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June’s Busting Out All Over--Grimly

Early June should trigger sweet memories of childhoods past, of building sand castles and catching fireflies.

The first wave of June magazines, however, has no time for sentimentality. In communities across America, the magazines tell us, life starts out ugly and ends soon.

In taking readers on a tour of North Philadelphia’s drug-infested neighborhoods, Life Magazine reporter Edward Barnes and photographer Eugene Richards reveal a world so unlike any possible vision of America that cops refer to it as “Oz.”

“There are places in America,” the magazine says, “where childhood has ceased to exist. Where children taste crack before they taste life, then are born in a narcotic stupor. Where guns have replaced toys and a baseball bat is just another weapon.”

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That the photographs depict the sort of grim scenes unfolding daily just a few blocks from Los Angeles’ City Hall only makes their impact more painful. Especially when the stories behind the photos are told.

There is, for example, 12-year-old Vincent smoking crack. His mother is lighting the cigarette. Vincent, the story says, “talks with the same naive enthusiasm about a Winnie-the-Pooh bear he once owned as he does about fondling a girl while she was being gang-raped.”

Another photo shows the corpse of a drug dealer slumped in his car. Several schoolchildren stare at the dead man. But this, the story says, is a common sight: “There is no horror in their eyes.”

In the June Atlantic Monthly, “Growing Up Scared” makes the same point.

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“Investigators,” Karl Zinsmeister writes, “say that juveniles are often found laughing and playing at homicide scenes.”

Zinsmeister uses statistics and the blood-and-guns art of schoolchildren to back up the story Life tells with photographs and poetic prose.

In 1987, for instance, 338,000 students carried a handgun to school at least once, and more than 100,000 were armed every day. In California, he writes, burglary, theft, arson and robbery are committed more often by juveniles than by adults. In many cities, homicide is now the leading cause of death among children. About half the time, the killers are also kids.

So it makes sense that “there’s real fear among young people about each other,” as one source said. “Three-quarters of America’s 64 million children live in metropolitan areas, a fifth live in low-income households, at least a tenth come home after school to an house containing no adult,” Zinsmeister writes. “These are the people who suffer most when law and order decay.”

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While Life was content to paint a tragic portrait, Zinsmeister focuses on what he sees as the underlying problems and possible solutions.

He argues his case extremely well.

He contends that schools need to be tougher on delinquents and tougher on themselves (only one of the 63,000 teachers in New York City’s public schools was fired in 1988), and that America’s child-welfare system needs an overhaul.

The thrust of his argument, however, is that children are suffering mainly because this country has foolishly let support of the nuclear family become politicized and trivialized.

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Last year, Zinsmeister reports, author Toni Morrison told Time magazine: “I don’t think a female running a house is a problem . . . the little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work.”

The Atlantic piece systematically demolishes such thinking, pointing to statistic after statistic showing that children in two-parent families are healthier, happier, do better in school, and are less likely to become involved in violent crime and street gangs.

At times, Zinsmeister seems ready to replace the missing parent in American families with a governmental Big Brother. And his definition of the healthy two-parent family seems simplistic: Could not, for instance, a Lesbian couple raise an emotionally and financially secure child?

But for the most part, his analysis of the problem and suggestion of solutions make good sense.

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The nuclear family, he writes, is not a perfect institution, but it is a necessary one, and it must be restored.

Meanwhile, society must get tough with its youthful “marauders.” And unless these things happen, “the vicious cycle of youths preyed upon and then preying on others may become unbreakable in our cities.”

REQUIRED READING

* Is Irish pop singer Sinead O’Connor the decade’s first superstar? Mikal Gilmore’s intriguing profile in the June 14 Rolling Stone will leave readers encouraged. Original and deeply personal in her songwriting, O’Connor is clearly vulnerable, but she just may have the integrity to resist the packaged persona-fication that makes Michael Jackson and Madonna consumer items rather than artists.

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* “Neither Morons, nor Imbeciles, nor Idiots” in the June Harper’s Magazine sheds little light into the psyches of people with mental retardation. It does, however, offer empathic analysis of the chasm that separates these people from others--as well as the human ties that bind everyone together.

* By the time you enter college, your prom pictures may have faded away. In a detailed study of color print papers and processes, the June Popular Photography reveals the transient nature of much photography, and offers valuable advice on ways to preserve photographic images.

SHREDDER FODDER

* The cover of the June Life magazine shouts: “Elvis Presley, New Evidence Points to an Inescapable Conclusion.” That it does: The conclusion that Life is determined to beef up its supermarket presence and capture the attention of the inquiring mindless.

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