All God's Children:
The Bosket Family
and the American Tradition of Violence
By Fox Butterfield
Alfred A. Knopf
389 pp., $27.50
The case of Willie Bosket, told in "All God's Children," does not rank as high on the ladder of notoriety as does the O.J. Simpson case. But the Bosket case is such a polar opposite to the Simpson case that it can help us stretch our thinking about racial problems in the area of crime and violence.
In the late 1980s, Willie Bosket, an African-American, was known as the most violent prisoner in the New York penal system. After nearly killing a guard in 1988 in an effort to show his hatred of this system, Bosket declared he was "only a monster created by the system."
At that point, a black New York Times editor assigned Times reporter Fox Butterfield to find out if Bosket's story might show why so many young men in the inner cities of the United States were becoming killers. Butterfield ended up spending six years on the project, and this book is the result.
His father a convicted murderer, his mother largely uncaring and convinced her son would follow the path of his father, Bosket was first incarcerated at age 9. By the time he was 12, a psychiatrist at one facility where he was being held said he could not be helped because he did not have a core of humanity.
By the time he was 15, he had killed two people in robberies and later told others that he forgot the killings as quickly as he forgot a hot dog he had for lunch.
Yet he nearly pulled out of a life of crime when he was 21.
But because of an argument over a woman in which he drew a knife, he was sucked back into the legal system in a bitterly ironic way and was unable to make the choices that eventually would have freed him. Today he stands no reasonable chance of release from prison.
Butterfield's approach is to paint with a broad brush and then zero in on vivid details. He first takes us back in time to the days of slavery in South Carolina, focusing on Edgefield County and its abundant violence. Bosket's forebears were slaves from this area.
Butterfield draws close links between black violence today and slavery, although he might have chosen a less obvious opening. Readers who suspect at this early point in the book that the author is going to blame Bosket's criminality only on slavery and the violent white Southern society of its day should read on. The book will help many readers to do this anyway.
Butterfield is a brilliant reporter who lets no one off the hook. The Bosket family is traced back to Willie's great-great-grandfather Aaron, with reams of social history woven in. Whether family pathology and social pathology are more jarring or causative, the reader will have to decide.
The book is not for the timid. Its graphic tracing of evil shocks and disturbs. As they move along, the stories, especially of Butch, Willie's father, and of Willie himself, end up reading like thriller novels, but all the more dramatic and powerful because of their basis in events.
The book says: "Imagine if your child were suddenly transported to the inner city and you could do nothing to remove him from there."
Butterfield's response is that we would most likely opt for programs to remove guns from the streets, create good jobs, build better housing, and make sure the child lived in "a family with good, loving adults."
Butterfield acknowledges, of course, that most of the demands today are for more police and prisons.
Three pages later, regardless of his listing of extensive social intervention, he writes: "What is needed is not expensive, and again is not necessarily liberal or conservative. It is a shift in thinking that begins at home, that teaches that respect comes from within, not from worrying about the opinions of others."
Butterfield's compassionate, comprehensive conclusions are fully in keeping with the book's power of reporting, which transcends all pat ideological positions.
In his last paragraph he notes that Willie's sister Cheryl, who with her husband and children escaped Harlem, "learned the descent into violence is not ineluctable...."