Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family is a beautiful, headlong dive into the life of a family in the Bronx from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. LeBlanc immersed herself in the lives of her subjects for eleven years, chronicling the cycles of crime, teenage pregnancy, and violence that trap many poverty-stricken families.
Though the book has a several central characters—Boy George, Jessica, Cesar, and Coco—feminist preoccupations bring female subjects to the foreground in LeBlanc’s narrative. Molestation and abuse seem to lead many of LeBlanc’s female subjects to conclude that sex and pregnancy are both a life sentence and the only path to romantic love. As LeBlanc told the New Yorker in a 2013 interview marking the book’s ten-year anniversary, she chose to end the book with Jessica’s daughter Serena’s sixteenth birthday because she “sensed the writing on the wall.”
“From the distance of a decade, one thing that was operative—and it’s an ongoing interest—is the ways in which gender inequality, and the stigma of women’s sexual agency, narrows the road for female development. Teenagers rightly fight the assumptions we place on them—many due to the fears in the adults around them, or the unlived lives of those adults, or the lies the culture tells. But, too often, consequences of attempts to explore freedom are attributed solely to sexual agency, or painted solely as victimization, and it’s much more complicated than that. Serena was keenly aware of how little all of it had to do with her, and that was something I felt was important to note.”
From a journalistic perspective, LeBlanc’s deft use of sourced detail is both intimidating and mesmerizing. From the color of Coco’s leggings to the shape of the Jacuzzi in a hotel room in the Poconos, the granularity of LeBlanc’s details give her narrative the richness of a world rendered in fiction.
Though it may be easy to forget at some points that this is a work of nonfiction, LeBlanc’s voice seems to burst through the careful “I”-less narrative with a sense of urgency that betrays her deep involvement in the lives of her subjects:
Cesar pulled out the gooey taffy and offered it to [his infant daughter], but just as she reached for it, he pulled it back. He teased her with the offer again, and just as he reached for it, he swallowed it and smacked his lips. He smothered her hurt feelings with hugs, making it into a game, drowning out her crying with laughter and kisses and silly smooching sounds. In the subtle tyranny of that moment beat the pulse of Cesar’s neighborhood—the bid for attention, the undercurrent of hostility for so many small needs ignored and unmet, the pleasure of holding power, camouflaged in teasing, the rush of love.
Random Family was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist and winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and the Ron Ridenhour Book Prize. LeBlanc is currently working on a second book, which is about the world of standup comedy. (Here’s a piece she wrote about Robin Williams for The New Yorker.)
LeBlanc lives in Manhattan and has written for the New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, the Village Voice, and Esquire. She is from Leominster, Massachusetts. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Smith College, a Master’s of Philosophy and Modern Literature from Oxford, and a Master’s of Law Studies from Yale. She received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006.
Join us tonight at 8 o’clock in the Abramson Founder’s Room at the School of International Service for a reading and conversation with the author!
Image via Scribner.
Yohanca Delgado is a staff editor at Café Américain and a first-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.