Le Blanc’s Random Family

By MAURA WALZ

Many reporters feel that it’s a great luxury to spend more than a day or two with interview subjects, talking to them and observing how they live their lives. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent more than a decade with the people who eventually became the subjects of “Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx.”

She accompanied her random family—an intergenerational group of Bronx family members, linked to each other by blood, common law marriage, or by proximity on Tremont Avenue—to doctor’s visits, summer camp, visits with teachers and social workers, prison visits, births, deaths. She absorbed the rhythms, rituals and unwritten rules of daily life in the Bronx.


Author Adrian Nicole LeBlanc discusses reporting about children from Maura Walz on Vimeo.

Most of all, she got to know people: teenage drug kingpin Boy George, his strong-willed girlfriend Jessica, Jessica’s brother Cesar, and especially Cesar’s open-hearted and dedicated girlfriend, Coco.

In the process, LeBlanc wrote her own rules of immersion journalism. Unlike Barbara Ehrenreich in “Nickel and Dimed,” a book about the author’s own journey into the edges of the working classes, LeBlanc became engrossed in her subject’s world without making herself a character in her book. LeBlanc used an omniscient, detached voice to tell the story of “Random Family” and created a narrative that in some ways has more in common with the fiction of Theodore Dreiser than it does with most immersion journalism of the early 21st century. She focused on the details of daily life, which transcend the dire poverty of the neighborhood and often come to feel strikingly normal: romances and broken hearts, business ventures, ambitions and aspirations.

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LeBlanc also stays entirely in scenes, allowing herself journalistic detachment without ever swooping up to the bird’s-eye-view to provide sociological context. LeBlanc could easily have provided that context: her exhaustive research while reporting the book involved not just on-the-ground observation but also a year spent at Yale Law School to study criminal law and sentencing. But the book examines poverty as a lived experience, forgoing statistics, demographics and policy analysis for extremely detailed description of the inside of welfare offices, crumbling apartments and prisons and the ways in which people live in them.

It’s a fascinating and complex journalistic technique that in some ways reveals truths in unusual ways and in other ways obscures information about how the book was reported. For example, the lack of concrete analysis does not mean that such context is absent from the book. Instead, context is presented through the ways Coco, Jessica and the book’s other characters navigate the world. A case in point comes when a doctor suggests that Coco’s young daughter Mercedes may have been molested. Sexual abuse is an insidious problem in the neighborhood LeBlanc depicts, but rather than providing statistics, LeBlanc gives the reader what may be far more illuminating information:

For the mothers of girls, this threat hung over the whole of life, like a low cover of dread; it was one of the more commonly given reasons why expectant parents wanted boys. Good mothers didn’t go from man to man not only because promiscuity was frowned upon, but also because protecting children meant limiting the number of men who passed through a house.

Likewise, descriptions of the regular, hours-long, mind-numbing wait for a brief meeting with a social worker tells more about the failures of the American welfare system than formal policy analyses could ever approach.

On the other hand, LeBlanc’s total removal of herself from the narrative sometimes confuses the reader about how the information was actually obtained. Sometimes LeBlanc described stories because she was there and witnessed them; other stories are reconstructed through the accounts of her various sources. From the narrative it is difficult to tell which is which. LeBlanc’s detachment could be seen as misleading, as the reader is never told precisely how she constructed the stories and are left to wonder, for example, the reliability of the sources or how her presence may have affected the scenes.

Still, on balance, the book is an overwhelmingly powerful portrait of a kind of American life that is woefully under reported. And the value of documenting the day-to-day lived experience of American poverty is valuable regardless of how much sociological or political context LeBlanc offers. Indeed, her approach of documenting the mundane details of life is a political act in and of itself. In an interview with “The Village Voice” shortly after “Random Family” was published, LeBlanc said that “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 martyrs — when poor people can just be like anyone else: Make good choices, bad choices, be nice, be jerks, be whatever anyone else gets to be.” The genius of “Random Family” is that it doesn’t wait for political change to present poor people like anyone else — it shows that they already are.

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