When and how Big Mike replaced Michael
July 23, 2017 7:47 AM   Subscribe

In "The Life of a South Central Statistic," Danielle Allen wrangles with the life and death of her cousin, Michael. While she went on to receive two PhDs, he was convicted of robbery and attempted car jacking. When he was released, she tried to help him get a second chance. (This is an excerpt from Allen's forthcoming book, Cuz. )
posted by anotherpanacea (16 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
This is really, really good.
posted by box at 7:51 AM on July 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

I recently started reading John Edgar Wideman's Brothers and Keepers about the author's relationship with his incarcerated-for-life brother, and I've read journalist Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart abot his brother, infamous murderer Gary Gilmore. Both books wretle with the 'why him and not me?' question and don't seem to come up with any definitive answer. This article seems to be in similar territory.
posted by jonmc at 7:51 AM on July 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

I grew up in a college town where everyone knew my parents. They had made a critical decision, early in the lives of their two children, not to move until we had graduated from high school.
posted by box at 7:57 AM on July 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

The plans we had were not the plans we had hoped to have. Michael should have been paroled to a fire camp or to a fire station in Riverside County, where we had family who were ready to take him in. He could have lived there and gone to school and kept on beating back wildfires. But the rule was that you had to be paroled to the county where your offense was committed—crime-ridden Los Angeles County, in his case.
There is so much about this whole system that is so fucking stupid. That rule is so fucking stupid.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:39 AM on July 23, 2017 [20 favorites]

This essay was tremendous.

That rule is so fucking stupid.

I agree. At the time Michael was paroled California parolees were, by default, paroled to the county of commitment. Fortunately California has since changed to using the county of last legal residence.

However, even at that time, the California Department of Corrections was required to consider a parolee's request to be paroled to another county if it would be in the best interest of the public and the parolee. When Michael was released California had several factors that were permissible reasons to be paroled to another county, a couple of which included an offer of permanent employment, an offer of full-time educational or vocational training, or the presence in the other county of family (although the DoC's definition of "family" wasn't terribly expansive).

In the same year that Michael was paroled I assisted an acquaintance whose relative was also being paroled in California. Like Michael this acquaintance's relative was going to be paroled to the county in which he was convicted (county A), not the county in which my acquaintance resided (county B). At the time I started assisting it was already too late to change the county of parole before release (the inmate has to make the request far enough in advance of the date of parole for the DoC to investigate the request), so what we did was have my acquaintance's relative immediately upon release file a "Transfer Investigation Request" with his parole officer in county A to transfer to county B. That pending request was one of the permitted reasons for issuing a travel permit, so we then had him ask his parole office for a travel permit. Now he could "travel" to county B and report to his parole officer in county A by phone instead of physically. Eventually the transfer was approved and he switched to reporting physically to a parole officer in county B. At the time it was hard for me to imagine any parolee jumping through these hoops without significant aid from friends or family — I'm glad California now paroles to the county of last legal residence.
posted by RichardP at 10:57 AM on July 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

No one here is talking about the rôle of intimate partner violence in Micheal's death. This is a fact. He was killed by his 'assosciate'. It's a shame. We can be held back by 'love' as much as anything else. Bree was using Micheal. Her mere presence in his life undercut all efforts to get his life on track and then Bree killed him.
We all need love just like we all need water. Bree's violent nature made her a poisoned well.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:02 PM on July 23, 2017 [18 favorites]

That rule is so fucking stupid.

I bet that rule was put in place because many counties would not enforce parole standards on their own people when they committed crimes in other counties.
posted by srboisvert at 1:21 PM on July 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

What a tragic story, yet another life undone by domestic violence. Beautifully written.
posted by honey badger at 4:23 PM on July 23, 2017

I keep getting drawn back to the "forgiving" earlier portion mentioned, where he was charged by the police for stealing a change jar which contained under 10$. I can't let go of it. I can empathize with a lot of things, but I try to imagine what possible circumstances could ever cause me to press charges against a 12 year old for taking my change jar and I come up empty every time.

She talks about the 15-year old start and the sentence, but I focus on the judge who says "these charges will be forgiven if you get on a plane and never come back" and I wonder if the real start to this story is horrible people trying to drive a family out of a town where they might have thrived better.
posted by corb at 4:24 PM on July 23, 2017 [12 favorites]

This is the best thing I've ever read in The New Yorker.
posted by riruro at 4:24 PM on July 23, 2017

This was very, very good. It brings to mind someone I have been thinking about a lot lately.

I just spent a lot of time with my aunt, uncle, cousins and cousins' kids with one of my cousin's absence. She's three years younger than me and I feel like we grew up together but she's been dealing with a drug problem for years. She has kids and has been to rehab more than once but she still struggles. She lost custody of one of her kids and will likely lose custody of her other kid. After god knows how many lies she's told and things she's stolen from her family, they're basically done with her. It bums me out because I don't know what would make me want to abandon a family member but I'm fortunate in that I've never had to ask myself that question seriously.

I've thought about asking a question about her on the green but I don't really have a good question. Why is she like this? There's no good answer. What can I do about it? Probably nothing - love on my family and hope for the best. I'm impressed that the author of the story saw where things were going with her cousin and drew a line.
posted by kat518 at 5:03 PM on July 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

I bet that rule was put in place because many counties would not enforce parole standards on their own people when they committed crimes in other counties.

I like your assumption that this rule was put in place for some kind of vaguely rational reason rather than as an attempt to shift some of the hard labor of supervising parolees around, or even because it is .002% easier to determine the county in which the crime was committed than the county of last legal residence.
posted by praemunire at 5:41 PM on July 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

. I haven't read this, but I had been thinking about it this week when my sister told me that one of my cousins, A, will be released from prison in a few months. Two of my cousins (A & B) (one on each side of my family) were born within 6 months of me in 1986. All 3 of us grow up in generally loving and mostly stable households. All 3 of us had alcoholic fathers (remarkably, now all are sober). Growing up, I'd hang out with each of them at the holiday gathers on each side of my family gatherings and even though our paths sort of began to drift as adolescents, we grew more apart in the past 10-15 years. A has been battling a heroin habit for about 4-5 years, currently in prison for check fraud, with other stints for theft. B did a 7yr stint for domestic violence.

I'm sort at a loss of how to proceed with them. I've heard the stories from my other cousins and their parents; how they've been lied to, stolen from, lost nearly all of their trust in them. in the case of my other cousins, being pushed down the stairs by B in a drunken rage and then beaten, requiring a few stitches. How many chances do you give a family member?
Nowadays, I (and the rest of my immediate family) don't want the emotional labor of dealing with either of them beyond invitations to holidays gatherings by my parents (If they're on speaking terms with their families). All three of my cousins' kids (B has 1, A has 2) are in the custody of my aunts and uncles.
I see them now about once or twice a year, we don't talk more than the cordial hellos and some superficial discussions lasting 5 minutes. On some cases, they'd skip a holiday party for reasons that their parents either didn't know or even didn't want to share (usually the former than the latter).

How much of this was luck or circumstances that I didn't end up like them? (Was it because I decided not to throw that rock in my hand at that bullying classmate in 8th grade)? How much was it because 14 year old me asked my mom to take me to a psychiatrist instead of starting to drink ? Is it because I'm more of an introvert compared to A & B? Was it the parenting styles? Why was I so eager to escape my lower-middle-class upbringing and decided to apply and then choose to attend the highly selective, prestigious single sex high school unlike my other siblings (not to discount the financial sacrifices that my parents made with that, even with the scholarships and financial aid that I received)? Would A or B be clean if either were my sibling? Or will I eventually end up like them or succumb to addiction?
posted by fizzix at 7:39 PM on July 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

This was a compelling read. But I don't think the mystery of how Micheal became Big Mike is as mysterious as it might seem. He grew up with an abusive step-father (or was it 2?) and that probably set his path for life- it certainly explains why he went back to a girlfriend who cut him 3 times. I have no idea as to what kind of abuse he suffered directly, but clearly the presence of an abusive father figure imprinted his social bonding style and relationship choices.

In analyzing crime and poverty, conservatives tend to emphasize personal choices and progressives tend to emphasize unemployment. Both factor in, but not enough attention is paid to what shapes those personal choices that are made with the social options available in one's environment. The best book I've ever read on the subject of traumatic bonding and the psychological effects of abuse is "The Betrayal Bond" by Patrick Carnes.

This syndrome is probably what attracted Micheal to violent people, both in peers and in a partner, and why he couldn't extricate himself even when he probably knew his life was in danger. He knew Bree was in jail for attempted murder of a partner.

Even danger-seeking behavior is related to this imprinting. (Lydia Lunch wrote vividly about it in the stomach-turner "Paradoxia"). (I'm not suggesting the relationship was danger seeking as much as the crime)

All of the systemic failures that people point to are valid, but I feel the most important systemic failure is in the mental health care system that isn't readily available to all incomes nationwide. Micheal needed extensive counseling at a young age; the author seems to downplay his problems: "He had a mild proclivity toward theft". Carjacking at gunpoint is a 'mild proclivity"? Clearly the author was blinded by love and loyalty from seeing the depths of the problem. Stealing a coin jar is one thing, grand theft auto with even a crappy pistol is another. Sure, he "wanted things" but he also chose violent company and dangerous situations. This is how trauma bonds work.

He didn't just need a job as a firefighter, he needed in depth psychological counseling for wounds from his early life, as well as from his prison experience. Without that, he really didn't stand a chance with the forces around him. A violent life was too available for him and I'm sure he felt familiar in its surroundings, as children of abuse usually do.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 5:23 PM on July 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also, I have no idea what kind of therapy is provided/available for ex-cons, but if anyone needs therapy, it's an ex-convict. How can we expect them to reintegrate and function when significant chunk of their life has been spent in a hellhole?
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 5:30 PM on July 25, 2017

This is a beautifully written essay. I look forward to reading her book.
posted by vignettist at 10:07 PM on July 25, 2017

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