Written on the mind and the body

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Wrong Place,
Wrong Time
By John A. Rich
(Johns Hopkins
University Press,
232 pages; $24.95)

Tayvon pulls his shirt back down after showing me the scar that extends below his waistband to his groin and up to his sternum. It's about an inch wide, a raised, milky sheen standing out from his caramel skin with symmetrical dots framing the disfiguration, marking where the sutures pulled the flesh together after the surgeons repaired the damage the bullet caused when it passed through his belly.

"See this?" He points to a small scar at his hairline. "That's where I was pistol-whipped. Now that shit was really fucked up." Tayvon is a small, wiry, baby-faced 18-year-old in a Baltimore prison when he speaks offhandedly about this comparative value of his physical traumas. His red rubber bracelet marks his street affiliation, and he tells me without affectation that there is nothing he can do to escape.

That culture of violence, its omnipresence, its inexorability, and the powerful physical and psychological scars it has left on the young men from so many urban neighborhoods in America is the subject of John A. Rich's vital new book, Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men. Rich is the chair of the Department of Health Management and Policy at the Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia, where he is also the director of the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice. He is also a MacArthur Fellow and founder and practicing doctor at the Young Men's Health Clinic in Boston.

We now have several generations of urban soldiers who have grown into, been affected by and perpetuated this culture of violence, and Rich was struck by how little research had gone into thinking through the role of trauma in the lives of urban men. Research elsewhere — notably on soldiers in war and victims of domestic violence — is clear on the powerful social and psychological consequences of traumatic experience. The common symptoms of what we have come to know as post-traumatic stress disorder — hypervigilance, inability to feel, a desire to return to danger to master one's fears, self-medication with drugs and alcohol, depression — are clearly observable to anyone who has spent time with young urban men.

The social costs of trauma are less often clear, and Rich makes a compelling case that those costs are something we often miss in our pop-sociological theories about what's wrong with life in the inner city. For example, Rich recasts a common theory: "Fragmentation of urban families, while often attributed to lack of responsibility on the part of the father, may have significant roots in trauma itself. We know that traumatized people can find it difficult to connect to loved ones and feel. We also know that in the setting of poverty and lack of opportunity young men may find it difficult to fulfill their responsibilities, even if they desire to do so."

Many large cities' mayors and police chiefs have made a crusade of getting guns off the streets and demanding harsh prosecution of those with guns. What Rich points out is that traumatized urban young men live with a perpetual feeling of being unsafe. What traumatized people do — sometimes masked with the cool pose of urban machismo — is go to extreme lengths to protect themselves, often doing whatever it takes to get a weapon.

Wrong Place is no academic, theoretical treatise, however. The book is a very personal story. Rich confronts his own biases about the young victims and perpetrators of urban violence and the near-consensus among his fellow health-care providers and the public at large that the young male victims of urban violence either brought it on themselves or deserved what they got. He quotes former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle to capture the widely held sentiment:

These kids are not going to grow up to be Colin Powell. They will not be Michael Jordan, either, or some other warm black male role model who make whites feel good about themselves.

They are going to be our worst nightmare: an army of sociopaths who are a threat to themselves, to those closest to them and, inevitably, to the richer, white world beyond the borders of their miserable existence.

You can kid yourself all you want or say it is racist to even discuss these things. But it is out there, percolating in a place most never see, where too many learn too fast to wake up each day angry, violent, with no conscience, and quite ready to do business.

For the bulk of the book, to counter the broad strokes of such generalization, Rich tells the stories of specific young men who were caught up in this culture of violence. He mostly meets them in emergency rooms, intensive care units or prison, where he questions them, follows them beyond their injuries and records their voices. In his relationships with these young men he chronicles his own growing, changing understanding of violence and trauma in their lives.

Without hearing those voices and challenging our preconceptions, Rich writes, "we could easily formulate solutions that are out of sync with the realities of their lives and that would be ineffective or outright destructive." There is plenty of evidence that our current attempts at solutions are indeed out of sync.

"Wrong place, wrong time" was the phrase many young men offered to Rich as an explanation of how they encountered violence. It captures their sense of both the fatalism and arbitrariness of urban violence, a fatalism and arbitrariness that we on the outside of such experience often feel when pursuing solutions. Wrong Place, Wrong Time calls us back to the table to see our safety as intimately connected to the safety of the young men we dismiss with cliché, even as they become the prime bogeyman of our conscience in urban America.

A version of this review first appeared in the Baltimore City Paper.

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