In her new memoir, CUZ: The Life and Times of Michael A., Danielle Allen, a distinguished classicist and political scientist, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and Washington Post Opinion columnist, writes with sensitivity and astonishing candor about trying to help her younger cousin Michael rebuild his life after his release from prison. At the age of 15, Michael was sentenced as an adult and spent more than a decade behind bars for an attempted armed carjacking and two robberies. CUZ is a tribute to the bond between Danielle and Michael, as she and her extended family battle the forces that that threaten to permanently tether Michael to a justice system that tears apart Black families through the mass incarceration of young Black men. Michael’s tragic shooting death at 29 illustrates the herculean task of asking an individual to begin anew after spending nearly half his life behind bars. We are honored to share a moving except from the start of the book and a thoughtful Q&A between senior nonfiction editor, Christina Simon, and the author.
And our hearts are made to bleed for a thoughtless word or deed.
And we wonder why the test when we try to do our best. But we’ll understand it by and by.
— gospel song
Release and Resurrection
any of us
— Charles Olson
Garden Party, July 2009
“Danielle, phone call for you. It’s your dad.”
I broke away from a conversation with my husband’s cousins—from glancing, distracted talk about the kids who were playing yards away in their floral sundresses under a soft English garden-party sun. Rising from the picnic table, I took the cell phone from him and walked a few steps.
“Danielle, it’s Michael.”
My father’s voice, the careful, clipped speech of a retired professor, came from across the Atlantic, from Maryland through the ether, but sounded as if it were miles beneath the seas, crackling, wispy as if through the first ever transatlantic cables.
“Dead. They found him shot in a car.”
Michael. My cousin. My baby cuz.
Sometimes on English spring mornings a gauzy haze clings to the air. This, though, was July and, now, afternoon, but that same sort of whiteness suddenly seemed to wrap the sky and the surrounding willows, and I near collapsed, staggered into my husband’s arms, and said “Jim, we have to go.”
“Dead. We have to go.”
Straightaway go, we had to go, to South Central.
And so we left.
Release Day, June 2006
Three years earlier, I had arisen one Thursday morning well before dawn. I was in my palm-tree-shrouded vacation condo in Hollywood, California, feeling the most glorious sense of anticipation I have ever known. It was June 29, 2006. I was still married to my first husband, not Jim the philosopher from Liverpool and second husband, but Bob, the professor of poetry who had grown up in Hollywood in the 1950s and ’60s.
As I wended my way past the kidney-shaped pool and climbed into the old white BMW I’d bought from my mother, my spirit was filled with a light, almost sweet buoyancy easy to savor in the Southland quiet of that June day. Strange to admit, but even when my first child was born some years later, the anticipation was not so simply blissful. Waiting with Jim for Nora’s arrival was an experience shot through with fear and joy. Resurrection, it turns out, is more transcendent than birth, or so it was then, as I headed to my aunt’s small stucco cottage on a block in South Central where a few doors down, on the corner, a fortified drug house stood like a hostile sentry. Her house appeared serene. It was always reasonably neat, if also in a state of disrepair, and as the sun rose over the tidy, pale houses, it colored them pretty. Poverty never looks quite as bad in the City of Angels as it does in the winter-beaten Rust Belt.
My aunt Karen, my father’s youngest sister, the baby of a set of twelve, now herself forty, was about to drive a crew of us to collect her own baby, her third child, Michael, from “Reception and Release” or, as it is called, “R&R.” Prison life is rife with black humor.
I was along. So was Michael’s “Big Sis” by eighteen months, Roslyn, and one of Roslyn’s own babies, Michael’s eight-year-old nephew, Joshua. We were on our way to collect the last son of an extended clan, youngest child of the youngest daughter.
If I had it to do over again, to meet another loved one on his day of liberation, I’m sure the fear would now overpower the joy. It’s not that, on a rational level, we didn’t know how hard reentry is, how low the probability that any given life turns a corner. But to know something intellectually is so very different from feeling it in your flesh, straining after some goal with every fiber of your being only to sink in the end to defeat.
Everyone was looking forward to a homecoming party for Michael. In the driveway of my aunt’s house, next to the postage stamp of a lawn, uncles and friends, cousins and second-cousins, and cousins once or twice or—who knows—how many times removed, would pull folding chairs up to folding tables covered with paper tablecloths and laden with fried chicken and sweet tea. I was eight years old when Michael was born. My guess is that he was probably the first baby I ever got to hold and I had grown up with him. The baby of a sprawling family too numerous to count, he was also my baby, a child of magnetic energy and good humor.
We had lost him when he hit fifteen, eleven long years ago. He had been gone from us almost half his life. Now he would be with us again.
Today, though, we were just going to collect Michael and see what he wanted to do. We would drive to the parking lot by Tower 8, not the normal Tower 2 location for visitors. There we would wait until the white van drove up to deposit those prisoners being released. We were to arrive by 8 a.m. sharp, no exceptions. From L.A., in the early rush hour, it could take us as much as two hours. But once we arrived, we would have to wait. Possibly an hour. Possibly half the day. No one could say in advance.
The drive seems like something of a haze. I remember a wait, but I don’t think it was, in the end, terribly long. We all sat—nerves taut—in the car. And I remember somehow being in a green and shady grove, which made the experience alto- gether different from every other trip to Michael’s last prison in Norco, a little, dusty stretch of Riverside County just south of the unfurling black ribbons where the 10 and the 15 free- ways join.
It’s a cliché to say that someone has an electric smile, but what else can you call it when someone beams and all the lights come on? Michael arrived and smiled. His broad, toothy grin, gums and all, always seemed to take up half his face, a bright flash of white against his dark skin, and he always had a little bob in his step that you could recognize as belonging to the playground athletes of your youth. He had that natural spring as a child, even at every prison visit and, to be sure, on this day of his release after over a decade of incarceration.
His late adolescence and early manhood were, like those of so many millions, gone behind bars, and nonetheless he bounded toward us. How could we not sing hosannas, and think, “God is great”?
His mother, deep brown and plum-cheeked, warmhearted and big-chested, wept, or so I believe. “All things work together for the good,” she might have said, as she often does when thinking about Michael’s story. Again, these are details I just cannot recall.
Then we came to asking him what he wanted to do. Fulfilling that request would be my job, as would helping him in the months to come through reentry. Not mine alone, no, but mine consistently—day-after-day as the cousin-on-duty, the one with resources, the one whose parents had been to college, and who was expected to go to college, and who had done so, and who had turned into a professional.
I was ready. Or at least I thought so. Like a coffee klatch of nervous first-time parents, we had all been preparing for months—my father, the retired college professor; my aunt, the nurse; Michael’s older brother and sister, each struggling to make ends meet; my husband, Bob, the poetry professor, himself near retirement; and me.
We did have plans, but they were not the plans we had hoped to have. Michael had been working as a firefighter for the last few years. He loved the work. He should have been paroled to a fire camp or to a fire station. We even had family in Riverside County. They were ready to take him. He could have lived with them and gone to school and kept on pushing back and beating down wildfires.
But the rule was, you had to be paroled to the county where your crime was committed. In his case this was Los Angeles County. Need I add that L.A. County is crime-ridden? We didn’t have the plans we had hoped to have because of this policy on parole, but we had developed the best alternatives we could. As the Secretary of Defense who got us into the Iraq War once more or less said, we were going to have to go to battle with the army that we had.
Step one was this: on the way back to L.A. County, ask Michael what he wanted to do first.
Michael wanted to buy underwear.
Excerpt from CUZ by Danielle Allen reprinted with permission from the author and publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company.
Christina Simon: Despite a turbulent home life, Michael was an academically gifted boy with a huge smile who had no criminal record. Suddenly, at age 15, he was arrested for an attempted carjacking, using a gun, which the victim grabbed and used to shoot Michael in the neck. In the ambulance and then in the hospital, with only the police present, Michael waived his Miranda rights and confessed to his first-ever crime spree, just that week, consisting of four robberies—totaling about $22—that, along with the attempted carjacking, made him eligible to be charged as an adult under a new California Three Strikes law. The year was 1995. What was it like to learn that Michael had been arrested in South Central L.A.?
Danielle Allen: This news was devastating. I remember that Michael’s arrest came toward the end of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. That trial ratcheted up the emotional pressure in the whole country to near bursting, as I remember it, and with the news of Michael’s arrest I felt I had taken all that pressure into myself singly.
CS: One of the most significant factors in Michael’s life was the moment the judge determined he would be charged as an adult rather than a juvenile. You are very clear that Michael bore responsibility for his actions and should pay the consequences, but how did this legal decision change the trajectory of his life?
DA: The sad fact is that going to prison at age 15 for 11 years must necessarily change your life and, in all probability, in ways that make any prospect of recovery nearly impossible. Michael needed to bear responsibility for his actions but the purpose of punishment should also be to ensure that when those who have done wrong have completed their sentence, they are ready to undertake a life of social responsibility and even have a chance of flourishing. In Germany and the Netherlands, this goal has resulted in approaches to punishment that minimize the use of incarceration, for incarceration is widely recognized as a type of punishment that does the opposite of preparing people to reintegrate with society. In Germany, they use incarceration for 6% of their sanctions; in the Netherlands for 10%. We use incarceration for 70% of our sanctions.
CS: Michael went to prison as a boy and came out a man at age 26. Time moves forward on the outside very differently than on the inside. You write that for those who spend adolescence in prison, rites of passage can include a first long-term separation from family, first racial melee, first solitary confinement and first sexual abuse, as they did for Michael. Aside from getting older, how else did he change during his prison time?
DA: Michael’s mother, my aunt Karen, describes Michael as having been very needy during his first few years in prison—needing things (clothes, shoes, snacks and so forth sent in care packages), needing talk, needing help. But by a certain point, he had developed a capacity to take care of himself inside. I think we will never really know what exactly that entailed or meant. I’ve read a lot of other prison literature written by formerly incarcerated people to try to learn what it means to learn to take care of yourself inside prison and it is pretty scary. Michael never let on about the scary stuff. He took care of himself; he wrapped the horrors of his experience in silence, and he directed care toward others. “How are you, Momma? What do you need?” “How’s your writing going, Danielle? When are you going to send me the next chapter?”
CS: After his release, it seemed that Michael, with your help as the “cousin-on-duty,” was on his way to a successful re-entry. He got a job at Sears, rented an apartment and enrolled at L.A. Valley College. Yet, within a span of a few months, the job and college ended. Why is re-entry so hard for parolees? What can be done to help this transition?
DA: Retrospectively, I can see that as we prepared Michael’s re-entry, we didn’t talk about … we never addressed the hardest thing. Whether he was going to transition away from relationships he’d had in prison over the preceding 11 years? And if so, why, and how? And, most importantly, for all the relationships that he did need to leave behind but which in fact had sustained him in a hard and dark place, how to grieve for them. Liberation is joyful, but it brings grief too. That is something I believe now but didn’t know when I tried to help Michael. So the simple fact is that we didn’t address the most important thing: how to ensure that moving into life on the outside his relationships were all healthy and that he had space, and time and support to grieve for things he needed to leave behind.
CS: You’ve studied punishment throughout your career, starting with your first book, The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishment in Democratic Athens. With CUZ, you’ve been advocating for the reform of the U.S. justice system, with the highest rates of mass incarceration in the world, ravaging Black men and families. Yet we’re now facing an effort by the Trump Administration, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to reverse previous rules and direct federal prosecutors and to pursue the strictest sentences possible with little to no discretion. Civil rights advocates are deeply concerned. Are we potentially looking at more cases like Michael’s?
DA: Even without the actions of the Trump administration, there are cases like Michael’s happening all around us. While rates of incarceration have been coming down in the last few years, and while there are meaningful efforts at reform in numerous states across the country, it is still simply the case that we have a more onerous sentencing structure than is found in other developed countries and liberal democracies, that it falls disparately on young men of color, and that we respond to acts of wrong-doing not so much by making the victim whole as by laying down a wide trail of additional ruin in the wake of any given act of wrong-doing. Yes, we need meaningful systems of sanction; yes, we need to make victims whole; but we also need to make communities whole, and this means giving very many offenders a meaningful chance to make amends and start fresh.
CS: Can you talk about what you call the parastate (gangs and drug traffickers) and the parastate’s relationship to the law? What are the most important changes needed for decriminalization of drug laws? Is hope possible given our history?
DA: The parastate is a pretty simple idea. The globe has a $300 billion business in illegal drugs. One-third of that, or $100 billion, is spent in the U.S. each year. This business is not run in a disorganized or ad hoc way but in a system that connects financers,to producers, to traffickers, to wholesalers, to street-level retail distributors. In the 1970s and 1980s, as the U.S. government started attacking this system, it directed considerable efforts toward deterring street-level retail distributors. But the people who ran the business didn’t want to give up their distribution network, and so they fought back by establishing systems of reward and sanction inside their own organizations to keep people in them. This, in my argument, explains the ratcheting-up of violence and intensity of control inside the world of gangs, a world that continues to entrap young people who often first turn to gangs for protection from the world of violence resulting from the fight between the state and the parastate.
The question of what we need for reform is pretty simple. Substance use is a human rights issue—addiction is a basic health problem that should be treated with health services, not the tools of criminal justice. Exposure to violence and weakened forms of rule of law is a human rights issue—the illegal narcotics traffic needs to be brought within the penumbra of the law as a part of re-establishing the stability of the rule of law. Children on the border of Texas seeking asylum from violence in Central America is a human rights issue—the destabilization of Central America through drug trafficking and the war on drugs requires recognition on the part of citizens of the U.S. that we supply 1/3 of the world’s appetite for narcotics.
The human rights solution to these human rights problems is to transition from a criminal justice paradigm for addressing narcotics control to a health and harm reduction paradigm. This entails fully legalizing marijuana, while nonetheless educating young people about its dangers (for instance, for those who have a genetic predisposition for schizophrenia). It entails decriminalizing harder drugs. This means converting simple use and possession of harder drugs into misdemeanors or other kinds of non-felonious civil penalties that trigger connection to health services, not criminal proceedings. Under decriminalization, trafficking of these drugs continues to be treated as a felony, and law enforcement resources can be re-directed toward interdicting contraband at the highest level. And in addition to improving health care resources in support of addiction (an important provision of the Afforadable Care Act), this policy approach also requires harm reduction techniques like needle exchanges and methadone maintenance.
CS: The book’s title, CUZ, is short for “cousin,” a term of endearment Michael, eight years your junior, used to address you. How else was the term “Cuz” used on the streets of South Central Los Angeles?
DA: The title for the book came to me one night almost as if in a dream. It was the first word of the book. Once I had that title, I was able to start writing. It was the right word because it was what Michael called me and because my motivation for trying to write about his story was very largely about answering all the why questions. Why are you dead, Michael? Cuz, Cuz …. I wanted to be able to say he was dead because of this and because of that. Over the course of interviewing and research for the book, which I did while writing—it was a very iterative process, I also made a lot of discoveries. The most unnerving, which I did not make until I was very close to the end of the project, was the discovery that “Cuz” is also what members of the Crips call one another. In calling me this, Michael had all along been telling me about the basic reason he had ended up trapped in a bad situation. And I, with no direct exposure to the world of gangs myself, had never been able to hear what he was saying. This broke my heart.
CS: You incorporate a mix of narrative styles: Descriptive, flashback, epistolary, lyrical and critique. Did you craft the book with these styles in mind?
DA: I have three intellectual heroes who are my models in all my work: George Orwell, Hannah Arendt and Ralph Ellison. All three were laser-shaper social critics, able to see the deep, enduring patterns beneath the shifting, multitudinous surface detail. Each has a writing style that I admire in many ways. But Ellison is my beating heart as a writer. The omnivorous, improvisational jazz artist in words. It’s not so much that one crafts a book with particular styles in mind, as that one fits styles to the mood, message and purpose as one proceeds. One has themes that one seeks to carry throughout, and one has to learn how to play the transitions too.
CS: It’s a shock for readers to find out who killed Michael. Did you fear this could happen to him?
DA: It never crossed my mind that Michael might be killed by his girlfriend. The first portion of the book is structured to try to generate for the reader something of the actual shock that I experienced in learning the news of his death. The reason for the shock the reader experiences is different from the source of my own shock. That is the reader is surprised for a different reason than I was surprised by his death. But through the mechanism of suprise, I sought to generate for the reader some of the power of the reaction that I had lived through at his death.
CS: When I heard you read at Scripps College in Claremont, your tears flowed as you read a passage from the book in your hometown, where Michael also lived for a time. Was writing the book cathartic? How did it affect you? And what has been its impact on your extended family?
DA: I now have answers to questions that have plagued me since Michael died. So too do his mother, brother and sister. This, I think, has been the biggest reward of the project. I spent the fall on book tour with a few events a week. I was never able once to get through an event without crying at some point. This, ultimately, is not cathartic but exhausting and, once again, devastating. I had to stop.
Danielle Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University, and Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology and the history of political thought, and a contributing opinion columnist for the Washington Post. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (2014), Education and Equality (2016) and Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. (2017). She is the co-editor of the award-winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Allen is also the principal investigator for the Democratic Knowledge Project, a distributed research and action lab at Harvard University. The Democratic Knowledge Project seeks to identify, strengthen and disseminate the bodies of knowledge, skills and capacities that democratic citizens need in order to succeed at operating their democracy. The lab currently has three projects underway: the Declaration Resources Project, the Humanities and Liberal Arts Assessment Project (HULA) and the Youth and Participatory Politics Action and Reflection Frame.