Friday, August 28, 2015

The First Thing, and the Last

Katherine Stuart lived every day in fear. Fear that her husband would finally kill her, or turn his abusive attentions to her young son. After a brutal argument and knife fight in their Boston kitchen, Katherine's husband and son both lie dead on the floor.

Hundreds of miles away in Vermont, Lucy Dudley reads the newspaper accounts of Katherine's tragedy, and feels drawn to reach out to her. Lucy, an elderly woman living by herself on a small farm in rural Vermont, feels an immediate kinship with Katherine. She is carrying her own scars, and a secret that she has kept for almost five decades. Despite the two women being complete strangers, Katherine accepts Lucy's invitation to recover on the farm, and a beautiful relationship begins to take shape.

Readers who are interested in issues of domestic violence and their aftermath should find lots to interest them in Alan G. Johnson's novel, The Thing and the Last. Johnson, who was best known to me as the author of The Gender Knot, a non-fiction book about unraveling patriarchy, does an excellent job writing female characters who humanize the travesty and tragedy that is domestic violence in modern American culture. While the first chapter moves at lightning speed, the rest of the action of the book is slow and measured, much like recovery itself. Katherine is so broken by her experiences that she is not sure whether she can ever find a life for herself worth living. Lucy, as constant and stubborn as a boulder, provides both a soft place for Katherine to land, and a strong foundation for rebuilding her shattered life. How can Katherine give up on herself when Lucy never does?

While I have never had the experiences Katherine or Lucy have lived through, I couldn't help but think as I read that EVERYONE needs a Lucy in their life. A person who doesn't judge, but accepts you with all of your flaws. A person who is a constant comforting presence, just by the very fact of her existence in your life. Bit by bit, Lucy helps Katherine manage her grief, providing the compass for getting through the darkness, and finding at least a glimpse of the light. This book is a beautiful testament to the power of friendship and platonic love between women, and the power of forgiveness and redemption.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Ghettoside

Black on black crime.

If that phrase made you cringe, you know how I felt when I started reading Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy. As someone who strives to be anti-racist, and who has been very dialed in to the Black Lives Matter movement, I was immediately put off by the use of this phrase in the forward. Saying that the black community has no place demanding redress for police brutality until they "stop killing each other" is the worst kind of victim blaming. "We (white supremacist power structures and the white folks who perpetuate them) have ghettoized your communities and cut you off from economic and social advancement. We are shocked-SHOCKED-that this might lead to communities in crisis". I almost stopped reading the book without ever getting to the first chapter.

But I am glad I persevered (thanks, Mom-the fact that you read it and sent it to me was the only thing
to get me through). Leovy is not blaming the victims for the systemic racism in law enforcement. She is laying the blame for the high rate of black (and brown) people killing other black (and brown) people squarely on the shoulders of the racist policies of decades of policing in urban centers. Leovy's premise is that through overpolicing minor, non-violent crimes, and underpolicing/under prosecuting assaults and murders, law enforcement policy has encouraged the creation of informal systems of "justice". This "justice" system is predicated on neighborhood affiliation, with respect as currency. In this shadow system, revenge takes the place of criminal prosecution of perpetrators. Leovy explores this idea through the lens of a true story-the murder of the teen-age son of a police officer from South Central LA, otherwise know as Ghettoside by the officers who work there.

Most of the book follows a few dedicated homicide detectives working in the poor black communities in South Central LA.  One of the things that I liked about the book was the even-handed way in which the author portrays both the police detectives and the residents of the community. There is no hero and villain dichotomy, at least not at an individual level. The homicide detectives profiled are all guys who want to do their best to close cases, and the community members the author writes about are shown as multi-faceted people, rather than caricatures of "thugs" and "ghetto rats". Leovy saves her real venom for the systems and policies that have hampered the efforts of the well-meaning detectives to solve cases, and for the deep lack of understanding of the social dynamics of the communities they serve exhibited by the higher-ups who determine policy and staffing levels.

My one criticism is that the story is told primarily through the experiences of the detectives themselves, and Leovy's descriptions of their work ethic and dedication occasionally veered towards the "white savior" archetype (think the teacher from the movie Dangerous Minds), but that did not take away from the impact of her argument. Step by step, she took us through the murder case that frames the book, and through the historical and contemporary circumstances that have led us, as a nation, to where we are today in terms of urban law enforcement. As much as I hate the phrase "state monopoly on violence", that is exactly what is at play in our safer, whiter neighborhoods. As a white resident of a middle class community, I have every expectation that if I were assaulted, or God forbid murdered, that the police and the justice system would do everything in their power to prosecute the perpetrators. People living in poor black and brown neighborhoods have no such expectation. This book is thought-provoking, and provides another piece to the complex puzzle that is racism in America.