January's Book: Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Leonard Lopate Show Book Club’s first selection for 2014 is Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx. Author Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent years with one extended family in the Bronx to create a portrait of poverty, and of life in and of public housing, prison, and court. It received high praise when it was published in 2003, and remains as relevant and important a decade later. We chose it after we read Andrea Elliott's powerful New York Times series Invisible Child: Dasani's Homeless Life, which reminded us of the extensive reporting on a family's struggles with poverty in Random Family.

Share your thoughts and questions below!

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc shared some of her favorite authors, stand-up comedians, and feminist books. Watch the video!


Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

Comments [21]

nb from NYC

Read this shortly after reading Carol Stack's "All Our Kin".

Jun. 21 2014 11:24 PM
francynepelchar from Pelham Bay Park

Are these people so dull-witted that they can not make the connection between sexual intercourse and getting pregnant? Is there no sex ed in the schools, and if not, why not? I'll bet these women make the connection between another little b*****d and an increase in their welfare checks/food stamps.

Jan. 30 2014 02:02 PM
Ana from UWS

I read this book when it came out. I'm glad to hear that Coco's children are doing well.

To Sally from Norwalk: My mother grew up poor in the Bronx in the 40's and 50's She and her siblings got out of poverty due to decent (not great) public education and union jobs. Those things are gone.

Jan. 30 2014 01:52 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Ms. LeBlanc said the boys (& often men) who fathered children out of wedlock refused to take responsibility for them--what would work to get them to take responsibility? (Actually, it sounds as if that's being answered right now--glad to hear it! & maybe the continuing attitudes toward people in these circumstances reflects refusal to take responsibility by the people who help perpetuate those circumstances.)

Jan. 30 2014 01:00 PM
Melissa from Ridgefield, CT

I read Random Family when it first came out (Alice Truax, who I believed helped Adrian with the editing, introduced it to me). It was my turn to choose a book for book club and I could not have made a better choice. My suburban group has a wide range of left to right leanings. The book provided the best, and most heated, discussion we had ever had. Thank you, Adrian, for your invaluable contribution! Your ability to write from the inside, with compassion and no judgement, is remarkable and welcoming. I think Random Family should be required reading in high school.

Jan. 30 2014 12:51 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

I don't know. I grew up in the housing projects of Brownsville back in the '50s, and I turned out okay :) Maybe it's because I rarely ventured out except to get to school and back alive in one piece. I was the only white Jewish kid, and even wore a yarmulka going to school and back. I wonder if that had something to do with it? ;)

Jan. 30 2014 12:50 PM

I read this book shortly after I moved to New York, and shortly after it was published. I credit it with helping me to understand my new home better and to treat those around me with more openness and respect as I don't know what their life experience has been and how it has differed from mine.
I have thought a lot about the people in the story over the intervening years and especially wonder how the children are. I think of Nautica especially because I wonder how it would affect someone to be called Naughty all the time. I hope that they are all doing better. I seemed like these young women were trying to make the best with what they had.

Jan. 30 2014 12:48 PM
bob from brooklyn

Read it years ago when it came out, one of the best, agree it should be required reading. Random Family and "A Crime So Monstrous" by B. Skinner about sex trafficking are two of the most memorable books i have ever read. Highly recommend both and so glad this book is on your list!

Jan. 30 2014 12:45 PM
mimi holligher from NYC

I'm kind of disappointed about how this conversation has been constructed. To me, the book isn't about "teen pregnancy" it's about how all of us are products of social forces and that our success, or failure, aren't just about who we are as individuals. The thing that makes this book so extraordinary is that Adrian manages to tell a story about real people and their real problems without ever losing sight of the big picture.

Jan. 30 2014 12:43 PM
Kate from Brooklyn

This book had a tremendous impact on me and I feel it should be required reading! It really demonstrates how our own frame of reference really colors how we see the world. And how difficult it is to move past our own frame of reference. I wondered what kind of impact the immersion journalism has had on the author and how it has influenced what other types of projects she has chosen to pursue.

Jan. 30 2014 12:11 PM
Student from New York City

People tend to become hyper focused on the individual. Those who critique LeBlanc for her reporting made the whole exposition about her. They practically eroticize her as this devil racist white woman who doesn't know anything; as if she just wanted to slum in the den of iniquity and get a book deal out of it. This diverts attention away from the real issues at hand: the war on poverty was Cold, the wars in the ghetto are still hot.

Jan. 30 2014 10:50 AM
Helene from Queens

Part 3 of comment:
One thing I did not appreciate were the occasional prejudiced statements against blacks, against African traits such as "nappy" hair, etc. They only served to make these not very likeable characters even less likeable. It took me right back to my childhood, when a Puerto Rican woman told her 4 year old daughter not to play with my 4 year cousin because he was black. That four year old Puerto Rican girl grew up to be a teenage mother and high school dropout, with a brother who went to jail; my cousin graduated from several prestigious schools, and became a lawyer. The ignorance of thinking that lighter skin and straighter (straightened) hair automatically make you superior, when your own ethnic group is known for having so many socio-economical problems, and the white people whose physical traits you think you share have, on a societal level, almost the same contempt for you that they have for black people, is beyond absurd.

Finally, one nit-pick - the F train has never gone to the Bronx, at least not in the past 40 years. When the extended family was headed home after a day at Coney Island (p.142), unless they enjoyed wasting time transferring trains on crowded Manhattan platforms - which seems ludicrous with multiple kids and assorted bags and coolers in tow - they must have taken the D train directly to the Bronx. ;-)

Jan. 30 2014 01:21 AM
Helene from Queens

Part 2 of comment:
The other character I wished I could have learned more about - though the reasons for her privacy/secrecy seem obvious - was Milagros. Why choose to raise 6 children for other women, including *two* sets of twins? Why choose a life of young single motherhood when you haven't even given birth to any children at all? Clearly she must have had an incredible attachment to Jessica to take in all 5 of her children, but it is mind-boggling, especially as she does not seem to particularly enjoy children.

I was disturbed by the euphemism "partying" for casual drug use in social situations. *Everyone* seems to use some kind of illegal substance at least occasionally, and age does not seem to bring wisdom with regard to drug use. In which generation did casual drug use become so acceptable?

Glimpses of Cesar's post-prison life, with a Bard bachelor's degree earned in prison, and a good job with a recycling company, are available on-line. He seems to be the only one who made a substantial change. The likelihood of the younger generation having "better" lives does not seem promising - the kids have been exposed to multiple moves, unstable relationships, people in and out of their overcrowded homes, and drug dealing; some of the girls have been sexually abused, like their mothers and grandmothers before them; Kevin, Milagros' oldest ward, becomes a teenage father; Serena becomes pregnant at 16 after returning to live in the Bronx with Jessica. Have there been any relative "success" stories in the child characters' generation?

That aspect, the generations destined to repeat the same negative experiences, is most reminiscent of Dasani's situation: the grandmothers were caretakers to their siblings, inadequately supervised as children, subjected to physical/sexual abuse, ill-prepared for life's responsibilities in this society, with limited formal education and unresolved traumatic experiences. With these backgrounds, they go on to have multiple children that they cannot care for properly due to their youth and experiences, and recreate the same conditions for their children, adding drug use to the mix. Their children go on to recreate the same conditions for the children they are equally unprepared to raise... what kind of intervention can mitigate three generations' worth of constant turmoil?

Jan. 30 2014 01:17 AM
Helene from Queens

Part 1 of comment:
My family left a large Bronx apartment on the Grand Concourse across from Joyce Kilmer Park in 1974, as the building and the neighbourhood literally began crumbling around us; I am in the same age range as the main characters in this book. Their stories paint such a picture of dysfunction, of upside-down values... absolutely no one seems to have any semblance of "ordinary" family life - one wonders if anyone from a stable working family lifestyle managed to survive in these areas of the Bronx through the 1980s-1990s without becoming mixed up, even peripherally, in the world of drugs and impossibly young parenthood.

I know there was no way to cover everyone's individual history in the book, but I wished I could have learned more about Lourdes and Foxy's histories. Presumably their parents, or grandparents, were part of the initial wave of the big Puerto Rican migration to New York City, around 1940-1960. Did their own mothers and grandmothers give birth as teenagers? Did they also have others "watching" their babies so they could go out and continue to have some fun? Were they completely failed by the education system? Until the bilingual education movement began in earnest in the 1970s, children from non-English speaking homes were routinely placed in Special Education, their parents ordered to speak English - no matter how poorly - with them... what role did the initial language barrier have in encouraging the development of this sub-culture of prematurely-terminated formal education? Were Lourdes and Foxy always casual-to-regular drug users, or did they turn to drugs as overwhelmed still-young mothers, saddled with more children than they could handle in unstable relationships and sub-standard housing?

I kept thinking too of the larger context of the coerced sterilization campaign against women in Puerto Rico that began in the 1930s and continued well through the 1970s. At least a third, perhaps more, of women in Puerto Rico were sterilized. From the relative safety of New York City, where the campaign was not apparently in effect, the act of having as many children as they could at such young ages almost seems to be an act of vengeance against the sterilizations that highlighted the eugenicists' plans, albeit an unconscious one.

Jan. 30 2014 01:14 AM
Sherry from Fanwood, NJ

I am reading this now and I can't put it down!

There are similarities to The Wire but there are also differences particularly in the family structure.

I wonder how these people are now.

Jan. 27 2014 03:30 PM
Kressel from Monsey, NY

I'm listening to Terri Gross' interview with Justice Sonia Sotomayor right now. She also grew up in the Bronx with an alcoholic father and a heroin-addicted cousin. I wonder how she beat the odds. Of course, much of it is HER, but I would think growing up in the 60's there was an easier time than the 80's.

Jan. 24 2014 01:28 PM
Sally from Norwalk, CT.

My book club read Random Family several months ago. We were all caught up in the struggles of the people depicted. Some o us had lived on those same streets fifty years ago and the contrasts between then and now were profound. We were poor too - perhaps as poor as those in the book - but we were pushed in a different direction. Our immigrant parents quietly made it clear that we had to make something of ourselves - and there was only one way to do that - go to school - get good grades - go to college.

In Random Family the attitude towards work and education were in stark contrast to the lives and values of the previous residents of those buildings.

Fifty years ago the adults worked hard in industry where they were union members or were small business owners- while the children went to school, studied hard and went to college.

Is this a cultural difference - after all the folks were equally poor. My family was on relief for awhile, for example. Drugs were unheard of - we all struggled to survive and most of us did.

So - still we struggle to understand, comprehend and contribute,

I look forward to hearing what Ms. LeBland has to say.

Jan. 23 2014 06:26 PM
Kressel from Monsey, NY

I just finished it. Here's my review on Goodreads, but it does contain spoilers:

Jan. 23 2014 01:59 PM
evelyn horowitz

I read Random Family when it first came out. Over the years I have often thought about the people involved in the study. Does the author know where everyone now is?

Jan. 20 2014 01:49 PM
Kressel from Monsey, NY

Really absorbing so far!

Jan. 15 2014 09:34 AM
Janet Fletcher from Katonah NY

I read this a few years ago when I tried teaching in the Bronx. Everyone I worked with recommended it to me. The book is brilliant and painful and eye-opening. Its truths, however, were not enough to get me through the day-to-day of teaching in a place that was miserable and where I was assaulted. But it gave me such insight and compassion into the many lives I came in contact with.

I am glad you are reading it. More people should.

Dec. 30 2013 08:57 AM

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