lesson of Losing Isaiah.  Of The Blind Side).

As we plotted our adoption, we most often cited the lesson of the DeBolt family, a far vaster assemblage than ours, built of bodies broken in war in poverty, all redeemed by an ingenious American system of parenting.  All adoptions, we believed, were salvage and rescue, and those abandoned to the city were doomed to die but for our intervention.  We could fix one of them, we thought.

We were wrong.  Wrong, that is, to think that he could be repaired, and wrong, as well, to think, imperiously, that he needed fixing.

A small, adorable child, he struggled in school, stubbornly fighting his own “improvement.”  He pushed back half-heartedly but consistently against our intimacies.  Increasingly a part of our family, he still, in his worst moments, used theft instead of work, anger instead of kindness, secrecy instead of openness.  By the time I left for college, there had been minor break-ins and police interventions and a wild set of drinking binges, notable occurrences in a small white town where your father was the judge, your mom a schoolteacher.  Within the house, a new system of borders and locks and walls sprung up, a new kind of carceral homeland with one simple goal: not merely to reform but also to restrain our brother.

The failure of that effort came dramatically, quickly, and permanently. One minute he was there with us, and the next minute he was confined to a nearby clinic, received by medical authorities eager to apply a whole new reformist regime.

Methylphenidate, Ritalin, Eskalith, Prozac, Tegretol, Lithium, Thorazine, and Corgar. The prescriptions grew more complex, the interactions harder to gauge, the doses doubled and then doubled again, even as he moved from institution to institution, from a small hospital for suicides and the depressed to removed wilderness schools for “at risk kids.” At each step, there was failure.  At one “ranch” school, he stole a car and burned it.  At another, he “escaped” and eventually assaulted an officer.  I remember counseling him, during a frantic phone call while he was on the run, to go to the Nation of Islam.

Legible and readable, like black typeface on white paper.

All of this long, terrible story took place while he was still a minor, the child of an affluent and prominent pair of parents, with resources to spend on his behalf.  As a minor in white America, he was required to go to school, but the only schools that seemed to “work” – to displace the danger, to contain it safely – were more like prison hospitals, run by private for-profit corporations.  The enormous expense of all of this was born by our parents, by the state of New York, and by the local school board in our rural New Jersey town.

In a way, this was a heroic effort. Reading through my father’s file on our brother is like watching the finest spirit of liberalism – here, a vast, desperate determination to protect this one symbolic body’s status as a redeemable child, to find the right solution through science and medicine and therapy, to preserve his rights, broadly construed. It is also akin to watching this liberalism die a slow death. After confrontation with a police officer in Colorado, he needed to be transported to a new school in Texas, but as a minor he wasn’t subject to the law in the same way as a prisoner.  And so our father paid, out of his own pocket, for sheriff’s deputies to transport his son. Our mother, meanwhile, wrote long, impassioned, thoughtful letters to him, over and over again, explaining the first order rationale for the social contract, pressing him to respect the most basic bonds of citizenship, taking up – in essence – the civic education of the man-child adrift between worlds, a liberal pedagogy so earnestly expressed it might give Paolo Freire second thoughts.

If success is measured by a productive return to civil society, then these efforts failed. Some problems are just too big to be solved by bootstrapping, by hard family work, by rescue and salvage. Some problems require solutions that are big, ambitious, structurally dramatic, that work in concert with bootstrapping, and idealism, and rescue and salvage.  This particular problem – the relations of race, crime, and poverty – is immense. We could try all of the proposed solutions at once, and they still might not do a thing. But to ask a single person to pull himself up, or to ask his family to carry him to a better life, or to ask their local school system to build a better citizen is pointless and cruel if there isn’t an even bigger set of things doing important work at a deeper level. This is why it makes no sense when people talk about dysfunctional families and broken-down schools as root problems – and not as attending symptoms.

What came next – once he was formally branded a “criminal,”once he began to tragically migrate in-and-out of the prison industrial complex – is too long and too complex to narrate here and now. Our brother became, like so many others, illegible and unreadable, a number or a statistic or a warrant or a mugshot. And his transformation from deeply symbolic child to a mere sociological fact was staged against the death of the pater familias, the Royal Tenenbaum who assembled us in the first place, and the resulting fracture of our rainbow tribe.

So why do I write? Why do I wake up on a Sunday morning and dash off an essay to no one in particular? For many reasons.  But I do it, chiefly, because my brother cannot. And because sitting still and doing nothing is wrong. I think of this – the massive leviathan that swallowed my brother, the leviathan that swallowed my family – when I write. And I wait for him – my brother – to write his own story.

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