Sunday, September 16, 2007

Fox Butterfield, "All God's Children".

I've always resisted the idea of genetic determinism. Clearly genes guide the development of each and every human being. But I feel most people go too far in crediting them for the ultimate product. For most traits beyond the most basic and physically fundamental, it is clusters of genes that work together to help define manifestation. Many individual genes are facultative, which means that they introduce a range of possibility into the organism at conception. Environmental factors largely decide how an individual grows. Complex behaviors are even less reducible to genetic determinism. I've described how my thoughts about genes affects my perspective on homosexuality and gender identity.

Another dimension of human behavior that some posit has a genetic component is criminality. This notion is philosophically suspect right off the bat, since conceptions of criminality vary over societies and time periods. Certainly I will grant that a cluster of genes can affect the individual's predisposition for becoming impulsive or aggressive, but that's as far as I'm willing to go regarding the relationship between crime and genes. Yet if there is one account that could make me reconsider my position- it would have to be All God's Children (1995) by author Fox Butterfield. This book is a case study of a New York man named Willie Bosket. It traces several generations of the Bosket family and describes the difficulties and criminal activities of the various males in Willie's direct genealogy.

Butterfield actually adopts an unconventional approach in telling the Bosket story. He traces the root of their difficulties all the way back to antebellum South Carolina, and more specifically to a county called Edgefield. The case is made that this particular region has one of the most violent histories of any rural area in the United States. Butterfield examines the culture perpetrated by the white classes in the county. Indeed there is much historical record documenting an extreme orientation toward violence. This record extends to include the physical assault of a US Congressman (Preston Brooks- and Edgefield native) on a US Senator (Charles Sumner). It is the author's contention that this environment of mayhem was passed down to the slaves in Edgefield County. As the Civil War and the demise of Southern Reconstruction pushed African Americans to northern urban areas, this legacy of violence was transmitted along with them. (Please bear in mind that I am greatly simplifying Butterfield's train of logic here in the interests of keeping my description of the book brief.)

Willie Bosket's ancestors found themselves in Harlem, on northern Manhattan Island. Willie's father Butch was an incorrigible youth, abandoned by his parents and left to the mercies of a chaotic juvenile justice system. As his antisocial behaviors evolved, he was passed from agency to agency along with a sense of frustration and a lack or resources to truly help him. As one might expect, Butch ended up in prison for life after an exchange with a pawnbroker that resulted in the murder of two individuals. Butterfield interviewed many family members, bureaucrats, and social workers that came into contact with Butch during his lifetime. He manages to capture the sadness inherent in Butch Bosket's story, as well as the brutality that he visited on innocent victims. While he doesn't candy-coat the consequences of Butch's actions, he is not without sympathy for the neglect and mismanagement that contributed to his ultimate "fate".

The case for the contribution of a genetic component in the formation of criminal personality is made most effectively in the examination of the arc of Willie Bosket's life. Both his personality and his early childhood experience eerily mirror that of his father. There is suggestion of a mental disorder that both Boskets may have been born with. Regardless of the origination of the similarities, they can't be denied. Indeed Willie ends up in several of the exact same correctional institutions that appear to have failed Butch. They even share the same diagnoses as determined by psychiatrists and behavioral specialists. Yet the scale of violence seems to have increased with each generation of the Bosket family. By the time he reached adulthood, Willie had murdered at least three human beings. At times Butterfield seems prone to overstatement- both his characterization of Willie Bosket as the most dangerous man in the New York penal system and his descriptions of his subject's personal charm seem exaggerated. But All God's Children's exhaustive study of one (perhaps) demonstrative American family certainly illuminates the mix of cultural and physical inheritance that contributes to the incidence of antisocial behavior.

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