In Search of Monster

In a chilling autobiography a former gang member portrays himself as the inevitable product of a hellish environment. The truth is more interesting.

During the 1970s and 1980s every Los Angeles street gang had its trademark. The Hoovers, or at least one contingent of them, were known for their ritualistic gang rapes. The Eight-Tray Gangster Crips were said to favor stealing guns and cars over drug dealing. And the Rollin’ Sixties' are still legendary for their ruthless perfectionism: Sixties hit squads would circle back after a drive-by shooting to make sure the intended victim was really dead, and if he was not, they would open fire again, even if the paramedics had already arrived.

It is now much in fashion to go to gang members in Los Angeles for the authentic voice of black experience—or at least the experience of the black underclass. The phenomenon is perhaps most visible on television, as in Ted Koppel's interviews with gang members in the wake of last year's Los Angeles riots. But it is by no means confined to television. When Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove/Atlantic (which has no connection with this magazine), announced at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year that he had acquired world publication rights to the autobiography of Monster Kody, a twenty-eight-year-old former gang member who shot his first victim at the age of eleven, the news spread rapidly through the exhibition halls. A buyer from Sweden tried to explain the excitement to Entrekin: "We see so much of the violence of the American inner city; now here's a voice that comes from inside that can explain it to us." The first chapters of the then-unfinished manuscript, written entirely in prison, circulated quickly through the halls, and within two days Entrekin had sold the foreign rights to publishers in seven countries.

Kody Scott, also known as Sanyika Shakur, and still best known on the streets of South Central Los Angeles as Monster, a member of the Eight-Tray Gangster Crips, is currently serving a seven-year sentence in Pelican Bay State Prison, a steel-and-concrete fortress in northern California. Inmates are subjected to extensive video surveillance designed to minimize direct contact with guards. Monster is in the Security Housing Unit, a prison within the prison, where he must serve out his full sentence in near total isolation. He has no telephone privileges, and is allowed only one package a year. He can be interviewed by journalists only once every ninety days.

The word after the Frankfurt Book Fair was that Monster had received an advance of at least $150,000, with more to come from the paperback sale (Penguin later paid around $60,000) plus future royalties. How did a handful of pages written in pencil in a windowless cell in a northern-California prison end up on the auction block at the Frankfurt Book Fair?

Léon Bing, a fashion model turned journalist, was the first to bring Monster Kody to the attention of the world beyond South Central—in a book about gangs called Do or Die. She became the woman to call when the media needed an authentic gang member. In 1991 William Broyles Jr., a journalist and Vietnam veteran who was writing for television, needed help researching an ABC pilot script set in South Central. He got in touch with Bing, and she took him to meet Monster Kody in the southern-California jail where he was then being held. "He reminded me so much of some of my Vietnam-veteran friends," says Broyles, a tall, soft-spoken Texan who has served as the editor of Newsweek and Texas Monthly. "He was like a combat vet, but of a very different kind of war." The network never filmed the pilot, but Broyles began encouraging Kody to write down some of his experiences.

Broyles sent him paper and pencils and reading materials, from Michael Herr's Dispatches to the Paris Review "Writers at Work" interviews. The first chapter, meticulously printed in an angular hand on yellow legal paper, arrived in Broyles's Burbank office in April of last year, just days before the verdict in the first trial of the officers accused of beating Rodney King, and the riots that verdict occasioned. More chapters soon followed, and Broyles gave a copy of the work in progress to Terry McDonell, then the editor of Esquire, who passed it to Morgan Entrekin. McDonell decided to print an excerpt, and Entrekin eventually decided to publish the book.

Entrekin scheduled Monster: The Autobiography of an LA. Gangmember for publication last spring, but the manuscript arrived later than expected, and plans to have the publication date coincide with the first anniversary of the Los Angeles riots fell through. The release was pushed back to June. It was a rush job but, Entrekin says, the book got enough editing. "I didn't want the voice of some white upper-middle-class publishing editor tube imposed on it. I wanted his voice. My rule was, the less editing the better, and honestly I don't think it needed it. . . . He's such a talented, natural writer." Early promotional material described "the most remarkable and important book of the black experience since Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice and George Jackson's Soledad Brother."

"There are no other gang experts except participants," Monster Kody writes in the preface.

Our lives, mores, customs, and philosophies remain as mysterious and untouched as those of any "uncivilized" tribe in Afrika. . . . I have pushed people violently out of this existence and have fathered three children. I have felt completely free and have sat in total solitary confinement in San Quentin state prison. I have shot numerous people and have been shot seven times myself. I have been in gunfights in South Central and knife fights in Folsom state prison.

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