In her latest book, “Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.,” Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen delves into her own family to deliver a powerful memoir and a critique of mass incarceration, the criminal justice system, and the war on drugs. 

In an interview, Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor at the Department of Government and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, discussed the book she wrote about her beloved cousin Michael, whose death at age 29 left the family in despair.

Her cousin spent 11 years in jail after he was tried as an adult at age 15 for attempted carjacking in Los Angeles in the 1990s, at the height of a tough-on-crime era that sent millions of African-American men to jail. Michael was released at age 26, but a year later went back to prison and served 14 more months. In 2009, a month after completing parole, Michael was killed by his lover.  

In the interview, Allen spoke with candor about how writing the book helped her and her family understand the circumstances of Michael’s life and come to terms with his death.

GAZETTE: You have written books about political philosophy, citizenship, and the Declaration of Independence. This book is very personal. Why did you write it, and for whom?

ALLEN: A few years ago, Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. invited me to give the W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures, and I kept giving him very abstract titles for my prospective lectures: “Race and Justice in the 21st Century,” or “Political Equality and African-Americans in the 21st Century,” but I also kept deferring the dates. Finally, Gates told me, “You can’t keep deferring the dates, Danielle.” As I faced the prospect of giving the Du Bois Lectures, where you have the job of saying something about the state of affairs for African-Americans in this country, I realized I just couldn’t possibly give those lectures and speak honestly without understanding and sharing my cousin’s story. That was why I wrote it, in the first instance. But in working on the book, I also discovered that all the work I’ve done throughout my intellectual career has in some sense been related to these issues. My first book was on punishment in ancient Athens, and the reason I pursued that topic is because I was so struck by the contrast between Athens and its court records and modern America. In Athens, there was almost no mention of imprisonment as a punishment, and as an undergraduate and a kid from Southern California, I was really surprised by this idea of a democracy that didn’t have prisons. In a way, the questions of criminal justice have been with me constantly for my whole intellectual career. And it’s only at this point that I’ve come to deeply understand the way in which the intellectual and the personal are completely entangled.

GAZETTE: And for whom did you write this book?

ALLEN: I wrote it for the Du Bois Lectures originally. But before I started writing the lectures, the first thing I did was to ask my aunt and my cousins for permission. I wrote the book for my family members, and I wrote the book for Michael so that his voice had a way out. We all thought Michael would be able to tell his own story. He was an incredibly talented writer.

GAZETTE: Did you see the book also as an attempt to come to terms with Michael’s death?

ALLEN: There are tragedies in every family. Everybody is familiar with the experience of tragedy, and you’re just left with the “why?” question. Why did this happen? What could we have done? and so forth. When Michael died in 2009, we just all shut down, we never talked about it, we did not talk about what had happened to him and why. This was a chance, this was the moment to come to grips with what had happened, and why he had ended up dead, why he had been in prison for so long, why he had ended up holding a gun trying to take somebody’s car from them. Part of the urge for the book was to have answers to those questions.

GAZETTE: What was your family’s reaction to the book?

ALLEN: There are some variations in reaction. My aunt and cousins have been really with me every step of the way. It’s been a joint project. I spent a lot of time interviewing them. They read the final version, and they feel really happy that Michael’s voice and his story have made it out. I think that for all of us it has been peace-bringing. Further out in the more extended family, there are some people who are uncomfortable with “airing dirty linen.” There is that reaction, as well.

GAZETTE: What other challenges did you face in writing this book?

ALLEN: There were a lot. Just getting Michael’s court records was hard. I had to file a state-level equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act to get his basic legal documents. Reconstructing Michael’s story was hard because people’s memories don’t align. Eventually, by the time I got the court records, I had been able to reconstruct the story, and the court records validated what I found. But I had to do multiple interviews with family members and found myself effectively cross-examining them to try to clarify the facts. Interviewing my family members was the hardest part. There were lots of tears involved. And then, discovering things about my cousin that I hadn’t known was also hard. For me, the hardest detail in the book is the part about his running drugs into the prison while he was a firefighter. I didn’t know that until I was doing these interviews.

GAZETTE: How did this new information change the view you had of Michael?

ALLEN: The fact of the matter is that before I started writing the book I did not understand what had happened to my cousin. How a person with his gifts, abilities, resources, and the love of his family could have ended up where he did? I can understand it now. I didn’t know until I was working on this book that he had been flirting with gangs when he was 13, 14, and that’s what got him into trouble. His mother didn’t know. We’ve all come to understand that from working on the book. Also, I can see parts of his life that were important to him that I did not see before. It was only retrospectively that I understood the importance of his lover Bree in his life. I knew Bree was in his life, but I didn’t understand the magnitude of that relationship. Working on the book meant that I went back to all his writings, and then I was able to see the places where he was sharing his love story with me that I hadn’t seen originally.

GAZETTE: You said your book tells three stories: the story of Michael’s responsibility, the story of Michael’s family’s responsibility, and the story of society’s responsibility. Can you explain?

ALLEN: The first two are easy. Michael made some bad choices. That’s very straightforward. We, his family, did not see the small pieces of evidence that would have amounted to a pattern of “This is a kid who is on the verge of getting into big trouble.” We didn’t see those things. We didn’t help him when we should have helped him. And with regard to society, there are a couple of different ways to think about this. Fifteen-year-olds everywhere have boundary-testing impulses, and they’re trying to figure out who they are as independent people. Those impulses and behaviors at that stage of life are more dangerous for some young people than others because of where they happen to be. The kinds of danger that are presented to a kid in South Central Los Angeles are not of their own making, and they’re not even of their family’s making. They are made by society.

My book on the Declaration of Independence taught me this: to scrutinize the health of a society, one of the things you have to scrutinize is how the laws either enable or hinder human flourishing. When you ask that question, and ask about the state of affairs in urban areas and cities, it just becomes blindingly clear that the war on drugs has had a huge distorting effect on our society. A kid growing up in an urban area faces a far different degree of difficulty than a kid in a suburb. And yes, kids in an urban area can master that degree of difficulty, sure they can. But if they don’t, they’re going to break their back. It’s like in gymnastics, the highest-degree-of-difficulty move has the consequence that if you don’t get it right, if you don’t land well, you can break your neck or your back, whereas the lowest-degree-of-difficulty move, if you miss it, the consequences are not that bad.

GAZETTE: Can you explain the role of race in the criminal justice system?

ALLEN: We all know that drug laws and criminal justice, more generally, have been disproportionally enforced, with African-Americans and Latino-Americans bearing the brunt of the enforcement of the war on drugs. It’s certainly the case that the big growth in the criminal system has a racialized component, but I think it’s important to recognize that the excessive criminalization we’ve gotten used to has impact that goes well beyond racial lines. When I gave the Du Bois Lectures, I was surprised by the number of people who came up to me and said, “I’ve got a family member in prison, as well, and I have never told anybody.” And the folks who were coming up to me and saying that were white. The point is that our prison system is so big, it really touches everybody, and the magnitude of our criminalization and penal severity is a problem for everybody, even if its origins were racialized.

GAZETTE: With regard to society’s responsibility, what changes could prevent the loss of other young people like Michael?

ALLEN: Some want to focus on juvenile justice reform, which is important, and others want to focus on prison reform and rebuilding the capacity of our penal system to provide rehabilitation and not merely focus on deterrence. That’s important too, but my own view is that the single most important thing is to transition our approach of drug control from a criminal justice paradigm to a health paradigm. And what that means is to legalize marijuana across the board and decriminalize harder drugs, which means convert what are felonies for simple use and possession into misdemeanors, while maintaining felonies for trafficking. That way, you could bring drug use out of the shadows so that people can seek treatment.

This has been tried in Portugal, where adolescent drug use has gone down, and more people have sought treatment. Taking the black-market dynamics out of the picture could bring an end to what is a war between the legal state and the other structure made up by cartels, street gangs, and other distributors that are fighting for the $100-billion-a-year drug market. I think that’s the thing that people miss. When the state uses probation, penalties, and so forth to tackle drug use and narcotics, it’s not as if there hasn’t been somebody pushing back on the other side. The folks who are reaping the benefits of this $100 billion business don’t want to give up power over their distributors, and so you have a ratcheting up of structures of sanctions and penalties inside the context of gangs, which has been a huge exacerbator of the violence in the cities.

We have helped create the violence in the cities through the way we have prosecuted the war on drugs. To take the violence out of the cities requires ending the war on drugs. It’s not a silver bullet because, as economists would say, we’re in an equilibrium state now, where there is a high level of violence and a culture of violence attached to it. We can change the laws, and that’ll change the incentive structure. We’ll still have a culture of violence that needs to be addressed, but you can’t address the culture of violence if you haven’t changed the underlying incentive structure.

GAZETTE: Going back to the book, how did it evolve during the process of writing it, and what message did you want to get across?

ALLEN: This is a book that I spent a lot of time working on in my head before I put pen to paper. The moment it took its aesthetic form was the moment when the title came to me. The title is a one-word poem. I realized I had to call it “Cuz” because the driver for the book was my need to explain why, and also because Michael used to call me “Cuz.” The moment that I had that title, I had the structure for the book. The book is organized as a series of answers to key questions. Another important part was really going back to Michael’s own writings and figuring out how to weave his voice and my voice together. That is where the other evolutionary dynamic in the book comes from. It’s from knitting together two different voices. The message I wanted to get across is partly the humanity of people who are in prison and the utter devastation that has been wrought by our system of mass incarceration. And the writing was a joy, a complete joy, especially when I went back to Michael’s writings and worked them into the book. He was a beautiful spirit.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.