Woman escapes gang life

March 3, 2008 

Editor's note: A story in The News & Observer and on newsobserver.com on March 4, two days after this New York Times review was posted, exposes the book "Love and Consequences" as fiction. Click here to read that story. The publisher of the book, Riverhead Books, has recalled all copies.

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By MIMI READ, The New York Times

EUGENE, Ore. -- It was raining -- or rather, spritzing softly -- as usual as Margaret B. Jones stood barefoot in her front yard last week. She'd just said goodbye to her 8-year-old daughter, Rya, a pale, shy beauty brandishing a jar of pet fish, who had left to spend the night with her father. In front of Jones was her recently frozen and now floppy garden, where she tends blueberries, rhubarb and roses, and around her was a middle-class enclave of apartment complexes, clapboard houses and little parks.

"Shoot, I'm happy," said Jones, 33, a single mother who spent her youth as a foster child and gang member. She was dealing drugs on the streets of South Central Los Angeles before she hit puberty. "I'm making do. At least I'm not in three rooms anymore."

Instead, she owns a four-bedroom 1940s bungalow near her alma mater -- a university where she "learned big words for stuff I already knew," she said -- and has just written a book, "Love and Consequences" (Riverhead Books), a heart-rending memoir that was released recently.

Jones is 5 feet tall; she wears jeans, a pink camouflage hoodie, a toe ring and a fresh set of artificial fingernails. Besides being a consummate storyteller and analyst of inner city pathology, she is one of the few people who in the same conversation can talk about the joys of putting up her own jam ("I'm going to give you a couple of jars!") and the painful business of getting a tattoo of a large, weeping pit bull across her back the day the state of Nevada set a close friend's execution date. "It's the most ghetto thing on my body," she said.

Her memoir is an intimate, visceral portrait of the gangland drug trade of Los Angeles as seen through the life of one household: a stern but loving black grandmother working two jobs; her two grandsons who quit school and became Bloods at ages 12 and 13; her two granddaughters, both born addicted to crack cocaine; and the author, a mixed-race white and American Indian foster child who at age 8 came to live with them in their mostly black community. She ended up following her foster brothers into the gang, and it was only when a high school teacher urged her to apply to college that Jones even began to consider her future.

"Why take out loans? I figured I'd be dead," she said. "One of the first things I did once I started making drug money was to buy a burial plot."

She got a partial scholarship to the University of Oregon and used it to hoist herself out of the streets.

Where the others are

Jones' foster siblings have met with a range of fates. Her brother Terrell was killed by the Crips at 21. Her brother Taye, 36, has three children and lives in Tacoma, Wash. The last she heard, he worked for Sprint. Her youngest sister, NeeCee, killed herself three years ago. Nishia, another sister, works at a day-care center in Los Angeles and braids hair on the side, but they stopped speaking several years ago after a financial dispute, Jones said. Unlike several other recent gang memoirs, all written by men, Jones' story is told from a nurturer's point of view. Along with grit and blood, every chapter describes tenderness and love between people as well as the rites and details of domestic life.

"The reason I wanted to write the book is that all the time, people would say to me, you're not what I imagine someone from South L.A. would be like," she said, curled up on her living room sofa, which was jacketed in a brown elasticized cover from Target. Her feet rested on a chunky coffee table from World Market. The house smelled of black-eyed peas, which were stewing with pork neck bones -- a dish from the repertory of her foster mother, known as "Big Mom," whose shoe box of recipes she inherited.

"I guess people get their ideas from TV, which is so one-dimensional and gives you no back story," she said. Long stretches of unrelieved violence shut a viewer's brain down, she added, "but one of the beautiful things about a book is you get to put in all the little things that touch people. If you can find a way to combine ordinary moments like being at a birthday party or making dinner with the kind of violent things that people can't even wrap their brains around, then people can relate." With its shootings, pimps beating prostitutes in the street and drug deals plainly transacted in front of children, the Los Angeles neighborhood where Jones lived is light years from her tame life now.

More than any neighborhood, her house, which she shares with a changing cast of family and friends, is now her world. "Whatever I do in this town has to be more fun than hanging out at home with my friends and dogs," she said. "There's not a lot of things."

For a long time she rented out rooms to people -- "college students, hippies, whoever, to help pay the mortgage," she said. "When the check from the book deal cleared, I got rid of the housemates and set up little college funds for the kids" -- her daughter and Masai, the son of another foster sister, Christi. For months at a time, Masai, 6, comes from Los Angeles to live with Jones so he can attend a better school. "He's family," Jones said. "But to me, family is a little broader than to the average person."

Still writing

She often holes up in her office, where a metal sign over the door reads: Writer at Work. There, on a soft black vinyl chair, she sits wearing iPod ear buds with the device turned off, a ruse to keep people from talking to her. A shelf above her desk holds an altar of family snapshots, with many more black faces than white. "This is my brother who's dead, back when he was in juvie," she said, pointing out Terrell's face in a picture frame.

Jones gave birth to her daughter while she was still in college, then graduated with a degree in ethnic studies, She stayed on in Eugene. Rya's father, she said, was "the first white guy I ever dated, and she was the first white baby I ever saw. I said, she looks sickly, is there something wrong with her?"

During her senior year of college, one of Jones' professors asked her if she would agree to be interviewed by a feminist friend working on a book. Jones initially said no -- "I wasn't interested in the whole South Central as petting zoo thing" -- but then reconsidered. She liked the interviewer and gave her a five-page short story she'd written. The interviewer passed the story to her agent, Faye Bender, who asked Jones to write 100 pages and then parlayed them into a book contract.

In 2000, while working at a Starbucks, Jones bought her four-bedroom house in the Whiteaker neighborhood, considered the ghetto of Eugene, she said. "But it's the nicest place I've ever lived. This little 'hood is safe. Schools are great. The neighbor kids come over to play, Mexican and white. I feel cool -- I walk my dogs at two in the morning down to the river."

As comfortable as her life is, she's often homesick for Los Angeles, which remains her cultural wellspring.

"If it were just me? I'd go back to L.A. in a second," she said. "But my child deserves to be near her father, and I wouldn't put her in second-rate schools in South Central. It's not so much that it's boring here. I'm a boring person! But there, I could have a purpose, help people."

Is Jones still a gang member? "If you make a choice to do it, it's forever," she said. "Once a Blood, always a Blood. Am I an active member? No."

She keeps up with gangland style, slang and people from her old life, many of whom are in jail. Until 21/2 years ago, she said, she bred pit bulls and sold them locally and in Los Angeles, where red-nosed pit bulls are the favorite dog of Bloods, largely because of their reputedly aggressive nature. (Jones hotly defends the breed, maintaining that they are friendly unless abusively trained.) Pit bulls function as a Bloods symbol, as Rottweilers do for the Crips. Jones said she sold puppies to gang members and others for $200 apiece.

Every year, she said, she gets a little farther from the streets. Recently, she started a gang truce organization called International Brother/SisterHood to help youths move away from gang life.

Without financial help, "selling drugs is the only way you get out of the ghetto," she said

Sometimes it's so quiet in Eugene that she feels panicky. The other day she heard an airplane and thought of the police helicopters that were always overhead in Los Angeles. "We used to say they were chopping up the air so we could breathe," she said.

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