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A Novel Idea


Jessica and Coco certainly don’t want their daughters to be molested—a fate that they themselves, both their mothers, and, in fact, virtually every woman in the ghetto experiences. (It’s so common that women actually state it as a reason not to have daughters.) Coco takes the precaution of having her daughters wear two pairs of underwear. But in their haphazard lives, their children end up being minded by so many other women and their various boyfriends, uncles, and stepfathers that when they are molested, it’s impossible to figure out who the perpetrators are.

Coco doesn’t want to keep having babies, but when she is pregnant with her third, Cesar writes to her from prison, “Coco, if it’s not a boy and I want to have another one from you, would you let me? I don’t care if I end up with 15 daughters, I’m still going to keep on. If you don’t give me my kids I’ll have them with somebody else.”

George and Cesar, for their part, aren’t aiming for prison; they’re just trying to make a buck on the streets. But as one study found, 80 percent of men in New York state prisons come from just seven neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx—and one of those is Cesar’s.

“I tried to see them as they see themselves and write without judgment,” LeBlanc says. “The whole process was one of getting myself out of the way, to say: This is Coco’s life as Coco sees it.” “I know no other writer who dug in as deep,” says the writer Anne Fadiman (author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down). “She didn’t just report; she burrowed into a world so well that it lost every speck of foreignness.”

By the end of the book, Cesar joins George behind bars—for accidentally shooting his best friend. Meanwhile, Jessica and Coco have five children apiece, by three and four men, respectively. Two of Jessica's children's fathers are brother thugs; the third is a prison guard with whom she has twins.

LeBlanc herself struggled with feelings of class alienation at Smith, she says. From a tight working-class Massachusetts family, she says her parents encouraged her to obtain the college education they lacked (her father is a union organizer, her mother an office worker). But although she developed close relationships with professors, “I felt a sense of constant misunderstanding when I went to Smith,” she recalls. “I was afraid of mischaracterizing the people I was writing about in the same way I felt mischaracterized. I was terrified—it felt like a big responsibility.”

The weight of that responsibility only seemed to grow heavier as years passed. “The more time I spent, the more I was aware of how little I understood them,” she says. For example, she remembers the time Coco’s younger brother had finally gotten a good job—a real job—and then abruptly quit it. The momentary boost in his self-esteem that employment had given him vanished, and he sank back into depression. When LeBlanc asked him why he’d quit, he said the daily cab fare had eaten up most of his salary. Why, she said, couldn’t he take the subway?

Many questions later, the real explanation emerged: He assumed that leaving the neighborhood by train was as dangerous as it was on foot. In his corner of the Bronx, leaving the neighborhood meant wandering into a rival posse’s territory without your own crew to back you up. “There were a million moments like that where I would realize I couldn’t make assumptions about what was going on in their heads,” she says.

Meanwhile, her own resources were dwindling. “All this time, money was a problem, and still is. People ask if I was ever tempted to help any of my characters. I say I would have loved to, but sometimes I didn’t even have gas money to get home!”

When—five years into the project—her contract was canceled for nondelivery, she had hundreds of disconnected scenes but only 75 actual pages. Through the novelist Ann Patchett, she met a new agent, Sloan Harris at ICM. He recalls reading her embryonic submission: “To read three pages is to know. There’s this amazing fondness for her characters that comes through. You find yourself empathizing with characters you otherwise wouldn’t. Of course,” he adds, as everyone does, “I had no idea it was going to be such an arduous process for her.”

Although many publishers passed on the pages, Nan Graham at Scribner immediately recognized the book within and bought it. “Adrian raises the bar on immersion journalism,” Graham says now. “Most people drop in on this kind of a world, make assumptions, and leave—the fact that she spent twelve years with these people on a daily basis shows. She has written the kind of social document that is going to outlive all of us.”

Although the $40,000 advance that Houghton Mifflin had given her was long gone, LeBlanc didn’t get more money from the new contract (the Scribner advance went to pay back Houghton Mifflin). She started having difficulty paying for her rent-stabilized railroad flat in the West Village. Patchett also introduced her to the late Gerald Freund, an older patron of the arts, who helped her get support from the Carnegie Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund, and the Whiting Foundation. She also met a philanthropist, Edwin C. Cohen, whose social-justice organization Blessing Way awarded her an arts grant. Cohen himself also gave her office space and let her stay at his house in Martha’s Vineyard. “He totally bailed me out,” she recalls. “I wouldn’t have finished without him.”

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