The Book Club

A Singular Moment in the Universe

There is no escaping the claims that the family makes on you.

This is one thing that Wideman learned in Laramie. The eldest son of a working class family, Wideman distinguished himself as a basketball player and Rhodes Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. He landed a teaching job at Penn but moved to the University of Wyoming to put distance between himself and the one, long emergency that was his Pittsburgh family life. Specifically, he was fleeing his younger brother Robby, who had drug and other maladaptive problems. In November of 1975, Robby stepped up to bigtime crime and became a fugitive in a case of armed robbery and murder. Naturally, he lit out for the west–and Laramie.

In the opening of Brothers and Keepers, Wideman writes: “The two thousand miles between Laramie, Wyoming, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my years of willed ignorance, of flight and hiding, had not changed a simple truth: Robby was inside me. Wherever he was, running for his life, he carried part of him with me.” Three months after the crime, Robby turned up at the John’s door. Harboring a fugitive, as you know, Walter, is a big-time crime.

Laramie was not the safe retreat it was meant to be. Neighbors remember Wideman’s wife as standoffish. (They are an interracial couple. That isn’t easy now; it had to be hell in the 1970’s.)

In a famous piece published 10 years ago in Vanity Fair, Wideman’s Laramie basketball buddies recalled him as difficult and unyielding even in meaningless pickup games, so much so that they sometimes walked off the court. (He was a wonderful player at Penn; well-liked, too).

The Widemans were living in Laramie when their son Jake committed the murder that currently has him behind bars. Wideman had already taken Robby’s problems too much to heart. This new blow to the family nearly took him down, it seems; something in him is still crying. He seemed to buy into the line that he had Robby had grown up in the same home, under the same circumstances. Physicists have long since made it clear that a different place in time is the equivalent of a different place in place as well. Each shift in time is a shift in circumstance; Pittsburgh in 1960 is no more like Pittsburgh in 1970 than Moscow is like Beijing. To think otherwise is to be fundamentally confused about the nature of reality.

The mistaken idea that he and Robby had some how come from the same world–and that he had to explain the difference between them–plagued John in Brothers and Keepers. The problem, it seems to me, is the way society as a whole compares the brother who succeeds to the one who ends up on the rocks. In racial terms, the successful brother’s accomplishments are marshalled as evidence that the failed brother lacked character–and blew opportunities that might have made him successful as well. Hence, the Phd’d Negro with the books to his name becomes proof, against his will, that all those other Negroes could do better if they just got up off their lazy asses. The successful brother is taken as proof that racism does not exist–and that impoverished Negroes trapped in ghettos are responsible for their own problems that plague them. Being used this way was torture for the young John Wideman. Or so it seems to me. He seemed to ask: Why am I of them but not like them. The simple answer is that he was quite unique, born at a singular moment in the universe.

He could have avoided the torture rack, not by denying his uniqueness, but by decoding and rejecting the basic logic of the loaded social comparison.