THE STORY COMES crashing in with all the page-turning drama of a gripping work of fiction.
An opening scene of the 15-year-old protagonist pointing a gun to his mother’s face. A rewinding of the story to a scene of him as a boy of 6 or 7 holding a brick menacingly over another boy’s head after first having pegged him in the leg with it. Years later, he’s a hardened street player, meting out violence or the threat of it without a second thought, nearly dying himself with a bullet in his neck, but pulling through only to go on to catch a 15-year federal prison sentence, where he now spends days writing, trying to make sense of who he is, a dangerous felon who once gave himself the moniker “Death.”
Despite its literary feel, the powerfully told story is no novel, but an 8,000-word-plus piece of narrative journalism that appeared on the front-page of Sunday’s Boston Globe.
Longtime Globe crime reporter Evan Allen explains in the piece that it resulted from her quest to find an example of “what the Boston police used to call ‘Dynasty Families’ — families that seemed to pass violence like an heirloom from one generation to the next.”
She found such a family – and plenty of material from which to begin to assemble their tale – through her correspondence with Anthony Pledger, a Boston native who shared his story with her through a steady exchange of letters from a federal prison cell in California.
“Anthony’s great-uncle killed his best friend,” she writes. “His mother went to prison for robbing a bank. His father was a gang member and a drug dealer. Two of his brothers were serving life for murder, another had been murdered while awaiting trial on gun charges, and a fourth had been shot but lived. Anthony himself was a dangerous and brutal man a little more than halfway through a 15-year stint in federal prison.”
Allen says she sought to answer one central question. “I wanted to know if this was inevitable,” she writes of Pledger’s life trajectory.
Pledger was not only shot as a young adult, but the victim of violence as a boy at the hands of a belt wielded by his mother – running away at least once to escape beatings. But it is the pleasure he says he got from visiting pain on others that jumps out most chillingly in the story.
“Something astonishing had happened to him out there on that patch of sidewalk, with the brick in the air and his eyes locked on the terrified boy,” Allen writes of Pledger’s encounter at age 6 or 7.
“That there was the first time I shared my pain and felt the soothing pleasure in inflicting it,” she says he wrote to her in one of his many letters. “Violence became ventilation,” Pledger said.
“What I find in inflicting pain is company in my dark place,” Pledger wrote to her in another letter. “I needed for the victims to feel how it feel to hurt.”
Allen’s powerful essay unpacks the tale of one Boston “dynasty” family, but it is also very much a story of our time. The level of trauma and chaos in Pledger’s life may be hard for most to fathom, but the idea of mining the past to understand some aspect of how someone is broken today has become the everyday story of modern life.
That’s the knock on current fiction and film offered up by literary critic Parul Sehgal in the most recent issue of The New Yorker. In “The case against the trauma plot,” she writes that “the trauma plot flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom, and, in turn, instructs and insists upon its moral authority.”
Sehgal suggests we are being barraged with stories that find PTSD under every rock – or as the backstory to too many narrative offerings. “The invocation of trauma promises access to some well-guarded bloody chamber; increasingly, though, we feel as if we have entered a rather generic motel room, with all the signs of heavy turnover,” she writes.
The idea of traumatic memories is actually a relatively new idea, Sehgal explains, first given expression in the 1860s by a British physician who chronicled reports of “confusion, hearing voices, and paralysis” among victims of railway accidents who had experienced no physical injuries. The idea attained broader reach with the introduction of the idea of being “shell-shocked” from service in World War I. Fast forward to the present and tales of trauma are everywhere – from the toll of COVID on school children to the lingering effects of the Capitol insurrection a year later on those who experienced it.
Trauma narratives seem to have become the literary piñata of the season. Sehgal’s essay follows an equally harsh assessment by Will Self in the December cover story of Harper’s Magazine – “A posthumous shock: How everything became trauma.”
While clunky invocations of the all-encompassing power of trauma may be overrunning modern culture, Allen’s essay hardly seems to conform to Sehgal’s generic motel room putdown.
Indeed, a central tension of her piece involves wrestling with the question of how much of Pledger’s violence and cruelty sprang from having had those things visited upon him.
“Sometimes, he seemed to consider the idea that life drilled the violence into him,” she writes. “But in his answers to my long, probing letters, he came back again and again to the notion that his inflictions of pain, which grew more cruel and calculated with every passing year, were not creations but revelations, each turning back another cloak shrouding the truth of what he already was. ‘A birthmark,’ he wrote to me.”
Allen breaks with journalistic conventions by bringing her own “birthmark” story into the essay, bravely sharing her struggle with mental illness – and the long line of family members with such history that points to a genetic predisposition. Most poignantly, she wonders what it could mean for her own young daughter.
Just as she shares her fervent hope that her daughter doesn’t “inherit what I did,” Allen desperately wants to believe Pledger can find some version of redemption.
But unlike the canned quality to trauma narratives that Sehgal and Self are so disparaging of, she seems resigned to the ambiguity of his story, and the understanding that things don’t move ahead in a straight line.