Today's book is Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. It's a sympathetic portrait of a group of people who represent pretty much everything society condemns about ghetto life -- drug use, drug dealing, violence, teenage sex, welfare receipt, girls having babies with multiple boys and vice versa. LeBlanc spent ten years with the members of one family -- primarily Jessica, her brother Cesar, and his girlfriend Coco -- tracking their lives in and out of jail, in the Bronx and upstate New York, following the tangled threads of their relationships, and describing their lives and their children's.
I found it interesting to compare this book to Jason Deparle's American Dream, which I discussed in October. From the back covers, they sound very similar -- both ethnographic studies of poor inner-city minority single-parent families. But they're actually quite different. DeParle focuses on three women, but frequently pulls back to provide a broader context on their experiences and to discuss what their experiences imply about the success or failure of welfare reform. LeBlanc's narrative stays relentlessly fixed on her chosen individuals, and she carefully avoids providing any context for the choices of her subject.
Around HHS, there's a lot of focus these days on "healthy marriage" as a solution to many of the problems faced by families like those discussed in this book. And the advocates of this approach like to cite a statistic that the majority of unwed parents value marriage and hope to be married in the future. Well, one of the things I took away from this book was that valuing marriage is sometimes the problem -- these girls were often excited about having children with their lousy boyfriends because they thought it might get them to marry them.
As I read about the experiences of the children in this book, I got angry. A lot of them were just passed from house to house, left with whoever didn't duck the responsibility. Little or no attempts were made to curtail their exposure to adult sexuality, violence, or drugs. Several of them were believed to have been sexually abused. Even the women who prided themselves on their good parenting seemed more concerned with appearances -- keeping the kids clean and groomed, buying them expensive clothing -- than making them feel loved and protected. I had to keep reminding myself that the "adults" in this book were hardly more than children themselves, and presumably hadn't had any better experiences than they passed on.