Immersion therapy

Special to The Times

Call it Lee Strasberg journalism -- Method reporting. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc knew she was truly living through the emotional experience of her subjects when she heard two guys trying to break into the apartment and her only exhausted thought was "whatever." She heard them speaking, smelled their cigarette smoke, was completely aware of the danger of the moment, but after days of a heat wave -- regular days of getting the kids fed, waiting for hours at welfare offices, dealing with the toothaches and the drama and the relentless pace of poverty -- sitting in that greenhouse of a crowded apartment, LeBlanc lay still, listening, too tired to act. This was not her apartment, but the home of one of her subjects. This was not her life. Not really, not in the permanent sense. And yet it was.

For 10 years, LeBlanc lived itinerantly in the dark apartments and fluorescent-lit waiting rooms that contain so many of this country's poor. Her book "Random Family" (Simon & Schuster) is the fruit of that decade. In the few weeks since its publication, it has been a magnet for accolades (the New York Times called it "a painstaking feat of reporting and empathy") and is widely anticipated to inspire and shape policy debates.

This story, a nonfiction "Middlemarch" of the underclass, follows the interconnected lives of Boy George, a gangsta-rich heroin dealer; his charismatic and stunning girlfriend, Jessica; her ambitious local 'hood brother Cesar; and the mother of two of Cesar's children, protagonist Coco, who rises from this book as a new symbol of tenacity in motherhood during a decade in which the children we meet as the result of young parenting are pregnant themselves by book's end. (All names were changed for the book's publication.) And LeBlanc's journey in reporting their stories is a new benchmark in the field of immersion journalism.

It began in quite another place, when LeBlanc was a 28-year-old emerging presence in magazine journalism, editing fiction at Seventeen by day, chasing stories about disenfranchised youth in her spare time. She had early success, a good salary, a Manhattan apartment that she shared with a boyfriend she met at Oxford. Aware of her interest in young people and the drug trade, a friend alerted her to a tiny clip in Newsday announcing the trial of a hugely successful heroin dealer. She got an assignment to write a story about Boy George on spec for Rolling Stone and showed up at the trial.

She was shy, reluctant to ask questions. But then she met Jessica, one of Boy George's girlfriends, perhaps his best girlfriend, certainly his most entrancing. "She radiated intimacy wherever she went. You could be talking to her in the middle of the bustle of Tremont Avenue in the Bronx and feel as if lovers' confidences were being exchanged beneath a tent of sheets," writes LeBlanc, who read books about Marilyn Monroe while reporting to try to understand Jessica's captivating power.

Jessica quickly led the reporter deep into her life of cramped house parties, where her mother would cook and dance; into drug mills, where girlfriends used McDonald's coffee stirrers to measure millions of dollars of high-grade heroin, which Boy George named "Obsession," into logo-stamped glassines; onto street corners and into nightclubs, where jealousy and frustration would often erupt into violence.

Gradually, LeBlanc gave her life over to that one, which is a direct subway trip but a universe away from where she sits today at a bakery in SoHo near her apartment. "I found the shifting over difficult to do," she says, looking through red-framed glasses. After a while, she adds, "I felt more at home in the world there than anywhere else. The list of things I did and cared about just atrophied."

Recently, a friend sent her an e-mail to congratulate her about the book, joking about all the times LeBlanc would rush out of a dinner party midway through to dash up to the Bronx. LeBlanc says she doesn't even remember going to dinner parties, so immersed was she in this other world. And for so many years, years when many successful, attractive women in Manhattan date, marry, commit to motherhood and storm up the career ladder, Leblanc instead inhabited a world where, as she writes, "success was less about climbing than about not falling down."

It was a trade-off she embraces. "I probably won't have a baby because of this book," Leblanc, now 39, says deadpan, totally without regret. "That's part of the deal."

Leblanc quit her job, borrowed money from friends, lived with her now-boyfriend on a tiny bed in an unfinished cellar of a Brooklyn house and often stayed in the cramped and dangerous homes that Jessica's de facto sister-in-law Coco would relocate to almost as often Jessica's brother Cesar would move from jail to jail (manslaughter was his crime). She'd be distracted during Christmas at her parents' house, thinking, "God, I shouldn't have missed Christmas at Coco's."

A natural progression

LeBlanc's choice to live this way may sound like the height of masochist eccentricity, but it is in many ways a natural outgrowth of her early life. Leblanc grew up in Leominster, Mass., going door to door with her union-organizing father to talk to his factory colleagues about their right to health care and higher wages. Her mother works in a drug rehab center, where LeBlanc sensed at an early age that the struggles of the very real people she knew there had nothing to do with the moral vagaries the disassociated public used to talk about their circumstances.

As an undergrad at Smith, under the tutelage of Mark Kramer -- who now directs Harvard's Nieman program on narrative journalism -- LeBlanc learned she was a writer (though she says she hates to write). And it's easy to see how LeBlanc's easy grin, total lack of didactic tone, salt-of-the-earth Massachusetts accent and utter lack of pretension could quickly earn the trust of her stoop-sitting subjects. In fact, she thinks that this random family was more ready for her than she was for it. "Now when I go back and listen to those early tapes, I think it took me years to be strong enough to listen to the stories that were available to me from the get-go," she says.

Perhaps it takes 10 years to truly immerse oneself in the untellable facts of a subject's life. Not the dialogue, the settings, the actions, of life, but the emotions of the experience. Now when LeBlanc hears people make the old "don't they respect themselves?" comments about the cleanliness of housing projects, she knows firsthand that after dealing with hundreds of pressures during a day, a seemingly small act like bending down to pick up a piece of paper you've dropped isn't something there's extra energy for.

"Most of this life isn't about choosing these actions; it's extraordinarily practical. It may not be the stuff of great drama, but when you break life down into dealing with bureaucracy, down to whose phone lines are out, down to who has a toothache and who hasn't eaten, it becomes a question of whether you're just too damn tired. I know that because I felt that. I used myself like a thermometer at all times. I'd feel something, then I'd talk to Coco about it. It was essential."

Coco, as well as the book's other subjects, thinks LeBlanc has accurately represented their world. "It makes me look like a sucker, but it's true," she told Leblanc after reading page upon page about her tolerance of Cesar's infidelity. Many of these characters have said that they've learned not just about themselves but also their loved ones, reading through this intensely personal narrative of a decade of their lives. For example, Cesar never had a sense of what his children have been living through with Coco all the years he's been in jail. He told LeBlanc that after he read the book he wanted to write Coco a letter of condolence.

Other writers have spent great periods of time inhabiting their subjects' world, negotiating the boundaries between their own lives and their work, sometimes watching those boundaries completely dissolve, as LeBlanc did. "But nobody has even done anything quite like what Adrian had done," says Anne Fadiman, who spent eight years working on the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," during which she lived with a family for six months.

"The actual number of hours that I spent with them was nothing compared to what Adrian did," says Fadiman, who isn't expecting anyone to follow LeBlanc's lead any time soon She says nothing like "Random Family" exists in the world of nonfiction writing. The only possibly comparable works she can conjure are Michael Apted's documentaries that revisit a group of people every seven years (thus far, "7 Up" through "42 Up").

Alex Kotlowitz completely gave himself over for two years to report his bestselling book "There Are No Children Here," about two young brothers in a Chicago housing project. Like LeBlanc, he is still deeply involved in their lives, even now, 10 years later. But he bristles at the notion that it necessarily takes a decade of immersion to write faithfully about the experiences of a set of concentric circles outside your own.

"It's a remarkable feat of reporting, and it gives you an incredible sense of time. But the 10 years isn't what makes it remarkable in my mind. It's the intimacy. That's something you can do in one year or three years or five, depending on the circumstances. But most importantly, you have to be open to throw yourself into this other place, and that's what Adrian has done."

Kotlowitz expects that LeBlanc will now be pulled into policy discussions, as he was after his book came out. Though his book had posed no solutions to the dilemmas of the underclass, he was asked to go to the White House, to Congress, to HUD, to write op-ed pieces about the inevitable question -- what is to be done?

LeBlanc laughs at the notion. "It's really all so basic, I don't know why anyone would need to ask me about it," she says, securing her tousle of black hair into a plastic banana clip. "It's just about the basic stuff everybody needs -- nothing more imaginative or dramatic than that. Like continuity in programming, from childhood through life, not just crisis-driven responses. Prison spending should go to education and youth programming. We need day care. We need to raise the minimum wage. When Mercedes [Coco's daughter] has a toothache, she needs to go to a dentist -- it's that simple."

Her solutions are delivered with a shrug, as direct and undecorated as her prose. Sure, she's interested in the big picture, but today she has to worry about whether it's worth risking a drive through a snowstorm to ferry Cesar's daughters to his prison visiting room upstate. She has to coordinate the flood of media requests. And now that the book is finally done, she's spending as much time as she can with her own family.

Not that she's abandoned the random one. "It may sound crazy, but I'm still reporting on all these guys," she says about her book's subjects. "Some of the kids asked me why I don't do a book about them, and I just might. It's never going to end, I guess." She shrugs again. "It's my life. I don't want it to."

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