Like The Other Wes Moore and Between the World and Me, Danielle Allen’s Cuz presents a rich personal narrative in trenchant historical and political context. Allen tells the story of Michael, her irrepressible cousin with the dazzling smile.
Although Danielle was raised in relative comfort—she describes the casual security of being a professor’s kid in the college environments where she grew up and now makes a living (Allen is a political philosopher at Harvard University) —Michael’s family, the family of Allen’s father’s youngest sister, lived on the edge. When they moved to LA during Michael’s adolescence, Michael committed petty theft. And then, at age 15, he attempted carjacking at gunpoint. He didn’t shoot (in fact, he got shot in the neck), but the judge opted to try him as an adult. Suddenly, this adolescent faced 13 years in prison, a sentence nearly as long as his life had been so far.
The devastating effect of prison on Michael is beautifully wrought in poetic, heartfelt and restrained prose by his cousin, who frequently visited him. When he was released, it was Allen who helped get him established. Despite her best efforts (which far outstripped anything I could imagine undertaking), within a few years he was found shot to death in a car.
Allen’s searing memoir seeks to understand what happened to Michael within the context of LA during the 1990s just after the “three strikes” rule came to pass, as fears of carjacking were running rampant and as gang affiliations pulsed in the street. Having read several books like Cuz in an attempt to understand what is happening in this country, I can say that Allen’s is one of the strongest. This book—part elegy, part history, part political philosophy—is wholly unforgettable.