How would you feel if you were to learn that a member of your family had been arrested on suspicion of stealing? Or something even worse — arson, kidnapping, drug dealing, the kinds of criminality that land one in prison? For most of us, this would probably come as both a shock and an embarrassment; we might wonder how we had failed to see the signs, whether we were somehow complicit.
If yours were like some families, however, you might pump your fist just as you would when your favorite team scores. Junior’s going to prison. Yes!!!
Fox Butterfield’s new book, “In My Father’s House: A New View of How Crime Runs in a Family,” is a book about family values. Of a particular sort. Butterfield, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who spent 15 of his years at the New York Times covering criminal justice, traces a single extended family and its long trail of crime across geography and time, 60 (yes, 60) moonshiners and burglars, murderers and kidnappers, con men and drug dealers, car thieves and bombers. Grandparents, parents, children, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, in-laws and cousins, criminals all. What we might see as a bad apple might instead be proof that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
The connecting theme of Butterfield’s study is the multiperson biography that traces the criminality of Rooster Bogle’s one-family crime wave. But as captivating as that story is — and it sometimes unfolds like a novel, leaving us eagerly turning pages to find out what new strategies defense lawyers and prosecutors will deploy — the Bogles are merely the vehicle to tell a larger and more concerning story. The Bogles, we might think, are an aberration, a family unlike any other. Not so. Half of all crime in the United States is committed by just 5% of all families; 10% of American families account for two-thirds of all crime committed in the country. For them, crime is a family value: lawbreaking, it turns out, is a learned behavior and not so different from the sons of lawyers becoming lawyers.
Butterfield brings a considerable amount of science and social research into his generational biography and cites studies that show how genetically derived characteristics such as poor impulse control, poor decision-making skills, susceptibility to alcohol or sensation-seeking may in combination with other circumstances find an outlet in antisocial behavior, but families pass on more than genes: They also pass on expectations and values. Thus we see Bobby Bogle, locked up in reformatories and prisons from the time he was 12, sitting in the Oregon State Penitentiary and telling Butterfield: “My brothers always end up here eventually. They always show up. It’s an honorable thing to do for your family, as a criminal. It’s normal.” Learned behavior traces learned values; when one learns early that theft is honored, that breaking into a neighbor’s home or stealing from a corner market will earn praise, the lesson clicks into place. As in almost any endeavor, what we reward is what we get.
An important point: The Bogles are white and all were born in the United States; genetics — “nature” — may be one of the several factors in shaping the behavioral predispositions that form a piece of the crime puzzle, but the perpetrators of these crimes did not come across the border, nor do most; the perpetrators were not members of a racial minority, nor are most. One’s genes are part of a mosaic, but there is no such thing as a “crime” gene. This is a book that will brook no scapegoating.
Counter-factuals are difficult to prove, and it is hard to pin behavioral patterns on a single factor: Perhaps if the Bogles had been wealthier and better educated, if they had grown up surrounded by men and women with stable incomes and productive work, they would not be the focus of a book about crimes and those who commit them. The Bogles are defined both by their criminality and their disdain for scruples (Rooster Bogle made his preteen sons watch him having sex simultaneously with their mother and his girlfriend and forced them to join him in having sex with prostitutes; he gave his sons wine when they were 6 and forced the youngest boy, Tracey, to drink so much that he was an alcoholic by the time he was a teenager; Bobby’s mother took him to a strip club when he turned 16 and pointed to a naked dancer he at first failed to recognize: “that’s your sister, Melody,” his mom said: “That’s your birthday present”). But they are also defined by the repetitive cycle of the dire circumstances of their lives. Little education, unemployment, crude homes built by hand of available scraps and without running water. That, of course, does not excuse the crimes they committed. This is a book about the Bogles and crime and what the social sciences tell us about the roles of both nature and nurture; it is not an attempt to whitewash, explain away or absolve.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Butterfield for several years and thus have known that he was working on a project about a single family that had produced a long string of law violators. I was not, however, expecting the book he produced. It’s a riveting multiperson topic-specific biography — the characters and context are strongly drawn and the whole creates the feel of drama even though we pretty well know where the story is going — but it’s also an intriguing and sometimes disturbing deep dive into some powerful social dilemmas, like the role of parenting (or, more accurately, the lack of parenting, the absence of supervision and discipline) and the collateral damage to other family members in wake of mass incarceration.
When Kamala Harris was the district attorney in San Francisco, she wrote a book called “Smart on Crime”; in the years since, getting “smart” on crime has become an increasingly prominent cause, uniting groups both right and left (it’s the focus, for example, of a major bipartisan initiative by the Koch brothers).
Eventually, most prison inmates are released, free to go home. But one of the “smart on crime” breakthroughs Butterfield highlights, meant to reduce recidivism and break the cycle of repeated criminal behavior, is the increased use of halfway houses for newly released convicts; it turns out that in many cases, one of the worst things society can do is to send them back to their families.
Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years. He later taught at Harvard and Princeton and is a vice president of the Aspen Institute. He is the author of “The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans.”
Knopf: 288 pp., $26.95