The Book Club

What Do We Owe Our Subjects?

Dear Sudhir,

I’ve long been an admirer of your scholarly work on the inner city, especially your research explaining why so many street-corner drug dealers live with their moms, so it’s a pleasure to join you in a discussion about your latest, Gang Leader for a Day.

My first task, I’m told, is to summarize your book. Let me try to do it justice. Gang Leader for a Day is a departure for Sudhir, in that it’s a highly personal account, one which strays from the traditional field of sociological literature. While in graduate school at the University of Chicago, Sudhir was helping to gather material for a study on poor young blacks on Chicago’s South Side. He went out into the neighborhoods with clipboard in hand and a set of prepared questions but quickly learned that there was no substitute for unrehearsed, spontaneous conversations—and that a quick visit with a clipboard was no substitute for just hanging out, for spending months if not years with people to understand how they live. So, Sudhir began spending time at a building in the Robert Taylor Homes, at the time the largest public housing complex in the world, a series of cinderblock monuments that had come to symbolize our nation’s neglect of, if not outright hostility toward, the poor.

It’s there that Sudhir befriends J.T., a leader of a local gang involved in the crack trade, and Ms. Bailey, a heavyset woman who was the political boss of the building. Sudhir spends four years at this one high rise, becoming emotionally invested in the lives of its residents and entangled in their affairs, sometimes in ways he hadn’t intended. At one point, in an effort to understand the neighborhood’s underground economy, Sudhir surveys residents involved in moneymaking endeavors—from selling food and candy from their kitchens to running unlicensed daycare centers from their homes to repairing cars in the alleys—and shares the information with J.T. and Ms. Bailey, inadvertently betraying his sources. Armed with Sudhir’s data, J.T. and Ms. Bailey learn that many of their neighbors are earning more than they thought—and demand a bigger cut of their illicit activities.

The book, which is in the tradition of works like Terry Williams’ The Cocaine Kids, David Simon and Edward Burns’ The Corner, and an old, obscure favorite of mine, David Dawley’s A Nation of Lords: the Autobiography of the Vice Lords, seeks to find empathy with its subjects. Like these other writers, Sudhir humanizes people who have become stick figures in the American imagination.

Sudhir, there’s much to talk about. You write eloquently of the Alice in Wonderland quality of life that existed in the Chicago’s projects. I loved, for instance, the episode where Ms. Bailey persuades a local liquor store to give her a gift of beer and bourbon (she promises to tell tenants to shop there) and then uses the goods to barter with local shops for clothes for the building’s residents. I was rooting for her. You write chillingly of how a community that seems to have collapsed in on itself actually finds order through its own set of rules, enforced through violence and coercion and just plain social pressure.

But what particularly intrigued me about your book is the question you pose at the very beginning: What do we, as writers, owe our subjects? I don’t necessarily mean this in monetary terms, though that’s certainly a part of it. We’re writing about people who are in incredibly vulnerable positions, with few resources and often with lives that are imploding as we stand by and record events. We see things and hear things that could get people in trouble. We come to care deeply about them, and sometimes our role as reporter or sociologist gets mixed up with our role as friend.

Early on, you write: “No one back at the U of C had prepared me to feel such strong emotional connections to the people I studied. None of the ethnographic studies I’d read offered much guidance about the relationship a researcher formed during fieldwork and how to manage them. … I also wondered how I might pay them back in a more direct fashion.”

Even after 20 years of doing this kind of work, I don’t know that I’ve completely figured that out. You spend time with people for months, even years, and inevitably you build a friendship with them, one that often runs parallel (and sometimes counter) to your relationship as writer and subject. When I first began to spend time with Lafeyette and Pharoah, the two boys whose lives I chronicled in There Are No Children Here, they could have cared less about the book-in-progress; all they wanted to know was: Would I still be there for them after I was finished with my reporting?

What do we owe our subjects? Do we walk away from their lives when we’re done reporting on them? If we’ve undertaken a commercial enterprise like a book, do we owe them anything financially? Not long ago, a gentleman whom I hoped to write about in a book told me he would cooperate only if he received some remuneration. He wasn’t asking for cash in hand, but rather that I contribute to his daughter’s college fund. It has always seemed to me only reasonable for someone in this man’s position to pose the question: What’s in this for me? An interesting exercise followed. I called friends around the country, editors and writers and filmmakers. What would they do? What should I do? I was surprised by the answers.

Only one person, an author who was a part of the new journalists of the 1960s, was adamant that under no circumstances could I pay a subject. Everyone else equivocated. In fact, one friend, a documentary filmmaker, told me that if I wasn’t willing to give this person a financial stake in the project then I needed to find another vocation. We owe people something, my friend argued, for sharing their lives in such a public way. Jon Krakauer (according to a recent piece on this subject in Columbia Journalism Review) paid a subject $20,000 for rights to her memoir because he felt she should receive some compensation for her time and for her story.

In the end, I chose not to pursue the book with this gentleman, though to be honest I worked hard at trying to figure out a way to pay him. But I knew enough about his story to know that I would be writing a sympathetic account of his circumstance, and I felt that a financial partnership would tarnish anything I wrote in the eyes of readers, especially because he was entwined in a controversial situation. 

But of course money isn’t the only question here. You mention at one point that you were made aware by colleagues at the University of Chicago that if you witnessed a crime (which in fact you did) you could be subpoenaed as a witness. Forget about your legal obligation for the moment: What’s your moral obligation? I don’t ask this rhetorically.

These ethical matters plague anyone who writes about people whose lives are lived on the edge. Your thoughts?