Book Review: Cuz by Danielle Allen

CuzAbout the Book

Aged 15 and living in LA, Michael Allen was arrested for a botched carjacking. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to thirteen years behind bars. After growing up in prison Michael was then released aged 26, only to be murdered three years later.  In this deeply personal yet clear-eyed memoir, Danielle Allen reconstructs her cousin’s life to try and understand how this tragedy was the end result. We become intimate with Michael’s experience, from his first steps to his first love, and with the events of his arrest, his coming of age in prison, and his attempts to make up for lost time after his release. We learn what it’s like to grow up in a city carved up by invisible gang borders; and we learn how a generation has been lost.  With breathtaking bravery and intelligence, Cuz circles around its subject, viewing it from all angles to expose a shocking reality. The result is both a personal and analytical view of a life that wields devastating power. This is the new American tragedy.

Format: eBook, paperback (256 pp.)   Publisher: Vintage Digital/Bodley Head
Published: 9th November 2017             Genre: Non-Fiction, True Crime, Biography

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk ǀ Amazon.com
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find Cuz on Goodreads


My Review

Part memoir of her cousin, Michael, part devastating analysis of the US justice and penal system, I found Danielle Allen’s book, Cuz, utterly fascinating and thought-provoking. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction (although I think perhaps I should) but this book jumped out at me on NetGalley because of the intriguing story and the author’s personal connection with its subject.  (A note on the book’s title – Michael was Danielle’s cousin, of course, but we also learn that ‘cuz’ was a term used by a particular gang in Los Angeles.)

In the first section of the book, one quickly recognises the author’s feeling of regret that her attempts to help Michael make a new life for himself on his release from prison in 2006 ultimately ended in failure. She questions whether she could have done more but perhaps Michael’s rehabilitation could never have been managed in the manner of a task list. What the author and the family didn’t know at the time was that there were always people and connections pulling Michael back in the direction of the criminal subculture.

The author’s academic rigour is evident in her assembling of the available evidence and her analysis of the systemic issues raised by Michael’s life and death.  Allen examines the complex web of factors that led to Michael’s involvement in the original carjacking for which he was convicted, his sentencing and his imprisonment. Her descriptions of the soulless and depressing experience of visiting him in prison are especially powerful.  There are also particularly interesting sections on the concept of the ‘parastate.’

I’ll be honest and say that, at first, I found the structure of the book, with its frequent changes of timeline, a little distracting. The author has chosen not to tell Michael’s story in a linear, chronological fashion but to start with his murder interspersed with his release from prison, only addressing his childhood and upbringing towards the end of the book. However, in a way, I can now see this structure mirrors the author’s own journey of discovery about Michael.  He was perhaps never the person he seemed from the outside; instead he was troubled, lacking in direction, open to being manipulated by others and tempted by easy options.

The book contains wonderful photographs of Michael and his family, including many from his childhood. I found the contrast between the happy, smiling child in the photographs and the troubled adult described in the book very sad and quite moving. Sadly, one gets a sense of someone always on a trajectory to the untimely death that eventually awaited him.

Reading Cuz gave me a fascinating, if troubling, insight into many of the social issues facing the Western world today: gang culture, drugs, racial inequality, the effectiveness (or rather, ineffectiveness) of the justice and penal system. The author proposes a particular solution to the problems she outlines but I was left wondering if there will ever be the political will to pursue such a course. I somehow doubt it in the current political environment.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers Random House UK in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Moving, detailed, thought-provoking


Danielle AllenAbout the Author

Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University, and Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (2014), Education and Equality (2016), and Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. (2017). She is the co-editor of the award-winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Cuz by Danielle Allen

    1. I haven’t read that but it’s on my wishlist. Cuz is written from her personal perspective but she also examines a lot from a very objective point of view (her academic background coming through). It’s a tragic waste of a life examined.

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