But Mercedes (10 yo) had already had more than enough hardship and fear. . . . Her father was in prison. Terrifying seizures plagued her little sister. Drugs rendered the adults she loved incoherent. . . . Sadness threatened to engulf every corner if her anger couldn’t keep it at bay. Fear organized whole seasons of Mercedes’ experience, and she was probably still frightened: she just didn’t show it anymore. As a general pediatrician in the South Bronx, trained to serve the underserved, I believed I understood the social issues that my patients encounter and how these impact their health. In her first book, LeBlanc has clearly demonstrated to me how much I am yet sheltered from the realities of my patients’ lives. This book is a documentary of the lives of members of an extended family living in the Bronx, NY, during the 1990s. The story opens with an introduction to Jessica, a beautiful, ambitious, and sexy teenager who meets Boy George, a young, ambitious, powerful, and successful heroin dealer. The central character of this true story is Coco, whom we first meet as “an ebullient girl with a taste for excitement.” She quickly falls for Jessica’s younger brother, Cesar, who idolizes Boy George. Boy George, Cesar, and Jessica all end up in prison while Coco lives on the “outside” as a single mother who, by the end of the book, has 5 children. Mercedes is Coco and Cesar’s first child. A frequent writer for TheNew York Times Magazine, LeBlanc spent about 11 years interviewing Coco and her family and friends. She details the daily struggles of life in poverty, being surrounded by drugs, living in mouse- and roach-infested apartments, and experiencing physical and sexual abuse. Each and every character in the book earns the reader’s respect and fondness—from the abusive, drug-dealing Boy George to the righteous and loyal Cesar to the innocent, scared, and resilient Mercedes. “[I]t gratified Coco to see Mercedes relax and act like a young girl. Every few weekends, Coco and Mercedes traded places—one babysat, the other went dancing.” LeBlanc’s casual detailing of everyday events brings a startling, new perspective on the all-day visits to the Women, Infants, and Children Program office or the clinic as well as the dressing of children in expensive sneakers to please imprisoned fathers, the requirements of “workfare,” and the jumbled interface with our world of health services delivery. After her third child, Coco had “asked the doctor if she could have her tubes tied, and he told her to ask her regular doctor, but Coco didn’t have a regular doctor. She also had asked a hospital nurse, who wasn’t sure whether the procedure would be covered by Medicaid. Coco had meant to pursue it, but within a month she and her girls were homeless.” After her fourth child, “Coco kept her appointment . . . and decided on the Depo-Provera shot, but she didn’t react well to it. . . . Coco asked if she could get her tubes tied, and was told she had to make several appointments. . . .She never made it back.” After her fifth child, Coco’s “tubal ligation surgery was scheduled in a few weeks. . . . [H]er boss said, ‘I hope attendance is not going to be a problem.’ Coco canceled the appointment for the operation and reported to work.” The complexities of relationships are also outlined: the race to provide a young man with a son, thereby securing status as “wife”; demonstrations of devotion and loyalty through tattoos, letter-writing, and expensive visits to prison; and the interactions of young children with their real fathers, stepfathers, and their mothers’ boyfriends. “‘My father’s taking me to wrestling,’ Mercedes said. . . . Mercedes called Frankie her father in front of people she wanted to impress. . . . Mercedes called her godparents. . . . [S]he wondered if they could come and get her for an overnight. . . Coco explained, ‘They aren’t together no more.’ Mercedes replied, ‘That ain’t got nothing to do with me.’” This was a particularly difficult book for me to read. Although some parts felt tedious and overly detailed, I could not put the book down. At several points I shook my head, thinking, “Why does LeBlanc insist on making life so hard?” I turned to the author’s notes again and again to confirm that the book is nonfiction, my feelings of tedium quickly turning to guilt. Thinking that LeBlanc had chosen a particularly troubled family to interview, I then read in the author’s notes the community’s response to her choice: “Coco’s just regular. . . . Plenty of girls is worse off.” Similar to realistic novels such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, this book teaches us about the cultures in which our patients live. However, the power of Random Family lies in its storytellers: Coco, Mercedes, Cesar, and the others are real people, quoted verbatim. In comparison with Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, which is also a work of journalism dealing mostly with the issue of racism, Random Family appeals in an even more personal way to physician readers by giving us the chance to view health and public aid programs from the other side. Correspondence: Dr Sharif, Residency Program in Social Pediatrics, Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, 3544 Jerome Ave, Bronx, NY 10467 (email@example.com).
Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine – American Medical Association
Published: Oct 1, 2004