Danielle Allen reconstructs her cousin’s life in her memoir Cuz, a devastating look at a broken system that has so often let a generation down...
Michael’s homecoming party was grand. Spirits were light. The merriment went on all afternoon and seemed to attract some attention from the neighbors. More than once the same glamorous-looking woman drove past, ever so slowly, in a fancy, low- slung, two- door golden brown Mercedes sports car.
After the party, we got down to business pretty quickly. Michael did spend a certain amount of time eating favorite foods— Doritos, fried chicken, and his sister’s homemade mac and cheese. He played Football Manager with eight- year- old Joshua and other nephews and nieces who had been born while he was in prison. But he wanted to make something of himself. He had flourished as a firefighter in prison. He was ready to find something to do again, to create a life, a span of action of which he could be proud.
Neither of us had time to waste. Eight years older than Michael, I was telecommuting that summer from L.A. to my job as dean of the Division of Humanities at the University of Chicago. Having started school at the age of four, I’d never left, and one year earlier, at thirty- two, I’d been appointed one of the youngest top administrators in the university’s history.
Despite a generous and supportive provost for my boss, I could manage the job from afar only so long. My age was already reason enough for people to wonder whether I could master the work. I didn’t want to let the provost, or his boss, the president, down. I couldn’t afford to appear to slacken my focus. The pressure of my job would limit my time with Michael.
Michael and I made task lists— my usual tactic for all things personal and professional— and we moved through them efficiently. We met the parole officer, a woman Michael thought was tolerable, and we figured out the routine. Or rather, I waited outside in the driver’s seat of the ten- year- old BMW 325. During those early days, I was the willing chauffeur. In fact, I would never meet Michael’s parole officer. Now, years later, I realize he wanted to keep me separate from his life as a convicted felon. He wanted to show me only the other side, the part of him that could have gone to college.
During those early days, I was the willing chauffeur. In fact, I would never meet Michael’s parole officer. Now, years later, I realize he wanted to keep me separate from his life as a convicted felon
From the parole office we went to the bank, and Michael opened an account. Then it was the library, where I went in. These places were, after all, my turf, and under my watch Michael got a library card and started learning how to use the computer. At last, as we began searching for jobs, Michael met Google, which hadn’t existed when he went to prison.
Next up was the driver’s license. Although Michael had driven trucks as part of his work on the inmate fire crew, he’d never had a license. He’d been arrested when he was fifteen and didn’t leave the prison system for eleven years until he was twenty- six. He loved cars and now, finally, he was going to get a license, so the DMV had to come immediately after the bank and library. I drove him there and waited outside while he took the test. He passed easily, which was no surprise.
Then we started the job hunt in earnest. Everywhere we saw a help wanted sign, Michael filled out an application. This meant a lot of places. These were the boom years, still two years before the Great Recession of 2008. But we realized that, in other ways, L.A. was changing. Black neighborhoods just weren’t black anymore. About six blocks from his mother’s house, we stopped for burgers at a MacDonald’s and spotted a help wanted sign. Michael didn’t want to ask for an application, but I made him. When he approached the counter and asked for the form, a certain sort of chill passed through the row of Latina women behind the registers. One went and got him the application, and he completed it before we left. But we knew we would not hear anything, and we didn’t. We didn’t hear anything from anyone else either.
Day after day — under the scorching sun of the worst California heat wave in nearly sixty years— we returned to the cool library and scoured websites for opportunities. We thought maybe it would make sense to focus on large chains — Safeway, Burger King, Best Buy. The thought was that these would have room for advancement inside the organization, if only someone would give Michael, one of so many, a chance. If only he could prove himself. We realized that some of the large companies seemed to have regular days scheduled when they interviewed all comers: Goodwill, Home Depot, Sears. We directed our energies toward them.
One hot day in late July, with temperatures soaring to well over 100, Michael’s efforts bore fruit. He was invited in for interviews at Sears and an airport food service company. This was the moment we had been waiting for, but it was,for me, the most terrifying. I don’t know if the moment was as fraught for Michael, but I was very anxious about how he could make the case that he ought to be hired — despite having been imprisoned for eleven years since age fifteen for attempted carjacking.
Michael was going to have to tell his story. In full. He had been in prison too long to try to hide that he’d been convicted, not merely of a serious crime but of the kind of crime that had sent Los Angeles in the early 1990s into paroxysms of fear. He would have to explain why he believed he was ready to put his life on a new footing. We practiced bits and pieces of his story, but never the whole thing. I never once heard Michael recount his own tale from start to finish, in any version. In hindsight, I think this was because the necessarily abbreviated versions that he was practicing telling his new world would have led me to ask questions. These Michael did not want to deal with.
More about the author
'Devastating' J. M. Coetzee, Winner of the Man Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature
THE STORY OF A YOUNG MAN'S COMING OF AGE
A TENDER TRIBUTE TO A LIFE LOST
A DEVASTATING ANALYSIS OF A BROKEN SYSTEM
Aged 15 and living in LA, Michael Allen was arrested for a botched carjacking. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to thirteen years behind bars. After growing up in prison Michael was then released aged 26, only to be murdered three years later.
In this deeply personal yet clear-eyed memoir, Danielle Allen reconstructs her cousin’s life to try and understand how this tragedy was the end result. We become intimate with Michael’s experience, from his first steps to his first love, and with the events of his arrest, his coming of age in prison, and his attempts to make up for lost time after his release. We learn what it’s like to grow up in a city carved up by invisible gang borders; and we learn how a generation has been lost.
With breathtaking bravery and intelligence, Cuz circles around its subject, viewing it from all angles to expose a shocking reality. The result is both a personal and analytical view of a life that wields devastating power.
This is the new American tragedy.