A professor turns to her family to offer a powerful memoir revolving around her younger cousin, who was murdered at the age of 29.
Allen (Director, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics/Harvard Univ.; Education and Equality, 2016, etc.) adored her cousin, Michael Alexander Allen, who possessed a winning personality and wide smile. Although he had the potential to succeed in school, Michael turned to petty crime at a young age and was convicted of a felony at 15. The author blames herself for failing to halt Michael’s wildness, and she condemns the criminal justice system for punishing Michael as an adult instead of a juvenile. Her critique of juvenile detention centers and adult prisons is convincing. Racial discrimination alone did not yield all of the injustices aimed at Michael, but they certainly contributed. When he won his freedom after 11 years in prison, he declared that he would become successful; the author believed him and offered him extraordinary help with a job search, rental housing, and college applications. However, she had no clue that Michael was leading a triple life: the “good” Michael was also deeply involved in crime and in a stormy relationship with a lover prone to violence. Allen details the circumstances of the murder and then offers flashbacks as she pieces together the circumstances of Michael’s life, foreshadowing its violent end. Much of the evidence offered through the flashbacks derives from Allen’s personal involvement in her extended family’s history. Some of the knowledge, however, comes from Allen’s decision to act as an investigative journalist, sharing what she learned from her aggressive reporting, no matter how unpleasant her findings. As the author chronicles her discoveries about how much Michael successfully hid from her, she is sometimes unduly hard on herself.
A searing memoir and sharp social critique marred only slightly by the author’s excessive self-flagellation.