Fragments Were What I Had Available to Me: Talking to Danielle Allen

How to address in catalyzing prose the policy ramifications of your family’s most intimate personal struggles? How (and why) to construct a poetics of prison reform? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Danielle Allen. This conversation, transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman, focuses on Allen’s Cuz, a kaleidoscopic account of her cousin Michael’s life before, during, and after incarceration. Our preceding conversation focused on Allen’s Why Plato Wrote. Allen, a University Professor at Harvard, and Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought — focusing on questions of justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and contemporary America. Allen’s other books include The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (2014), and Education and Equality (2016). She co-edited Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.


ANDY FITCH: Before we get to anything like Michael’s legal case, or treat Michael’s circumstances as a case study of broader social concerns, could you just introduce him, and maybe introduce Cuz’s “I” at the same time? Readers of your book will be charmed to hear of Michael’s smile and playful exuberance. Here could you offer some scene maybe not in the book, but which exemplifies your relationship to each other as cuz?

DANIELLE ALLEN: My time with Michael divides into two phases: first from eight to 18 for me, and from birth to 10 for him. That phase was full of ordinary joys of cousinhood in Southern California: climbing trees, playing football in the street in front of our house, riding bikes, playing with Hotwheel cars. And family holidays: food, talk, lots of football on the television. Then I left for college and Michael, his mom, his siblings, and his mother’s new husband moved to Mississippi. This is when their lives exploded, which I experienced from a distance. Then my second time with Michael ran from about 1998 until his death in 2009, so for me from age 27 to 37. We had nearly weekly phone calls for eight years, and then the intensive period together when Michael got out of prison. Michael was my closest confidante during this period. He probably heard more of my griping about work and marital woes than anyone else.

Cuz introduces Michael as he makes his reentry into public society, post-prison. We don’t first encounter him as defined by any crimes committed, and we will certainly get a broader context in which to place those particular acts when they do arrive in the book. So here likewise could we start from Michael’s release? Could we take up the perhaps counterintuitive position that Michael, at his release, actually faces much more promising circumstances than a majority of his counterparts: some of whom have no home, no resources, no minimal cash to start off from; many of whom don’t have supportive, professionally situated families or social communities to welcome them back; almost all of whom do not have a University of Chicago dean personally devoted to researching education possibilities, strategizing career prospects, serving as private emissary during apartment searches? And I mention these specifics not simply to clarify that Michael was lucky to have a cuz like you, as you were lucky to have a cuz like him, but to suggest that one of the most instructive if largely implicit aspects of Cuz’s account is that you definitely do not provide an average case of reentry. This is not A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Part 2. Instead you provide what punitive policy makers could only dream of as the most positive prospects which a recent prisoner (denied such therapeutic and rehabilitative engagements and opportunities while incarcerated) ever will encounter upon release — and which still ends with disaster: for Michael himself; for countless law-abiding, socially contributing citizens who love Michael and invest themselves in his success; and for a society desperately in need, as always, of the talents, the intelligence that Michael demonstrates in his reflective and eloquent writings across this book. If ever one test case single-handedly could confirm our present criminal-justice approach a failure, from whatever ideological perspective, here it is. So could we discuss the joyous, fearful moment of Michael’s release, even as we contextualize that difficult moment as not sufficiently representative of how impossible reentry must seem for so many individuals?

Thank you. That’s well formulated. First I want to say something about the personal side, and then I’ll come to the analytical question you raise. On the personal side, one hard thing about being that best-case scenario is that you wonder if it really was the best possible circumstance after all. In other words, was there another side, a negative side, to that supposedly best-case scenario? Was Michael’s connection to this professionally situated family with such high expectations a huge burden? Did we misalign our hopes with our reality in a way that actually damaged his prospects? And those questions that I’ll always face underscore the analytical point, which is that how a person should move from 11 years in prison (its entire own world) back into a world of social productivity remains a question of surpassing difficulty. The social distance between this person’s two worlds can seem so vast. At the end of the day, we still don’t have good conceptions for how to quantify or certainly how to comprehend that distance. We don’t understand precisely how people traverse it, and so we just speculate that the best-case scenario must involve a stable family, resources, education, clarity about how to navigate a world of work. In reality, we don’t have any fixed idea of how to map this movement from one space to another. To me, this fact reinforces your point that a single-minded emphasis on punishment can’t help but hinder reentry.

That combination of exemplary orientational agnosticism and pointed policy critique seems characteristic of your work. Cuz confesses to a decent amount of academic guilt about its at times abstracted musings. I hear and value Cuz’s calls to let emotional registers of lived experience shape our research, our reflective inquiry, on the deepest possible levels. But I also appreciate a writer as versatile as yourself constructing a fiercely conceptualized social diagnostic, fused within an intricately poetic discourse, transforming one’s personal grief into a critically prescient, politically far-reaching, intertextually and aesthetically resonant 21st-century dialectic of the most disarmingly didactic order. So, sticking with Cuz’s Robert Frost citations: if academic ice provides one possible way for the world to end, fiery flare-ups of voyeuristic, emotionally touristic memoir consumption seem to me another. So as we reach a discussion of Michael’s criminal acts, could this conversation begin to weave the historical double helix Cuz describes of mid-century drug markets emerging as a new nexus of unconstrained global capitalism, and of American gang culture shifting its function away from serving as turf-protecting intra-group mutual-aid society, to operating as predatorial rent-seeking monopolizer of its own community’s resources (of that community’s economic resources, of its infrastructural resources, certainly of its young people)? Basically, as we begin to track how Michael, as a young, isolated, quite vulnerable person fails his community through a sequence of localized but undoubtedly unacceptable acts, could we also track broader social failures situating Michael in such a precarious position in the first place? Could you start to sketch, for instance, the complex causal mechanism (the other type of “cuz” shaping this book) whereby an underfunded urban municipality, with its overburdened criminal-justice system, creates a vacuum of escalating economic marginalization, escalating violence, escalating vulnerability in fact pushing young people ever more efficiently into gang- and drug-related activities?

The first part of your question offers a great entry into discussions of writing and intertextuality, of the relationship between emotional textures and analytical textures. The second part of your question moves towards a discussion of putting all those analytic pieces together, and telling this tale of causality. I would love to address both parts. For the first topic, I think of Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences, and how different people demonstrate many different ways of being intelligent, and many different ways of thinking (thinking through numbers, thinking through expository arguments, thinking through poetry, etcetera). At a certain point in my own writing life, it became clear that many of those different thought processes roughly corresponded to all of our different intellectual disciplines, with these disciplines each developing different sets of tools that you could bring out simultaneously on a single problem.

So for instance, as a lifelong reader of poetry, I have a lot of poetry inside me. Lines of poetry will just hover in my head in relation to my thinking about certain social phenomena. When I sense those lines of poetry hovering, I’ll realize that they must have captured something analytically about the relevant social topic, and that, if I dig into one of these poetic lines, I’ll begin to understand it better and can capture and learn something about society from it. One of this book’s writing pleasures came from taking perspectives I’d picked up from poetry, and putting them alongside ideas picked up from economics, social science, and so forth. So I consider Cuz a project in trying to examine a current, lived social phenomenon with every tool at my disposal.

You have to use every tool at your disposal — in part because scholarship proceeds too slowly. Life moves faster than scholarship. People die. People go to prison over the many years it takes the scholar to hypothesize, to collect data, to test and so forth. And so I do feel that when we confront the hardest social problems, like mass incarceration, we need to accelerate the pace of our potential for understanding. We have to use every available tool. We have to see the ways in which poetry can act as a discovery instrument. If I plunge into my own emotional reaction, that can offer a discovery instrument. Or I, as a sensible, cognizing, learning, processing, feeling being, can make a judgement even before the economic study gets completely rendered. Of course you then want to validate your judgments through rigorous social-science research. But for Cuz it seemed especially important to keep in mind that social science will always remain limited by this fact that it can’t catch up with reality. We must supplement social science with other instruments for understanding current, lived reality. That basic point shapes the construction of this whole book.

Another imperative shaping this book’s construction and its presentation of causality comes from the nine years I’ve spent on the Pulitzer Prize board, which means reading a ton of investigative journalism, as well as a fair amount of nonfiction emerging out of investigative journalism. Gradually I’ve noticed an interesting pattern in which a huge amount of writing in this genre has the same causal structures built into it. Take, for example, investigative journalism on childcare centers where children get abused or neglected, or on eldercare facilities where sexual abuse of elders occurs. You can end up reading any number of studies where vulnerable people get abused and fall through the cracks. The causal story structuring 85% of the writing in this field suggests that such abuse plays out because the government hasn’t regulated these sectors enough. A standard solution follows: we need more government regulation of childcare centers or more government regulation of eldercare centers or more government regulation of how nonflammable mattresses get produced. But if we truly acted on all these calls for regulation coming out of investigative journalism, I think we would have a state at a level that we cannot even imagine.

So as I began to research this book, I thought about which core causal story might most writers come at it from. I knew, going in, that I had to present more complexity to this causal story than “Somebody ought to do something,” or “If there had been a regulation everything would have worked out fine.” But I also knew that, precisely because one kind of causality so dominates our writing landscape, if I wanted to represent different forms of causality, I would have to find and adopt different writing techniques. So one approach I found really useful comes out of economic game theory, with its ways of thinking about equilibrium states, where incentive structures generate patterns of behavior that stay in equilibrium, and where you also can track phase shifts from one equilibrium to another. I had a moment of discovery when I realized that this sequence of acceleration in Michael’s life, when he went from very small, not super frequent thefts to really violent acts, provides one of those phase shifts. I sensed that if I could find and trace these phase shifts in Michael’s equilibrium, then I could get to a different answer about causality, and so that’s what I did. But then I also needed to write that process. So I don’t know if you remember this one passage…

The prose all of the sudden keeps repeating the word “shift.”

Exactly. Thank you for your careful reading. I use this image of a vacuum tube getting whisked up. I had to find images that convey this new way of thinking about causality that economics has delivered to us, but which has not yet appeared much in nonfiction. I had to try to render causality differently in nonfiction. Again that effort lies beneath this whole book.

So now to the substance of this causality. As I traced the history of our drug market’s own equilibrium shifts, it became increasingly clear how much we all focus our analytical powers specifically on the world that we can see (that is, on the state). But tracing Michael’s phase shift, situated in a different world, helped me finally to see that other world with its own equilibrium, its own incentive structures generating different kinds of behavior. That particular thinking process finally made the parastate visible to me. And it shouldn’t surprise us that this parastate remains hard to see. But first I went around for a while asking economists: “Where should one look for the economics of the black market? How can we see it? How can I find it?” and so forth. Sudhir Venkatesh, for example, has studied the black market. Steven Levitt has done some work. But there’s just not a lot, and there’s not much because this market remains illegal. So here a huge paradox comes into view. We can see and we can model the state’s legal operations, and collect all this data about it, but our methods inevitably will miss this whole other quite significant world. We don’t have data from it. We don’t research it. It remains inaccessible to social science. We only can see what it causes through some of its symptoms. That’s why I give the image of the great white whale basically concealed beneath the surface. Every now and then it shows a fin or tail or something. We have to try and define its submerged shape from these pieces we can see.

So once I began to gain some sense of structure for the world that Michael had started to participate in (the name for that structure is “gangs”), I needed to understand how this particular world intersected with everything else. Once you start to think through the economic structures of the drug market, from production, to supply chain, to distribution at the wholesale level and then the retail level, you discover this 100 billion-dollar business that the state seeks to combat by attacking street-level distributors. Of course the people who run this 100 billion-dollar business won’t just give up their control of its street-level distribution. They develop structures of power or authority through violence (also through systems of sanctions and rewards) to keep control. That dynamic, that fight between the state and the parastate, traps so many of our young people. And once you start to see that structure, a heck of a lot of stuff makes sense that may not have made sense previously.

Here we also could begin to outline how Michael’s personal plight once imprisoned crystallizes a corresponding shift in criminal-justice policies — towards disproportionate, depersonalizing, supposedly deterrent (even as it gets applied to millions of young people) punitive punishment in sentencing, in treatment in jail, in treatment upon release (so even after one has served one’s time). Or in terms of broader social mechanisms you’ve discussed, I myself couldn’t help absorbing your book as something like the conclusion of a trilogy of recent texts, starting with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (which traces the legacy of white-supremacist economic/political/rhetorical practices, from slavery onwards, shaping a late-20th-century scenario in which foundational tendencies towards exploitation, towards dehumanizing periphrealization of communities of color in the U.S., find merely their most recent manifestation in our so-called war on drugs), and followed by James Forman’s Locking up Our Own (which looks at an acute post-Civil Rights Era historical vector in which urban municipalities feel compelled to address systematic under-protection of communities of color precisely at a political moment when American society cuts funding for education, for social programs, and seems only to have money available for fighting crime). This imagined trilogy perhaps gets shaped by my own random recent reading history, but would it make sense for you to frame your very intimate, often disarmingly understated Cuz project in relation to broader public conversations you see happening? Would you have felt the need for Cuz to present a much more wide-ranging inquiry if not for the precedent of some equivalent recent texts, and what other texts might that include for you?

Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is also important. Quiara Alegria Hudes’s essay about her own incarcerated cousin (in my Education and Equality book) was another trigger. The Alexander and Forman books are hugely important anchors. But as I sat listening to Hudes deliver her essay, with tears rolling down my cheeks, I felt the weight of a world of cousins we’ve failed to deliver to their futures.

And the broader context is pretty simple. The war on drugs, coupled with racially disparate enforcement of that war, has distorted our society to the point that we cannot imagine a world without extensive use of imprisonment, more imprisonment than the world has ever seen, and plenty of imprisonment for what are essentially health issues, not criminal-justice issues. As a result of our overbroad criminalization practices, and our abandonment of the idea that a criminal-justice system should both make victims whole and prepare wrongdoers to contribute positively to society, we have doomed, by now, at least two generations of young men of color, and therefore we have doomed people of color more generally. In our criminal-justice system, we use incarceration for 70% of the sanctions we impose. In Germany that rate is 6%, and in the Netherlands it is 10%. There are completely different ways to approach criminal justice, and we don’t even have space in our minds to consider them. If you narrate the facts of Michael’s crime to people, and ask them how he should have been punished, and add the constraint that they can’t use the term “prison,” it is almost impossible for most people even to begin to address this question. Yet it is in fact possible to punish wrongdoing and work to re-socialize wrongdoers without relying on prison. Germany and the Netherlands prove this case. We have to open up space in people’s minds for such ideas. I would get down on my knees and beg everyone to read this report by the Vera Institute: Sentencing Practices in Germany and the Netherlands.

Hopefully we have established by now that Cuz seeks to direct public conversations towards constructive criminal-justice reform. But again, Cuz (maybe despite, maybe because of these broader social ambitions) does not simply make some straightforward argumentative case. So here pivoting back to the distinctive formal structure your narrative provides, I first stall on Cuz’s moving accounts of your own frustration that, even given Michael’s exuberant presence, he remained somehow unknowable to you, in part because he didn’t know himself. Here I would add that, for readers, this irreducibility of Michael, as a character we encounter, makes him real. And here I also wonder if a more book-specific conversation might open up about how Michael’s unknowability plays out across Cuz’s intricate rhetorical form — with this text speaking in so many voices, with it perhaps never speaking as directly as some readers accustomed to memoir might expect that it should. So could we discuss, for instance, the shaping of (often) short, elided chapters in such terms? I think of these short chapters as perhaps holding all the grief that one can bear, as perhaps formally embodying the distinction you articulate between knowing something intellectually, and straining with every fiber of one’s being to make something right. I of course think of elegy’s response to a life lived shorter than it should be. I think of this particular biographical/autobiographical narrative as perhaps inherently fragmented, just as untold prison narratives, untold family narratives, undertheorized societal narratives might only get patched together retrospectively. I think of the atomization felt by Michael’s mother Karen, by a family collectively trying to overcome systemic social forces just then coming into being. I also picture, in terms of these short storytelling units, Michael’s own tendency to meditate on rooftops, and I think of your precariously perched meditative reflections as perhaps summed up by that term “rooftops.” But again, for you, what do the short, discrete, often lyrical vignettes in this spare, brief, elegant narrative say that perhaps would not be said otherwise?

You’re quite right to point to that fragmentation. This book gets structured by the questions that have maddeningly obsessed me since Michael died, namely: “Why is he dead?” “Why was he in prison for so long?” “How had he come to commit this crime?” To reach that third (most pressing, hardest) question, I had to move through the first two questions, because they addressed the Michael more accessible to me and whom I had known most recently. The Michael who confessed to carjacking at 15 lingers in the distant past, a memory. I had to work my way back to his childhood. And as I progressed through each of these phases of my time with Michael, I saw how fragmentation characterized all of them. We had those intense months of his reentry, with me living in Chicago and Michael in Los Angeles, when I really didn’t know what he was doing from day to day. And similarly, during Michael’s time in prison, we had those intense phone calls and an intense written correspondence, but I didn’t really know what the texture of his life felt like from day to day. Then we had the history of his family’s many moves, again interrupting any kind of organic whole of shared experiences. So I had to write through that fragmentation to move towards any understanding. Fragments were what I had available to me.

And then, for where an avid reader of memoirs might reach a somewhat odd or discomforting place: I learned to write through poetry (just as earlier I described thinking through poetry). I’m still pulled much more to various types of poetic form than to traditional expository prose. I think of Cuz’s last chapter, “My Heart’s Locket,” as a prose poem more than anything else. So that rooftop feeling comes in here.

But the specific occasion for writing this book came out of an invitation from Skip Gates to give Harvard’s annual Du Bois lectures. I kept postponing these lectures, basically because I realized that, insofar as giving the Du Bois lectures offers an opportunity to comment publicly on the state of affairs for African Americans in the contemporary U.S., I couldn’t do that honestly without understanding and sharing Michael’s story. Those delays and that dishonesty came from staying in the closet about Michael. So I realized I would have to come out and accept the learning that came from life (again stretching beyond what social science can offer) and access this history to give these lectures.

And just to give readers one detailed example of how these emotional/epistemic convolutions get traced through Cuz’s dense textuality, how so much of this book’s rhetorical power gets channeled through those formal registers, we could pause (somewhat arbitrarily — a million potential examples come to mind) on a motif of twins that recurs throughout the book. Michael arrives in this world as sole survivor of a twin birth, and Michael will leave this world with two funerals. Michael projectively identifies himself within Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” with its two cousins, just as twins and cousins will keep overlapping throughout the chapter in which you emphatically state: “I went to prison…. I was in prison” — in which you find yourself caught between one prison gate closing behind you, and another not yet opening before you, and your experience twins your cousin’s. Such patterns of twinning likewise raise the fraught, complex relational/readerly stakes for how your book might prompt those of us not currently incarcerated to sympathize to the best and most productive extent possible with an experience that ultimately is not ours, that we can’t know, that we desperately need to hear about, just as individuals caught up in incarceration need to be able to talk through such experiences. Or again, in terms of something like an intertextual twinning for Cuz’s narrative, you just mentioned the “My Heart’s Locket” chapter. Your description there of climbing trees with Michael one afternoon while adults talk inside took me back to James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues,” with a Sunday afternoon moment of a child vaguely sensing the twilight coming as adults talk in the living room about adult things, then go quiet. And then I pictured the twinning that happens in Baldwin’s story as its protagonist recalls his father witnessing a brother’s death, even as this protagonist seeks to help his own brother through heroin addiction, jail time, release. And I won’t ask here for your authorial validation of my exegetical whims and digressions. But it would be great to hear you speak to the place of dense textuality, reverberative intertextuality, across sometimes a specifically black cultural heritage, sometimes a broadly American cultural heritage, sometimes a Christian and sometimes a classical cultural heritage (with all of these of course fundamentally inseparable), even as you discuss the particular details of your incommensurate cousin’s tragic fate amid present-day flawed conceptions of penal justice.

That’s a nice question. Thank you. I’m sure Baldwin is there at various depths. Ralph Ellison stayed more at the level of my consciousness throughout the book, and Toni Morrison as well. But certainly I hope to echo all three figures. I feel myself in conversation with Morrison because of her incredible evocative commitment to ghosts and how they roil our existences. I think of Ellison as the great weaver of polyphonic jazz composition in a text. You take all the materials around you (you take what you read, you take what you sing), and that all issues through you as your voice. So yes, I have a multiplicity of traditions bouncing around inside me, and they all have their value. And it’s not as if they always need to be artfully arranged. In Cuz I ascribed to Ellison’s messy polyphony, even if, in my academic writing, I also might access a classical tradition. I’ve written political philosophy out of Ellison’s writerly material. And it was also a special pleasure here to access more deeply gospel songs — all the gospel songs that characterized my experience watching my Baptist grandfather preacher, and the ways in which those songs and those psalms structure people’s navigation of life, their efforts to reconcile themselves to repeated disappointments and setbacks. It’s all in there, brewing. I needed all of it.

In terms of the classical, when your narrative pauses to provide digressive reflections on subjective time starting and stopping (or on our internalizations of pop and opera music’s pacing), or when you performatively braid hip-hop inflections and Declaration of Independence citations, I can’t help thinking of how epic brings together myriad idiolects to construct its kaleidoscopically coherent vision of a culture. And so I’ll just outline a few of the countless present-day applications to which Cuz never directly speaks, but which its dense dialectical (again in the classical sense) arrangement calls out from me. Most immediately, Cuz makes more clear than ever before the fundamental contradictions within a conservative mindset that would declare the state the primary corrupting influence in citizens’ lives, and yet would engineer a totalizing domination over a select group of its most precariously placed citizens (to the extent that they can’t even register for correspondence courses requiring hard-cover textbooks). But I also of course can’t help finding broader national complicities in the fact that present-day progressive California emerges as the source of punitive 3-Strikes-You’re-Out laws, of the racial profiling and pretext stopping that systematically have placed millions of young black men in jail. Or on an international level, when you describe the battle between an American state and parastate, this war basically for the hearts and minds of our country’s young men, I can’t help thinking about how much easier it is for us to describe drug-related violence in Mexico as a civil war, about how we pathologize the internal pressures and repressive domestic politics shaping Muslim-majority nations. Or on a personal level, Danielle, I was a bad kid in my own white suburban fashion, and I’m sure that, along the way, when I faced cops or judges, they could look at me, and they could project some monstrous caricature of my peers, of boys like Michael, and that I came off in that acute if totally inaccurate, racially structured contrast as comparably innocent, redeemable, worthy of ongoing second chances — all of which, in my immediate personal experience, came across as just natural, reasonable, maybe with a little good luck mixed in. Cuz offers the metaphor of taking any number of graffiti tags scattered around us, and gradually realizing we are encountering a coherent, meaningful, vitally resonant language and culture with its own inexorable life-and-death consequences, and when I describe your book as dialectical, I mean that it does something similar. Does this random personal inventory of sample reflections begin to give some sense of the “cuz,” of “because,” of the partially deterministic causality in its infinitude of localized and globalized, impressionistic and tacitly institutionalized manifestations, that this book probes — all of which are a part of Michael’s story and of course of our own interlacing story?

I’ve come to use the concept of “degree of difficulty” to help people understand how personal responsibility and social responsibility necessarily intertwine. Think back to the 2016 Olympics and the coverage of Indian gymnast Dipa Karmakar. She planned to execute a Produnova vault (a handspring double front), which has the highest degree of difficulty in gymnastics. The media coverage was quite feverish, in essence asking over and over the question: “Is she going to make it, or is she going to break her back?” I think something similar captures the difference between the experience of kids growing up in disadvantaged urban centers and kids growing up in suburbs. Kids in poor city neighborhoods can make it, and whether they do so does relate to their own choices and to their family’s ability to support them and to luck. But if they don’t make it, they’re going to break their back. It won’t be a soft landing. And the odds of not making it are high because of the degree of difficulty they confront.

That degree of difficulty is not of their own making, nor of their family’s. It’s a product of our laws — in this immediate case our drug and sentencing laws, and the policies supporting disparate enforcement of those laws. Laws construct incentive structures around which social equilibria form. These social equilibria then come to anchor cultural practices (for instance, cultures of violence), which further entrench the problematic equilibria. But at the heart of the problem is laws that have generated misguided incentive structures. And the human tragedy that we have created in this country is so profound that I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to spend time looking for contradictions or inconsistencies in the conservative position or in the progressive position. I think we ought to look past those partisan divides toward more fundamental questions about justice and human flourishing, and squarely face the fact that with our laws we have built a society that makes it considerably harder for many, many people to thrive.

Finally, for one last angle on the book, particularly amid the constrictive double helix it reconstructs, could we discuss some forms of irrepressible relief that do arise? Cuz tells us to conceive of hope as a threat, a potential danger. Yet over time, as we progress through the narrative, we might sense that preventing oneself from feeling hope, just like preventing oneself from feeling or communicating emotional pain (particularly within a culture of peers facing this same repressive imperative), can’t help but bring forth its own personally and socially destructive outcomes — with, say, Big Mike here emerging especially around his masculine peers. Still Cuz’s “I,” an “I,” as she herself claims, prone to neat and tidy academic projects and conceptual schemes, does seem resourcefully to find her way to certain constructive outlets. This “I” sings and channels others’ songs, sliding all the way into “When You’re a Jet, You’re a Jet” at times. This “I’s” release into song resounds most emphatically perhaps when confessing to having regrounded herself in a Christian faith. And this “I” even at times seems irrepressibly drawn to a bleak gallows humor — not only indulging in the occasional revisionary lyric like “Living wasn’t easy that summertime,” but going so far as, amid her critique of pop-song culture, to suddenly invoke the Pet Shop Boys and Dusty, to ask, with great apparent seriousness, “what had Michael done to deserve this?” Or more casually, Cuz will allude to the internal comedy of calling petty authority figures Sir and Ma’am. Or even amid this intimate, deeply personal narrative, Cuz can’t suppress the urge to throw a conspicuously rhyming Coetzee allusion into its own subtitle. To be clear, Cuz is not a book that diffuses its tension with jokes. This book does not provide much cause for relief or for hope. It offers no happy ending, and I won’t ask for one. But does it seem fair to characterize a certain buoyance of song, of faith, of humor, as irrepressibly present nonetheless — here and perhaps across your work as philosopher, historian, policy wonk, hybridizing poet?

Well that’s an awesome question, so thank you. Yes, on the Pet Shop Boys. And here’s one more pop element for you. My reference to the quiet Los Angeles Valley Community College summer campus offering the “balm of Gilead” isn’t an example of overwriting (as a Guardian reviewer suggested) — it’s sharing Nina Simone’s voice, which runs through my head whenever I think about afternoons on that calm campus. So here’s a shout-out to Nina, as one of the greatest vocalists I’ve ever come across. If you don’t know that recording already, then the gift of hearing this performance is itself worth the price of admission!

I’ll also give you one more intertextual element to add to your compendium, which is that part one of Cuz is a tragedy, part two is a comedy, and part three is a history play. That’s the basic Shakespearean triad. Also in Athenian tragedy you often get a trilogy, followed up by a satyr play — sort of a sexual comedy. You could tie this book to that tradition too. That all emerges out of my literary training and background. These themes appear in Ellison as well. Tragicomedy is Ellison’s main aesthetic mode. And that aesthetic does connect to hope, because I do think you need tragicomedy to lift yourself above the depths and be able to keep going. I think you need basic human pleasures. Here the humanities can offer a great knowledge resource apart from and complementary to what the social sciences offer. It should be said loudly and clearly in their defense: the humanities can elevate human beings, elevate human experience, establish and enhance human joy. That aspect comes through in Cuz’s treatment of Michael’s time spent doing college work in prison — reading about Dante’s Inferno, fighting California fires, and searching for self-understanding. Through literature, Michael connected his own personal search to that age-old human quest for self-knowledge and social knowledge. He inserted himself into the ages with his own search for meaning.

Those were elevating moments for Michael. I mean that word “elevation” in the sense of literally lifting his spirit. It’s spirit-lifting stuff to connect to this wealth of human tradition, and to find insights that you can share with others, and from which you can understand better your own life. It elevates me to take pleasure in these things we humans are distinctively equipped with: language, thankfulness, thoughtfulness, boundless curiosity, music, and so forth. So yes. Where would we be without all of that? We would not have survived prison.