FEATURE

O Cousin, Where Art Thou?

Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. BY Danielle S. Allen. Liveright. Hardcover, 256 pages. $24.

WHEN FIRST ENCOUNTERED, Cuz might remind some readers of books such as Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman and Parallel Time by Brent Staples. In those memoirs, accomplished authors compare and contrast their successful lives with those of siblings whose missteps led them to jail or death. In Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A., Danielle Allen, a decorated scholar and Harvard professor, struggles with the short life and violent death of Michael Alexander Allen, a first cousin. He died at the hands of a lover in 2009, just one year after finishing a second stint in prison.

He first entered the California prison quagmire at fifteen, and soon became ensnared in a system designed to devour instead of reform. He had been arrested for a failed carjacking in which his intended victim took his gun and shot him in the neck. Police tacked on two other robberies to which Michael allegedly confessed while in custody, charging him with four felonies in nearly as many days. Because of California’s recently enacted tough-on-crime provisions, Allen explains, “a conviction on these four charges would, in one fell swoop, trigger the Three Strikes law and bring twenty-five years to life.” She acknowledges that Michael’s experience was by no means unique, but this fact makes it no less compelling or necessary to tell.

Michael’s guilty plea ultimately landed him in adult prison as soon as he turned seventeen. Despite the literal and figurative distance between her cousin and herself, Allen set out to help him as much as she could. Over the course of seven or eight years, she talked with Michael regularly on the phone and went to see him as often as every other week in the summer and during holidays. Her description of her prison visits is perhaps the most riveting chapter in the book, bringing to mind Wideman’s excursions behind bars to talk with his brother Robby. If you’d gotten in early, she writes in one passage, “the room would be empty, filled with only low round tables and small chairs, like the kind they have in kindergartens. If you’d gotten into the line of cars late, you’d enter a room already swimming with men in blue jeans, blue shirts, and tattoos, each with a little circle of color surrounding him, the whole space incongruously like a small Italian piazza full of merrily buzzing café tables.”

In Wideman’s recollection, the prison waiting room made him “feel like a bug in the bottom of a jar. I remembered all the butterflies, grasshoppers, praying mantises, and beetles I had captured on the hillside below the tracks. At least the insects could see through the glass walls, at least they could flutter or hop or fly, and they always had enough air until I unscrewed the perforated top and dumped them out.” Wideman writes of having to “root my fiction-writing self out” of his exchanges with his brother. Failing to do so “would destroy any chance of seeing my brother on his terms; and seeing him in his terms, learning his terms, seemed the whole point of learning his story.” For her part, Allen notes: “To write that chapter, I stepped into the perspective of an outside observer, the luxury afforded to academics when they travel the world encountering pain and injustice. To be an academic is to acquire an excuse for not owning the pain you see.” Intriguingly, both writers describe a necessary adjustment of gaze that enables them to bear critical witness and report their findings to the outside world.

Throughout, Allen’s background as a classicist reveals itself to fine effect. Consider her take on the crime-scene procedures that prevent the bereaved from touching or even getting near the newly dead. “The gods must chortle every time death’s chariot, like Charon’s ferry, pulls up in the form of a rusty tow truck,” she writes. “This is too routine a feature of death in America, in our blood-spattered culture, this image of the dead being hauled off as ‘evidence,’ the most basic human ritual of ministering to and caring for the deceased interrupted.” Reading this, I couldn’t help thinking of Lezley McSpadden’s ruminations, shared in Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil, her memoir about the police killing of her son Michael Brown. “Time kept ticking,” McSpadden recalled. “One hour, two hours, three, then four, then four and a half. Covered or not covered, he was left out like old rotting garbage. Leaving somebody’s child out there like the police did wasn’t procedure, or protocol, or even human.” Both observations, rendered in quite different but strikingly forceful language, provide a telling glimpse of the dehumanization (both subtle and overt) that can accompany the death of a black person, often while the body is still warm.

Less successful is the portion of the book critiquing the criminal-justice system, which Allen describes as “a parastate, an alternative universe of law and order, fundamentally at war with the legally recognized state.” Forced to compress an analysis that requires more space than this book provides, she occasionally resorts to simplistic bromides that don’t fit the demands of such a complex subject. For instance: “America’s story in the twentieth century is in so many ways a sordid tale. It is the story, a tragic litany, of the things people have done to survive in a rapaciously competitive, ethnically and racially fractured society. White racism is a part of this story but, mind you, only a part. Pretty much everybody was out for his or her own and lined up against everybody else.” Readers in search of a more detailed, nuanced assessment might first consult books by James Forman Jr., Angela J. Davis, Michelle Alexander, Carl Hart, and Paul Butler, to name just a few.

Allen is on firmer ground when investigating sweet, lovable Michael’s transformation into “‘Big Mike’ . . . someone not to be messed with on the street”—even when her efforts lead to dead ends. While assisting Michael in his return to postprison life in 2006, Allen had been his primary champion. She helped him acquire a driver’s license, library card, bank account, and job. “Now there was a future with stories, possibly even happy endings,” Allen recalls. “Immediately, it seemed okay to think about a day further out than tomorrow.” But later, when he quit his job and asked her to cosign and contribute the deposit for an apartment for him and his unemployed girlfriend, she balked. “I realized that my dream of standing my baby cousin up on his own two feet was a fantasy,” she concludes. “It had always had, perhaps, too much of me in it. From this point on, Michael ceased confiding in me.”

Trying to fill in the blanks of his final two years, she learns that he had also been a drug runner, was HIV-positive, and may or may not have been in a gang. (The book’s title refers both to family relations and a greeting preferred by members of the Crips.) Readers will sense her frustration that a complete picture of her cousin remains elusive. The author observes, “In the end, none of us knew him and, only now, I realize that neither did he know himself.” His mother reaches the same conclusion soon after, when she comes “to realize that he never knew himself.” Michael, Allen points out, “had finely honed his skills at seeming to be wholly present while also holding significant parts of himself out of view.”

To truly know another person is a rare feat regardless of the effort one puts into it, and Allen is clearly aware of this. One suspects that she persists, as Wideman described his own mission, “in the hope that there is something to learn from this account, something to salvage from the grief and waste.” Readers will finish this brief, perceptive memoir knowing just enough about Michael to appreciate the author’s devastating sense of loss. They will also have an understanding, barring changes to the system, of the many more Michaels we stand to lose.

Jabari Asim is director of the graduate program in creative writing at Emerson College and the author of the novel Only the Strong (Agate Bolden, 2015).