So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts.
Norman Mailer, “The White Negro”
It’s a common practice for films that are clearly yet loosely related to historical events to be advertised as having been “based on a true story.” This has always struck me as under-inclusive; every fiction, no matter how inventive or fantastic, is based ultimately on various true stories.
Every story is based on a true story; but many stories are not true, or only true in part. Journalists and ethnographers each in their way are professionally dedicated to sorting out the true, from the half-true, from the it would be nice if it were true but it’s not, etc.
Last summer, Gideon Lewis-Kraus contacted me about a story he was writing for the New York Times magazine about the controversy surrounding Alice Goffman’s book On the Run. I had just published a long article in the Chronicle of Higher Education calling into question the veracity of several stories in the book (The article wasn’t by any means a full catalog of the dubious material in On the Run, but it ran to 10,000 words as it was).
Naturally I agreed to be interviewed, even though I had some reason to believe that Lewis-Kraus was, in regard to this topic, a blinkered zealot who believed with a kind of fundamentalist fanaticism in Goffman’s innocence of any academic or legal wrongdoing. Over the course of our conversation, I strongly encouraged him to do his best to corroborate the incidents in On the Run that had been called into question, several of which would be easy to corroborate with even the most minimal assistance from Goffman herself. Surely, I suggested, his article was going to provide her with the ideal venue for clearing her name.
All this was based on my expectation that the Times would run yet another extensive investigative article on Alice Goffman only if that investigation revealed something worth revealing.
The article has finally been published, and my expectations have turned out to be wrong. Lewis-Kraus spent quite a bit of time with Goffman, and was struck by what to him was her puzzling refusal to respond to her critics:
It does not help that Goffman, when challenged about her book — or about the privilege, defiance and sloppiness to which critics attribute its weaknesses — tends to respond with willful naïveté or near-grandiose self-possession. Once, when I asked her what she made of a sustained series of attacks by one critic, a respected quantitative sociologist, she said it was hard to pay proper attention to him when other people were accusing her of felonies.
I think there’s nothing puzzling at all about why Goffman has failed — with the exception of one disastrous interchange with Steven Lubet, who constitutes the “other people” referenced in the above quote — to make any public response to her critics. The most plausible explanation for silence, however, will he hidden to anyone who is not open to a hypothesis that Lewis-Kraus clearly refuses to consider. Instead, Lewis-Kraus did his version of investigative journalism, at least in regard to this subject. This involved, among other things, investigating at least two of the seven incidents in the book that I question in my Chronicle piece (to which he links).
Here is the first incident, as described in that piece:
Goffman describes her supposed detainment by undercover police officers, who are working a drug investigation of, among others, Chuck and Reggie. She is brought to the station:
They take me up the stairs to the second floor, the Detective Unit. I sit in a little room for a while, and then two white cops come in, dark green cargo pants and big black combat boots, and big guns strapped onto their legs. They remove the guns, and put them on the table facing me.
I interviewed Lt. John Walker, a supervising officer in the Philadelphia Police Department, and read him Goffman’s description of her interrogation. It would be an understatement to say that Lieutenant Walker was incredulous. He said that, first, only SWAT members wear guns on their legs, and that interrogations aren’t done by SWAT; they’re conducted by investigative officers, i.e., detectives. Second, detectives wear business dress on the job. Third, as a matter of basic security, all personnel are prohibited from bringing weapons into interrogation rooms, let alone placing guns on a table where they could be seized by a suspect. Anyone who breaks that rule is subject to suspension without pay. (I independently confirmed these statements with two other Philadelphia police officers).
Again, as in the case of George Taylor’s eloquent speech, which so neatly encapsulates the major themes of Goffman’s book, it’s not impossible that these events took place as Goffman describes them. Perhaps, for some unexplained reason, SWAT members rather than detectives interviewed her. Perhaps they openly flouted the rules about bringing weapons into interrogation rooms. Or perhaps Goffman embellished the details of her interrogation, or invented the incident altogether.
This purported incident closely mirrors a scene in the gangster film Menace to Society (Elsewhere in the book Goffman describes how she and some of her primary informants watched such films together regularly.).
Here is Lewis-Kraus’s description of his investigation of the matter:
The hardest elements of her story to confirm are the ones that feel like cinematic exaggerations, especially with respect to police practices; several officers challenged as outlandish her claim that she was personally interrogated with guns on the table. To Goffman, however, the fact that a journalist or a legal scholar would turn to the police to confirm accusations against them is representative of the broader failure of American society to take seriously the complaints of disempowered minority communities. It’s the definition of institutional racism. When I reminded her that it was my job to try to find independent confirmation of some of her claims, she understood my own disciplinary needs and was forthcoming, if slightly begrudging, in helping me out. But at one point, when I pressed her on one of these issues, she wrote back that I seemed to be saying, ‘‘The way to validate the claims in the book is by getting officials who are white men in power to corroborate them.’’ She went on: ‘‘The point of the book is for people who are written off and delegitimated to describe their own lives and to speak for themselves about the reality they face, and this is a reality that goes absolutely against the narratives of officials or middle-class people. So finding ‘legitimate’ people to validate the claims — it feels wrong to me on just about every level.’’
This is a remarkable passage. As to “turning to the police,” one would hope that Lewis-Kraus would have asked Goffman to tell him when and where she was supposedly interrogated, since there would at least be a record of that part of her story. Did he? (I did, and she declined to reveal this information, even though, as I pointed out in the Chronicle, revealing this information would not violate the strictures of her Institutional Review Board protocol, so her claims that confidentiality concerns were constraining her were strained at best).
Of course if she really was interrogated, it’s practically certain that the police who did so would deny putting their guns on the table in front of her, either because what Lewis-Kraus refers to delicately as a potential “cinematic exaggeration” was something she made up, or because admitting to actually having done so would be confessing to a gross violation of basic protocol, that could easily get a cop suspended, or even fired (or killed), if something had gone wrong. But we do not, despite my — and presumably Lewis-Kraus’s — investigative inquiries, have any evidence that Goffman was ever interrogated, let alone that she was treated as a genuine menace to society.
Which brings us to Goffman’s claim that skepticism about her version of events constitutes a “failure to take seriously the complaints of disempowered minority communities.” Alice Goffman was and is a white person of immense social privilege. Nothing illustrates that more forcefully than Lewis-Kraus’s article itself, which, for all its ponderous disquisitions on the nature of sociological inquiry, ends up being in substance a content-free puff piece, designed, wittingly or not, to provide social absolution in the paper of record to a white person of immense social privilege, after she published a purportedly true book full of implausible stories, not one of which Lewis-Kraus ended up being able to actually confirm, even in part, despite what were surely his best efforts to do so.
Here is the description in the Chronicle piece of another incident that Lewis-Kraus investigated:
Goffman describes how she witnessed a pair of police officers arrest Alex, a new father visiting his girlfriend in the maternity ward. He is taken away in handcuffs, as the mother of his child begs the police to let him stay with her and their newborn: “Please don’t take him away. Please, I’ll take him down there myself tomorrow, I swear — just let him stay with me tonight.” The police ignore her pleas, and they go on to arrest two other new fathers on the delivery-room floor. They then take time to respond to Goffman’s inquiries regarding their actions:
The officers told me they had come to the hospital with a shooting victim who was in custody, and as was their custom, they ran the names of the men on the visitors’ list.
Lubet ran Goffman’s account past a source in the Philadelphia police department, who described it as “outlandish.” I read the relevant passages to Lieutenant Walker and John Verrecchio, a detective in the homicide unit who led the five-year investigation that resulted in the arrest and conviction of Chuck’s killers. (Both Walker and Verrecchio said they had never heard of On the Run.) They responded in unequivocal terms when asked whether Goffman’s account of the “standard practice” of checking patient and visitor lists, and then arresting hospital visitors with outstanding warrants, was accurate. “One hundred percent false,” Walker said. In his many years on the force, he’d never heard of a single arrest that had been made from the use of such a procedure.
Verrecchio burst into laughter when he heard the passage describing the arrest in the maternity ward. “Never happened,” he said flatly. What about the more general claims regarding checking visitor lists? “They’re nonsense.”
The hospital incident involves an eyewitness narration by Goffman. It can’t be explained away by the hypothesis that in some instances she was too credulous in regard to accounts she heard from her subjects. Goffman has declined to identify the hospital, so it’s not possible to determine whether this incident took place. But it is possible to determine whether the statements Goffman says the officers made to her about the arrest’s routine nature are true, and they don’t seem to be. Independent inquiries by Lubet, Jesse Singal of New York Magazine, the Yale law professor James Forman Jr., and me have all failed to find anyone in the Philadelphia criminal-justice system who has ever heard of police officers’ checking patient and visitor lists in order to arrest people with outstanding warrants. (These inquiries included speaking to public defenders and other criminal defense lawyers, whose clients might have been arrested via such procedures. These lawyers would have no incentive to cover up questionable police practices, and indeed would be eager to confirm Goffman’s claims. None did.)
That leaves the possibility that Goffman’s account is true, and that the officers who explained their actions to her were lying about its supposedly routine nature, or they were lying about how they located Alex. But the problem with that hypothesis is that it makes Goffman’s witnessing of Alex’s arrest a piece of unbelievably — in the literal sense of the word — good fortune in regard to how it illustrates the book’s central thesis. If such arrests take place at all, they are evidently so rare that Forman, Lubet, Singal, and I have found no evidence of them. What are the odds that one of Goffman’s own primary informants was subjected to this extraordinary procedure and underwent this ordeal while Goffman herself was there to witness it?
Six hospitals in Philadelphia have maternity wards. All six deny that they would cooperate with police in the fashion described in On the Run, and indeed insisted that they were legally prohibited from doing so. Furthermore, if any people at these hospitals witnessed an incident resembling the purported arrest of Alex, I haven’t been able to find them. Of course witnesses to such a memorable event, if they exist, would be relatively easy to find, if Goffman were to reveal to an obviously sympathetic reporter where and when she witnessed that event. Clearly, she did not:
When it comes to Goffman’s assertion that officers run IDs in maternity wards to arrest wanted fathers, another short Internet search produces corroborating examples in Dallas, New Orleans and Brockton, Mass., and a Philadelphia public defender and a deputy mayor told me that the practice does not at all seem beyond plausibility. The most interesting question might not be whether Goffman was telling the truth but why she has continued to let people believe that she might not be.
Sociologically speaking, the most interesting question is why a New York Times reporter thinks that confirming via web surfing that at some time somebody somewhere in the United States has been arrested in a maternity ward has any relevance to the investigation of the very specific — and incredibly fortuitous — incident Goffman claims to have witnessed. That Lewis-Kraus’s other piece of confirmatory evidence is that he was told by a public defender that the incident “does not at all seem beyond plausibility” speaks to how desperate he is to believe that Goffman is telling the truth, especially given her evident failure to supply him, as she so easily could have done, with information that would confirm this story, or at least some aspect of it. In other words, among the people she has continued to let believe that she might not be telling the truth is Lewis-Kraus himself, although his faith in her appears to be so unshakable that the most obvious reason why this might be so remains invisible to him.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of all this is that, given his and many other peoples’ evident hunger to believe that Goffman is being on the level with her readers, Lewis-Kraus could have produced what would have been interpreted by many as a complete vindication of Goffman if he had managed to confirm the details of one — or even a part of one — of the various incidents Lubet, myself, and other critics within the academy have called into question. Yet, after many months, he was unable to meet even that minimal evidentiary standard.
Any reader who has gotten this far is by this point probably as sick of the Alice Goffman saga as I am. What continues to intrigue me, however, is her apparent ability to get supposedly hard-headed journalists to believe her. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that what makes On the Run an initially compelling read is, ironically, its apparent authenticity — the glimpse it provides into a demi-monde that has fascinated upper class white people for a long time, as captured most memorably in Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro.” That Goffman explored and chronicled this world was, above all, really cool. (The moderator of the Sociology Job Market Rumors website, which has featured much inside-baseball style discussion of the Goffman affair, sums Lewis-Kraus’s story by noting that “in the end it does feel like a [Jesse] Singal-type of ‘she drove me around Philly and I think she’s cool’ vindication.”)
A lot of people loved On the Run because, among other reasons, it seemed like an ethnographic version of The Wire. The Wire, of course, was based on a true story, or rather many true stories. But The Wire is fiction. Authors of fictions are free to embellish and invent, whether to entertain their audiences, or to throw light on the world in ways that go beyond what can be done with mere historical veracity, or both. Journalists and ethnographers, if they remain true to their crafts, are not free to take similar liberties with, to use an old-fashioned word, the truth.