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'Cuz' Examines The Tragic Life And Death Of A Young Black Man In LA

Danielle Allen's memoir centers on her cousin Michael, who was sentenced to a long prison term for carjacking when he was 15. Three years after his release, he was found shot to death in a parked car.

35:14

Other segments from the episode on September 20, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 20, 2017: Interview with Danielle Allen; Review of books "Forest Dark" and "Afterglow"; Review of Neflix special "Jerry Before Seinfeld."

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Danielle Allen, is an accomplished academic who grew up in an academic family. Her new book is about her relationship with her younger cousin Michael who grew up in less affluent neighborhoods, mostly in LA, and led a very different life. At the age of 15, he was sentenced to a long prison term for an attempted carjacking. He was released at the age of 26. Three years later, he was found shot to death in a parked car.

Allen's book is a memoir detailing her visits to Michael in prison and her efforts to help him when he was released. The book is also a critique of the criminal justice system and the war on drugs. Michael's 11-year stretch in prison followed his first arrest, the result of new, tough sentencing laws driven by public fear of gangs and drug trafficking. Allen's book is titled "Cuz: The Life And Times Of Michael A."

Danielle Allen earned degrees in classics at Princeton and the University of Cambridge. Her work now focuses on political philosophy. She's currently the James Conant Bryant University Professor (ph) at Harvard and the author of "Our Declaration: A Reading Of The Declaration Of Independence In Defense Of Equality." She spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Danielle Allen, welcome to FRESH AIR. When Michael was shot and killed in 2009, that was about three years after he had been released from a long term in prison. And you write about his homecoming - when he was finally released, how excited everyone was. You went to Los Angeles and helped him kind of put his life together. You want to talk a little bit about that exercise - what you helped him do?

DANIELLE ALLEN: Sure, so Michael and I had an ongoing relationship while he was in prison of, you know, talking on the phone. I was helping him with college courses. I spent summers in LA at the time. And so every summer I was out there, I would spend a lot of time visiting him. And so in the summer of his release, I was ready to be there. I was ready to be the cousin on duty and to help him just do all the basics - you know, go get a driver's license, go to the library, get a library card, learn how to use a computer, learn how to use Google, which hadn't been invented when he went to prison, apply for jobs, you know, secure a job, secure a schooling, secure housing. All the basic, sort of, building blocks of a life - you know, sort of a starter set - we worked together on assembling that summer.

DAVIES: Yeah, and it was remarkable how you described - I mean, he got a couple of job offers. One made sense. He wanted to go to college. So he was going to work and then go to community college, I think, right?

ALLEN: Exactly.

DAVIES: And you found a great little apartment that some folks were willing to rent to him, understanding his background.

ALLEN: Yeah.

DAVIES: And then problems arose. What happened?

ALLEN: Well, one of the questions I've been wrestling with is, you know, why did Michael end up dead? What was the fateful moment, the fateful decision or fateful element that led to his death? And as I wrestled with this working on the book, I acquired sort of clarity about the moment, which was this one incident that's - just stood out in my memory in the process of when we were seeking an apartment for him.

We'd found this sweet, little, very modest studio apartment really near the community college he was going to enroll in. The two women who were the landlords were amazingly generous, willing to take a chance on giving this young man his second chance. And really, it just felt like the perfect opportunity. And Michael said, yes, he wanted the apartment. We drove away because it was after close of business. We were going to come back the next day to bring the security deposit. I dropped Michael off at his mom's house and went back to my own condo.

And then a couple hours later, Michael called and said he didn't want the apartment. And I just could not believe it. I could not understand what could possibly be going on in his mind. And so I said, you know, sleep on it. You know, let's talk about it in the morning. He called me in the morning. He said he wanted it. And then he just went back and forth all day long. Did he want it? Did he not want it? And finally, at the end of the day, he called and said, I've decided. I don't want the apartment. I can't imagine what it would be like if I brought my associates there.

And later, I understood - I came to understood that what he meant by that was he had reconnected with the girlfriend that he'd met in prison - the transgender woman he'd fallen in love with in prison. And he was at that moment deciding, choosing between two lives - a life where he separated from her, put that relationship aside, and a life where he committed to her. And that was the fateful, life-defining choice because in the end, she's the person who shot and killed him. And it just underscore - that moment drives home the difficulty of re-entry when we ask people to separate themselves from a set of relationships that have helped them survive difficult circumstances.

So Michael went to prison when he was 15. He was there for 11 years. Just try to imagine that. You go in when you're 15. He hadn't had any serious relationship - if any relationship at all - by the time that he went into prison. He was going to fall into love. It was going to happen with that kind of length of prison sentence. And none of us, when we were working on his re-entry, took into account that question of, what does it mean to sever relationships that have helped you survive brutal, violent circumstances?

DAVIES: Right.

ALLEN: What kind of ask is that?

DAVIES: Right. And at the time, I mean, he didn't tell you that's what it was about and didn't tell you who she was, that - you learned this later.

ALLEN: That's right.

DAVIES: But rejecting the apartment meant that, you know, he took a place that was farther from work and school. And in the end, he didn't finish school. He eventually lost the job and had a tough time.

ALLEN: That's right.

DAVIES: When he was shot and killed in 2009, three years later, it - you eventually found out it was the result of this tempestuous romantic relationship. And you now realize that there were warning signs in the last, you know - what? - weeks and months before this event.

ALLEN: That's right.

DAVIES: ...Or that his mother had seen. What was going on that was so troubling?

ALLEN: Well, Michael went to prison when he was 15 for an attempted carjacking. I'm sure we'll get to that and talk more about it. As I said, he was in prison for 11 years. He fell in love with a woman. I - in the book, I call her Bree. I've changed her name. And then when he got out, he, I think, himself, wanted to put that relationship behind him as a part of a fresh start. But that's where I think the sort of challenge of, you know, what is love about? Love is about ties you can't break. And Michael always, you know, signed off letters, love always. And I think that was his relationship to Bree.

And basically, the pieces fell apart in terms of the work, the job, and school and so forth. And he got pulled into this relationship with Bree. Bree was connected to a more dangerous world, a world of more criminal activity. She also had a number of lovers. Michael went back to prison on a parole violation for getting into a fight with another of her lovers. And after he got out of prison that second time, it was just the last sort of months - you know, year of his life. He and Bree lived together, and at that point, he did get routinely involved in criminal activity, it appears. I've been piecing together - it together. It's a hard story to put together. It's hard to tell exactly what happened. But it does look as if they were engaged together in criminal activity, as well as having a violent relationship between the two of them at that point. And in the end, she shot and killed him in her kitchen.

DAVIES: Right, and she - he had been cut a few times by her. Is that right?

ALLEN: That's right. Yes, he - she had - so she had - it's a hard story to talk about. I mean, she had a violent history. She had been in prison in the first place for an assault on an earlier boyfriend. We didn't know that at the time. One of the features of having an inmate as a family member or a close connection is that one of the taboos of prison life is you never talk about what the other inmates that your inmate is in with have done. So we didn't know what she had been in for. And at any rate, but she had been in for violence in a relationship previously. And, yes, she cut him. They got into a physical fight. It's only time in his whole life that Michael's mother, Karen, ever saw Michael get into a physical fight - was in that last year of his life - a fight with Bree on Karen's front lawn because Bree had been going down the neighborhood breaking car windows. And Michael went out to stop her, and they ended up in a physical fight on the front lawn.

DAVIES: And what did you learn about the actual circumstances of his killing?

ALLEN: So from the police records and the court accounts, we learned that Michael had been at Bree's house. There was one witness to the events - a middle school child who heard but didn't see what happened. There was some kind of dispute and then a shot. And Michael had been shot in the torso. And then some of Bree's family members helped clean up the body and wrap him in a blanket. And they put him back in his little hatchback, and drove him to the corner of 60th and Vermont and left him there, where he was spotted hours later and reported to the police as a sleeping man in a vehicle.

DAVIES: The destructive relationship that led, eventually, to Michael's killing, it began when he was in prison. Let's talk about how he got there. What kind of kid was he? What kind of childhood did he have?

ALLEN: Michael was a bright, gregarious child. He was a motormouth. He had a stammer. And you always sort of had the impression that he had the stammer because he had so many exciting things to say inside of him that they just couldn't quite all get out at the same time. He loved to be outside. He loved to climb trees. From an early age, he had a habit of sort of climbing up to the roof of whatever house or apartment building he was living in, and just sort of sitting there and meditating. His - somebody had taught him to meditate at an early age.

He had this beautiful smile that everybody always remarked on when they first met him. And he was gentle, so nobody has any memories of seeing him be violent with people, with animals, anything, for his entire growing up. So this incident when he was 15 of an attempted carjacking was the first episode of violence in Michael's life.

So what happened exactly? It was September 1995. He, in South Central Los Angeles, saw a man buffing a Cadillac and held him up at gunpoint, asked for his wallet and his watch. There was nothing in the wallet, so then he asked for the guy's car. His victim reported in the police report that Michael kept his gun pointed to the ground the whole time. And in fact, the victim was able to lunge at Michael, and take the gun and shoot Michael through the neck.

So the event ended that way with Michael on the ground, shot. And the police came, and he was rushed to the hospital. And when he was rushed to the hospital, he confessed to having robbed three people the previous day and another person a week earlier. So you have to say, with clear eyes, it was a spree. There's no question about it. It was the first such thing that he had ever done, that this was his first arrest.

DAVIES: And were those earlier robberies with a gun also?

ALLEN: They were, yes. So there's no question that what he did was a terrible, terrible thing, and it deserved serious punishment. But what happened to Michael was that California had, in the previous 18 months, passed the three-strikes-you're-out law. And so he was given two felony charges for the attempted carjacking because that also had included taking the watch and the wallet. So that was two felonies. And then he was given two felonies for two of the robberies he'd confessed to. The police didn't have a record of the others.

And so the judge said, you know, you've confessed to all of these, if you're convicted on all of them at a jury trial, you'll get 25 years to life based on the three-strikes law where three felony convictions means 25 years to life. So you can do that, or you can take a plea deal. So facing 25 years to life for that week of a first terrible outbreak of violence, Michael chose the plea deal and received a sentence of 12 years and eight months, and served 11 years of that.

DAVIES: Danielle Allen's book is "Cuz: The Life And Times Of Michael A." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANILO PEREZ AND CLAUS OGERMAN'S "RAYS AND SHADOWS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Danielle Allen. She is a professor of political philosophy at Harvard. Her new book about the life and death of a cousin she was very close to is "Cuz: The Life And Times Of Michael A."

You know, one of the things that's remarkable about the book is the way you retrace what was happening in Los Angeles in the criminal justice system and how that coincided with these events in his life. And I want to talk just a little bit about what led to this. His mom, Karen, as you note, struggled at times. There were two other kids in the family.

And in the three years before this carjacking, when Michael, I guess, was, like - what? - 11 or 12, up to 15, things had been pretty chaotic. She had been in an abusive marriage - a guy who'd taken her to Mississippi. And they moved around a lot. She had to leave that relationship. They lived in Georgia a while - finally, ended up back in Los Angeles because it was a place where she could find work. And you write that things had changed in ways that Karen, Michael's mom, just couldn't have seen because they weren't visible to someone just living in LA. Let's talk about that. One of the things was the growth of the narcotics trade and gang activity. Just talk a bit about that.

ALLEN: Sure. So one of the things I'm trying to do in the book is to tell three stories in parallel - the story of Michael's responsibility, the story of his family's responsibility and the story of society's responsibility. All three things are relevant. People often try to separate them and say it's all the person's responsibility or it's all society's responsibility. And my strongest, deepest, most powerful message is that there is responsibility along all three dimensions - Michael, our family and society.

So yes, Michael's home life had become incredibly unstable. His mother met a man when he was 10 and married him. She had been working her way up. The family had been becoming progressively more stable and stronger. And then she married a man who turned out to be abusive, and everything just blew to bits. Michael was in five different schools over a five-year period, often moving in the middle of the year.

And the last move - this comes to your question - was back into Los Angeles where the family hadn't lived in years. And Michael was coming in there sort of without a, you know, strong community around him, having moved so much - not connected to people, without sort of roots and anchors. And he was moving into South Central at the height of gang violence, at the height of the sort of new entanglement of gangs with the drug economy and at the deep intensification of the war on drugs.

And I think something that people often don't see is the way in which the ways we've decided to prosecute the war on drugs with really intense penalties and with targeting of low-level distributors, and peddlers and so forth really set up a war on the streets of Los Angeles between the legal state and what I call the parastate. The parastate consists of cartels outside of this country connected to gang structures inside this country that control distribution.

And those two entities are fighting for young people. The parastate needs to recruit young people into it. The legal state wants to keep them out. But it does that in these intense ways that generate violence in the inner city. And the paradox of that is that precisely because there's so much violence in that environment, young people need protection from it. And who's there to offer protection in the first instance? Gangs. So it's a terrible, terrible thing.

We'd - none of us saw that Michael had started flirting with gangs. We didn't know this. We did not figure this out until I was working on this book. But that's what happened to him. As he came into the city, as a kid without connections, he had to prove himself. He had to show what his affiliations were, what his alliances were. He flirted with both the Crips and Bloods. And this episode seems to have been about his recruitment into that world.

DAVIES: Right. You had to commit crime sometimes to prove your bones and get into a crew.

ALLEN: I mean, yeah, and not even sometimes. I mean, that's just sort of the nature of the recruitment process.

DAVIES: Right. And it's interesting what happened when he was arrested and the course that the case took. I believe you said that when he was arrested, I mean, the bail was high. But Michael didn't want to be released on bail. Is that right?

ALLEN: Right. I didn't mention the level of the bail. So I'm not sure what the actual amount of the bail was. But his mother wanted to get him out on bail. And Michael said no. He said he was afraid that if he were on the streets, he would just get into trouble again. So in that regard, he thought being in prison was safer for him.

And I think there's a really deep point there in the sense that - two things I want to say about it. So when Michael was rushed to the hospital and he confessed to everything, I mean, there was no scintilla of self-protection in his interactions with the police officer at that moment. I mean, he was a kid just saying, yes, this is what I did. This is what I did. And this is what I did. The only thing that he didn't share was the fact that he had an accomplice in that attempted carjacking.

There was an older young man who was nearby serving as a lookout or in some role of that kind. And he never told the police that there was another person involved. So the only person he protected was this other young man. Now, why did he do that? The only possible explanation is he did it because of the gang connection.

So the point is that when he said to his mom, I don't want to be bailed out. I don't want to go back to the streets. He was making a choice. He was saying, I don't want to be part of that world. The criminal justice system did not see that choice that he was making. It did not recognize the effort that he was making to separate himself from that world. And it provided no response to it.

So I think, you know, this was a sort of moment where virtue briefly flashed in Michael and for him at that moment. He was trying to make the right decision. And the judicial system had no way of recognizing it and responding to it and supporting him.

DAVIES: One of the first decisions that had to be made in his case was whether he would be tried as an adult or a juvenile. Tell us about the debate over that and what happened.

ALLEN: Well, so, again, so this moment in California was just very intense with regard to the penal system. So things were just changing really fast. And I think for our family, you know, you sort of - you kind of understand what has changed after the fact. You don't realize how much has changed.

So the three-strikes law is new. And during the same period, on a scale - so roughly, every six months, the state was lowering the age at which young people could be charged as adults for a specific list of crimes. And so the age had come down to 16. And then it had come down to 14 just before Michael's incident for lesser crimes. It included carjacking.

So there was a hearing about whether Michael will be charged as an adult or a juvenile. His mother went to that hearing expecting that at the end she'd be able to bring him home. So, you know, if somebody is being tried as a juvenile, then they're usually remanded to the custody of their parents in this kind of circumstance.

That's what she was expecting. And instead, she got to court. And they decided to try him as an adult. And her baby went back to jail. And for her, she describes that moment when she, you know, knew she wasn't going to be able to touch and hold her baby anymore was the truly devastating point.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Danielle Allen, author of the new memoir "Cuz." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. Also, Maureen Corrigan will review new books by Eileen Myles and Nicole Krauss. And David Bianculli will review Jerry Seinfeld's new Netflix comedy special. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARRELL GRANT'S "FILS DU SOLEIL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Danielle Allen about her new memoir "Cuz." It's about her cousin Michael, who at the age of 15 was arrested on charges of carjacking, tried as an adult and served 11 years in prison. Three years after his release, he was found shot to death in a parked car. The book is also a critique of the criminal justice system, which she thinks failed Michael. Danielle Allen is a professor at Harvard.

DAVIES: So Michael, your cousin, enters prison at the age of 15. And this was a time when, you know, kids are confused. And over the next 10 years, they're going to do a lot of growing. They're going to learn to drive. They're going to learn to deal with the opposite sex or whomever might be the object of their affection, figure out what to do with their lives, gain some confidence. He did all this the next 10 - what? - 10 or 11 years behind bars. Let's talk a little about his experience. He had ambitions. He got a GED right away, tried to take college courses. How did that go?

ALLEN: So he was very bright, as I said. So, I mean, so when he was arrested, he had been enrolled in an early college program, a sort of program that - at Southwest community college in Los Angeles that connected, you know, high-achieving young people to college as a part of their high school courses. And he just always had a desire to go to college. It was just something that he talked about.

It was a part of who Michael was. And in prison, yes, he - you know, in his first year, even before he'd been sentenced, he completed his GED. And then he moved into the prison system where he mostly, in the first instance, took vocational classes - electrics, electrical work, plumbing, that sort of thing.

And this was because at this point in the '90s, California and other systems were stripping college education out of the system. Again, this was a part about shifting from a rehabilitative to a deterrent approach to punishment. The experience of being in prison was supposed to be as bad as possible. You know, criminals were not thought to deserve college education. Pell Grants were removed - no longer available for supporting inmates for college education. So there weren't a lot of offerings in the sort of learning kind of category. It was all skills and vocational stuff.

But he kept talking about college and wanting to go to college, and so I began working with him on getting him enrolled. And we found a great program at Indiana University that did correspondence courses with inmates, and he signed up. You know, he applied for a liberal arts degree, and we got him going.

DAVIES: And he could only take courses that had paperback books because hardbacks might be weapons.

ALLEN: Exactly. And one of the things you discover about prison life is just that, you know, sort of everything is regulated down to the most minute detail. And so everything that you might think of trying to do takes, roughly speaking, five times as long as you would expect it to because there are always extra hurdles to jump.

So we had gotten him permission to take the courses. We'd gotten him enrolled. And then we were in the business of selecting courses, and then we learned that the rule is, you know, you can only have courses with books that had soft covers - no hardcovers allowed. So then I had to reach out to Indiana, and they kept, you know, the information from all the instructors about which books and which courses had hardcover books and so forth.

And then that left two courses that were available to Michael - Philosophy 101 class and the Lit 101 class. So he jumped in with the Lit 101 class. And we spent a lot of time talking about his reading - the Bible, Homer, Chaucer, Dante, Montesquieu. It was a sort of great-books humanities course, and he loved it. He ate the material up.

DAVIES: He did some very thoughtful writing that you share in the book. He became involved in an inmate firefighting team that was actually dispatched outside the prison to fight firefighters and was really involved in that, and had some great experiences and wrote a lot about that.

Was he sexually victimized at prison? Do you know?

ALLEN: Yeah, I mean, again, I think one has to presume he was, in the sense that, you know, he was young when he went in. He was sent to adult prison when he turned 17. He was sent to one of the toughest prisons in the system immediately in Susanville. He sort of reached a point where he described it himself as that lifers were taking care of him.

You have to understand that most conversation with inmates is oblique. Everything is surveilled. Phone calls are surveilled. Visits are surveilled. And then when people get out of prison, they do not want to talk about their experiences in prison.

So he was HIV-positive in the years after he got out. You know, yes, he also had an - a relationship with his girlfriend, Bree. We can't tell you. You know, there's no way to name the full list of his experiences during his 11 years in prison. But it would beggar the imagination to think that, indeed, he had not been victimized.

DAVIES: It was in prison that he developed this romance with this transgender woman who you call Bree in the book, which was, in the end, very destructive for him. What do you know about that relationship and how it developed?

ALLEN: Well, let me come back to his writing for a moment because, in some sense, I know the most about his relationship with Bree through his writing. I mean, he did talk to me about her on the phone. But I also learned about her through his writing.

So the book includes three key pieces of Michael's writing - an essay he wrote on Dante's "Inferno," and a memoir of his firefighting, fighting the biggest wildfire in California history, and a rap that he wrote that was partly about falling in love with Bree. And so, I - you know, there's a few folks out there who think that I shouldn't have included these pieces of writing in their entirety, that they're unpolished.

They're really, intensely intelligent, acute readings of the "Inferno," for example, of Chaucer. And I put them in without editing them, including the fire journal, because people need to see in an unvarnished way what the minds and thoughts of inmates are like. And if I had edited those writings, as a few reviewers might have suggested that I should have done, people would not have that truth. And so I really want to underscore the importance of the truth of hearing inmates' voices as they are.

So you asked a question about what I learned about Bree and his love of Bree. One of the funniest moments for me in working on this book was going back to Michael's essays and reading this essay that he wrote on Chaucer. That's an essay that he wrote about "The Knight's Tale" and "The Peasant's Tale" (ph). And these are stories about people falling in love in difficult circumstances and the sort of, you know, problems and insanities that emerge from that. And I remember when I got that essay from Michael about Chaucer. I said, wow, you know, this a really good essay about Chaucer. And Mike, you know, I'm really impressed that these details in "The Knight's Tale" and "The Peasant's Tale" (ph) - "The Miller's Tale," rather, that he's called out, you know? This is really cool.

And it was only when I was going back, and thinking about this book and realizing, you know, the essay on the Chaucer's tale is about desire, about what it means to be struck by beauty from the point of, you know, being in prison. In "The Knight's Tale," somebody's imprisoned and sees a beautiful woman walking in the yard below. And Michael interprets this tale to make an argument about desire and the way in which desire makes a man's life unpredictable. As I was reading and working on this book, I was like, oh, there it is. That was Michael telling me about his experience of falling in love with Bree. And so that's how you get it.

Yes, he called me and told me he'd fallen in love, and we talked a bit about her, and he sent me a photo of Bree and so forth. But the truest, biggest expression that he provided with me of his experience of falling in love with Bree was through an essay he wrote about Chaucer.

DAVIES: So Michael was released from prison. Did he seem different? Did it seem to you like he was a different person from spending all that time in prison?

ALLEN: Well, let's see, what's the easiest way to answer that question? I mean, I spent a lot of time visiting Michael. So in that regard, I already knew when he came out who he was by then. And so if the question is how is he different when he got out from when he went in, the answer would be he still had all of his beautiful smile and his ability to bring joy into a group and into a conversation and to just bring light into the room.

But there was a quieter piece beneath all of that. So when he was a kid, he really felt - you know, he was living on the surface of himself completely. And you definitely felt, you know, in the sort of last years in prison and when he came out that there were these sort of subterranean quiet waters that you weren't going to have access to underneath the joy and warmth and generosity and gentleness that he was giving to everyone.

DAVIES: Yeah. So clearly, he wasn't sharing everything. But he didn't seem hard or angry?

ALLEN: No, no, not at all. No, he was excited to be out - exuberant. Ready, ready, ready - boy, he was. We were all so confident that he was ready. And he wanted to be a firefighter. He wanted to finish his college work. He wanted to be able to write about his experience growing up in prison. And, you know, he wanted those opportunities. You know, again, I think that the thing that you can't calculate on is what it means to ask somebody to give up the only love they've had.

DAVIES: Right. Your goals are one thing and your deeply-held emotions are something else.

ALLEN: Yeah, exactly.

DAVIES: Yeah. You were mentioning how this extended family didn't talk to each other in ways that looking back on it, might have made a difference. Did you talk to your father about Michael? Did he have a relationship with Michael? Did - I don't know.

I'm just kind of curious how much contact there was and how much discussion - how involved people in the extended family were in Michael and his issues. I mean, you all had your own lives to live too, I guess.

ALLEN: I mean, we talked about Michael a ton from the perspective of how do we help him. You know, what do we do next? What are the next steps? Who's - you know, where is he going to live? How do we put the pieces together? I mean, you know, there were a lot of us who were very deeply involved in the work of helping Michael rebuild his life.

What we didn't talk about was sort of - once he died, yes, there was a kind of a wall that came down. And none of us wanted to talk about what had happened to him.

DAVIES: You said none of you wanted to talk. But you eventually did...

ALLEN: It hurt too much. Only because I was - honestly, if I hadn't written this book, I'm not sure we ever would have.

DAVIES: Do others in the family - I don't know. Are they grateful for that exercise or was it still too painful?

ALLEN: Yes. Yes. There's a huge amount of gratitude across the whole of our family. And I was asked last night at an event in Chicago - somebody asked me, well, who was your audience for the book? Who did you write this for? And I had to stop and think for a minute. And I realized that the answer is I wrote it for my family.

DAVIES: Thank you, Danielle. Thanks for sharing it with us.

ALLEN: Thank you.

DAVIES: Danielle Allen's new memoir is called "Cuz." She spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review new books by Eileen Myles and Nicole Krauss. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL SIMON'S "EVERYTHING ABOUT IT IS A LOVE SONG")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Two new books take unusual off-road approaches to the well-traveled subjects of divorce, death, the existence of the divine and dogs. Here's Maureen Corrigan's review of "Forest Dark" by Nicole Krauss and "Afterglow" by Eileen Myles.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Fall is when the publishing industry gets serious. When it leaves beach books in the sand and turns to weightier topics. And what could be weightier than the greatest question of all - the meaning of life. Two new books - one a novel, one sort of a memoir - tackle that ultimate question through experimental forms of writing.

I know. I know. Experimental writing is surely one of the least enticing literary terms. But don't be put off because both of these odd new books offer something special, something that more broken-in forms of writing can't provide.

Nicole Krauss doesn't need to be oversold. Her novels have garnered plenty of awards. And she enjoys a celebrity off the page. She and her ex-husband Jonathan Safran Foer were once Brooklyn's reigning literary couple. Like Foer, whose recent novel "Here I Am" was about a disintegrating marriage, Krauss partly draws on their divorce as material for her new novel called "Forest Dark."

The title derives from Dante's "Divine Comedy." Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark for the straightforward pathway had been lost. Krauss' marriage-breakdown plot features the self-conscious device of a first person narrator named Nicole, who impulsively leaves her husband in Brooklyn to travel to Israel and write a novel set in the anonymity of the Tel Aviv Hilton.

"Forest Dark," in fact, includes a grim black and white photo spread of the concrete brutalist expanse of that hotel. As the fictional Nicole explains, in our own ways, my husband and I had each come to understand that we had lost faith in our marriage. And yet we didn't know how to act on this understanding as one does not know how to act on the understanding, for example, that the afterlife does not exist.

Simultaneously, another character, a wealthy lawyer in his late 60s named Jules Epstein, feels increasingly untethered from his life. After his own elderly parents die, he ends his long marriage, gives away most of his money and, like Nicole, winds up in Israel. There, he comes under the sway of a charismatic rabbi and disappears in the desert. Epstein's story is retrospective. He's presumed dead when the novel opens. The two separate and disappear in the desert.

Epstein's story is retrospective. He's presumed dead when the novel opens. The two separate plotlines about these two questers, Nicole and Epstein, ultimately intersect, but that's the only predictable aspect of this scramble of a novel. There are digressions here into Kafka, Descartes, Freud, fairy tales and film. Sections of the novel are walled off from each other, as disconnected as that row after row of rooms in the Tel Aviv Hilton.

Readers should just go along for the choppy ride because the pleasure of Krauss' writing isn't located in the story. Instead, it's the wayward precision of her language that draws us into the desert, the forest dark and other contemplative places where illumination occurs.

As poet, writer and provocateur Eileen Myles tells us, no other creatures are better acquainted with the rewards of aimless wandering than dog. Myles, who prefers the gender-neutral pronoun they, had such an errant companion for over 16 years - a pit bull named Rosie. Their new memoir, "Afterglow" is about life and afterlife with Rosie. I swore I was done with dog books. Ever since "Marley And Me" was published in 2005, the litter of literary tributes to beloved bowwows has become so vast and formulaic that a universal spaying of the genre is called for, but "Afterglow" is a mutt elegy in a million.

Myles mixes up more conventional memories of Rosie with fantasy scenes, photos and Gertrude Stein-like poems on subjects like Rosie's plaid dog bed and her cone of shame. There are also reflections here on time and gender. Through all this weirdness, Myles gets at something no other dog book I've read has gotten at quite this distinctly - the sense of wordless connection and spiritual expansion you feel when you love and are loved by a creature who's not human.

At one point, Myles writes directly to Rosie. (Reading) I now have around my waist a little dead dog - to think of walking you everyday for almost 17 years, to think of lifting you continually in that last year. But still I'm carrying that little dead dog. The new fat around my hips and waist is kind of you and how we don't go on our walks anymore.

Myles, like Krauss, takes chances with form. Sometimes they flop into incomprehensibility, but overall, "Afterglow" works. It's raw and affecting, and in its wild, snuffling way, utterly original.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Forest Dark" by Nicole Krauss and "Afterglow" by Eileen Myles. After we take a short break, David Bianculli will review Jerry Seinfeld's new Netflix comedy special. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GABRIEL MERVINE'S "PEOPLE")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jerry Seinfeld became the biggest TV name to sign with Netflix when he agreed to star in a pair of comedy specials for the streaming service. The first of them called before - the first of them, called "Jerry Before Seinfeld," premiered this week. And our TV critic, David Bianculli, found it to be a delightfully well-crafted surprise.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: On television, Jerry Seinfeld not only has been astoundingly successful, he's been amazingly consistent in pursuing and presenting his particular comic vision. He doesn't do big shows or specials about grand ideas and giant themes. He does narrowly focused TV programs about specific concepts, then, within those narrow confines, finds humor, honesty, sometimes even art.

With Larry David, he created the megahit NBC sitcom "Seinfeld," commonly and aptly described as a show about nothing. After that, Seinfeld created a series for Sony's streaming service, Crackle, which is brilliant in both its narrow focus and its perfect execution. It's called, "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee." It's exactly what the title suggests, and it's now in its ninth season.

For Netflix, Jerry Seinfeld begins with another intentionally small-scale concept. It's called "Jerry Before Seinfeld," and it's all about his comedy roots. He starts with Johnny Carson introducing him on "The Tonight Show" in 1981, then flashes back to the time several years before that when he decided to give stand-up comedy a try. He even tells that story from the specific place in New York City where he first had that thought. And for the record, it's on a ground-level shop window ledge at the corner of Madison and East 58th Street.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JERRY BEFORE SEINFELD")

JOHNNY CARSON: The next guest is a young comedian who's making his very first appearance on "The Tonight Show." He's originally from New York City. He's worked a lot of small clubs, both in New York and Los Angeles. Would you welcome him, please? Jerry Seinfeld.

(APPLAUSE)

JERRY SEINFELD: In the mid-'70s in New York, there were only two places you could even see new comedians. A stand-up comedian was just a novelty act. They'd have one in front of a singer or a rock band, and just to be that was the most glorious dream of my life. That's all I wanted. And it's funny, but I was actually sitting on a ledge when I decided to make that leap right here. This is the exact spot.

BIANCULLI: Then, as part of this autobiographical retracing of his past, Seinfeld returns to New York's Comic Strip, the comedy club where he became a regular in the summer of 1976. The club is retrofitted to look like it did back then, so Seinfeld performs in front of a red brick wall, happy to tell some old jokes - so old that he includes one of the jokes from his original Comic Strip audition.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JERRY BEFORE SEINFELD")

SEINFELD: And I only had one joke that worked...

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: ...Which I'm going to do for you right now.

(APPLAUSE)

SEINFELD: And if you ever think yourself that you might want to someday do comedy, this is not the way you do it. Don't ever say, I'm going to tell you a joke now.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: So I'm left-handed. Left-handed people do not like that the word left is so often associated with negative things - two left feet, left-handed compliment. What are we having for dinner? Leftovers.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: You go to a party. There's nobody there. Where did everybody go? They left.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: That was it. That was my first joke.

(APPLAUSE)

BIANCULLI: But in addition to recycling old material, Seinfeld puts his whole comic life into perspective. Back at the Comic Strip, Seinfeld recalls the first time at that club that the audience for his act included his parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JERRY BEFORE SEINFELD")

SEINFELD: You know, one of the big nights that I had here was my parents coming to see me do my show because I had never - for whatever reason, I was very embarrassed around my parents to show them this part of my personality. So when I started doing this, it was, you know, a little strange to them. You know, when I told them, I think I want to be a comedian, and they went, OK, you know, you've never done anything funny.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: And so I - eventually, I brought them here. And they sat right there. And I was so nervous that night because I was showing them this whole side of myself. It was like my little gay closet moment.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: You know, where I had to say, Mom, Dad, I'm - I don't know how to tell you this, but I'm a funny person.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: And I don't want to be ashamed of it any more.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: And I want to lead a funny lifestyle now.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: This special, "Jerry Before Seinfeld," works so well for the exact same reason "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee" does. It knows exactly what it wants to do, never wavers, delivers precisely what it promises, makes you laugh a lot, then runs the closing credits long before you think of getting bored. The personal touches added, like the home movies and the visit to the outside of Jerry's childhood home, are nice and smart grace notes.

But "Jerry Before Seinfeld" doesn't need them, really. It's the best kind of minimalist comedy television - just a comic, a mic, a stage and an audience. Jerry Seinfeld has been doing it for more than 40 years now. And in his new Netflix special, he reveals how he started and demonstrates, once again, just how good he's gotten.

GROSS: David Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University. "Jerry Before Seinfeld" is streaming now on Netflix. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE VIETNAM WAR")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I remember my knees shaking. And I was saying, holy smokes, I'm going into a war.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSILE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is war.

GROSS: My guests will be Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, creators of the new PBS documentary series "The Vietnam War," which tells the story of the war from multiple perspectives, including the North Vietnamese perspective. This series has some remarkable footage and interviews. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF URI CAINE BEDROCK'S "COUNT DUKE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF URI CAINE BEDROCK'S "COUNT DUKE")

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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