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Immersion therapy

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent 10 years observing a world of drugs and poverty. The result? A lauded book and a changed life.

March 02, 2003|Lauren Sandler | Special to The Times

New York — Call it Lee Strasberg journalism -- Method reporting. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc knew she was truly living through the emotional experience of her subjects when she heard two guys trying to break into the apartment and her only exhausted thought was "whatever." She heard them speaking, smelled their cigarette smoke, was completely aware of the danger of the moment, but after days of a heat wave -- regular days of getting the kids fed, waiting for hours at welfare offices, dealing with the toothaches and the drama and the relentless pace of poverty -- sitting in that greenhouse of a crowded apartment, LeBlanc lay still, listening, too tired to act. This was not her apartment, but the home of one of her subjects. This was not her life. Not really, not in the permanent sense. And yet it was.

For 10 years, LeBlanc lived itinerantly in the dark apartments and fluorescent-lit waiting rooms that contain so many of this country's poor. Her book "Random Family" (Simon & Schuster) is the fruit of that decade. In the few weeks since its publication, it has been a magnet for accolades (the New York Times called it "a painstaking feat of reporting and empathy") and is widely anticipated to inspire and shape policy debates.

This story, a nonfiction "Middlemarch" of the underclass, follows the interconnected lives of Boy George, a gangsta-rich heroin dealer; his charismatic and stunning girlfriend, Jessica; her ambitious local 'hood brother Cesar; and the mother of two of Cesar's children, protagonist Coco, who rises from this book as a new symbol of tenacity in motherhood during a decade in which the children we meet as the result of young parenting are pregnant themselves by book's end. (All names were changed for the book's publication.) And LeBlanc's journey in reporting their stories is a new benchmark in the field of immersion journalism.

It began in quite another place, when LeBlanc was a 28-year-old emerging presence in magazine journalism, editing fiction at Seventeen by day, chasing stories about disenfranchised youth in her spare time. She had early success, a good salary, a Manhattan apartment that she shared with a boyfriend she met at Oxford. Aware of her interest in young people and the drug trade, a friend alerted her to a tiny clip in Newsday announcing the trial of a hugely successful heroin dealer. She got an assignment to write a story about Boy George on spec for Rolling Stone and showed up at the trial.

She was shy, reluctant to ask questions. But then she met Jessica, one of Boy George's girlfriends, perhaps his best girlfriend, certainly his most entrancing. "She radiated intimacy wherever she went. You could be talking to her in the middle of the bustle of Tremont Avenue in the Bronx and feel as if lovers' confidences were being exchanged beneath a tent of sheets," writes LeBlanc, who read books about Marilyn Monroe while reporting to try to understand Jessica's captivating power.

Jessica quickly led the reporter deep into her life of cramped house parties, where her mother would cook and dance; into drug mills, where girlfriends used McDonald's coffee stirrers to measure millions of dollars of high-grade heroin, which Boy George named "Obsession," into logo-stamped glassines; onto street corners and into nightclubs, where jealousy and frustration would often erupt into violence.

Gradually, LeBlanc gave her life over to that one, which is a direct subway trip but a universe away from where she sits today at a bakery in SoHo near her apartment. "I found the shifting over difficult to do," she says, looking through red-framed glasses. After a while, she adds, "I felt more at home in the world there than anywhere else. The list of things I did and cared about just atrophied."

Recently, a friend sent her an e-mail to congratulate her about the book, joking about all the times LeBlanc would rush out of a dinner party midway through to dash up to the Bronx. LeBlanc says she doesn't even remember going to dinner parties, so immersed was she in this other world. And for so many years, years when many successful, attractive women in Manhattan date, marry, commit to motherhood and storm up the career ladder, Leblanc instead inhabited a world where, as she writes, "success was less about climbing than about not falling down."

It was a trade-off she embraces. "I probably won't have a baby because of this book," Leblanc, now 39, says deadpan, totally without regret. "That's part of the deal."

Leblanc quit her job, borrowed money from friends, lived with her now-boyfriend on a tiny bed in an unfinished cellar of a Brooklyn house and often stayed in the cramped and dangerous homes that Jessica's de facto sister-in-law Coco would relocate to almost as often Jessica's brother Cesar would move from jail to jail (manslaughter was his crime). She'd be distracted during Christmas at her parents' house, thinking, "God, I shouldn't have missed Christmas at Coco's."

A natural progression

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