For ten years, between 1993 and 2003, Adrian LeBlanc followed the lives of four young people living in the Bronx, their trials and tribulations, their families, love affairs, and friendships, their struggles and moments of happiness and despair. Random Family is a remarkable work of nonfiction, of special interest to those who see prison as part and parcel of the American social fabric.

The book follows Jessica, a beautiful and charismatic young woman who becomes a love interest of “Boy” George Rivera, a successful heroin dealer, from her early teenage years, through her tumultuous relationship with George, through the fall of his heroin empire and the eventual incarceration of both of them. Jessica, who worked in George’s heroin mill, was sentenced to ten years in prison when George was sentenced to life without parole. A life of high excitement, sex, and three children, whom Jessica was too young and distracted to mother by herself, gave way to years of incarceration, away from her children and her familial support system. Jessica navigates the complex experience of out-of-state incarceration; becomes romantically involved with a guard, bears his children, and eventually sues the prison system for sexual abuse; and finally, in her early thirties, is released from prison and starts putting her life together and mending her relationship with her teenage daughter.

The other couple at the focus of the narrative are Cesar, Jessica’s young brother, and Coco, his girlfriend and mother of two of his children. Coco’s love for Cesar endures throughout his nine years in prison for offenses related to the death of a friend, and she struggles hard to maintain her optimism through several apartment moves, immense poverty, and the need to provide for five children from four largely-absent fathers. Cesar’s time in prison, including stints in solitary, efforts to improve his education and visits from family members and the four mothers of his children, sees him grow and develop wisdom and some understanding of the bigger set of circumstances faced by his family.

An array of mothers, absent fathers, aunties and uncles, friends of the family, and kin-of-choice surround the characters in their adventures and misventures. Thirtysomething year-old grandmothers Foxy (Coco’s mother) and Lourdes (Jessica and Cesar’s mothers) confront the choices made by their children replicating the choices they made, under similar circumstances. I found Milagros–a neighborhood friend who volunteers to raise a small army of children born by her friends, and whose possibly-queer sexuality is never explored in depth–particularly engaging and intriguing.

The narrative itself is as engrossing as a soap opera or a good thriller, but it is extremely valuable because of the overarching themes. The first one that struck me as immensely important is the ubiquity of sexual abuse in the lives of girls and young women. Virtually all protagonists of the book experienced sexual abuse, most of them as victims of family members and acquaintances parading through perennially unstable households. Men are held on to and fantasized upon, but cannot be fully trusted even when they are fathers, brothers and lovers. This shared experience makes the illusion of sexual freedom and agency that Jessica, Coco, and their family members seek problematic and somber.

A large number of children are born in the ten years spanned by the book, and virtually all women become mothers in their teenage years. Children are a source of pride and love, but also of anguish; their needs are impossible to address in overwhelming poverty, and they are consistently used–as symbols of love, as reminders of former love, as weapons to wield against sexual rivals, as instruments of hope for parents behind bars. The incarcerated parents–Serena, Stephanie and Brittany’s mother; Mercedes and Nautica’s father–leave gaping holes in their children’s hearts, and the letter exchanges and visits gain immense importance. The inability to count on any man–in prison or outside–for paternal stability saddles the mothers in the book with responsibilities that tax their young age and lack of experience. And the intricacies of love and family relationships are fascinating; nonmonogamies of various kinds are built and broken; protagonists alternate between tolerance, friendship, and hatred of their sexual and romantic rivals, acknowledging the fragility of the family unit; and the double standard, allowing for men’s multiple partnerships and families while begrudgingly accepting (and condemning) women’s, is present throughout the narrative.

The deep involvement in drugs, as users and sellers, permeates the lives of everyone in the book. They approach the world of narcotics as the only one available; in the words of David Simon in The House I Live In, it’s like working for the company in a company town. Incarceration is an inevitable way of life; many characters cycle in and out of prison, for crimes they committed and did not commit. They continue living, in their own experiences, and for their family outside; the weight of visits to distance prisons and expensive collect phone calls lies on the shoulders of twenty-year-old mothers and their multiple children. The struggles within prison are mirrored by the struggles of the family outside; economic difficulties, rivalries, the price of misplaced trust and generosity, all need to be handled in a reality that is oppressive outside as well as in.

We also see the protagonists constantly battling their crippling poverty and navigating the institutional world. Changes in welfare and educational policy (food stamps, HeadStart) transform the everyday lives of Coco and her family. New living situations, supervised and paternalized, require compliance to different forms of discipline. Every time a character seems to get ahead a bit, a new institutional issue pops up and needs to be urgently addressed.

One of the wonderful things about the book is that it doesn’t attempt to reduce the realities it describes to one of two frameworks: self-agency, which blames its subjects for their fate, or environmental factors, which absolve them of responsibility for their choices. LeBlanc herself, reflecting on her book ten years after its publication, speaks to some of this complexity in the context of female sexuality and its construction in the lives of her subjects:

From the distance of a decade, one thing that was operative—and it’s an ongoing interest—is the ways in which gender inequality, and the stigma of women’s sexual agency, narrows the road for female development. Teen-agers rightly fight the assumptions we place on them—many due to the fears in the adults around them, or the unlived lives of those adults, or the lies the culture tells. But, too often, consequences of attempts to explore freedom are attributed solely to sexual agency, or painted solely as victimization, and it’s much more complicated than that. Serena was keenly aware of how little all of it had to do with her, and that was something I felt was important to note.

This is something that is important to note not only with regard to the women’s sexual agency in the book. It’s true about criminal career paths, opportunities for financial development, and other issues. There are conscious choices being made by people who weigh the options in front of them to the best of their abilities. But the menu of choices is severely circumscribed by culture, class, locale, ethnicity, and gender.

This book, in its remarkable objectivity, in the narrator’s removal of herself from the narrative, in its perceptive insights into the lives of the people that inhabit its pages, is a must-read for anyone, regardless of political beliefs or interest in the prison system.

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