TBR: Random Family

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.

6 Responses to “TBR: Random Family”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    One of my closest girlfriends works with a lot of the mothers of the kind this book cites…. and the cycle is just as agonizing up close as it is to read. We are raising a generation that has no learned skills in intimacy or listening, that can not make genuine eye contact or construct reasonable consequences from their actions. As a society, we will suffer for this only more deeply with each passing year.

  2. Suzanne Says:

    This book completely knocked me off my feet. I was so consumed with anger and frustration (at the circumstances, mostly, but also by the choices that the people in the book made) that I had a hard time finishing it.
    Like you, I found the treatment of children appalling. It seems like there’s no way that they can escape becoming just like the adults in their lives, for those adults never had any positive role models, either. Without some pretty potent interventions, the chaos and poverty will just perpetuate.
    I know that the author stil maintains contact with the people whose lives she chronicled, and I hope that one day she will write a follow-up book.

  3. Elise Says:

    I get so angry and upset when I read about these things that I actually cannot even begin books like this. I am so appalled at the prevalence of these problems in our society. It makes me feel hopeless and sad. I think about how happy and thriving my little girl is, and how easy it would be to have tons of other happy kids, if only they were given the kind of care, love and nurturing that comes naturally to those of us who received it as children. Those kids have every bit as much potential as my daughter and they just never even have a chance. It is tragic.

  4. Awilda Colon Says:

    I loved this book. Unfortunately, it’s so real. I would love to read any follow-up information on this family, how things are now for them.

  5. negrablanca Says:

    I’ve read this book over and over. While lot of readers express outrage — particularly at the personal choices that the grown-ups in the book make — LeBlanc herself has noted that even moderate social programs for youth would greatly improve the circumstances and promise of the kids in the respective families. The problem is that they’re underresourced and considered expendable — just like the book’s protagonists.
    LeBlanc even notes that a particular set of values which patently judge the actions and decisions of Jessica, Coco, et al. really have to be put into this particular context. I am more outraged that there aren’t the same opportunities for quality education, afterschool/academic support, healthcare and viable economic opportunities for the working-age folks than there clearly are in the next borough over.

  6. Erica Jensen Says:

    My name is Erica Jensen this novel open me to realize how much hurt can spread out.I would really want to know how Jessica and Coco are doing as well the rest of the family.I read the book has part of a group in English I know that you taught me something. I hope Jessica and Coco are doing well.If you read this please say hello I want life to be good for all of your family.

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