In her extraordinary bestseller, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc immerses readers in the intricacies of the ghetto, revealing the true sagas lurking behind the headlines of gangsta glamour, gold-drenched drug dealers, and street-corner society. Focusing on two romances - Jessica's dizzying infatuation with a hugely successful young heroin dealer, Boy George, and Coco's first love with Jessica's little brother, Cesar - Random Family is the story of young people trying to outrun their destinies. Jessica and Boy George ride the wild adventure between riches and ruin, while Coco and Cesar stick closer to the street, all four caught in a precarious dance between survival and death. Friends get murdered; the DEA and FBI investigate Boy George; Cesar becomes a fugitive; Jessica and Coco endure homelessness, betrayal, the heartbreaking separation of prison, and, throughout it all, the insidious damage of poverty.
Charting the tumultuous cycle of the generations - as girls become mothers, boys become criminals, and hope struggles against deprivation - LeBlanc slips behind the cold statistics and sensationalism and comes back with a riveting, haunting, and true story.
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc is an American journalist whose works focus on the marginalized members of society: adolescents living in poverty, prostitutes, and women in prison. She grew up in a working-class family in Leominster, Massachusetts. She studied at Smith College, Oxford, and Yale University. She worked for Seventeen Magazine as an editor after earning her Master's degree in Modern Literature at Oxford. She is best known for her 2003 non-fiction book Random Family. She was a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship -- popularly known as the "Genius Grant" -- in 2006.
I really enjoyed reading this book, however, I grew up in the South Bronx during the time this book was set in - so my review may be a little biased ;-). Based on an article written by the author, I received the impression that the author "enjoyed" leaving her uptown "cushy" cocoon to delve deep into the lower class, inner city as a voyeurist (FYI, the author spent about 10 years living with the family). Yes, anyone unbeknownst to the Bronx (or any urban area), will receive a close look into the lives of ONE very dysfunctional family and form an opinion about how BAD it must be growing up in such an environment. MOST families are not like this where I come from, as mine surely wasn't (I didn't have roaches and rats and drug dealers in the hallway of my building). Yes, even though I grew up in a time where drugs was rampant, we couldn't play in playgrounds without seeing an empty crack vial or syringe on the ground. However, there were also good memories of block parties, BBQ's, good friends and family. I feel that Ms. LeBlanc made the Bronx seem much worse than it really was, based on this one particular family. PLEASE UNDERSTAND THAT THIS FAMILY IS NOT THE NORM in the inner city.
I'm also concerned and have questions about whether or not Ms. LeBlanc helped this family in any way. Were any proceeds of the book given to help Coco, Cesar, or Jessica? What about their children? Or was this truly just a voyeuristic look into an extremely dysfunctional family in an overly exaggerated version of a South Bronx neighborhood?
If this book was a novel, readers would probably dismiss it as too chaotic and not believable. But it is in fact a true story, the never ending cycle of living on the edge, the ghetto (largely the Bronx), where the girls get pregnant and the guys sell drugs and go to jail (some of the girls do too). Somehow, LeBlanc, the author, has gotten inside several families, and the result is you live with them, with all their turmoil, rage, love and loyalties. I'm not sure I've ever read a more honest account of what it is like to live in this part of our society. I doubt I've ever read a 'coming of age' story as intense and memorable as this one. And I'm sure I will remember it for a very long time.
It's hard to truly understand poverty unless a) you experience it first-hand, or b) you read a work like Random Family. But this isn't just some study about poverty; it's about people.
Although LeBlanc zooms in on several family members, she focuses on the lives of Coco and Jessica, two Latina women who at the beginning of the book are mid-teens--a vulnerable stage where they're trying to build their identities, impress others, and be experimental. This is where they start to make detrimental choices that will affect them forever. Sure, the ladies may be told that they can be successful and independent, but their role models are being beaten by boyfriends and the men showing interest in them are drug dealers. Since they are young and financially unstable, it's difficult to remove themselves from the culture; and even when they try, it's impossible to sever the ties.
An amazing amount of time was put into this book. LeBlanc spent years researching, conducting interviews, and enveloping herself in the family's environments (she was present through many of the accounts). She's not some scholar who compiled her data from the safety of an upper-class neighborhood where she was so removed from the culture that she couldn't understand it. Yet she manages to detach herself from the book and tell it as a story--not that it necessarily reads like a novel, but it's narrated from a third person point of view, minus statistics or outside analysis. She does a good job of balancing details with the larger picture.
This is not a fast read. You can't just skim it and understand the complexities of all the people and their relationships. There's a lot to keep straight, which is why some readers lose interest quickly. There's so much information to deal with that it could have been a hairy mess, but instead it has been formed into a smooth narrative.
These powerful - painful-insightful - stories...by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc... about poverty, drugs, sex, injustice, in the South Bronx neighborhood.... (published in 2003 - six years ago) - was the perfect antidote to “Three Woman”, by Lisa Taddeo. (published this year in 2019)....
The stories told by Boy George, Jessica & Coco, ( both women I won’t forget), and Cesar we’re intimate, real, heartbreaking, and truthful. I never once felt ‘annoyed’ listening to these devastating situations...as I did in “The Three Women”...( the flowery prose drove me nuts as well as other things).... but the two books are worth comparing because of how each author dove into personal lives, and their secrets.
For ten years, LeBlanc followed the lives of 4 people living in the Bronx... their trials and tribulations.
LeBlane doesn’t leave anything out: drugs, drug dealing, abuse, sexual abuse, love, pregnancies, rat infested homes - NO HOMES, fears, welfare, jobs, NO JOBS, despair, trying with all their might to better their situations, hopelessness...crying, hope, prison, praying, and children raising children.
COMING OF AGE SHOULD NOT HAVE TO BE THIS HARD!!!
The people in this book represent American culture, (the side of culture we hope not to experience), today as much as it did years ago.
It’s frightening to comprehend that the gap between the rich and poor - in America is worse today than years pass.
I put in many walking miles while listening to this Audiobook. Reads a little like a soap opera ( but not in a bad way).. and a little like a thriller ( also not in a bad way. This is NON FICTION... that we wish were fiction!
Remarkable- ambitions - and incredibly well done by LeBlanc!!
A special thank you to Ren who inspired me to read this .
What was the point of this book? If it was the soap-operafication of a family in the midst of poverty, then mission accomplished. This book is pure voyeurism. There is no message to be found, no subtext about the plight of the poor, and ultimately no empathy from the author for these people who have been reduced by the author to their choices (many of them poor). Reading this book I learned nothing about these people except for their decisions; nothing about their inner lives or the insitutions that perpetuate their condition. The writing itself is terribly paced, but she will of course get away with this by cramming as much personal information as she can, and the critics will applaude her "honesty".
Look for a page expressing LeBlanc's "connection" to this family; you won't find it, not even in her acknowledgements. LeBlanc may not be "present" in the book, but in the end, it's all about her; her journalistic technique, her "struggle" to write this book, etc, etc, ad nauseum... Read this interview with her and tell me that I'm wrong. Tell me she gives a damn about this family. She doesn't. She's already moving onto her next money-making project.
She was awarded a Macarthur Fellowship for her work. That's a $500,000 stipend on top of whatever this book has already earned her. Anyone think any of that money will find its way to social justice projects that seek to alleviate the poverty she writes about? I doubt it.
Riveting and devastating. Required reading for anyone wanting to better understand not just the cycle of poverty, but the systems that keep that cycle churning. I rooted for the people in this book, while all the while seeing what they could never get out from under, frustrated by their choices, yet seeing why they could not plan or save money or get away from trouble. Without a belief in the future, there is only moment to moment.
"Random" family, in the sense of "typical"? Well, not exactly. LeBlanc actually says in the book that her subjects are NOT typical of the folks who live in their neighborhood. The illusion that what's portrayed is representative is one of this book's major flaws. The book reinforces stereotypes associated with race and class (e.g. the "welfare queen" going on a cocaine binge in a limo, the baby mama drama). LeBlanc focuses heavily on the psychological angle (why would someone go back to her abusive drug dealer boyfriend?) and the moral angle (why would someone spend money on cocaine instead of tuition?) This makes the book a page-turner at times, but it also feels strangely flat. You know why?
Because the personal and psychological angles are only part of the story! She almost entirely leaves out the structural angle. WHY does this kind of poverty exist? Why are these folks so disenfranchised? How have racism and sexism contributed to the inequalities? What effect have social programs had, or what effect could they have, on the problems? LeBlanc spends very little time on these questions, so you're left with the idea that Coco and Jessica and their friends and families are so screwed up because they keep making bad choices. And they do make bad choices, but plenty of people around them (who are not the focus of this story) make good choices and are still not able to "make it", because of structural inequalities.
A couple of stylistic comments: The book also would have benefited from some judicious editing - the story becomes repetitive and soap-opera-y after a little while. Also, LeBlanc's choice to tell the story as an omniscient narrator - leaving herself almost entirely out of the story - is one which I find problematic, both stylistically and ethically. When thoughts and feelings were described in great detail, it wasn't clear how much came from the characters themselves and how much was LeBlanc's interpretation.
This is just an amazing, amazing book. Possibly the most depressing book I've ever read. LeBlanc completely and utterly immersed herself in the lives of her very poor, very lawbreaking subjects and tells their stories matter-of-factly, without an ounce of judgment or condemnation. Phenomenal. She needs to write more books.
This was a problematic read. LeBlanc has done an outstanding job of documenting life in the Bronx for its young, Puerto Rican, poor inhabitants. She writes without judgement, she writes objectively and avoids sensationalising any of what she observes. It is apparent that this is a labour of love – she spent 11 years with the people in this book and much of what happens in this book she was present for. We come to know the members of the family intimately and the feeling is very much like watching a nature documentary where you are watching a zebra being tracked by a lion and you know how it will end and you wonder why the crew just let it happen, why no one stepped in and saved him. The book opens with Jessica who at 16 is attracting male attention and making the most of it. By the time she is 18 she is a mother of three and dating a big time drug dealer who by turns buys her fur coats, keeps her prisoner and beats her half to death with a piece of 2 X 4. She and Boy George (not the New Romantic singer) are sent to prison and the focus switches to her brother’s girlfriend Coco. Coco and Caesar start having a lot of sex at 14 and so it is unsurprising that Coco ends up pregnant. By the age of 25 Coco has 5 children from 4 men and Jessica at 28 has 5 by three men. And this is where I find the book problematic. Coco is a very sympathetic character. Relentlessly optimistic, she genuinely loves her children, desires to better her circumstances (although she lacks the staying power to see any efforts she makes through) and has a refreshing honesty. Reading it you feel that these are people doing their best in a set of circumstances that most people cannot begin to comprehend. Yet I struggled with the cognitive dissonance between the words and the actions. We see the women (girls when the book opens) complain about their mothers putting men first, all of them have been molested or raped as children by men their mothers have brought into the home and yet men and sex are the driving force in their lives. Both Coco and Jessica’s oldest daughters are molested as children and yet both women dress their girls sexy, find it adorable when as infants they quote the adults saying, “I’m getting mines”. Jessica encourages her 14 year old to flirt and in possibly the most shocking incident (in what is a relentlessly shocking book) Coco asks her 10 year old niece to photograph her in lingerie, squatting with a dummy in her mouth and spreadeagled against a wall to send to her boyfriend in jail. With some level of perspicacity Coco realises the niece may be of an age to understand the intention of the pictures and so gets her 5 year old to finish taking them. Add to this Coco’s claims that she wants her girls to make a career for themselves but often keeping them off school or up all night to keep her company and you have to question how much is just words. Unsurprisingly, by the end of the book Jessica’s 16 year old is pregnant. The book does a good job of showing the underclass of the US: those who live in unfit housing, who receive poor quality education, whose family life consists of a series of homes with increasingly distant familial ties, where prison is a member of the family. It is hard not to feel some sympathy yet it is also the depiction of generational child neglect, of the abuse and over-sexualisation of young girls of mothers who do their best to ensure their daughters tread the same path as they have. It is a book that highlights a plethora of problems but a dearth of solutions.
I think the LA Times blurb for Random Family, which called the book a 'non-fiction Middlemarch of the underclass,' is absolutely spot-on. While it is principally a brilliant work of journalism, the book also feels at times like a massive 19th century English novel. You know, one whose four dozen-odd 'characters' occupy a wide range of positions within their class, and it feels as if the story could go on, and should go on, forever. Most of the characters flit in and out of the narrative; however, a few grab the author's attention and lead her through the elemental yet compelling trials of their lives.
The difference here, of course, is that Eliot's novel was about provincial, middle and upperclass Victorians, people who could lay claim to the central and dominant culture of the day. Meanwhile, LeBlanc's book encompasses the actual stories of poor people for whom nobody could give a shit. It preserves these people's often poetical expressions and keen insights into just how little say-so they've been given in their own lives. For me, it serves as an elegant answer to any politician or cretin fretting about "class warfare."
Useless Sidenote: LeBlanc probably used the phrase 'break night' or 'broke night' a hundred plus times. I always assumed that the colloquialism referred to an all-night binge where one 'broke' the night by partying into day (e.g., "Yo, we broke night and sniffed yay until 9 in the morning!"). However, LeBlanc's usage seems to mean any situation where people stay up all night talking.
Someone page William Safire! Hott topic for an "On Language" column!
Incredibly cold, boring, redundant, and banal. LeBlanc's approach is cold and lifeless; journalism at its most barren. She took no interest in any of the people involved; it read like one giant insensate run-on list of daily activities.
I cherish this book. My daughter read it for a journalism class at NYU, and insisted that I read it. The author, Adrian Nicole Leblanc, spent ten years observing four young people and their extended families. She has written a masterwork in about living life on the streets in the Bronx. It is quite possibly the most thought-provoking book I have ever read. Even though we read it two years ago, Erin and I are still talking about it. Here is a small sample, from page 69:
"Back in their own Crystal Palace Suite, Coco and Cesar pretended they were on their honeymoon. They made love in the round bed and ordered food and watched TV and made love again in the heart-shaped Jacuzzi and laughed and playfought and never went to sleep. "We broke night," Coco said. From their bed, they watched the morning brighten. Sometimes, in the Bronx, Coco broke night in her bedroom, watching the police conducting surveillance on the roof of the building across the way. Three Cuban brothers ran their drug operation from several of the apartments and there was always activity. Countless times, Cesar and Rocco broke night on the street. But daybreak in the Poconos was different. They weren't facing time to kill, or feeling left behind, or stuck. There was nobody out to hurt them, no sad mothers or brothers or sisters to worry about. The Poconos held promises beyond the reach of the usual; they could ski again, or play basketball, or go ice-skating, or ride a snowmobile. But the peace Cesar cherished most, the respite from acting tough. He later said, "That's enough to hold a memory in." That weekend, in the Poconos was the only honeymoon Cesar and Coco would ever have, although they would remain in love for many years. They were both fourteen.:
Since I began this book a week ago, I've had about 4 or 5 dreams about its characters--real people whose lives are brutal, unfair, fascinating, and frustrating. At first I was struck by the "then this happened, then this happened," summarized nature of the narrative, LeBlanc's absence somewhat troubling, ghost-like, but as the story continued the telling of it slowed, became more dramatic, and occasionally LeBlanc added interpretations of these people's predicaments. She is both objective and compassionate; this book will stay with me for a long time.
In some ways, Random Family reminded me of the street narratives of Season 4 of The Wire. It's heartbreaking in that same way...that anger you feel when you see young people without opportunity, or resources, or choice.
"To hold the prison legally accountable for Jessica's predicament, the students had to prove that the injuries she had suffered were intentional. The legal challenge was a lot like the challenge of demonstrating the impact of racism or poverty or substandard housing: How could you untangle the structural injustices from the self-inflicted damage? How could you separate neglect from malice, the intended from the unintended harms?"
This is a 2.5 stars. Because it doesn't stink. But I really, really didn't like reading it. In fact I nearly re-shelved it after 100 pages, which I never, ever do. But it is no fun. It is so hard to gain any traction when there's not much structure. So boring, and it took me forever because there's so little story here.
I guess it is only reporting, which means very little narrative of any kind. At all. Facts, description, retrospective statements. But I think it thinks there's a readable story, and no. I saw a review that says it reads like a synopsis for a book rather than a book, and yes.
I finally felt somewhat interested halfway through, and once I understood that the book would last as long as the family members' prison terms (ha, ha... it... almost is a joke) there was a bit of a big picture that I did want to see complete. But it's difficult to like. I related to Coco in the beginning, but by the end her failures to act and utter lack of resources are tough to endure.
But: both Jessica and Cesar post-prison are pretty amazing, and it's nice to feel proud of good people. Their oldest kids are also kind of amazing. Actually, Mercedes is THE MOST AMAZING. Five stars for Mercedes. (Who is now doing pretty well, though it's strange there's so little follow-up information for these people on the internet.)
I couldn't anticipate the author's style: often, the pace of the details indicated that suspense was building, a scene carefully set because something important was about to be relayed, but it never worked that way. So while the level of detail was often excruciating -- do I want to know whether the elevator came, or where this pair of sunglasses came from? -- I wanted to know much more. There was opportunity for the author to ask for explanations of big questions in the words of the subjects, but it's not that kind of book.
But I would have loved to hear them talk about, for example, cultural gender divides (can you explain why having a son is important to you?), or why the families don't speak Spanish at home (how many generations are they from Puerto Rico, and how is that different from other Spanish-speaking communities in NYC?). Is it really useful to just repeat what we already know? Less, sometimes? We come closest in the chapter when Coco despairs over teenage girls -- her boyfriend is dating one, and her niece and daughter are becoming some. That was almost really good writing. Pretty close.
Is that just really great reporting I'm complaining about? I guess there's a difference between great reporting and great book-writing. I guess a really, really big one. I FEEL BAD, though. This is a bestseller; LeBlanc received a Genius Grant. And it is... fine. But it is no great read. And I just don't see it as a "Middlemarch of the underclass".
Um, and this is kind of stupid, but I hated the obsession with the phrase "to break the night", an idiom for staying up all night. I've never heard that before, and it was super annoying that people "broke night" three times a page. Just, gah.
I picked up my copy at the closing month sale at Skyline Books, on the New York City shelf. This is another I read off of a best NY books list. It's a thoughtful inclusion, but I didn't find it very exciting.
I guess that I’m not entirely sure what the author was trying to achieve with this book. There’s no introduction, there’s no conclusion--I don’t enough about her to know her motivations. To be charitable, it would seem that she is trying to show, through the lives of three main people, the ties that bind people into poverty, drugs, and crime.
I have no doubts about how difficult it is to escape poverty. When your parents are uneducated, violent, and poor, who can you look to for an example of how to get out of that situation? During this time, in this place, boys were fathers in their teens, dropped out of school, and could only earn money through drugs and other criminality. Girls are pregnant in their teens, dropped out of school, and can’t provide for themselves and their children on minimum wage jobs. Sexual abuse is common because children get left with people that can’t be trusted. Girls skip from one man to the next because they’ve watched their mothers do the same thing. No one has enough education to properly fill out government forms to obtain benefits or to budget what little money they have. Boys take advantage of their male status to have sex with as many girls as they can talk into it. Girls can’t afford birth control and view having children as a way to bind boys to them.
Add to these problems that being a generous, good person can work against you. How many times did these women feed people who were only “random family”? Someone connected to someone who was part of the family? When girls have children by 2 or 3 different men, all of their relatives somehow become part of the web of family and women like Coco feel badly about denying them food and/or housing. Yet she knows that it’s bad for her own children in the long run.
These people are in a virtually inescapable situation. Their only pleasures are food and sex and they indulge when they get a chance--who wouldn’t? But when all the food is gone and there are more babies on the way, once again their lives worsen.
It was depressing reading because I know that the same things are probably happening to the children and grandchildren of Jessica, George, and Coco. Reading this made me realize how incredibly fortunate I am to have been born into the family that I’m part of, into the communities that I’m part of, and to be a citizen of my country. The fact that the adults around me didn’t lecture me about how to live, they just lived it and let me watch & learn. I learned to work, to live within my means, to value education, to regulate my emotions, all those skills that are necessary to living well.
I’d like to think the author meant this book as more than just downward social comparison, but I wish that she had addressed her purpose directly. What would have made things better? Are there programs that could actually assist people in these life circumstances? Ultimately, without this kind of analysis, I wonder why she wrote it?
This is a phenomenal book that unflinchingly documents the personal stories of a loosely defined bronx family. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc immersed herself in an impoverished, marginalized community for over 10 years and this book is the result. As a social worker these are stories I hear often: generations of abuse, addictions, teen pregnancies, incarceration, abandonment, mind numbing poverty, and violence. What is truly amazing about LeBlanc's work is that she does not glamorize, sanitize, condemn, pathologize, or pity the people whom she writes about. Undoubtably it is her ability to simply listen and capture the complexities of their lives in a non-judgemental way that won her the trust of this family to begin with. It reads like fiction, and there are times that you wish it was. No happy-ending, no heavy-handed morals, just an honest glimpse into the lives of some amazingly strong people.
This book was the perfect antidote to all my griping about the narrow and occasionally judgmental Orthodox Jewish world in which I live. For all the extremes the community sometimes goes to in order to protect its insularity, the overwhelming majority of kids it produces never experiment with drugs or get into trouble with the law. Boys and girls alike are virgins until their wedding night. But not so in the South Bronx. After reading the painstaking detail of the struggle to grow up there, I’d be amazed that anyone breaks free and joins the middle class.
The book focuses mainly on four people: Jessica, her boyfriend George, her younger brother Cesar, and his girlfriend Coco. Jessica’s story comes first. As a teenager, she made the common mistake of women regardless of socio-economic class. She decided that “love is the most interesting place to go, and beauty is the ticket.” She dressed herself up and began hanging around the neighborhood. The first boy she attracted was Puma, a low level drug dealer. He fathered her first child when she was sixteen.
But relationships are a merry-go-round in this book, so both Puma and Jessica were involved with other people simultaneously. After all, why should Jessica differ from her mother? Of her three siblings, she only shares a father with Cesar.
Jessica’s life changed when she begins to attract the notice of “Boy George,” the richest and most successful drug dealer in the neighborhood. To become George’s main girl was a status symbol, and Jessica pursued that ambition with determination, usurping several other girls in the process. Soon, like George, she became a local legend.
The story of George’s rise is one of the most interesting parts of the book. He was a disciplined entrepreneur, never partaking of the drugs he dealt. He had numerous underlings, and he knew how to manage them. He also knew when to seize on opportunities to expand his business. It reminded me of the point made in Freakonomics - the crack business was structured and organized much the same way as the McDonald’s franchises are. George dealt in heroin, not crack, but I’d imagine the business model is not all that different.
At its height, George’s business was making half a million dollars a week. That’s $26 million a year – and this was the late 1980’s! If his business had been legal, where would that have placed him on Forbes’ list?
Though George invested some of his profits back into the business, he also spent lavishly on himself and his friends, Jessica and her family included. He bought Jessica clothing and jewelry. He made sure her mother never lacked for food (or cocaine). He took trips to Puerto Rico and Disneyworld. And once a year, he would rent a yacht and throw a party for his staff, customers, and friends.
To return to the McDonald’s parallel, I could not help but think of No Shame in My Game, another book about the inner city poor, set at about the same time as this one, but focusing specifically on fast food workers. The fast food industry probably supplies more legal jobs in the inner city than any other, but no fast food worker will ever earn enough to live like George or his immediate underlings. Heck, most middle class people don’t either. So anyone who’s living in poverty in the inner city and chooses an honest, low wage job over a much more lucrative, albeit dangerous, life of crime deserves tremendous honor. Think of that next time you’re being served in Starbucks.
One day, on a lark, George splurged and took Jessica, Cesar, and Coco to a hotel in the Poconos. Though Cesar and Coco were only fifteen at the time, they went at it in their hotel suite like a couple of honeymooners. But they were small time compared to George and Jessica. Coco was amazed that Jessica would even deign to hang out with her. She was a “girl with all that.” But as it turns out, she and Cesar had a much better relationship than Jessica and George.
Of course, the law eventually caught up with George and Jessica. George is still serving his life sentence; Jessica got ten years. Eventually, Cesar was imprisoned for an unrelated violent crime. And from that point on, Coco is the main focus of the book. If George was the most interesting “character,” Coco is definitely the most likable. She ultimately had five children, two of whom are Cesar’s. Cesar often complained about his lot in his letters from prison, but the book makes clear that Coco has it harder, raising the kids on the outside on her own. Cesar got counseling and GED classes; Coco tried, but barely had time with the kids underfoot. She was hardly the ideal mother (and who is?), but her heart was almost always in the right place. Unlike Jessica, whose kids were raised by her friend Milagros even after her release, Coco always put her kids first. Though she was a welfare mother, Coco is like those fast food workers. She struggled against the odds with meager results, but she just kept going because she’d rather “live right” than wrong.
Other reviewers said this book made them judgmental. I hope I don’t come across that way. What I got out of it was just how difficult it is to break out of poverty. Coco’s and even Jessica’s kids deserve every bit of help society can provide them. How else can we ever hope to close the gaping hole of inequality in this country?
I’ve been procrastinating on this review because it’s so hard to explain why a book is great or important. But when I come across one that is I have to share it with people.... so.
This is a work of narrative nonfiction, following an extended family and their friends for about 17 years. The subjects are impoverished Puerto Rican-Americans and the setting is the Bronx (and upstate New York) from the mid-1980s through the beginning of the 21st century. Despite claims to the contrary, it does not read like a novel--novels are constructed of scenes following narrative arcs, and Random Family is built of facts and details following the vagaries of real people’s lives--but the story is as compelling as a work of fiction. It’s hard to put down even though it’s depressing.
I’ll say that again: this book is really depressing. The author keeps political opinions out of it, but essentially it’s a book about what it’s like to be poor, and why people who are born to poverty find it difficult or impossible to escape. I’m a little ashamed to admit that by the end I didn’t have much admiration for any of the principals--they make a lot of mistakes, to put it lightly; they’re terrible at relationships; worst of all, they all damage their children in serious ways, even when trying their best--but I did feel that I understood them, as much as one can simply by reading a book whose subject matter is far removed from one’s personal experience. Would I do any better if I’d grown up with everything people face in this book: neglectful, drug-addicted or simply incompetent parents, child molestation, drug dealers on every street corner, role models who were dealers themselves (if male) or single mothers in unstable and often abusive relationships (if female), overcrowded apartments with an endless parade of people crashing in the living room because they had nowhere else to go, and so on? I can’t say with any confidence that I would. What this book does magnificently is dig deep into the characters’ lives, allowing the details to build up to form a complete picture--there isn’t one simple cause for anything. Lack of money is part of the problem but the damage done by broken families and terrible societal influences can’t be ignored either, and it’s all mixed up together.
Which isn’t to say that people don’t try to improve themselves--we see that here. And to some extent they succeed. But it isn’t easy. What really struck me is how the decisions people make as teenagers have such terrible long-term consequences: even the “good” girls are getting pregnant in their mid-teens, while the boys are building up a criminal record and often landing themselves with long prison sentences to boot. In the middle-class world teenagers make bad decisions too, but parents or society tend to shield them from the worst of the consequences. The kids in this book don’t have that safety net, nor anyone who can credibly demand that they do better.
I don’t mean to say the book is all doom and gloom, because there are happy events too, but what stands out the most is just how much people who start with nothing have to struggle for the things many of us take for granted. This book puts you inside their world and makes sense of it. And it does a great job of bringing their personalities to life and of telling a fluid story, though not one with a neat beginning or end. The writing flows smoothly and the descriptions bring people and places to life in a few words. It’s all told in a neutral, non-judgmental tone, the author clearly working to present her subjects to us on their own terms, without value judgments. And she succeeds at it.
The author’s complete absence from the book is weird, especially since she states in the acknowledgements that she was present for most of the scenes recorded--surely, for her to be included in these events and convince people to open up to her to the extent that they did, she must have become an important person in their lives? But while it may not be entirely honest, I understand the purpose of erasing herself from the narrative: the point is not to filter her subjects through privileged eyes or distract us with her opinions but to present the stories that matter here as directly as possible.
So, this an important book, one you should certainly read if you work with impoverished people (I know I’ve met women like Coco), or, you know, vote, or have opinions about social programs. Or if you just live in the U.S. Almost everybody who didn’t grow up in this kind of situation would likely benefit from such an intimate, detailed look into the lives of people who weren’t born with the privileges we take for granted. I certainly did.
An eye-opening true life account of life in the inner city. if i were to rename it, i'd title it "Survivor: Bronx". I was a camp counselor in North Philadelphia and was very surprised to see how similar living conditions in the bronx are to philly. All the families are on welfare, most of the kids have different fathers, it is commonplace for teenage single mothers, everyone had a family member or knew someone in jail, and the kids also lived in a drug infested neighborhood. I found reading this book so invaluable to understanding the families that i met during the summer.
Before reading this book, i often judged the young, teenage mothers thinking, "Why would you get pregnant so soon? Why would you throw your life, your education and your future away?" But now i understand that it is a norm and that poverty also contributes to a lack of birth control methods.
At many points in the book, i also felt very angry at the whole system of supporting inner city families. it seems that there is no way for upward mobility unless you're a rapper, drug dealer, or star athlete. Schools are crummy with underpaid teachers, welfare barely covers living costs, and crime is everywhere.
i found myself wondering what the solution is for the millions living in these conditions and felt hopeless at the vicious cycle of stunted mobility and poverty.
WARNING TO MY BOOK CLUB: DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW!!!! IT’S ONE OF THE BOOKS WE PICKED TO READ SOON.
IT’S ALSO POSSIBLE THAT MY VIEWS WILL CHANGE AFTER A SECOND READ.
SO DON’T READ THIS REVIEW YET.
DON’T READ THIS REVIEW
DON’T READ THIS REVIEW
This book was pretty good... about a family in the Bronx that she followed for ten years. It relates to poverty/race a bit- it's interesting to see how they survive- unfortunately jail shows up too often. I know "interesting to see" sounds detached... but that's the way I felt about the book in general. I didn't feel very attached to the characters (people, I should say) bc the book was pretty straight journalism.
There certainly IS a place for straight journalism, but 300 pages of straight reporting... it was monotonous. The book, and the family in it, could have benefitted- or maybe I, the reader, could have benefitted- from just a LITTLE more angle from the author.
Random Family got great reviews in the New York Times, but it was not THAT enjoyable a read because of the disconnect I felt from the story. It was more of a “this happened, and she said this, then that happened, and they went here, and back at the house, this was happening…” I just wished LeBlanc had reached more conclusions and had more opinions. Not TOO much, because I do think the family should be center stage, but I think this book needed MORE… more of something. I read the book several years ago, so when I reread it, I’ll more closely figure that out.
You might think that the writer of a non-fiction book should not insert their own views- but when an author does that, it can give the reader more of a structure in which to place the story.
Like the amazing book "Problem from Hell: American in the Age of Genocide" by Samantha Power. I know the book sounds depressing, but it had me spellbound. It is a DENSE book- full of facts about the genocides of the 20th century…but her writing is concise yet engaging. As I read, I found myself hating her bc she was doing SUCH a good job and I was SO jealous.
Power had clearly reached conclusions about the subject and each chapter was organized accordingly- I don’t think I could have gotten through this dense book without her organization and the way her voice comes through… it’s one of the most incredible books I’ve read.
Random Family is one of those rare books that I feel sad to have finished. There were many days when I only read 10 or 15 pages, just so that I could put off saying goodbye to the subjects of the story I'd grown so close to for a little while longer. This book sat on my desk at home for nearly a year before i ever picked it up, just because I didn't know what to expect from it. Now that I have turned its final page, I know that I will cherish the time I spent reading it for the rest of my life. Perhaps more than any of the young people profiled in this book, Coco's story is the most engrossing. With each page, the reader shares her struggles, her hopes and her disappointments. The reader hopes that she will get through each difficult situation and that maybe she can finally get ahead but, as the book progresses, even cautious optimism seems foolish. Coco and her family can only hope to get by. What gives this book most strength is the amount of time -over a decade- that Adrian Nicole Leblanc spent with the family. This allows the reader to observe each of the story's subjects experiencing the joys and optimism of their youth. Over the next decade, the harshness of their poverty steals their hope. Life becomes a constant battle to get by, to have a place to stay, to find enough food. The struggle changes them immensely, and they lose pieces of their person-hood. In their youth, Coco and Jessica could distract themselves from their problems by dressing cute and smiling as boys complimented them when they passed by on the street. However, the intrusion of adulthood and the burden of impossible to meet responsibilities eventually made even those small reprieves meaningless to them. The young men in the story, Boy George..Ceasar..Frankie..Rocco..Wishbone, struggle against traditional conceptions of masculinity. They rebel against the humiliations of being unable to be providers, and they are each punished for the inadequacy poverty has forced upon them. Leblanc perfectly captures all of the complicated dynamics that motivate each of the young people. The result is something between Sister Souljah's The Coldest Winter Ever and Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives. As a writer and a journalism student, this book has inspired me more than any non-fiction I've ever read, and I will never be the same.
Meh. This reminded me of Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women in all the worst ways. Random Family is basically an interesting journalistic exercise (LeBlanc followed a group of young kids in the Bronx for a period of about 10 years starting in the late ‘80s) that ultimately became nothing more than a voyeuristic account of how bad it is for people born into poverty in this country.
There is no analysis, no break down of why certain actions were taken or discussion on what options are available to poor people, and no afterword about what happened to these people in the years since the book came out. For a book that was published over 15 years ago I was shocked that there was not anything additional from LeBlanc herself (like, did she help out the people she wrote about?) which left a weird taste in my mouth.
Upon finishing, I can’t help but feel like the book is being given 5-star rating by readers who are afraid to criticize a topic that feels off-limits to them. I can imagine some readers are patting themselves on the back for reading Random Family and thinking that they now know what it’s like to live in poverty after spending a couple hundred pages following some really gratuitous examples of people who are being used to represent an entire underclass. Ugh. 2.5/5
The writing is very "This happens and then this happens. This happens and then this happens." It's very dry and ordered, and I didn't make it very far. The subject matter is interesting but the writing style is extremely immature.
I had to go to Amazon and copy word for word their synopsis because I strongly urge everyone to read this book and I did not want to do it a disservice by my meager way with words so this excerpt is from Amazon.com
Politicians rail about welfare queens, crack babies and deadbeat dads, but what do they know about the real struggle it takes to survive being poor?
Journalist LeBlanc spent some 10 years researching and interviewing one extended family-mother Lourdes, daughter Jessica, daughter-in-law Coco and all their boyfriends, children and in-laws-from the Bronx to Troy, N.Y., in and out of public housing, emergency rooms, prisons and courtrooms.
LeBlanc's close listening produced this extraordinary book, a rare look at the world from the subjects' point of view.
Readers learn that prison is just an extension of the neighborhood, a place most men enter and a rare few leave. They learn the realities of welfare: the myriad of misdemeanors that trigger reduction or termination of benefits, only compounding a desperate situation.
They see teenaged drug dealers with incredible organizational and financial skills, 13-year-old girls having babies to keep their boyfriends interested, older women reminiscing about the "heavenly time" they spent in a public hospital's psychiatric ward and incarcerated men who find life's first peace and quiet in solitary confinement.
More than anything, LeBlanc shows how demanding poverty is. Her prose is plain and unsentimental, blessedly jargon-free, and includidng street talk only when one of her subjects wants to "conversate."
This fine work deserves attention from policy makers and general readers alike.
This book begins in the late 1980s and when I started listening to it I thought it was going to be somewhat dated. But it turns out the story covers over a decade and the book was published in 2012. I lived on Long Island for most of the 1980s and graduated from the SUNY School of Social Welfare in 1988 at the age of 42. This book became known to me because of my daughter who read it earlier this year while she was a student at the Columbia University School of Social Work.
The details included in this book are incredible and the author describes it as a work of nonfiction where all incidents are recorded factually. I have worked for a total of about 11 years at what are commonly called welfare organizations. The impact of poverty that is presented here rings very true to me. One of the earliest welfare jokes but I remembered hearing was about the family that used the box for their color TV as a crib for the baby. The parade of teenage mothers presented in this book may be shown more sympathetically.
In some ways I wonder if this book does not reinforce the very negative stereotype of welfare recipients: women having babies and men being irresponsible. But I think that is A very limited surface view of the story presented here. This is a long book and you have to be open to experience the longer view of the men and women presented here. You have to be willing to see how severely battered they have been from the moment of birth by life experiences that they clearly did not choose or deserve.
This book would have benefited from some editing. I struggled through a hundred pages and gave up. Too many names, too many details that were not relevant or revealing. I disliked the writing as much as the depressing content, but also it just seemed to be a lot of the same things over and over. I didn't feel much progression in the characters- actually I didn't feel much of anything, just sadness that this kind of poverty and poor parenting exists in the world, but worse, our country. I'm disappointed since a couple of people recommended it to me, but I felt like it was a precursor to the Poor Housewives tv series. I don't like watching train wrecks. I'm genuinely baffled that so many people gave this book five stars. Clearly, I'm in a minority of readers.
What amazes me is the complete immersion in these people’s lives that the author was able to achieve and to sustain over a period of so many years. The level of trust involved in the writing of this book, with its detailed examination of messy, complicated lives (and, in the end, aren’t all lives messy and complicated?), is astonishing.
I have been surprised by some of the other reviews I've read about this book commenting that they cannot believe these people make the same mistakes over and over again. While what, to you, may seem like a mistake, is in fact the only way known to the people in this book, and they face circumstances that facilitate the lifestyles they have and don't offer many paths out. The best way it was addressed, I feel, in the book was by Cesar:
"Mercedes’s predicament extended beyond personal history or family or attitude or teenage parenting. ‘Poverty is a subculture that exists within the ghetto,’ he said. ‘It goes beyond black or Hispanic, at least in my mind. Overworked teachers. Run-down schools. It looks like they designed this system to make our children fail. Socio-economic conditions. Why are we so passive? We accept conditions that don’t benefit us – economic oppression we’ve been suffering for years. That’s the primary condition."
I finished it in 2 days, because I honestly could not stop reading it. It is one of the most realistic, unbiased views of generational poverty that I have ever read. I loved it. The way the author chooses to weave the stories of Boy George, Jessica, Coco and Cesar together was completely engrossing and unbelievably eye-opening. It shocked me, depressed me, and overall reminded me that people do not necessarily choose the lives they have, and even when they want to, there are so many forces working against them and stopping their agency that their ability to overcome is one of the biggest challenges.
More than anything, this book made me question what would need to happen in this country to solve the problems raised within these peoples lives. I don't even know where to begin - institutionally, socially, economically, even down to the value placed on jewelry and material goods as status. I don't know how you create a shift in the public consciousness to create an understanding, nor how you confront so many interwoven issues. I do think, however, that reading this book with the sensitivity to understand its characters and not dismiss them is a start.