The City of Slim Shadies

On days like this, when the sky is so heavy with clouds that we never glimpse the sun, and the wind is cold and damp, and it seems like winter will never end . . . I think of Eminem.

I guess I don’t mean the rapper himself so much as the character he played in 8 Mile [plot synopsis], which I saw when it came out in 2002 mostly because I was so impressed with the rap “Lose Yourself” [lyrics].  It very strikingly captures a young man’s desperation to escape the life he’s always known by seizing a fleeting chance to express himself in a way that will be heard and magnified to bring his family a better future.  The film amazed me with its very consistent, insistent pull, bringing me right into Rabbit’s story that he was not only telling me but making me see and feel.  I left the theater and had to walk around in the cold drizzle for a long time letting him speak to me some more.

And I thought, I work for that guy.  I work for 1,517 guys, a lot of whom are a lot like that.

Disclaimer: This article is not in any way an official statement by the Pittsburgh Youth Study or any of its funding entities.  This is a statement of my personal opinions and feelings.  For information about the Pittsburgh Youth Study, see our many publications.

Now, most people would say that I “work for” the principal investigators of the study, or that I “work for” a psychiatric hospital that is part of a corporate health-care system, or that I “work for” a research study that is funded by federal grants.  Yes, those are the ways my work is organized and paid.  But who have I been working for in my 17 years of data management and analysis of a longitudinal study of Pittsburgh’s at-risk boys?  I’m working for them.  I’m doing what I can to help us as a society understand why some boys break laws and hurt people and often wind up dead at a young age, while others somehow find their way to a stable and responsible adult life.

Thanks to my mom, I’ve always been aware of the ways in which society has conspired against women.  It wasn’t until I started this job that I began to understand how much conventional gender roles harm men, too, especially men who are trying to figure out how to be men without knowing their fathers or any other stable male role models.  It’s because men are supposed to be tough and strong, and because they’re discouraged from talking about their feelings, that they so often express themselves through violence.  PYS participants were teenagers at the peak of gang activity in the early 1990s, and about 1/5 of them were in a gang at some point.  As a society, we want to fight against gangs and punish gang members for what they’ve done–and we should–but we also need to understand why people join gangs and try to figure out what else we can do to meet their needs in a way that doesn’t lead to violence.

The gang peak was hardest on our middle sample, the guys who were in fourth grade at the beginning of the study, because they were old enough to join gangs in the most dangerous era but too young to get into the more powerful positions.  They were the boys standing at the edges of the gang on the street corner, the drug mules, the errand boys, the kids hanging around wearing gang colors hoping the big boys would notice them–the ones most likely to get gunned down in a drive-by shooting intended to waste some dude from that gang.

Waste.  That’s the idea that gets to me the most.  One out of twenty of those fourth-grade boys was dead before age 35.  Overall, 70 of the 1,517 participants are dead now, and 45 of them were murdered.  FORTY-FIVE.  WHAT A WASTE OF PEOPLE!  Their parents fed them, clothed them, loved them (to some extent, if not always as much as they needed) and we as a society gave them education, social services, health care–and in an instant, when the other gang spotted them or when an argument went wrong, suddenly they were just piles of meat on the asphalt.  Yes, I know they were wrong to get mixed up in that shit, but each one of them was a person, a real person with feelings and dreams and a life, and suddenly it was all over.  Every one of them was somebody’s little boy.

That last fact really hit me one day when I was in the file room looking up information on the homicide victims.  It happens that three of them had consecutive ID numbers, so their files were right next to each other in the cabinet, three in a row, dead.  And then I opened one of the files to the consent form signed by the boy before his very first interview, and I saw that at six years old he hadn’t understood that your signature is your full name in cursive but had printed, “Mike B.” in careful, childish writing.  Little Mike B., with all his plans for what he would do when he grew up–gunned down on a street corner at 14.

We wrote an entire book about homicide.  In addition to victims, we have 38 participants who were convicted of killing someone.  We compared them, looking at what factors predict who will kill and who will be killed.  The results surprised me.  Looking at the information I’d collected from newspapers and police reports, my impression was that there was some type of dispute, everybody had a gun, and one or more unlucky people got killed–it looked sort of random.  If there were any difference between killers and victims, well, it seemed logical that anyone willing to kill another human being must be a morally twisted sort of individual, whereas a victim might be a relatively innocent person who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But what we found was that killers did not score unusually high on psychopathic traits, and among the strongest predictors of homicide offending are living in a high-crime neighborhood, having a mother who was a teenager when her first child was born, and living in a family with frequent unemployment.  Meanwhile, a boy of whom parents and teachers had said, “He doesn’t feel guilty after doing something he shouldn’t,” was five times as likely to get killed as a boy with a typical guilt score, and guys who routinely carried guns were more likely to get killed than to kill someone.  In other words, victims are better predicted by their individual traits and behavioral choices, while killers are better predicted by demographic factors outside their control.  I still feel sad for the victims, but now I also feel empathy for the killers: They were crippled from the starting line and got into a situation where they couldn’t think what to do but shoot, and they will pay for it with decades in prison.

Something else I happened upon in the file room was a letter from a murderer.  He had written with instructions about how to arrange his next interview, which would have to be conducted in prison; he’d been moved from one prison to another with different rules.  He was serving a 35-year sentence that had started when he was 16.  He wrote, “Thank you for the birthday card.  Yours is the only one I got.”  Well, we just sent birthday cards as a way of keeping track of the guys (if they’d moved, we’d get a change-of-address notice) and they were cheap and generic–but if you’re locked up and your family has washed their hands of you, think what it would mean to you that anyone wished you a happy birthday!  I’m glad we could do that for him.

Because there is no handy way of getting notified when a participant is killed, arrested, or otherwise in the news, for the past 14 years (since beginning the homicide investigation) I’ve read the Region section of my newspaper looking for males of about the right age, and when I find one I clip the article and bring it to work to check against the list of names.  In the process of finding news about our guys, I’ve read many times more news about other guys.  Our 1,517 are merely representative of a much larger demographic trying to formulate a plot ‘fore they end up in jail or shot–and although I’m quoting Eminem, who is white, about half of the PYS guys are black, and I am well aware that the deck is stacked against them even more than the white guys.

There are only two men I’ve met in real life who identified themselves to me as participants in the Pittsburgh Youth Study.  (I’m the data manager; I don’t do the interviews myself.)  But with 1,517 of these guys walking around in a city of 300,000, odds are I’ve encountered some of them from time to time.  They were in first, fourth, or seventh grade when the study began; I was in eighth grade then.  Any guy a little younger than me might be one of them.  He could be workin’ at Burger King, spittin’ in my onion rings, or sitting next to me on the bus, thigh to thigh.  I don’t know him, yet if he told me his ID number, I would know all about him.

So this is what I want to say, as my work on the Pittsburgh Youth Study draws to a close:  You guys are important.  Your stories are making a difference.  Even those of you who died were not wasted, after all, because the stories of your lives are helping people understand how urban violence works and how to prevent it.  Those of you who never did anything “interesting”–weren’t criminals, didn’t use drugs, didn’t get a mental illness–you’re important, too, because you help us to see what factors support young men in avoiding trouble.  We’ve published 3 books and about 200 journal articles about you so that people making public policy can be informed about what really makes a difference in young men’s lives.

Thank you for sitting through a two-hour interview every six months for four years, then every year for ten years, then every few years whenever we got another grant, answering all those nosy questions!  I want you to know that every one of your answers has received my careful attention.  I have looked at every data file, some of them many times, making sure that the information you gave us is clearly coded and labeled, checking on everything that seems implausible, comparing your answers across time to get every detail correct, because I want to make sure we have your story just right.  I’ve seen your criminal records and your school achievement-test scores.  If you died before 2003, I’ve read your autopsy report.  (And I’m sorry the coroner wrote, in every single one of them, “The penis is unremarkable.”  Dude, I’m sure it was great.)  I’ve got data from the Census on every neighborhood where you lived since 1987.  I’ve searched your name on Lexis-Nexis to find every time you ever made the papers; I know about that play you were in, your high school basketball career, and the time you saved a drowning child, and I’ve got that information coded.  Everything you told us and everything we found about you turned into numbers in the computer–and sometimes I’ve had to expand the range of numbers we use for responses to a question, to account for possibilities we didn’t think of when we were writing the questionnaire, because you told us how it really was.

Thank you for sticking with the Pittsburgh Youth Study, year after year.  It’s ending now because you’re not such youth anymore and we’ve gone far beyond the original focus on juvenile delinquency.  My full-time job is wrapping up at the end of this month, followed by a few more months part-time.  Thank you for giving me such interesting work for so many years!

Your legacy doesn’t end here, though, and neither does mine.  I’ve been archiving almost all of our interview data with the University of Michigan.  Soon they’ll be making it available to researchers all over the world who want to know your stories, to see what predicts what, to compare you to people from other places or earlier or later generations, to learn more and more about the effects of parental stress or being left back a grade or getting spanked or any of the many, many things you told us over the years.  My carefully organized numbers will keep being used for decades to come, as your stories inform the lawmakers and parenting experts and drug-rehab counselors of the future.

I’m proud to have been a part of it, and I hope you are, too.  If we meet each other someday, you can tell me you were in the study–but please, even then, don’t tell me your ID number!  Your confidentiality is important and will be protected forever.

Thank you, also, to the American taxpayers for funding most of our research via grants from the Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention, National Institutes on Drug Abuse, and other federal agencies.  I’ve done my best to use your money wisely toward making our country safer and happier, without wasting supplies.  I really appreciate that you fed my family, paid my awesome babysitter, and bought me coffee so that I could do this work.

I’m still thinking of 8 Mile and its vivid images of heavy gray sky, heavy gray buildings, and a young man wearing several layers of heavy clothing trying to feel just a little warmth, hoping for the moment when he can own it and never let it go.  Pittsburgh is not Detroit.  As a city, we’ve recovered much better from the loss of an industrial economy, and we’ve got a lot of good stuff here.  But for the people brushed out of the gentrifying neighborhoods or stuck in the decaying ones, working too hard for not enough money, trudging along the cracked sidewalks in the freezing wet wind, it can be a tough place.  I’ve tried to help it get better.

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12 thoughts on “The City of Slim Shadies

    • I’m glad you like it! Some parts of it have been rattling around my mind for years, and then I suddenly realized this winter was my last chance to write it . . . and then the weather kept failing to match my first paragraph on days when I had time to write! Now I am ready for spring. 🙂

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  2. Becca, this is TLG from OKC friends with your family since 53. I enjoyed your write up very much. It was very informative and useful to me. I’ve pondered many of the questions that you dealt with in your long, long effort.

  3. I hadn’t realized what was behind your techie job. Thanks for this: I found it very moving, and it reminded me of living in East Oakland. I reposted on FB for my kids who must remember the same world, and from a kid’s perspective. I hope it inspires many who read it.

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