Casey Gerald wrote a memoir because it wasn’t clear what else there was left for him to do. “I’d lived my way into a dead end of sorts,” he says, by phone, from his home in Los Angeles. “So I guess you’d say I decided to write my way out.”
By his late 20s, he’d “achieved about everything a kid is supposed to achieve in America.” He had a BA from Yale and an MBA from Harvard. He’d been a finalist for the Rhodes. He’d worked on Wall Street (briefly), and in politics (slightly longer); he’d founded a nonprofit (MBAxAmerica) and appeared on magazine covers and given a TED Talk where he once shared billing with President Barack Obama, even if his name was in slightly smaller print. He was living proof of the American dream: Through hard work and athleticism and natural intelligence, a poor black kid from the wrong part of Dallas had made good.
And if you stop there, with his resume, then sure, the system works. Except that it doesn’t. In 2016 at the age of 29, Gerald had accomplished everything and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “I was really cracked up,” he recalls. “And many of my friends were cracked up. Obviously, the world was cracked up, too.” He was tracing those cracks, he says, when one of his closest friends from Yale died by suicide. “I wrote this book in a lot of ways to save my life, to try to figure out a way to stay alive, to live better. And then when my friend died, I realized that this wasn’t just a literary exercise. It was an exercise that my life depended on and perhaps some other people’s lives depended on.”
A lot of people think memoir is telling a story they already know, Gerald says, preternaturally charismatic even by phone. “But the reality is, at least for me, you don’t know anything. For example, the most important thing that ever happened to me was that my mother disappeared,” he says. He was 12 when she left. For years, that’s been the defining story of his life: Casey Gerald’s mother disappeared when he was 12. And then, researching the book, he discovered that wasn’t true. He’d been 13. He’d erased a whole year. It was the defining story of his life, and he didn’t even know the plot. So the book “is really sort of an investigation. You try to show up honestly, and whatever you find, you put down on paper and that’s your report.”
Here are the raw facts of Casey Gerald’s report: He grew up in a poor section of Dallas. His dad was a former football star who got addicted to heroin. His mother disappeared when he was in his early teens. But he was a people pleaser and a high achiever and very good at committing speeches to memory. Also, he was athletic, not as good as his father, but good enough for football at Yale, which led to Harvard, to Wall Street, to Washington. He was good at all those worlds, too. And the parts of himself that didn’t fit this story? He glossed over those parts for years.
“Up until this book, I had been, in public, a very palatable person,” he says. Until he was 24, he had planned to be president, and so he moved through the world like a politician and talked like a politician. But There Will Be No Miracles Here “is not a book written by anybody who has any political ambitions.” It is rawer than anything else he’s done yet, his first public breaking of the rules.
“We are taught as kids in this society—maybe we’re not taught explicitly, but we’re shown implicitly—that if we conform to the standard, we’ll be OK. If we do what we’re told, if we submit, we’ll be alright,” he explains.
There’s an incident from his childhood in the book: He’s in fifth grade, and his home life is a mess, and so he decides he’s going to become perfect. There’s another kid in his class, Mauricio, who also has “some strange things going on in his life.” What Mauricio decides is that he’s going to lie in the middle of the road and let a car run him over. “I conformed and he did not,” Gerald says, simply.
“Here I am, Casey Gerald, held up as the standard. Somebody who conformed, somebody who ‘succeeded,’ who reached this dead end.” He was breaking down. His friends, who had also conformed, also become symbols of the American dream, were “suffering in silence.” Because those are the terms of the deal; that’s the price of being a symbol. “If you catch it from the right angle,” Gerald writes, “a boy picking himself up by his bootstraps looks just like a suicide.”
In another telling, Gerald’s story would be about how he’s overcome the circumstances of his birth, which would be both very inspirational and also not true. He is, by his own estimation, “a boy definedby his circumstances,” which makes him exactly like everyone else. And that’s fine. That’s reality. “But why do we lie about it?” he asks. “The trouble isn’t that we are defined by our circumstances. It’s that running from them…we don’t understand what they mean, what they did and are still doing to shape the way we see and move through the world.”
He wants to understand, believes it’s essential to understand—not just for himself, but for all of us. “You know, I think a lot about Bob Caro,” he tells me. “One of the reasons I love Bob Caro’s work is that he never lets his personal feelings about Lyndon Johnson or Robert Moses get in the way of him doing his job, which is to help you understand how this country works. And I tried to do the same with this book — to give as clinical a view as possible of the American machine. I have seen our country from the very bottom to the very top, and I had to report back.”
He quotes Kendrick Lamar from “Section.80”: “I’m not on the outside looking in. I’m not on the inside looking out. I’m in the dead fucking center looking around.” That, Gerald says, is how he wants the book to feel. “And hopefully the result is clean enough and honest enough that we can keep kids from dying, that we can try to see our society for what it really is, and try to imagine a better way to live.” Then he laughs. “I mean, everybody’s sad. That doesn’t make me any different.”
And he is still hopeful, still has faith in the whole American experiment. “It’s very en vogue to be ‘hopeless,’ ” he tells me. “Anti-hope, I think, is a choice. But hope is also a choice. The facts are the same. I choose to be hopeful. I choose to believe that we can be better, that we can do better, and I also choose to be very honest about how extraordinary the price of being better is.”
“But at the same time, listen: One of the most important things I did after the election was read Candide, and you realize two things. One…that things have always been fucked up,” he says. “And two, you realize we’re still here—the apocalypse has not come, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to come anytime soon.”
Rachel Sugar is a writer living in New York.