Adrian Leblanc is a bit breathless as she walks into a Manhattan lounge, the winter chill emanating from her puffy down coat and blue jeans. For the past month she has been running to and from a tight schedule of interviews and answering a constantly ringing phone. Her usually wavy, shoulder length hair is blown out straight. Her eyes roll behind her red-framed glasses; she’s on her way to another interview. “I don’t even have time to write in my journal,” she says. “It’s sad.”
Sad in a good way. After spending a decade reporting on a group of South Bronx teenagers, their children, their parents and friends, Leblanc wrote a sprawling nonfiction book called Random Family. She and her book are being talked about everywhere from the Village Voice and New York Times to the Today Show and WBAI. Unsentimentally, and seemingly omnisciently, Leblanc renders the characters of Random Family as multi-dimensional people caught in a relentless cycle of poverty. Though Leblanc spent years trailing her subjects around the Bronx, visiting hospitals, prisons and welfare offices, nowhere in Random Family do we see her as a voice, a character, even a narrator. While completely a work of nonfiction, the bleak and densely detailed story reads like a tragic novel. The characters develop as the story progresses, some completing a hero’s journey and others still confined to the condition they started in.
The current adulation aside, Leblanc’s constant immersion into her research did not come without sacrifice or loss — she freely admits that she lost some friends. She missed dinner parties and baby showers. “I was doing what I was doing and that was what I was doing. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t thoughtful,” she says. “I never did it to be an asshole, it’s just that something would happen uptown and I couldn’t leave.” At times, Leblanc did have to take breaks to find grant money to keep the project going. Luckily, she says, she found a rent-stabilized apartment. Not to mention her long-time boyfriend who has been an ally throughout the project.
As in anything, Random Family is not without its critics and detractors, but as of yet, the negative critiques haven’t reach Leblanc’s radar. Her detractors claim she has done nothing more than re-affirm middle-class assumptions about the poor. “I can understand that response, but I couldn’t have done it any other way. And I wouldn’t have. I wasn’t trying to get at an inner logic,” she says. “I spent as much time as I did in an attempt to capture things in proportion. I think you honor people by telling the truth. And the truth includes things that aren’t flattering. I think one of the worse things you can do for a subject is include sentimentality.” She says that sentimentality is a way to keep distance from one’s subject and believes that it is a “complex form of pity.”
So don’t expect any apologies from Leblanc. The first article she published, as a student at Smith College, was met with even more controversy. Leblanc wrote a piece about the Leominster suicides — a spate of teenaged suicides that took place in her hometown, a small working-class city outside of Boston. She wrote frankly about drug use, neglect and under age drinking “in a way I think may have surprised people,” she says. There was even an article in a local Leominster paper that used its headlines to accuse her of betraying her hometown.
Leblanc took on other assignments generated from her first piece. They all turned out to be about teenagers. “It wasn’t like I said, ‘I’m going to be a journalist who writes about kids.’ It just started the ball rolling and I found that I really liked it. I never stopped.”
After Smith, Leblanc settled in at Oxford University to work on a master’s in Modern Literature. She continued to freelance, ultimately leading her to a job at Seventeen magazine. “I wrote a few pieces for them when I was in graduate school,” she says. “I went to go meet [the editor] and we had this great conversation about short stories, and she said, ‘We are looking for a fiction editor.'” After an editing test, they asked her to start immediately.
By this time, Leblanc liked reporting on the lives of young people, particularly marginalized youth. She published a piece for the Village Voice that began as a piece about teenage runaways and developed into a piece about kids, crack and prostitution. “I don’t think it could have run in Seventeen,” she says. Although later a “sanitized” version did run in the magazine.
Next Leblanc began reporting on the trial of Boy George, a Bronx drug czar who reached legendary status in the drug world. He was raking in around $500,000 a week selling his own brand of heroin — Obsession. The DEA and FBI had informants and wire taps, and eventually, they had George. At the end of his trial, George was condemned to a life sentence.
Deciding to delve deeper, Leblanc applied for a one-year legal studies fellowship for journalists at Yale University and submitted a book proposal. She got both and left Seventeen. “I went to Yale [first]. I knew the book was already accepted; I had a contract. I went to Yale for background. I was probably a little too frightened to step out on my own in a way, but it was a good year. I was feeling like I needed to learn about the law and find out about the legal system.”
Armed with a legal background, a book advance and some South Bronx contacts supplied by Boy George, Leblanc started her interviews for Random Family in 1989. First, she met Jessica. She was George’s young girlfriend whose beauty and sex appeal were commonly acknowledged throughout their neighborhood. From Jessica sprouted the limbs and branches that made up the family tree that formed Leblanc’s Random Family. In 1993, Leblanc met Coco, Jessica’s “sister-in-law.” Coca was dating Ceaser, Jessica’s little brother. Coca becomes the centerpiece of Random Family, eventually bearing two of Ceasar’s children. Though just as caught in the cycle of poverty, early parenthood and seeing the man she loves incarcerated, Coca never gets involved in drugs and at one point, even moves to Upstate New York, albeit into a cul-de-sac version of the projects, to get away from the Bronx drug trade. But Upstate was not necessarily a respite; one can move away from her environment, but necessarily her problems.
Part of Leblanc’s journalistic mission is to “reduce the driving fog of fear” surrounding the mythology of the poor and to “humanize the people most effected by policy.” She is firm that a writer should “talk frankly about the complexities of people’s lives,” or any policy developed as a result of that reportage will be based on inaccuracies.
Leblanc would like to see social policy change in a way that would mean something to the poor, something progressive that has a hope of changing the circumstances that often drive people to sell drugs, drop out of school and end up jail. “Poverty policy is punitive. It’s punishing.” She says that there is an “absolute necessity of funding of youth programs” and that incarceration as a social response to poverty is futile. She sites the fact that America spends $42 billion a year on prisons. “That is a historical fact. And that has a historical impact.” She would also like to see the harsh Rockefeller drug laws repealed.
Whatever the impact of Random Family on the public, it has also had an impact on Leblanc — the experience of writing it has given her a new definition of family. The friends that she lost opened doors for her to make new ones. Now she runs with a crowd that is often as busy and she is, and understands the dedication she has for her work. Coca has become a close friend, a part of her family, as have Ceasar and several other central characters in her book. Now, she says, family is spelled with a capital F. “Family is where I make it. It makes me more committed to my friendships in a deep, long-lasting sense. I see ‘family’ as a broader term. It has enhanced my definition.” At 38, Leblanc and her boyfriend haven’t made any decisions about whether or not they will add to their own family. Regardless, Leblanc says she does not regret a moment of her time spent reporting and writing Random Family. Ever? “Never.”