Journalist Issac J. Bailey has penned an elegant memoir that speaks to the inequities of the criminal justice system and the damage done to family and community when loved ones are locked away.
"My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South" (Other Press, 304 pp., ★★★½ out of four stars) is a story about redemption — who is deemed worthy of it, who is not, and the seeping emotional damage that occurs when it is denied.
Bailey manages to distill his vast themes by channeling them through the prism of his own experience, documenting how his life was fractured when his beloved older brother Herbert, nicknamed Moochie, then 22, was sent to prison for murder when Bailey was 9 years old.
That trauma left scars both visible and unseen. Bailey, who grew up in St. Stephen, S.C., developed a severe stutter that he still struggles to control. Accepting the fact that Moochie indeed committed the crime that sent him to prison (he stabbed a local white store owner to death in 1982) filled his overachieving baby brother with the fear that he, too, would one day commit an act of senseless violence.
And Bailey speaks of how, for his family, relatives of the murderer, shame mingles with mourning.
But at a time when presidential pardons are very much in the news, Bailey also makes us ponder the double standards of mercy.
Moochie, Bailey acknowledges, was a killer. But he was also a devoted son and an erudite thinker. While Bailey believes Moochie and others who commit crimes should be punished, his nuanced portrait of his brother makes us contemplate whether criminals should all be forever defined by their worst act — even if it was monstrous.
And what of unequal justice?
"It's not happenstance that black men have always been over-represented in the prison system,'' he writes, "even though the history of white men raping and rioting and plundering is much more pronounced than black criminality.''
Bailey tells his story with a raw honesty, whether illuminating painful episodes in which he labored to utter a reply or complete a speech before a gaping, laughing crowd, or detailing his struggle to love relatives who followed Moochie into a life of crime.
He also boldly examines the fault lines etched so sharply in our current cultural landscape. Bailey writes, for instance, that he does not believe the members of the mostly white church he once belonged to were racists. But neither were they allies.
Too many, he says, preferred their own comfort to the unsettling work of contemplating how bigotry continues to cloud and endanger African-American lives.
At times "My Brother Moochie" feels a bit repetitive. But that's more a matter of structure.
Its messages are thoughtful enough to bear repeating, because when we learn the fate of Bailey's big brother in the memoir's final pages, we are still left with a gnawing question:
What of all the other Moochies?