Last year sociologist Alice Goffman published a widely-praised book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Here’s a part of Alex Kotlowitz’s NYT review:
“On the Run” is, first and foremost, a remarkable feat of reporting. Its author, Alice Goffman, a young sociologist, had an ethnography assignment for an undergraduate class at the University of Pennsylvania, and she, the daughter of the renowned sociologist Erving Goffman (1922-82), didn’t take it lightly. She hung out with an older African-American food service worker at the university, and one thing led to another. Before long, she had moved into an apartment in a poor, largely black neighborhood in Philadelphia, her housemate a young man whose family lived down the block. Goffman became such a part of the fabric of the community that she was harassed by the police, witnessed someone getting pistol-whipped, was even set up on a blind date. And all the while she was furiously taking notes, trying to make sense of what at first glance appeared to be utter chaos going on around her.
But where others might see bedlam, Goffman finds patterns, even logic. When it becomes clear that many of the young men won’t go to the public hospital for treatment — she recounts watching one of them prone on his kitchen table, having a bullet removed from his thigh by a neighbor who is a nurse’s aide — Goffman begins to ask questions and learns that the police often loiter near the emergency room, scanning the visitors list, looking to arrest anyone who might have an outstanding warrant. This could be a metaphor for what Goffman comes to realize: The young men in this community feel hunted. Their mental energy is spent trying to elude the police, so much so that they impart words of advice to younger siblings, including this from a man Goffman calls Chuck, speaking to his 12-year-old brother: “You hear them coming, that’s it, you gone. Period. ’Cause whoever they looking for, even if it’s not you, nine times out of 10 they’ll probably book you.” Chuck’s warnings, it becomes clear, have merit. In fact, Chuck’s brother receives three years’ probation when he’s given a ride to school in what turns out to be a stolen car. Many of the men Goffman encounters have recently been released from prison and are on parole. And as she points out, our parole and probation system is set up for people to fail. She introduces us to Alex, whose parole stipulations forbid him to visit his old neighborhood or be out past curfew. It’s as if the system is just waiting for his first misstep, ready to pounce.
The book sounds fascinating and well worth reading for all sorts of reasons. Now Northwestern law professor Steven Lubet has raised some serious questions about the book, and the project from which it came, in two book reviews, and a response to Goffman’s response to those reviews. Lubet’s objections, in ascending order of seriousness, are:
(1) Several incidents described in the book sound highly implausible, and in light of that Goffman appears to take a too-credulous attitude toward her informants.
(2) Lubet apparently believes (although he does not come right out and say so) that at least one incident that Goffman claims to have witnessed herself didn’t actually happen.
(3) Lubet believes that another incident, if it happened as described in the book, led to Goffman herself committing a very serious crime:
Taking Goffman’s narrative at face value, one would have to conclude that her actions – driving around with an armed man, looking for somebody to kill – constituted conspiracy to commit murder under Pennsylvania law. In the language of the applicable statute, she agreed to aid another person “in the planning or commission” of a crime – in this case, murder. As with other “inchoate” crimes, the offense of conspiracy is completed simply by the agreement itself and the subsequent commission of a single “overt act” in furtherance of the crime, such as voluntarily driving the getaway car.
I sent the relevant paragraphs from On the Run to four current or former prosecutors with experience in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. Their unanimous opinion was that Goffman had committed a felony. A former prosecutor from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office was typical of the group. “She’s flat out confessed to conspiring to commit murder and could be charged and convicted based on this account right now,” he said.
In a response to these criticisms, Goffman appears to be re-characterizing the latter incident, in ways that Lubet finds troubling:
Now she has written a response to my critique, and I am even less certain how much of the book is true. Goffman essentially admits that she embellished and exaggerated her account of a crucial episode, which should leave even the most sympathetic readers doubting her word. . .
Goffman objects to my efforts1 to verify stories in the book by consulting public defenders, prosecutors, and police officers, but how else was I to do it? She argues that my critique is based on a “hierarchy . . . of people at the top,” while disregarding “the claims and experiences of the people at the bottom,” but that is not so. I do not discount the lives and experiences of Goffman’s subjects, I simply question the accuracy and reliability of her own reports about them. It is important to hear from “people at the bottom,” as Goffman puts it, but we do not have to take her words on faith. Thus, I have attempted to obtain as much information as possible from available sources.
I would have been happy to interview Goffman’s subjects, but they are all pseudonymous. I would be pleased to review her field notes, but she has shredded them. I might at least be able to read her dissertation, but she has sequestered it.
Indeed, Goffman does not even name the hospitals or schools—which cannot possibly be confidential—where the alleged events occurred. If no one is allowed to get information from official sources—and I would hardly call public defenders “people at the top” of the criminal justice hierarchy—then we are stuck taking Goffman’s word for it, as she has made her book impossible to fact check. That is not how journalism, or responsible scholarship, is supposed to work.
As I said, I haven’t read On the Run yet, and I’m not offering any opinion on the extent to which, if any, Lubet’s criticisms are well-grounded. But they seem worth noting.