Review: In My Father’s House

I’m back, guys. I’ve been busy. Dissertation, fellowship applications, conferences. Le sigh.

But anyway, let’s celebrate. It’s November, lovelies! The days are short, there’s a crisp in the air. I’m going to try something a little different here,  in observance of #NonfictionNovember I am going to attempt to review only nonfiction books this month. I’ve got quite a healthy backlog, so here goes…

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Review for "In My Father's House: A New View of How Crime Runs in the Family" by Fox Butterfield (2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This well-written nonfiction book begins with a very interesting statistic: that ‘5 percent of American families account for half of all crime, and 10 percent of families account for two thirds.’ This point is driven throughout the entire book with Mr. Butterfield’s multi-generational documentation of the Bogles, an impoverished White family who moved from the Reconstruction South to Texas in the early 1900’s. The story begins with the marriage of Louis Bogle and Elvie, two young people with a propensity for cons and swindles who become hard drinkers and carnival workers. They eventually have seven children, all of whom end up in prisons or reformatories for various crimes–drinking, stealing, fighting, and beating their wives.

The narrative then shifts to one of the sons of the original Bogle family, the youngest and most particularly troublesome son, nicknamed Rooster. Enabled by his mother, Rooster terrorizes his own family through physical and sexual abuse. He “marries” two women and keeps them in the same house, occasionally beating them and having several children by both. He does not allow his children to socialize outside of the family and takes them on his various criminal schemes, encouraging them to steal and even going by the state prison and telling them that they will end up there one day. Eventually all of Rooster’s children do go to either jail, prison, or state reformatories, only this time for more serious crimes–drugs, burglary, theft, rape, and murder.

Butterfield is still not finished, continuing to trace the stories of cousins, uncles, aunts, and other Bogle family members. He goes into the next generation of Rooster’s grandchildren and describes their history of meth use, burglaries, child endangerment, and more crimes. In the back of the book is an exhaustive list of over 60 Bogle family members, all of whom have either spent time in a prison or jail for various crimes.

This book does end on a bright note, with the story of one of Rooster’s grandchildren, Ashley. With strong social ties through her mother (not a Bogle), community support, and education, she graduates from college and pursues a career in the medical field. She is the first Bogle family member to graduate from college in 150 years.

This is a good book but it is somewhat depressing, as it forces you to consider how much the role of family and upbringing is overlooked in the modern theories of crime. Butterfield is careful with this argument, however. He acknowledges over and over that leaning too heavily on the link between family upbringing and crime reinforces racism, with Blacks and people of color typically being demonized and incarcerated as if they are the sole perpetrators of crime. I think this is why he chooses a White family to illustrate his point in this particular book (though his previous book I’ve reviewed, “All God’s Children,” deals with crime in a Black family).

This is an excellent read if you are interested in the criminal justice system, theories of crime/criminology, and the “nature vs. nurture” argument. It’s also cool if you just like narrative nonfiction too.

Five stars.

 

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Review: Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America

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Review for "Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America" by Jill Leovy (2015)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Before I begin this review I have to commend the author, because there really is no easy way to write about the subject of Black on Black crime. How do you talk about the very real issue of Black homicide rates without pathologizing an entire race? At the same time, one has to recognize that Black homicide is indeed a problem and even though poverty, racism, and decades of neglect by law enforcement play a consistent role in its existence, you can’t “excuse” it either. Even though crime rates have dropped in recent years, the murder rates among Black men remain relatively high. Violent homicide still remains the number 1 cause of death among Black males ages 15-34 in America.

Jill Leovy starts off great in this book. For her setting, she chooses inner city Los Angeles, a city long plagued by Black homicides. She describes a crippling bureaucracy, as well as homicide detectives struggling for resources–lack of computers and cars, even buying their own “murder books” (binders in which to keep case files). They didn’t even get tape recorders, many detectives had to buy their own. Leovy argues that the LAPD and the entire criminal justice system has not placed a high priority on solving Black murders. This has created a lack of trust in the police among Black citizens, tendencies toward vigilante-style justice, witnesses afraid to talk, and a “no-snitching” culture that makes closing murder cases notoriously difficult. Names go in files to be forgotten, detectives get bogged down with even more cases.

“Ghettoside” is a broad narrative, though it focuses on the specific case of an LAPD homicide detective’s son who was gunned down in 2007 while walking down the street. A long chapter is dedicated to describing his family life and how much of a “good” boy he was (not a gangster, followed rules, etc). You almost have to wonder if the author is following the same kind of rationale that many people feel toward murder victims: an unspoken sentiment that a person’s morally questionable behavior in some way should “justify” what happened to them. Another problem is the large amount of biographical information on not just one but several LA detectives and their careers, which, honestly, I just didn’t care about. It was hard to remember who was who and after several chapters of this I started skipping pages.

Another problem with this book is that, through the case of the detective’s son, Leovy seems to make an argument that if all cases were solved by dedicated detectives like the one who solved this one, there wouldn’t be any unsolved Black homicides. Well, not really. For one, the circumstances of every case is different and second, you have to revisit the idea that (perhaps) one of the main reasons why this particular case continued to stay visible was because of who the victim’s father was. You can’t take socioeconomic status, which governs so much of our lives, out of the death equation here.

Overall, a clunky but ok book for me. 3.5 stars.