SEPTEMBER 28, 2017
DANIELLE ALLEN IS in the unusual position of having her new book, Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A., be the second most extraordinary thing she’s produced this year. The first was her announcement in April that, with the help of a research associate, she had discovered an extant parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence, the second of its kind, the first being housed in a titanium and light-sensitive glass casement in the National Archives in Washington. It was the discovery of a lifetime.
Allen has made a career of such historic achievements. A year ago, she became the first black female to be appointed a University Professor at Harvard, the school’s highest academic honor, one held by only a handful of women before her. When she writes in Cuz of being consumed by “a new job in New Jersey,” she is referring to her appointment as the first black tenured professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. She is arguably the most respected black female academic in the country.
Allen’s exceptional professional accomplishments make her latest effort, a memoir about the soul-crushing murder of her beloved younger cousin Michael, all the more stirring. Nine years her junior, Michael was one of a brood of cousins born to 12 adult siblings that included Allen’s father William and her aunt Karen, Michael’s mother. William would go on to be a well-known conservative political scientist and marry white. Karen’s one marriage (to an abusive man who had not fathered her three children) would end in divorce; she would struggle for years against poverty, spotty employment, and alcoholism on her way to becoming a nurse. For much of Danielle and Michael’s early childhood, the two families lived within relatively close proximity in California, spending holidays and regular weekends together as kids. Michael even came to live with Danielle’s family at one point. Today, Allen keeps a photo of herself and her cousins climbing a pair of myrtle trees as children in a locket around her neck. Though life would take the pair down vastly different paths, the two cousins remained devoted to each other.
At 15, Michael attempted a carjacking at gunpoint. His heart wasn’t really in it; he kept the gun pointing toward the ground the entire time. His intended mark was 44 years old, shorter but bigger than Michael. The man managed to wrest control of the gun and shot Michael in the neck. He barely survived. Without a lawyer or even his mother present, Michael waived his Miranda rights and confessed to the crime, and several others, on his hospital bed.
This was 1995, at the height of the crack epidemic: perhaps the worst possible time for anyone, especially a black teenager, to attempt armed robbery in Los Angeles, even a botched one. The militarized police response to the gang violence that the sale of crack engendered had kicked into overdrive by the time Michael was arrested. He would be sucked into a legal system that showed him no mercy. Allen temporarily left her perch studying Classics at Cambridge University to help Michael and his mother navigate the byzantine world of the criminal justice system, but it did little good. Despite having no prior record, he was tried as an adult and sentenced to 16 years in prison. The sentence closed the door on his life.
Allen writes that, as a child she thought of Michael as her “baby,” and he seems to have felt similarly, sending Allen a card from prison every Mother’s Day. Cuz records Allen’s ongoing connection to Michael throughout his incarceration: exchanging long letters with him from England as she finished her doctorate, accepting his collect calls as she married and started a family, worrying when too much time passed without hearing from him, encouraging him in his efforts to finish his GED and his firefighter’s certification. It is a remarkable story of abiding filial love. It is also a painful look into the tenuousness of black middle-class life. Nearly every successful black person I know has close family relatives living under dramatically different economic circumstances than they. The relatives my age on my father’s side of the family, many of whom live in Chicago, have been decimated by the decades of violence in that city (and the police response). My two first cousins rotated in and out of jail so often they were warned by police to leave the city or face heavier charges the next time they were arrested. An older female cousin I adored as a boy was killed, I learned not long ago, by a man suspected of being her john.
Allen yearned to rescue Michael from such a fate, and she almost did. His sharp mind and open heart convinced everyone around him that he could shake free of the streets, but a year after being released from prison Michael was shot and killed at the age of 29. Because the book is structured partially as a mystery, I will leave it for you to discover the details of his heartbreaking murder.
As a memoirist, Allen is genuinely gifted. A born Christian turned atheist turned believing Christian again, her use of religious language is restrained and moving. After recounting her family’s fear that the natural buoyancy in Michael’s face and walk would be deadened by his years in prison, Allen writes of seeing his broad grin and youthful gait upon his release: “His late adolescence and early manhood were, like those of so many millions, gone behind bars, and nonetheless he bounded toward us. How could we not sing hosannas, and think, ‘God is great’?” After a pastor delivers a vainglorious and emotionally hollow sermon at Michael’s funeral that barely even mentions him by name, Allen’s brother Marc follows up with an impromptu speech properly eulogizing the dead. “So love rose,” Allen writes, “in my brother’s words and radiant face, and Michael was there after all.” To my ear, that sentence is as subtle and beautiful a piece of writing as is available in the American elegiac tradition, poem or prose.
But Allen, by her own admission, is fundamentally an intellectual (how many other memoirs do you know that contain a bibliography?), and as such, her most deeply felt emotions must be “immediately referred to the intellect,” as the critic Helen Vendler once wrote of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Anyone who has followed Allen’s career will recognize how deeply linked Cuz is to her academic efforts. She published her first book, The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishment in Democratic Athens in 2000, five years after Michael was incarcerated. One readily imagines Michael’s experience helping to focus Allen’s moral and philosophical preoccupations, while her studies, quite likely, helped provide intellectual counterweight to the heavy emotional toll that his imprisonment and ultimate death must have taken on her.
There is some respite for readers, too, from the more painful moments in Cuz in the more argumentative portions of the book. It is comforting to hear a great scholar provide an answer to the seemingly intractable problem of mass incarceration, as Allen does here. But I am not sure Michael’s story will so readily yield such an answer. Allen began this memoir when Barack Obama was president and all the world thought Hillary Clinton, with her sympathetic interest in criminal reform, would succeed him. But we live today under a very different sky, a fact that makes the prescriptive parts of Allen’s story less satisfying than they might have been otherwise. Allen’s suggestion that we decriminalize all drug use in the manner of Portugal after its drug crisis (an idea inspired in part by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow), would be a hard sell even under a Democratic administration. Under Trump, whose law-and-order-obsessed Attorney General Jeff Sessions is moving to prosecute marijuana users in states that have already decriminalized it, such an idea is an impossibility. Allen might perhaps have offered more modest solutions, like better training or greater incentives for public defenders (the legal advice Michael’s family received at his initial trial was abysmal) to work harder for the people they serve. Perhaps a cash prize, sizable enough to inspire, for the 10 best public defenders in the country each year could help.
Additionally, an online repository offering both crowd-sourced and expert advice on navigating the labyrinthine prison system in each state could be helpful. It was just such an open source database allowing amateur scholars to share information about the Declaration of Independence that led to the discovery of the forgotten parchment copy of the document Allen announced earlier this year. Given how confused even a brilliant mind like Allen’s felt before the arcane and obscure rules of the criminal justice system, it could be of real benefit in thwarting the cycle of crime and punishment that is an all too permanent feature of life for the economically and socially vulnerable.
How could Michael’s story have turned out differently? The answer may be that it couldn’t have. Allen concedes that there was something unknowable about her cousin, a hidden part of him that he concealed behind his curious mind and easy, loving smile. Only after his death did she learn he went by “Big Mike” in the streets, and had become well known to gang members and drug dealers alike. Perhaps a child of 15 consigned to prison for over a decade of his life stands almost no chance of finding his way back home.
While Allen’s support for wholesale decriminalization may be overly ambitious, she may also be playing a long game, counting on the fact that the winds of political change will blow in a different direction before too long. There is profound reason to hope they will. Today the opioid crisis is threatening to engulf the white working class with the same ferocity that the crack epidemic cut through the inner city 30 years ago, and the federal law enforcement response seems to be gearing up again. There is currently no clear evidence of an explosion in street violence, though that, too, may only be a matter of time. If Michael’s life, delivered to us in the caring hands of his cousin, can teach us anything, would that it be a warning against the dangers of repeating our nation’s recent law and order past.
In Cuz, Allen provides no immediately actionable solutions to the problem of mass incarceration that readers interested in public policy might wish for. But this, after all, isn’t the job of memoir. It is enough that Allen has provided her cousin with what that minister in his vain self-love was incapable of all those years ago: a just and moving tribute to a family member she knew incompletely, but loved unfailingly. Sufficient unto the day is the beauty thereof. And what Danielle Allen has provided us, and her lost kin, should be counted more than sufficient.