by Rene Denfeld; New York, Public Affairs Publishing, 2007, 336 pages, $26
Dr. Ginzler is a research scientist at the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, University of Washington, Seattle.
On first glimpse of the full title of All God's Children: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families, I must admit that I feared the message the author was delivering, given the misperceptions of homeless youths that already exist. There is no disputing the true facts of the horrific story that is at the center of Rene Denfeld's book. The story is about the lives of young men and women; many had been grappling with long histories of abuse and loss that led to lives of pathology and vulnerability. It was a perfect storm of circumstances that ended in a grotesque tragedy that shook Portland, Oregon. A nouveau "Charles Manson"-style family story ends in the death of a young woman who should have been better protected from the life she led. Where the presentation of the story goes wrong for me is that the author uses this violent murder as an entry point for a foray into the lives of street youths. This myopically sets the trajectory for the conclusions of Denfeld's thesis from the moment of conceptualization.
Denfeld eventually presents enough information for people to formulate an educated opinion of the younger segment of the homeless community. Yet I was left with a visceral sense that the opinions might not be the fully informed, compassionate, or even objective perspectives that either the research or provider community would hope to transmit. Denfeld often uses incendiary language, sometimes obscuring the facts. To illustrate, in one passage Denfeld contrasts today's street youths to the beatniks and hippies of previous generations, claiming that today's street youths "squander their energies on their dramas." The comparison is inaccurate and inappropriate. The famed Beat poets and authors who so well documented their generation's struggles often survived by using questionable subsistence strategies, or they ran with explicitly criminal characters (for example, Neal Cassady). Their lives were rife with addiction that caused death at relatively young ages for some, like Jack Kerouac. I am not suggesting that these famed youth cultures of the past are no different from the current street youth and street family cultures. They are different because of history and personal circumstances. But the point remains that use of such methods to describe today's street culture is flawed.
The author's use of current empirical work also concerns me. In the prologue to the book, Denfeld plainly states that street families are a "criminal subculture" that has gone unchecked. This is followed by mentioning the research of John Hagan and Bill McCarthy on street families. However, these researchers present a more nuanced view of criminality and violence in street families. To ambiguously juxtapose such a statement alongside current research potentially misleads the reader to believe that the statement is drawn directly from the work of the scientists.
The book describes some of the etiological issues that led to the psychopathology of various members of the street family. Likewise, Denfeld documents the struggles of overtaxed social service and legal systems that set the context for crimes of such tragic proportions. However, the author does not attempt to present the data in a manner that allows the reader to draw an objective conclusion. Some likely conclusions are that youths in street families are unequivocally criminals in training, that the social service system is turning a blind eye to the psychological problems of the youths while supporting their lifestyle, and that no one (save perhaps the police) is willing to be brutally honest enough to properly deal with the situation.
In conclusion, Denfeld has created a thorough and powerful investigation of a specific murder case, but the book does not give a complete picture of the lives of street youths and young adults. The work is thought provoking and will spark debate on the topic of homeless youths and their survival on the streets. But it is not a text that someone should read to better understand the plight of street youths.