Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's decade-long account of the lives of two Puerto Rican women living in the Tremont section of the Bronx, was published in 2003. LeBlanc met the two women, Jessica and Coco, in 1988 during a trial involving Jessica's boyfriend, a violent heroin dealer named Boy George. LeBlanc became interested in the lives of Jessica and her brother, Cesar; Coco was Cesar's girlfriend.
Coco and Jessica welcomed LeBlanc into their world, and they ended up sharing every intimate detail of their lives with her. LeBlanc got to know their neighborhood of the Bronx, and how provincial it was, despite the fact that the women lived in a big city; she observed the women falling in love with different men and having their kids; she noted how difficult it was for them to find jobs that paid well, either in the Bronx or upstate (Coco eventually moved to Troy, but the poverty there was just as grim as in the Bronx).
Despite LeBlanc's beautiful writing and her amazing reporting, I sometimes worried that there was the same kind of voyeurism in reading the book that there is in my watching The Wire. I wonder if the excuse of "raising awareness" of this kind of poverty in Random Family can really justify millions of Americans reading about the disturbing lives of people that we don't know (even if their names have been changed.)
My sister gave me Random Family as a Christmas gift, and I read it in two days—and then felt ashamed of myself for reading it so quickly and being so interested in these womens' lives. I felt that the only people who should be reading this book are the government officials or politicians who can pass laws to help them. I don't see how my newly-acquired knowledge of how depressing Tremont can be helps these women—unless I end up as a community activist there or gain access to a position of power where I can open more community health centers, or raise hell over the lack of universal health care for all Americans.
It's hard to sum up my feelings coherently, but I don't think these books should be read by Americans unless we plan to do something about the issues raised. In the book Elizabeth Costello, J.M. Coetzee writes a chapter where Elizabeth is outraged by the (real) book The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg because of the lurid details that Paul West, the author, includes. She is disturbed by his descriptions of the atrocities that Hitler had his generals commit after the July 4 plotters failed to kill him. She realizes that she does not believe anyone should know about the sick details of how the plotters were tortured and then killed. Coetzee writes,
That is what Paul West, novelist, had written about, page after page after page, leaving nothing out; and that is what she read, sick with the spectacle, sick with herself, sick with a world in which such things took place, until at last she pushed the book away and sat with her head in her hands. Obscene! she wanted to cry but did not cry because she did not know at whom the word should be flung...
Obviously the poverty and difficult experiences in Random Family are not really comparable to the world of Germany in 1944 that West conjures up in his work of fiction, but I had some of the same feelings reading about various events in Random Family. There's a scene where Boy George tells his hitman to kill Jessica's friend Beatrice after a gold chain is stolen from Boy George's apartment (Boy George automatically assumes Beatrice snatched it, mainly because he doesn't like her); the hitman drives her to Ferry Point Park in the Bronx, makes her step out of the car, shoots her twice from behind. Her body goes into spasms; the hitman shoots her twice more before the gun jams. She's not dead yet—they leave her in the park screaming for someone to help her. Later on that night, Boy George sends around another man to make sure she's dead.
But it's not just descriptions of the drug murders that make me want to turn away, that make me think, why am I reading about this? What disturbed me most about Random Family was its description of the cycle of sexual abuse most of the girls born to poor women in Tremont suffer. Jessica and Coco are both sexually abused by relatives when they are children. Mercedes, Coco's oldest child, gets genital warts at age five and starts taking cold baths during the day; because of the stream of strangers coming in and out of her apartment, Coco has no idea who molested Mercedes. The sexual abuse is so pervasive, LeBlanc writes, that it's one of the reasons many pregnant women in Coco's neighborhood hope for a son.
Above all, my doubts about what Random Family accomplishes comes from the fact the the book, like all books, ends. It's 2008 now, and I want to know what happened to all of the characters that LeBlanc makes us care so much about—Cesar and Boy George, I'm assuming, are still in prison. But I want to know if LeBlanc gave Coco and Jessica any money from the sales of this book, given that she owes the thing's existence to their willingness to make their lives the subject of an "enthralling" work (in the words of The New York Times). I want to know what happened to Serena, one of Jessica's children, who at the end of the book becomes pregnant at age 15; I want to know what happened to Mercedes, who has had to cope with unbearable pain as a child.
I'm hoping LeBlanc will one day let us know these things; I feel like a continual update of their lives would put to rest some of my doubts about what her book ultimately accomplishes.