The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates
(Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2010)
The book-jacket overview of The Other Wes Moore describes the kind of random-probability event that works so well in non-fiction precisely because it would work so poorly in fiction: Wes Moore, a star student at Johns Hopkins University, mayoral intern and freshly-named Rhodes Scholar, was completing a semester studying abroad in South Africa when he heard that the police were posting wanted signs all over his neighborhood looking for a man named Wes Moore—a high school dropout and drug dealer turned bank robber, wanted in association with the shooting of a police officer. Unable to stop thinking about the strange coincidence, Moore began following the newspaper accounts of his namesake’s eventual arrest and trial. After the conviction, which resulted in a life-without-parole sentence, Moore wrote to the man, and eventually began to visit him in the Jessup Correctional Institution.
The Other Wes Moore is part biography and part memoir: an account of the paths of both Moores’ lives. In interspersing chapters, Moore outlines both his and the other Moore’s troubled adolescence: their missing fathers, the violent neighborhoods they grew up in, and the Wild West style street life that both of them were initially drawn to. Moore describes both the forces in their lives and the decisions they made that led one of them to become a success, and the other enmeshed in crime and drugs.
As Moore shows, their early lives share a number of unfortunate commonalities. Both Moores are more than a little intelligent. Both grew up as children of single mothers. Both depended on older siblings: the author’s sister Nikki played an important role in his childhood, as did the other Moore’s older half-brother, Tony. And both lived in urban ghettos, were exposed regularly to drugs and violence, and were aware of the relative power and glamour of drug dealing.
Moore’s contention, and the point of the book, is stated succinctly on the cover: “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.” The sentiment is well stated, and yet, despite their names and Moore’s efforts, it’s not clear how true that is. Moore the writer’s childhood differed in several important ways from Moore the prisoner’s: the author’s father for instance, was absent because he died suddenly from a rare disease when Moore was young. Moore writes movingly about an early memory, and it is clear that he was loved. Moore the prisoner’s father, by contrast, lived for many years nearby, but simply never made the effort to visit or get to know his child. The other Moore’s father was a practicing addict, with no relationship to the mother or to Moore himself. In one telling scene, Moore runs into his father at his grandmother’s house. The older man is so high he’s barely alert enough to speak, and doesn’t even recognize his son. Moore’s sense of rejection and dismal self-worth are readily apparent.
Moore the author also had a strong-knit family, ready to help during difficult times. When his mother falls into depression after his father’s death, they move from Baltimore to her parents’ house in the Bronx. Moore’s mom works extra jobs to put him through an elite private school so that he has access to better education than public schools provide, and when that isn’t enough (he starts skipping school, gets into some minor criminal activity) she borrows money from family and friends to send him to Valley Forge military academy.
Moore the prisoner’s mother not only lacked that cohesion, by the time Moore was an adolescent, she had had several different children by several different fathers, none of whom put effort into caring for their children. His older half-brother Tony, who had begun dealing drugs himself, seemed to be the closest thing to a positive influence on Moore. Tony tried at first to keep Moore safe the only way he knew how—by threatening the boy with violence if he got involved in selling drugs. When that failed, he tried to guide and protect Moore, again the only way he knew how: Tony was convicted for shooting the off-duty cop in the robbery that sent them both to jail for life without parole.
In the long and contentious debate over what leads some people to crime and others to a more principled life, there seem to be two main camps. One sees each decision a person makes as purely a matter of choice. From this point of view, Moore the author’s success is a result of his powerful will toward righteousness, and Moore the prisoner’s future behind bars results from his moral ineptitude.
The other sees the path of an individual’s life as largely the result of opportunities and penalties determined by the social forces at play. This is the side the author leans toward, as he describes his and the other Moore’s experiences growing up with little understanding of what was available to them, and points out that his own success comes more from the effort and energy his family and community exerted to keep him from street life, than it does from any real decisions he made.
However, this is also difficult to prove. Moore the writer is an exceptional leader, as demonstrated by the accomplishments he has achieved: he was the highest ranking cadet during his final year at Valley Forge, responsible for the training of more than 800 other students. He twice interned with the mayor during his matriculation at Johns Hopkins, and graduated to become a Rhodes Scholar—an honor given to only 32 people from across the country in any given year. He is a decorated Marine, has been a White House Fellow, and spoke to the crowd at the 2008 Democratic Convention, just hours before Barack Obama accepted the presidential nomination. He is clearly an ambitious and uniquely talented leader.
The story of Moore the prisoner, unfortunately, is shared by many, many others. Nearly 40% of prisoners are black, despite African Americans being only 12% of the general U.S. population. More black men are incarcerated than any other demographic, and of course the great bulk of these men come from urban ghettos, and are arrested for charges relating to drug trade and associated violence. For children in neighborhoods threatened by gunfire and other violence, for whom safety is a daily, hourly concern, it’s not hard to see why they might be drawn to the power displayed by drug dealers, who are wielding the weapons instead of cowering from them, and who are drawing money and respect to themselves, instead of having it taken away. But even with all that, the great majority of people avoid the drug trade and its associated risks, and Wes Moore the prisoner was tried and convicted for the decisions that he made, decisions that it is not at all clear the author would have made, had they been in each other’s shoes. At some point, as the author tells it, The Other Wes Moore became tired of the drug game. He spoke to a friend of his, Levy, a former dealer who quit for a less well-paying, but safer and steadier job. Levy told Moore about a program that offered basic education and job training, and Moore took the leap, and joined. He earned his GED. He studied woodworking and used his natural ambition and perseverance to impress the teacher and the other students. And when he graduated from the program, he looked for work. What he found was a series of low-paying, low-skill jobs—several of which he held in the course of a year. After that year, Moore returned to drug dealing. This is the place where the argument between societal pressure and personal choice begins to break down. Why did Moore return to drug dealing? What would it have taken for him to remain in a legal job? Was it really the lack of opportunity—was drug dealing simply the highest-paying skilled profession Moore knew, or was he moving through job after job because there was something about the illegal lifestyle he found more appealing? Moore the author leaves this type of supposition out in favor of a strictly un-analytical description of both his and the other Moore’s stories. His approach works for the book. He doesn’t attempt to moralize or interpret the choices and opportunities that he and his namesake shared. He describes his own circumstances with humility and, while at times his depiction of the other Moore’s story gets a little florid, he depicts the other Moore as neither better nor worse, neither more nor less moral than Moore himself.
As a piece of evidence about the state of young black men’s lives, then, The Other Wes Moore is a valuable read, and a compelling, sometimes disquieting book. But as way to address the disparity, or to resolve the issues of how to best aid black communities, and assuage the epidemic of drugs and violence plaguing the communities, it’s a book that raises more questions than it addresses.