LeBlanc’s subjects sold drugs, did drugs, committed murder, went to prison, had sex, fell in love, got pregnant, fed their children. They shared ambitions and fears with a writer who was by their side for a decade. The book that resulted is an urban epic focussed on Boy George, the successful and brutal young drug dealer of the trial; Jessica, a vibrant teen-age beauty, and one of Boy George’s girlfriends; Cesar, Jessica’s rambunctious younger brother; and Coco, Cesar’s first love. LeBlanc also writes about the social issues—benefits administration, prison systems, public housing, addiction, teen pregnancy—that, in large part, dictate the circumstances she witnessed.
“Random Family” is so authoritative and enthralling that the writer recedes far into the background. And yet, she was there. This year, as “Random Family” turns ten years old, we wanted to mark the occasion by asking LeBlanc what reporting the book was like. How did she shape years of experience into a coherent narrative? To pose these questions, we chose a few memorable passages and asked LeBlanc to tell us about them. We also asked about her current project, on standup comedians.
Jessica lived on Tremont Avenue, on one of the poorer blocks in a very poor section of the Bronx. She dressed even to go to the store. Chance was opportunity in the ghetto, and you had to be prepared for anything. She didn’t have much of a wardrobe, but she was resourceful with what she had—her sister’s Lee jeans, her best friend’s earrings, her mother’s T-shirts and perfume. Her appearance on the streets in her neighborhood usually caused a stir. A sixteen-year-old Puerto Rican girl with bright hazel eyes, a huge, inviting smile, and a voluptuous shape, she radiated intimacy wherever she went. You could be talking to her in the middle of the bustle of Tremont and feel as if lovers’ confidences were being exchanged beneath a tent of sheets. Guys in cars offered rides. Grown men got stupid. Women pursed their lips. Boys made promises they could not keep.
This first passage, the book’s opening paragraph, establishes one of the great strengths of “Random Family”: how close and persistent observation yields telling details. Do you remember the series of moments that became that passage?
I’d met Jessica in the courthouse and in one of her apartments, but my most vivid memory of my early time with her was on the street. We’d gone to visit Boy George at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where she had charmed her way through the relentless intake process, and she and I shared a meal in Little Italy afterwards—courtesy of the restaurant. This struck me then—as it does now—as significant: a free meal offered by a Little Italy tourist trap. Men offered her whatever they had on hand—food, compliments, invitations, promises. She was a knockout and she knew how to deploy her beauty; part of the deployment was sharing her pleasure in it.
We’d walked to the restaurant, and she literally did cause a stir on the street. I’d never been that close to the power of beauty. She was changing the environment around her. Young women elicit such responses, and despite all the obvious complications, not many manage their sexual power when they are so young, and fewer still seem to enjoy it. Following Jessica out of the prison as we made our way to Little Italy was a little like being behind Moses as he parted the Red Sea.
None of this is why I opened the book with Jessica hitting the street. I had tried all sorts of openings. They lacked this immediacy. I rewrote the opening of the book at least forty-five times. It felt as if sixty per cent to seventy-five per cent of the time writing the book went to those first twenty-five pages. The relationships were so complex, and, depending on how old Jessica was, a certain number of facts had to be explained. Some of those terms weren’t easy to state without lengthy explanation. How to get the reader up to speed for the story? Finally, my editor and I decided to simply dive in from the place of understanding where I’d landed after ten years and hope the reader would be engaged enough by Jessica’s extraordinary charisma that they’d want to catch up to whatever initially might confuse them.
* * *
The rats made their debut her very first night; they were the size of skinny cats and shameless. Coco was shaken. One might bite Nautica. Coco dreaded going into the kitchen—the light didn’t work—but Nautica needed a bottle, and the water from the bathroom sink wasn’t hot enough. But as soon as Coco stepped into the hallway, a rat slithered along the wall and disappeared inside the kitchen door. Coco backed into the bedroom. Nautica howled until her voice became hoarse. She continued heaving long after she stopped making noise.
The next morning, Coco couldn’t face the kitchen; food attracted rats; the girls were hungry. How could she cook? Wearily, she packed some clothes in plastic grocery bags, gathered up her girls, struggled to lock the apartment’s disjointed door, and retreated to the comparative safety of Foxy’s house.
What was it like for your subjects to welcome you into their lives? And what was it like for you to live in their world and then return to your life at the end of the day?
“Welcoming” invokes more conventional, scheduled-event reporting, and it is hard to relate that word to my experience with “Random Family.” There’s also the issue of house pride implied by the question, and while I’m sure some of the people in the book may have felt conscious of me early on in light of that concern, it was never one of my particular issues. I was familiar with the type of spaces I was in, because of my childhood and other reporting I’d done—and I was very comfortable in most of them.
These visits were experiences in the context of long relationships—hundreds of hours spent together. The primary subjects are people I came to know well, along with many members of their families. I spent open-ended time with certain people over many years, and I was included unquestioningly in many things. I worried more about their generosity toward me—giving me the empty bed when people were sleeping on the floor; a plate of food when there was a limited amount—but I quickly lost those privileges, which was a relief. I do recall being concerned about people becoming so used to me that they would not feel comfortable asking me to leave. So much discussion about reporting revolves around getting or keeping access: I think some attention would be well-placed on the implications of having it—i.e., it’s hard for people who know you and care about you to ask you to step out of the room. Because I was around so much, and often treated familially, people didn’t remember to worry about my presence as a reporter. I would remind them, but I, too, was invested in the familiarity. I suppose, too, it felt less like work over time—it was my life.
There were days when I forgot that I was reporting (always a sure sign of good work!), and I remember one specifically: Coco had gone to the E.R. with her brother, and one of the children asked me for paper from my notebook. I was the go-to source for paper and pens, and the children liked to draw. Only when she asked me for my reporter’s pad did I realize that I’d become so consumed by the day—overwhelmed by it—that I’d forgotten to take out my notebook. The scary night in question in this passage was terrifying for all of us. Both Coco and I were glad for one another’s presence. We love each other. I think—and this is true for many single parents with small children—that it’s always helpful to have another adult around. Danger was always mitigated by companionship.
There were certainly some people who never trusted me and never spoke to me beyond basic courtesies. Some of these people opened up to me after publication, when it was too late for me to include them in this story. Others resented the attention I gave to my primary subjects. Others were rooting for me silently.
Over time, I didn’t feel a clear return to “my life at the end of the day.” I suspect that I wanted out of my life during the process. Lucia Nimcova, a photographer friend of mine, once said to me as we were preparing to do a piece in Ukraine, “I can’t wait to get lost again.” She is nearly six feet tall and as charismatic as Jessica in her own way and doesn’t get lost easily, but I understood that by “disappearance” she meant a profound level of connection.
* * * Near the end of the book, Serena, Jessica’s first child, celebrates her Sweet Sixteen. At the party, Lourdes, Serena’s grandmother, expresses concern about Serena’s boyfriend, Derek:
Lourdes, after learning that Derek’s ex-girlfriend was pregnant, had warned Serena that she was going to have a talk with him…. Before long, everyone was putting in their two cents. Serena burst into tears, then locked herself in Lourdes’s bedroom…. Serena sobbed into her hands. She imitated her grandmother, her mothers, her aunt: “What makes you think if he got one girl pregnant, he’s not going to get you pregnant?” She answered herself, “Who says I’m going to spread my legs?” … Serena worked herself up into a frenzy: “They are so worried about me having sex. She has fourteen grandchildren. Why me? They don’t care if their sons do it, only their daughters. If I was a grandson, do you think they would all be pressuring me?” she cried. “If I want to have sex, I’m going to have sex. Everybody has sex. They all want me to change. I don’t care what my family, friends, or nobody says about me, I am the way I am and I don’t care!”
She would be pregnant within six months.
There isn’t a natural ending to the story, so how did you decide when to stop writing?
It seems obvious to me now, but at the time, I’d mentioned the Sweet Sixteen party to my editor in passing, with no intention of even reporting on it. She lobbied me to go. I suspect my resistance to it was for the same reason it’s included: I sensed the writing on the wall. From the distance of a decade, one thing that was operative—and it’s an ongoing interest—is the ways in which gender inequality, and the stigma of women’s sexual agency, narrows the road for female development. Teen-agers rightly fight the assumptions we place on them—many due to the fears in the adults around them, or the unlived lives of those adults, or the lies the culture tells. But, too often, consequences of attempts to explore freedom are attributed solely to sexual agency, or painted solely as victimization, and it’s much more complicated than that. Serena was keenly aware of how little all of it had to do with her, and that was something I felt was important to note.
Generally, I know that I need to stop reporting when I get distracted in my fieldwork, or when I have less patience for the people I am reporting on. I now know I need to stop when I crave silence; ordinarily, I’m enlivened by chaos and surprise and conversation.
I decided to stop when my unrelenting fog of confusion had begun to lift and I had things I wanted to say more than I wanted to listen. Also, the physical act of it became untenable. I was broke and in debt. My father had been diagnosed with cancer, so my heart was elsewhere, and each day was an undeniable choice. I wanted to spend the days I had with my father. I wanted him to see my book, so there had to be one to see. He was the one person in my life who only asked about the people in the book. He never once joined the loudening chorus, which included plenty of people in the book: “Are you almost done?”
* * * How did the publication of the book impact your life? Has your relationship with the book, or your satisfaction with it, changed in the past ten years?
I wasn’t available to experience much about the reception of “Random Family” because my father was dying when the book came out. It took me a long time to emerge from my grieving, so I’m especially lucky for the book’s durability and the chance to continue to connect with it publicly.
My relationship with the book continues to change. Looking back, I remember feeling defensive in the face of the power of people’s reactions (they loved it, they hated it—along with similar feelings toward the book’s subjects and its writer), and then a heady season of self-righteousness, followed by stages of anger and sadness at the lack of political will to remedy the longstanding problems the book documents. I often felt disturbed that readers were surprised by the experiences of the people in the book. Many are shocked, I think, to discover that people in poverty have complicated, meaningful lives—in other words, that the people in the book are, in fact, human beings.
Right now, I’m more detached from the book. Yet, just last week, while sharing with a class a story about a woman I’d met while reporting it, who became a friend and has since died, I began to cry—so maybe I’m not reliable.
Satisfaction isn’t a state that comes easily to me. I do believe the book documents a certain moment of the destruction created by the war on drugs—the beginning of the devastating impact mass incarceration has on families living in poverty. History will judge us harshly on the racism and willful passivity involved.
* * * You’re working on a book that’s being described as “an investigation of the world of stand-up comedians.” What is it like to transition between such different subjects?
My earnestness at the injustices I witnessed when I was writing “Random Family” may have been my gravest reportorial offense during the early years of reporting. When I discuss the book with students, they often ask me how I could “stand by” in the face of so much suffering; the egregiousness wasn’t my powerlessness, but my surprise. At the same time, that surprise can be a tremendous source of energy. The only technique I have is to surrender to what’s going on and write down as many details as accurately and legibly as I can. I like to say, “You get as much story as you can take.” But you have to effectively render it. The only verdict that matters is what happens when I step out on stage, so to speak. It’s a lesson that has come to bear in my current project: one of the many things I respect about standup comedians is that they face that verdict in public over and over again. Since writing “Random Family,” the comedians have disabused me of my innocence. The best comics enlist you to take accountability for who you are, whether you like it or not.