Courtney Zoffness’ young son was obsessed with police officers. The family lived two doors down from a New York Police Department precinct, and 4-year-old Leo became fixated on the small dramas that unfolded outside the station. Sometimes officers helped his family—jumping a car battery, for example. And sometimes, Leo watched police escort a recently arrested person into the station.
Zoffness wanted to explain big ideas to her son—systemic racism, a disproportionately high number of arrests of people of color, the ambiguity of the term “excessive force.” But how do you explain these concepts to a child? She reminded Leo that being a police officer is about helping people, as her father did as a volunteer with the auxiliary force. But Leo was more enchanted by the idea of handcuffing bad guys.
Throughout her debut essay collection, Spilt Milk, Zoffness applies thoughtful analysis to everyday situations like this one. In 10 essays, she explores inherited ideas (such as her father’s respect for police work) and inherited genetics (does her oldest son wrestle with anxiety because of Zoffness’ own childhood experience?).
In “Boy in Blue,” the essay about Leo’s police fascination, Zoffness recounts her family joining a protest in May 2020. They held signs proclaiming that Black Lives Matter and chanted their fury about police brutality. Leo, then 6, remained entranced by law enforcement, proclaiming, “You’re unarrested” in a misunderstanding of what officers actually say. “Dramatic play, experts say, helps children understand the power of language,” Zoffness writes. “We’ve yet to correct him. In Leo’s linguistic reality, freedom rules. Nobody suffers. Everyone is equal. Everyone is blameless.”
Elsewhere, Zoffness recalls how a writing student’s advances brought to mind a parade of assaults and unwelcome commentary from men. She also explores the rituals of her Jewish faith and the juxtaposition of science and astronomy.
Throughout Spilt Milk, Zoffness’ essays plait her life experiences with larger observations about society. In her layered storytelling, she brings empathy to every situation and often finds empathy for herself along the way. Spilt Milk is a generous, warm debut from an already prizewinning writer.
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