In the Family Way
It's the summer of 1994. Surrounded by five children, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc lies on a mattress in a stifling, rat-infested apartment in a desolate stretch of the Bronx. She falls asleep as a couple in the adjacent room wear themselves down in a vicious shouting match and wakes with a start when two men try to break into the apartment, presumably to rape or rob the women inside. A friend chases off the intruders. LeBlanc, exhausted from several days of shuttling children to welfare appointments, barely reacts.
On a blustery January afternoon eight and a half years later, she's sitting in a warm Spring Street bistro by her Manhattan apartment. With short dark hair falling in loose curls and red plastic frames on her pale face, LeBlanc seems suited to the restaurant's convivial atmosphere. But as she rakes her hair into a handheld ponytail and leans forward to describe that surreal, suffocating evening, LeBlanc's intensity reflects her deep connection to the Bronx. "I was dulled at the time, not having clear reactions," she admits. "This is what happens when you spend days there." As a journalist, however, LeBlanc spent more than 10 consuming years reporting on this marginalized borough. The result is Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx (Scribner, $25), a profound multigenerational account of the daily toils of urban poverty, tracing the expanding families and shifting fortunes of two remarkable young Puerto Rican women, Jessica and Coco. The apartment where LeBlanc spent that restless night belonged to Coco, a woman who so completely opened her life to the journalist that LeBlanc now considers her family.
LeBlanc encountered Coco through Jessica, a beautiful, ambitious young woman from the South Bronx, and her violent, high-flying boyfriend, a man known as Boy George. In 1989, LeBlanc covered Boy George's trial for masterminding sales of a particularly potent brand of heroin called Obsession. Her subsequent piece for The Village Voice chronicled George's heady, moneyed rise and prison-destined demise during the late-'80s drug boom. LeBlanc's story, however, did not end with Boy George. She continued reporting on Jessica and met Coco, the girlfriend of Jessica's younger brother. With her subjects' approval, LeBlanc became their shadow: camping out in Coco's ever-changing apartments, making trips to ERs and prison visiting rooms, attending birthday parties and welfare appointments, and spending dreary days hanging out on the street. Under LeBlanc's gaze, the indomitable Jessica mothered five children by three fathers, covered herself with tattoos dedicated to Boy George, and weathered seven years in prison for drug conspiracy before reuniting with her rapidly growing eldest daughter. Cesar (Coco's boyfriend and Jessica's brother), an uncompromising and manipulative young man, was convicted of manslaughter and slowly transformed himself in prison into a politically engaged and introspective adult. Coco, the 14-year-old who playfully pursued Cesar with a lollipop tucked in the knot of her ponytail, developed into a spirited mother of five by age 25. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, meanwhile, grew from an observant young reporter to the 39-year-old author of Random Family, perhaps the most intimate chronicle of urban life ever published.
Raised in Leominster, Massachusetts, a small factory town that is now a "bedroom city of Boston," LeBlanc developed an early interest in social issues. Her father was a factory man turned union organizer, and her mother worked at a residential drug rehabilitation center. While attending Smith College, she covered a disturbing cluster of suicides (11 in a year and a half) in her hometown for the now defunct New England Monthly. When she described the drinking and drugging of adolescents in Leominster, local adults responded with surprise. LeBlanc, however, maintains that the knowledge gap between adult and adolescent worlds was illusory: "What was really going on was quite available, if anyone was paying any attention." So LeBlanc paid attention, launching a magazine-writing career that continues to expose the marginal, overlooked, and misunderstood: girl gang members, child drug dealers, teenage prostitutes, female prisoners, and young mothers in the South Bronx.
Although LeBlanc is not the first writer to cover poverty in the Bronx, her approach is highly unusual. While others spend a few hours, or days, working on deadline to report the latest tragedy, LeBlanc had the luxury of absorbing the minutiae of her subjects' everyday routines. Mark Kramer, director of the Nieman Foundation Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard University, taught the Smith class for which LeBlanc first wrote on the Leominster suicides. He once considered her a prodigy; now he calls her a virtuoso: "The metaphor writers use, usually a wishful one, is of a fly on the wall. But somehow she succeeds. She's got an equality of vision, seeing the small things that make up the big things." LeBlanc describes her method as born of an attraction to the commonplace: "People just going to the grocery store, being bored in the courtyard, someone getting sick or having a babythe hundreds of moments that make up regular life. Because I think the most compelling moments in the book are not the most obvious ones."
Similarly, the most significant characters in Random Family are the ones most easily overlooked. Jessica and Boy George indulged in a Hype Williams fantasy of customized James Bond-style cars and quick trips to Puerto Rico (at one point, Boy George was grossing $500,000 a week in Obsession sales), but Coco remains the foundation of the book. She cares for her children amid the intricacies of welfare, establishes a new life in upstate New York, and slowly breaks away from her incarcerated boyfriend, Cesar. Against poverty's relentless downward pull, she wages a tenacious daily battle. LeBlanc allows that her connection to Coco was personal. "She's a joyful person, an incredibly generous person, and the way she's wired, her personal circuitry goes toward goodness," she says. "In a place of such deprivation, she was a real force of life." But in recording her story, LeBlanc was careful to reflect all of Cocoboth her shining and desperate moments.
"Coco's ordinary," LeBlanc explains, "and I say that with the deepest meaning in ordinary. I'm really interested in the richness and political necessity of understanding mundane life, common life." According to LeBlanc, comprehending the humdrum details of poverty is the first step toward any political solution. "In terms of poverty policy and social policy in this country, we are really going to get on with it when poor people will just be people and not have to be self-abdicating martyrswhen poor people can just be like anyone else: Make good choices, bad choices, be nice, be jerks, be whatever anyone else gets to be."
LeBlanc acknowledges that the default response in public discussions of the poor is often condemnation. She insists, however, that enlightened reform is still possible. "I used to think that you had to have lots of extraordinary programs, but what you really need is enough adequate programs," she explains. "I don't think that it's this massive overhaul that we need. There are very obvious things that need to happen." LeBlanc's list includes raising the minimum wage, providing sex education, creating decent day-care facilities, and repealing the Rockefeller drug laws, which she calls "shameful and obscene."
Remarkably, LeBlanc never takes the authorial opportunity in Random Family to pull back and expound upon social conditions. Her moments of expository writing are limited to such aphorisms as "Virginity could put sneakers on your feet" or "Success was less about climbing than about not falling down." Instead of judgments, explanations, and statistics, she offers unadorned, seemingly unmediated realitywhat Mark Kramer calls her "relentless neutrality." Drawing readers so utterly into her subjects' daily existence, she reflects how their life-shattering decisions (to have a child at age 14, to join the drug trade, to miss school or a crucial welfare appointment) are familiar, natural, and reasonable. In a life of constant, wearying crisis, people begin ranking emergencies to the point that some of them are no longer recognizable as such. In Random Family, the discreet distancethe othernessof urban poverty quickly disappears and the inner logic of this damaging world emerges. On certain nights, it's easier to sleep than face the intruders.
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