by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
416 pages, $25
In 1990, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, then an editor at Seventeen and a freelance reporter seeking out stories about young people, attended the trial of a twenty-two year-old drug dealer named Boy George, an entrepreneurial prodigy who had built an empire around his own brand of heroin, Obsession. As she began writing about him, Boy George introduced LeBlanc to his tight-knit social network of friends and family, centered in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in the South Bronx. This network included Jessica, one of George's girlfriends, who had been angling for years to become his primary, even if not legal, "wife"; Jessica's tough younger brother, Cesar; and Cesar's favorite girlfriend, Coco. George went to prison for life as a result of the trial, but over the course of the next eleven years LeBlanc followed Jessica, Cesar, Coco, and their expanding families through the course of their daily lives. Within a few years, Jessica and Cesar also ended up sentenced to long prison terms (Jessica for her minor role in George's business and Cesar for a series of charges, including the accidental fatal shooting of his best friend), while Coco remained, struggling, on the outside with her family. LeBlanc became a frequent and comfortable presence in the lives of Coco and her children as they moved from shelters to the apartments of friends and family and, eventually, to the depressed upstate city of Troy, New York, searching for a new start.
These experiences form the narrative of LeBlanc's first book, Random Family, which traces the lives of her subjects from the mid-eighties until close to the present day. In the book's first chapter, George and Jessica meet, and George's heroin-derived wealth fuels limousine rides, lavish parties, and one magical ski weekend in the Poconos for himself, Jessica, Cesar, and Coco—as well as more ordinary luxuries like full kitchen cupboards for Jessica's mother. After George's assets evaporate, the book's subjects resume fighting for survival in a world of such economic fragility that a mistake, an impulsive splurge, or even a generous gesture toward someone more desperate can send a family into a state of emergency. LeBlanc chronicles these ups and downs matter-of-factly, from the point of view of a narrator rather than a player in the drama, letting the stark facts speak for themselves.
LeBlanc's research into these realities was extensive. She was present for prison visits, welfare appointments, and parent-teacher conferences. She attended a master's program in law at Yale in order to understand her subjects' trials and sentencing, and a training session for counselors at Camp Ramapo to understand the way that Coco's children were spending their summers. In Troy, she writes about Coco throwing a boyfriend out of the house for dealing drugs, and about Coco's disabled daughter, Pearl, getting kicked out of the Head Start program she loved when other family problems caused her attendance to falter. She recounts philosophical discussions with Cesar as he begins, in prison, to take an interest in the history and politics that have shaped his life, and she watches as Coco's oldest daughter, Mercedes, begins to gain confidence through a supportive relationship with her Big Sister, a volunteer mentor. She even sees the extended family start a new generation when Jessica's oldest daughter turns sixteen and, not too long after her birthday party, gives birth to her first child.
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine and many other journals. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Smith College, a Master's of Philosophy and Modern Literature from Oxford, and a Master's of Law Studies from Yale. We spoke recently in Leominster, Massachusetts, where she grew up.
How did you begin writing this book?
When I was at Smith College I worked as an intern for Richard Todd, who was then an editor of New England Monthly. I worked on a piece about Leominster, which he published, and he sort of mentored me. After I came back from graduate school and was working at Seventeen, Dick would occasionally drop me a note encouraging me to think about a book. I had, by then, written a couple of pieces for The Village Voice about Boy George and related subjects, and I sent him those clips. We worked on a proposal that really was about George and his business; a book about a young man and the management of a business empire. But as I began reporting, my interest just kept coming back to the women. And so Dick—he's a good editor—told me to follow my heart and let my interests lead me.
When did you start to realize how much time it was going to take to complete the research?
I don't think I ever did. I do remember thinking, Not yet, not yet. Whenever I asked myself, Are you ready to write this up? I always felt that I was at the beginning of my understanding. To be honest, I'm not sure that it required the length of time I spent, but, in part because of that extra time, the story ended up becoming an intergenerational story. I do think it's a better book for the additional time, because the writer who would have written it in 1995 or 1996 would have been a much more sentimental, naively liberal person. During the time I was reporting I became older and more experienced, and that infused a certain detachment that I don't think I was capable of earlier on.
What do you think replaced the sentimentality?
I think what replaced it was the enormity of the material. Because it's such a dizzying story, with so many strands, the only way through it was to keep it simple, to sift it down to detail, to tell it clearly and on the micro level. When I would veer up from that level and try to speak more generally, I would think, Who the heck could comment on this? How could you possibly say something about this?
To me, the book read like a novel, and I found myself relating to the people very much the way I relate to characters in fiction. So I was wondering whether you sometimes write fiction, and whether you were influenced by any particular novels.
I don't write fiction, and I've never had any interest in writing fiction, but I definitely do think that certain novelists influenced me. My impulse is to say Nelson Algren. I remember reading his novels and being able to hear the voices. I also remember James Baldwin—I took a fiction-writing class with him, and I really admired the honesty of his novels.
How did you come to the decision to narrate the story in the third person, and not to make yourself a character in the book? Did you know from the beginning that you would take that approach?
I definitely had opinions about that. I always feel frustrated when a journalist enters into her story. It makes me think, You better make this good, because you're taking me away from the thing that I really want to know about. There have also been plenty of stories about white girls going to the ghetto. There's nothing wrong with that, but it has been done. At the same time, I think I'm all over the book. I imbue the story with the things I care about.