CommonWealth Magazine


HISTORY IS HAPPENING crashing down with all the drama that turns the pages of a gripping work of fiction.

An opening scene of the 15-year-old protagonist pointing a gun at his mother’s face. A rewind of the story to a stage where he was a 6 or 7 year old boy holding a brick menacingly over the head of another boy after he had first tied it to the leg with it. Years later, he’s a hardened street gamer, inflicting violence or the threat of it without a second thought, almost dying of a bullet in the neck, but only gets away with being sentenced to 15 years in federal prison, where he now spends days writing, trying to figure out who he is, a dangerous criminal who once gave himself the nickname “Death”.

Despite its literary character, the powerfully told story is not a novel, but a narrative journalistic article of over 8,000 words who made the Sunday headlines Boston Globe.

Long duration World criminal journalist Evan Allen explains in the article that this resulted from his quest to find an example of “what Boston police used to call “dynasty families” – families that seemed to pass violence as a legacy from generation to generation. ”

She found such a family – and a lot of material from which to begin assembling their story – through her correspondence with Anthony Pledger, a Boston native who shared her story with her through a constant exchange of letters from a cell in federal prison in California.

“Anthony’s great-uncle killed his best friend,” she writes. “Her mother went to jail for robbing a bank. Her father was a gang member and a drug dealer. Two of his brothers were serving life sentences for murder, another was murdered pending his gun trial, and a fourth was shot but survived. Anthony himself was a dangerous and brutal man just over half of a 15-year stint in federal prison.

Allen says she sought to answer a central question. “I wanted to know if this was inevitable,” she writes of Pledger’s life trajectory.

Pledger was not only gunned down as a young adult, but he was also abused as a child at the hands of a belt brandished by his mother – having run away at least once to escape to blows. But it is the pleasure he says he felt while visiting the pain of others that jumps out at the most frightening in history.

“Something amazing had happened to him over there on that end of the sidewalk, with the brick in the air and his eyes fixed on the terrified boy, ”Allen writes of meeting Pledger at the age of 6 or 7.

“It was the first time that I shared my pain and felt the soothing pleasure of inflicting it,” she wrote to him in one of her many letters. “The violence has become a breakdown,” Pledger said.

“What I find to inflict pain is company in my dark place,” Pledger wrote to him in another letter. “I needed the victims to feel what it feels like to hurt.”

Allen’s powerful essay unboxes the story of a Boston “dynasty” family, but it is also largely a story of our time. The level of trauma and chaos in Pledger’s life can be difficult for most to understand, but the idea of ​​exploring the past to understand some aspect of how someone is broken today has become the one. daily history of modern life.

This is the blow to contemporary fiction and cinema that literary critic Parul Sehgal offers in the latest issue of The New Yorker. In “The case against the trauma plot”, she writes that “the plot of trauma flattens, distorts, reduces the character to a symptom and, in turn, educates and emphasizes its moral authority.”

Sehgal suggests we are inundated with stories that find PTSD under every stone – or as the backstory of too many narrative offerings. “The invocation of trauma promises access to a well-guarded blood chamber; more and more, however, we feel like we’ve stepped into a rather generic motel room, with all the signs of heavy turnover, ”she wrote.

The idea of ​​traumatic memories is actually a relatively new idea, she explains, first expressed in the 1860s by a British physician who recounted reports of “confusion, hearing voices and paralysis” among women. victims of railway accidents who had not suffered any physical injuries. The idea reached a wider scope with the introduction of the idea of ​​being “shocked” by service during World War I. Fast forward to the present and stories of trauma are everywhere – from COVID report on schoolchildren at the lingering effects of the Capitol uprising a year later on those who lived it.

Stories of trauma seem to have become the literary piñata of the season. Sehgal’s essay follows an equally harsh assessment of Will Self in the December cover of Harper magazine“A posthumous shock: how it all became trauma.”

While awkward invocations of the global power of trauma can pervade modern culture, Allen’s essay hardly seems to conform to the generic denigration of Sehgal’s motel room.

Indeed, a central tension of his piece involves grappling with the question of how much of Pledger’s violence and cruelty resulted from having these things returned to him.

“Sometimes he seemed to consider the idea that life had drilled violence into him,” she wrote. “But in his replies to my long, in-depth letters, he kept coming back again and again to the idea that his sufferings, which were becoming more and more cruel and calculated from year to year, were not creations but revelations. , each returning a different coat. the truth of what it already was. “A birthmark,” he wrote to me. “

Allen breaks with journalistic conventions by bringing his own ‘birthmark’ story into the essay, courageously sharing his struggle with mental illness – and the long line of family members with such a history that points to a genetic predisposition. Most poignantly, she wonders what this might mean for her own young daughter.

Meet the author

Editor-in-chief, Commonwealth

On Michael jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in Massachusetts journalism since the early 1980s. Prior to joining the CommonWealth team in early 2001, he was an editor for the magazine for two years. Her cover story in the Fall 1999 issue of CommonWealth on Young Boston Outreach Workers was shortlisted for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) award from the National Crime and Delinquency Council.

Michael made his journalism debut at Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston’s largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the City Weekly section of the Boston Sunday Globe.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he co-produced “The AIDS Quarterly,” a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s he worked as a producer for “Our Times,” a weekly magazine on WHDH- TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

On Michael jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in Massachusetts journalism since the early 1980s. Prior to joining the CommonWealth team in early 2001, he was an editor for the magazine for two years. Her cover story in the Fall 1999 issue of CommonWealth on Young Boston Outreach Workers was shortlisted for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) award from the National Crime and Delinquency Council.

Michael made his journalism debut at Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston’s largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the City Weekly section of the Boston Sunday Globe.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he co-produced “The AIDS Quarterly,” a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s he worked as a producer for “Our Times,” a weekly magazine on WHDH- TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Just as she shares her fervent hope that her daughter will not “inherit what I have done,” Allen desperately wants to believe that Pledger can find some version of redemption.

But unlike the quality of the trauma accounts Sehgal and Self so disparage, she seems resigned to the ambiguity of her story and the understanding that things don’t go in a straight line.

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