Danielle Allen: DeMott Lecture 2018

September 2, 2018

Danielle Allen, a former trustee of Amherst College, and the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, delivered this year’s DeMott Lecture. She discussed her book Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.

Transcript: Danielle Allen: DeMott Lecture 2018

Congratulations and welcome. Biddy suggested that I am young. I am not. But I do know the secret to the fountain of youth, and I think it's Amherst College in fact. I have had the pleasure of spending a lot of time here, and the best part of being here has always been talking to students. So, in my personal experience, students at this college in particular, and liberal arts colleges in general, are a fountain of youth for those who are lucky to share time and space with them. So I am privileged and honored to be with you today. Thank you.

And thank you for taking time to read my book. It was a hard book to write. I know it's a hard book to read in many ways. I want to talk today about a little bit of what it took to go into making the book. But before I do that, talk about how it is I came to write it and some of the things I learned from trying to write it, let me just remind you of the general shape of what's in the book.

In September of 1995, my baby cousin, my beloved cousin Michael, was arrested for an attempted carjacking. It was a Sunday morning in Los Angeles South Central, and he had tried to take somebody's car at gunpoint. His victim had wrestled away his gun, shot him through the neck, and that was the end of the attempted carjacking. On the way to the hospital, Michael confessed to having robbed four other people at gunpoint that preceding week. This was an incredible outburst of violence. There's no question but that it was a string of terrible violent actions. Yet it came out of the blue. It took us all by surprise. That's not to say there had been no trouble in Michael's life. He had had a shoplifting incident. He had stolen a radio. But this was a just extraordinary acceleration of difficulty.

At any rate, you've read the book so you know what happened. It was California. The state had passed its three strikes you're out law two years earlier. So Michael, in that cluster of incidents, was facing four strikes, his first arrest, first arrest. And the judge told him that if he went to trial and was convicted on the things he'd confessed to, he would receive 25 years to life, first arrest. So he took a plea deal, he pled guilty and he received a sentence of 12 years and eight months. The judge who sentenced him wrote to the California Corrections Department and recommended that he be kept in Juvenile until the latest possible age, which was 25 at that time. But for reasons that cannot be extracted from the California system, he was sent to an adult prison at the age of 17, the first moment he was technically eligible for an adult prison.

He was sent to a prison at the Oregon border. His mother was in Los Angeles. Everybody knows that the single thing that makes the biggest difference for successful reentry is family contact. Michael's mother could not visit him in his first six months in adult prison at the age of 17. At any rate, the book tells the story of Michael's time in prison. When he released in 2006, I was as I always say the cousin on duty, the one with the time and the resources to try to help Michael reestablish himself. We were super close, we had grown up together. I'm from a huge extended family. You all know what it's like to have cousins, or many of you do. And so the life was a life in Southern California of getting together on family holidays, playing football in streets together, riding bikes together, climbing trees. My dad's family had 12 siblings. And Karen, my dad's sister, who's Michael's mother, was the youngest of that family. Michael was her youngest out of three, so he was the baby of a big extended family.

My dad and Karen are to this day super close. So our two subunits in this big family were really close. Karen and her kids lived with us periodically. My brother and I and her three kids were like, I always say, sort of five porch steps, each 18 months younger than the previous. And I was the oldest in the set, so you know what that means. I was the bossy cousin. So yeah, so I was the bossy cousin. I grew up with a sense of responsibility for my cousins. We grew up in a pretty still egalitarian world in the 1970s before the transformations in the country's economy and the criminal justice system drove massive increases in inequality. And sometimes I feel like our story is one in which some of us were on this incredibly rapidly accelerating elevator that just shot us to the top of our social structure, and the others were on elevators that sank. So a family that was close-knit, egalitarian, shared circumstances, was wrenched by the transitions of the world that we've all lived in through the last three decades.

When Michael was released, we worked hard on a job, school, housing. You know that the story ends three years after his first release when he was killed by a person he fell in love with in prison. And when you stop and think about it, that makes sense. If you go to prison when you're 15, and spend 11 years there, you're going to fall in love. And the relationships that help you survive that experience will be, in a deep way, indispensable. And yet, the job of seeking reentry is somehow to sever your ties to the people who helped you survive one of the hardest imaginable experiences.

I know you've read the book so I'm not going to say more about the story right now. But I'm happy to talk about it in the Q&A. I wanted to say at this point more about what it took to write the book. So the first thing to say is that it took overcoming shame. All right? Michael died in 2009. This book came out in 2017. You might well ask, "What the heck took you so long? What took you so long to tell this story?" And the fact of the matter is that when Michael died, it was devastating for our entire family. And not one of us talked about what happened with any of the rest of us. Even Michael's mother and siblings didn't talk about what had happened. It wasn't until I decided that I did need to try to tell this story that we actually finally took the time to figure out what had happened.

The reason I did decide to tell the story, a couple of reasons, one was I had Michael's essays and letters and they were in a box, like a voice caught in a box pulsing, just beaming at me. We had always thought Michael would tell his own story. He loved to write, you know that from the book. We always thought he would tell his own story. And there was that voice trapped in a box. And I was invited to give these lectures at Harvard called the DuBois Lectures, they're named after W.E.B. DuBois, the greatest African-American sociologist of the late 19th and early 20th century, incredibly political thinker. The job of those lectures is to provide commentary on the state of affairs for African-Americans in the US in the contemporary moment. I said yes, it was an honor to be asked. And every time the date got near, I kept canceling. They would come and I would give Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who'd invited me, a title, an abstract title of some kind of political equality and justice in the 21st century, or African-Americans and rights in the 21st century, and the date would get closer and I would cancel. And I finally realized that I couldn't possibly pretend to comment on what has happened to African-Americans in the U.S. in the late 20th and early 21st century without coming to understand my cousin's story and telling his story.

But to do that, I had to lift a rock of silence off of his story. And I want to stop and ask you to think about that for a minute, that rock of silence, because you all know the statistics, about two and a quarter million people are incarcerated in America right now. Another five million are under supervision of the criminal justice system in the form of bail or probation or some other thing of that sort. So seven million people, right this very second, are directly affected by the criminal justice system in a sense of being under its supervision. Now each of those seven million people is presumably related to at least four other people shall we say, maybe. Ah, it's random, picking a number here, 35 million people right now directly affected by the criminal justice system. More than 10% of the country. Have you heard 35 million such stories? How many have you actually heard? That's the rock of shame, suppressing all those stories.

When I gave the lectures finally telling Michael's story, I think they were the strangest lectures Harvard has ever seen because I wept. I stood in front of a big scholarly audience and I cried for three lectures straight. Because it was the first time I, myself, was processing what had happened in my own family. The most surprising thing for me about those lectures was that afterwards, the number of people who came up to me, of all races and said, "I have a family member in prison and I've never told anyone." And that was in fact my situation. For all the time I was helping Michael with school, getting him college classes, talking to him on the phone almost every week while I was a professor at the University of Chicago and dean at the University of Chicago, and even when I went out to California to help him, living there, working all through the summer with him, I never told a single one of my professional colleagues. This was one of the most important relationships in my life, and I never told the people I lived and worked with.

We can't fix problems if we don't lift that boulder of shame. So that's the first thing I wanted to say about what it took to write the book. And interviews with family members were incredibly powerful experience. But I want to say something else too because the fact that you're at this college is a special thing. And it gives you special opportunities and special responsibilities. And the reason I say that is because it will give you the tools to tell true and important stories in ways that can change the world. And so that's what I want to talk about now. Because writing a memoir, sometimes people just think it's about looking into your soul, talking to the people that you know, figuring out all those stories. But no, okay? It takes serious, hardcore research.

Let me explain how. It's not as if Michael's story, the narrative, was just sitting there ready to be written out, the story of what happened to him. So yes, I had to interview people. But I had to do that rigorously. I had to compare different points of view, figure out who was distorting which kinds of evidence in which way, all the tools of ethnography that you would learn in a class in anthropology, for example. It takes work to get those stories right. And, it took work to get his court records. So the book involved just good old-fashioned shoe leather reporting.

Michael's mother had thrown away all of his court papers after he died. Not super surprising, this was a really big, bad part of her life. Those papers were all gone. What did it take to get them back from the state of California? What would you do if you wanted to get court records of somebody who was deceased? What would you do? So California's pretty good, all court proceedings are public actually, you can walk into a court in downtown Los Angeles and request any criminal court case and get the records from it, except juvenile records, except juvenile records. Juvenile records are confidential, for very, very good reason, to protect juvenile offenders. However, if a juvenile offender is deceased, then there's not a soul on the planet who has a right to see that file. The deceased's mother doesn't have a right, no relative has a right, it's trapped by the state.

In addition, in this instance, I learned this fact that the file was trapped, but as it happened it didn't even matter because they didn't know where it was. They couldn't find it. So they gave me this piece of paper that listed different places the file had been, and I got in my little rental car and I drove all over Los Angeles, from one court to the next. "Have you seen this file? It says here you saw it 13 years ago. Where is it now?" One place to another, sprawling bureaucracy of the state, like Kafka, all these boxes with papers in the hallways, nobody knowing exactly where anything is. And finally I got to my last stop on my journey, a court called the Airport Court. It's called that because it's near LAX. And on my piece of paper, I said, "You're the last place this file was. You guys saw this file. I know you did." And behind the Plexiglas, the woman says, "No, no, we don't have it, we don't have it." "I've been to all the other courts and they all say it came here. And nobody ever says it went any place else. I'm pretty sure you have it." And she said, "Well, you know, now that you mention it, there is a stack of old juvenile files down in the basement. Let me just go check."

So I wait, tick, tick, tick, she comes up behind the Plexiglas, there's this nice big fat file. She was like, "I found it. I found it." And I stretch out my hands to the Plexiglas, and she says, "Wait, let me just go take out everything that's stamped confidential." So she goes around the corner. I wait 20 minutes, and she comes back with a pile like this. I was like, "Oh, that was painful." Okay, so then what do I have to do? Well, you can make the state level equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act request, so that's what I did. I wrote and I said, "May I please have the contents of File blah, blah, blah," with the number. And I got back a letter that said, "We are sorry. You have to request the specific documents you want." I was like, "That's interesting because how do I know what's in the file? I haven't seen the file."

So at that point, I engaged a lawyer. It was the only thing I could do. And the lawyer said, "Look, here's the list of the kinds of documents that are typically in a file so request those." So that's what I did and that's what I got. And that was the best I could do. I couldn't get everything because I had no way of knowing what other stuff was in the file. But I got enough to verify the story as I had pieced it together from interviews and to figure out a few other things too that I hadn't already known. But the point of that is that I learned how to do this, research things seriously, at the place I went to college, I like to call it the Amherst of New Jersey, Princeton. But that's what you guys are going to get here, the ability to find stuff out where other people would stop and give up and they wouldn't get to the truth. So that's a key piece of it.

Another key piece of it is something that you get from the social sciences. Two more pieces actually here of the writing that matters. So when we think about criminal justice in this country, we have a tendency to veer back and forth between stories that say, "It's the fault of the system, it's the fault of the individual, the wrongdoer." Either the system's to blame or the individual's to blame. Now this is just, at the end of the day, patently absurd. Michael made bad choices, he bears responsibility. We his family failed to do right by him. We bear responsibility. And the laws and society and social structure bear responsibility. I've come to think of it as an issue of the degree of difficulty any young person confronts.

So I don't know if you remember the last Olympics, but there was a gymnast, her name was Cara McCarr, something like that was her last name, she was from India. And she was going to do a move called the Produnova. Is there any gymnast in here who knows this move? This is like the greatest degree of difficulty move in gymnastics. It's a vault of some kind. And the thing about this move is the coverage, the media coverage, had this constant narrative of, "Is she going to make it or is she going to break her back? Is she going to make it or is she going to break her back?" She made it, good news. But that's a good way of capturing the relationship between social circumstances and individual responsibility. When there's a high degree of difficulty, people can make it, but most people are going to break their backs. And that's what we have to ask about our laws is how are they distributing degrees of difficulty to young people in different contexts and circumstances?

Now, but to think about responsibility this way is somewhat different than the convention. And if you read a lot of investigative journalism, you'll find that the narrative over and over again is, "Something went wrong. There was a childcare facility, the children got abused. There was an elder care facility, the elders got abused. There ought to be a law. Somebody ought to do something about it. There ought to be a law." And that's the dynamic over and over again. If something goes wrong, the state's at fault, there ought to be a law. And there are sort of social science frameworks that generate that causal narrative. I didn't want that causal narrative. I wanted to tell a different kind of story about the relationship between laws and social structures, opportunity and individual responsibility.

So I had models from economics about game theory and equilibrium states and incentive structures. I had to invent narratives that could render those economic theories of causation in narrative form. Now, that's not going to make a lot of sense now because you haven't had all of your economics and social science classes. But the point that I want to make here is that what you are learning in those classes will affect how you tell stories. Stories and scholarship go together and reinforce each other. And it's important sometimes that we break through some of our old habits for how we tell stories to get to new understandings of what's happening in the world. And funnily enough, even our really quantitative courses in the social sciences can help us figure out new ways of telling stories.

Now here's the last piece I want to share of what made this book possible, and to some extent something about why it took so long to write it. So, many years ago, because I'm not as young as Biddy was suggesting, I was sitting in college in my sophomore year. I took a course on Athenian history. So some of you may take some courses on the ancient world. And I was reading page after page of Athenian court documents, legal speeches, prosecutions, defenses, and so forth. And one day I put my hand up in class and I said, "Didn't these people use prisons?" After all, I had grown up in Southern California in the '70s and '80s, and prisons had been growing all around me. I couldn't imagine a world where there weren't just lots of people going to prison. And my professor said, "That would make a great dissertation topic." Now what was that professor doing in that moment? I brought a question to my materials in my Princeton class that reflected my own personal experience as a young person in Southern California. I had a perspective on our world and how it was changing that was putting urgent questions on the table. In other words, in the late '80s, before the phrase "mass incarceration" was a phrase, I had questions about it. And I had questions about it just because I was a thinking, feeling person taking my world in.

Every single one of you has questions like that. Every single one of you is asking questions about our world that the old people aren't asking yet. And we need you to hear those questions and follow through on them. And the faculty here, if they're like my professor, will say when they hear your questions, "Great question, follow that line." And because my professor said that, I did go write a dissertation on punishment in ancient Athens. And I've been thinking about punishment for many years. And I have studied punishment from antiquity to the present and around the world. Which puts me in the position to say with authority that the world has never seen a penal system like the one this country has built. But it took my education to put me in a position to say that with authority.

There's much more to be said about that. We have to take responsibility as a country for the penal system that we've built. It is a part of American exceptionalism, one of the things we delivered to the world. We have to look at that squarely. To look at it squarely, we have to hear the stories. That requires lifting the boulder of shame. The reason being with college students is a fountain of youth is because you always have great questions. And so the part of all of this that I've been most looking forward to is the chance to talk with all of you. So thank you so much for spending time with my book, for listening to Michael's story. Thank you.