FEATURE

Alone Together

The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy BY Masha Gessen. Riverhead Books. Hardcover, 288 pages. $27.

IN MASHA GESSEN’S The Brothers, the first full-length book on Tamerlan and Jahar Tsarnaev and accordingly the most complete, the two leads share no scenes and speak no lines to each other. They are never alone in a room. How could they be? Tamerlan’s death and Jahar’s imprisonment blocked our access to the brothers’ private life, so we can learn about it only through observers, whose reports, necessarily, are not private. With the heart of the narrative sealed off, it has been the practice of most writers to tell the story as a complex family tragedy rather than a mystery about the relationship between two men. “The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev” was the headline over the Boston Globe’s two-part feature about the bombing, while Rolling Stone suggested that “each small disappointment wore on Jahar’s family, ultimately ripping them apart.” Nor did this idea belong exclusively to the media. On the afternoon of April 19, 2013, while Jahar was still at large, Ruslan Tsarni, the boys’ uncle, held an informal press conference on his lawn. What provoked the bombing was simple, he said: His nephews were “losers.” He added: “My family has nothing to do with that family.” That family—the more we read about its members, the less they seem to explain their sons. Chekhov wrote his older brother Alexander: “It is not necessary to portray many characters. The center of gravity should be in two people: he and she.” The center of gravity in this story is in Tamerlan and Jahar.

The center is now visible only from the outskirts. In Gessen’s book, much of the original reporting concerns the family’s history in Dagestan, the “backwater”—as the boys’ mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, thought of it—that lies between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea. The other half pertains to their lives in the States, where Gessen interviews the handful of Chechens who knew the Tsarnaevs or were snared by the FBI’s investigation of the 2013 bombing, a group that winds up including nearly every Chechen in New England. Rather than narrowing in on the personal story, Gessen spreads out through a network. Only thirty-four of these nearly three hundred pages concern the Tsarnaevs’ lives in Cambridge, where they lived for a decade.

“A Decade of Broken Dreams” is that chapter’s name, and it tells us a few things about Gessen’s project. For one thing, like the Globe, she favors a novelistic tone. We are still reading a family tragedy. What has changed is the context in which that tragedy unfolds: no longer just the domestic world but the American scene for recent Muslim immigrants after 9/11. The brothers’ father, Anzor Tsarnaev, was a car mechanic by training, though he occasionally told people he was a lawyer. In 2002, he and Zubeidat, a darkly striking couple in photographs, were living in Dagestan. The region is isolated, underdeveloped, and dangerous. Raising kids there seemed a doomed proposition, and as the couple had already moved domestically several times, something more drastic seemed necessary, a fresh start.

They won political asylum in the US by exaggerating the danger they would face if they went back to Chechnya, where Anzor was born (Zubeidat is from Dagestan). As law enforcement later pointed out, the danger was not significant enough to keep them from occasionally returning. So, the first people to spin a grand family tragedy from the Tsarnaevs’ mundane picaresque were not journalists, but the Tsarnaevs. The story worked, including on a liberal landlord who saw herself as a savior of this young family who had fled persecution. “She was primed to see the Tsarnaevs exactly as they wanted to be seen,” Gessen writes. They took the third-floor apartment in her three-family house in Somerville, and the boys enrolled at Rindge and Latin, Cambridge’s only public high school.

“The big question facing the family was how to make Tamerlan succeed,” Gessen writes. “One look at him and you knew he was destined for greatness. . . . The physical grace of his large body, and his sharp features and large dark eyes, turned heads and messed with them.” Looking at photos of Tamerlan, who wanted to be a boxer, I found him strong, but in a thick, lumbering way; he seems powerful but not fleet. Sentences like this, where the heat is turned up just a little too high and you can smell the prose burning, made me wonder whether the grace that Gessen sees here wasn’t retrospectively imposed. If Tamerlan weren’t a tragic villain, how many of his acquaintances would tell a journalist that he was also a beautiful and thwarted talent?

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Like most people who want to be pro boxers, Tamerlan didn’t make it. He gave up, apparently discouraged when the Golden Gloves changed its rules to exclude noncitizens from championship bouts. So instead of becoming a fighter, Tamerlan, always the more violent of the brothers, married a Catholic woman named Katie and had a daughter, Zahira. He stayed home to care for her while Katie worked. Jahar, the quieter, gentler brother, went to the University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth on a scholarship, where he had friends, dealt pot, and didn’t study. In 2011, his parents divorced. It wasn’t the making of a great success story, but it wasn’t a catastrophe, either. It was just sad and diffuse in a normal American way.

The brothers evidently loved each other, though we have to search hard for evidence of the dynamic between them. One thing we know is that when they were together, Jahar deferred to his brother. Tamerlan occasionally invited him to box; Jahar accepted. Of one of these sessions, a trainer reported that Jahar “was going through the motions. . . . He was like a lost dog.” This recollection agrees with those of Jahar’s acquaintances, who tell Gessen that he was good at making people like him. He wanted to please. And his youth made him malleable: Jahar’s accent was apparently indistinguishable from a native speaker’s.

Tamerlan kept his accent—the news reports emphasized this, as it implies that he was less dissolvable in society than his brother. But Tamerlan had a wife, an apartment, a one-year-old daughter. He had more to lose: He was just more willing to lose it. In 2012, the boxing dreams dead, he flew to Dagestan, risking his visa. There, he hung around a group called the Union of the Just, the local affiliate of the pan-Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which preaches a global caliphate. In most versions of the story, here is where Tamerlan gets “radicalized.” Gessen has a slightly different opinion. Having started her career as a magazine journalist in Moscow in the early ’90s, then covered the wars in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996, she brings an overdue skepticism to this chapter. The Union, as she describes it, was ideologically flimsy, short on masterminds. It was “a group of self-important young men who trafficked mostly in words and yet balanced unmistakably at the edge of constant and extreme danger.” But it offered Tamerlan friends and a sense of purpose, as a boxing team might.

From his return in July 2012 through the bombing on April 15, 2013, the trail freezes. We have no artifact of any conversation between the brothers during this period. One wants to know how they framed it, whether they discussed the things they were evidently willing to give up—friends, a daughter. What we have instead are table scraps. I am vaguely interested by the fact that Jahar, three days before the marathon, tweeted, “Dreams really do come true, last night I dreamt I was eating a cheeseburger and in the afternoon today, guess what I’m eating,” but only because it gives me access to his language. As Gessen points out, most terrorists behave normally in the days before an attack.

Most terrorists, however, including the “celebrity martyrs” Tamerlan was said to have idolized, do not behave normally in the days afterward, either because they are fleeing or because they are dead. The brothers left the scene in a manner it would be hyperbolic to call escape: They walked away. Jahar went back to school. They were identified, days later, because they were the only people on surveillance videos who didn’t flinch when the bombs went off; and then they didn’t have a meet-up point. They hadn’t left a manifesto, and no terrorist group stood in line to claim them. If, after running over his brother with a stolen SUV, Jahar had been shot by police, he would have had no say in our interpretation of the killings.

But this crudeness of plan and execution is one of the few places in the story where the brothers’ private relationship becomes visible. More than ideology, a craving for intensity united them. The scattered facts of their biographies can be arranged in a story not about “radicalization” but about the pleasure of the high-risk gamble, even when the reward is low. Tamerlan, so careless with his visa, had a habit of leaving his face unguarded when he boxed. It can be a good, taunting feeling, leaving oneself open to getting hit. Jahar may have liked it, too. A friend from college would tell a journalist from the Globe about a night when Jahar drove a group of them through Boston, going 120 miles an hour in a Civic, rolling a joint with both hands and holding the steering wheel between his knees. He liked especially to take his hands off the wheel on curves, his friend explained.


Jesse Barron is a writer living in New York.