Sociologist Alice Goffman’s book “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City,” drew fulsome praise upon its publication in 2014 and gave its youthful author a crossover reputation -- a TED talk, a speaking tour, possible TV and movie deals, trade paperback reprint.
A chronicle of the six years Goffman said she spent living in an inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood interacting with its residents, “On the Run” also drew some criticism, mostly from other authors and academics who questioned her conclusions, motivations or understanding of the community she had described in such vivid detail. But these were treated as quibbles amid the flood of plaudits from sources such as Malcolm Gladwell and the New York Times. On the whole, the book, which grew out of Goffman’s undergraduate project at the University of Pennsylvania, continued as her doctoral thesis at Princeton, was taken as a sharply observed account of how the police and judges confine the residents of black communities in a judicial web of criminality and despair.
Now Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern, has placed the issue of Goffman’s methods and veracity back on the front burner. Goffman has answered his critique in a way that leaves him “even less certain how much of the book is true.” Others, including Eugene Volokh of the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy law blog, have taken a closer look at “On the Run,” and come away with similar doubts.
Goffman’s publishers at the University of Chicago Press and Picador, and her current employers at the University of Wisconsin, have been largely silent or dismissive about the controversy. But the book, previously regarded as a landmark in urban ethnography, may be due for a reevaluation. And that’s perilous ground.
Lubet’s most serious charge is that Goffman, in one of the most dramatic episodes of “On the Run,” appears to commit a felony. The episode comes at the very end of the book, and involves the aftermath of a shooting that claims the life of “Chuck,” one of her neighbors, friends and subjects. (Every resident of the neighborhood in the book is identified only by a pseudonym, as is the community itself.)
Chuck’s friends go on an armed hunt for his killer, on several occasions driven around by Goffman. “I volunteered,” she writes. “We started out around 3:00 a.m., with Mike in the passenger seat, his hand on his Glock as he directed me around the area.” One night Mike thinks he’s spotted his quarry. “He tucked his gun in his jeans, got out of the car, and hid in the adjacent alleyway. I waited in the car with the engine running, ready to speed off as soon as Mike ran back and got inside.” But it was the wrong man.
Lubet and other legal experts he consulted are unanimous in concluding that Goffman’s actions “constituted conspiracy to commit murder under Pennsylvania law.”
Volokh notes that practically speaking, the statute of limitations on any such felony has probably run. But he adds that the issue “isn’t whether a prosecution is likely to be launched on these facts ... but more broadly how such conduct should be reacted to even if no prosecution is brought.”
Goffman’s response is essentially: Well, it didn’t really happen that way. “The summary account in the book does not include significant points that are relevant to the claim that I was engaged in a criminal conspiracy,” she writes. “Most important, I had good reason to believe that this night would not end in violence or injury. ... Talk of retribution was just that: talk.”
Lubet is properly unimpressed by this response. The book describes several night runs, not one. Violence already had occurred, so her confidence that it wouldn’t be repeated was unwarranted. The possible outcome of the night rides is presented in the book as gunplay and death; in Goffman’s response, it’s merely “talk.”
In any case, the supposed virtue of “On the Run” is that it’s an uncompromising, you-are-there account of real events and real people. If Goffman is now conceding that this crucial episode was hype, what about the rest of the book?
Lubet raises other issues of veracity, and he’s not alone. He and other commentators, including James Forman Jr. in the Atlantic, cast doubt on Goffman’s description of police procedure. She writes that police routinely scan hospital logbooks for the names of visitors and patients, fishing for people who may be skipping warrants or parole; in one dramatic anecdote, a new mother named Donna pleads with the cops not to take her baby’s father, Alex, out of her hospital room in handcuffs -- “Please don’t take him away. ... Just let him stay with me tonight.”
Forman polled civil rights attorneys and public defenders up and down the Eastern seaboard, and “couldn’t find a single person who knew of a case like Alex and Donna’s.” Leaving aside the legal protections against divulging patient names or details to outsiders, it’s hard to see how such a routine could count as an efficient use of police time.
Goffman may effectively have immunized herself and her book against second-guessing by cloaking all of her subjects behind pseudonyms and destroying her field notes -- a step she says she took to avoid being subpoenaed for the names of subjects she witnessed in criminal activity.
Certainly much of “On the Run” rings very true, and there’s no disputing the vigor of its prose and the percipience of much of Goffman’s observation. Authorities' exploitation of petty infractions to confine minorities in an endless cycle of fines and court dates and police harassment has been documented in many communities, including Ferguson, Mo. No one can follow news reports of police shootings and beatings of black residents of cities across America and doubt that much of what Goffman described does happen as a matter of course in the neighborhood she dubs “6th Street.”
But accusations that she shaded the truth, or even fabricated episodes, are proliferating. Even before Lubet’s broadside, an anonymous 63-page bill of particulars against “On the Run” was circulating online. The University of Wisconsin says it looked into the claims and found them to be “without merit.”
Some in the sociological community have expressed uneasiness about Goffman’s methods, and some in the black community are unhappy with her focus on criminality in 6th Street, arguing that it’s an misleadingly narrow and stereotypical perspective on life in a black neighborhood that a sociologist should have recognized as far more various.
The concern implicitly raised by Lubet, scholar Christina Sharpe of Tufts, the poet Dwayne Betts, and other critics is that despite its status as a book likely to become a long-term anchor of ethnographic studies, “On the Run’s” popularity and buzz have rendered it almost entirely exempted from validation and reexamination. That may be about to change.