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Crime & Justice

'Cuz': How LA's car theft spree and silence led to a man's death

The wall near Chino Institution for Men, a California state prison where Michael was placed in solitary in 2002
The wall near Chino Institution for Men, a California state prison where Michael was placed in solitary in 2002
Stephen Tourlentes/courtesy of Liveright Publishing and Carrol and Sons Gallery in Boston, MA

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Michael Allen, a young man from South L.A. who was convicted of carjacking at the age of 15, served more than a decade for the crime. And when he got out, he was murdered. 

"Michael died in 2009, and it hurt," said Danielle Allen, Michael's cousin. "It hurt all of us just very profoundly."

"He was a beautiful person, he was a joyful person. He had this electric smile. That’s always the first thing that people said about it him."

In her memoir, Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A., Allen tries to come to grips with the course of Michael's life: his childhood, his 1995 arrest for attempted carjacking, his imprisonment and his death.

Photo of Michael Allen as a child.
Photo of Michael Allen as a child.
Courtesy of Karen Allen and Liveright Publishing


Allen spoke with Take Two host A Martínez about her book. The following is a transcript of their interview that has been edited for length and clarity. To listen to the full interview, use the blue media player above.

You start the book at the end of Michael's life. Why begin at the end? 

For years I was just wrestling with these questions. Why did he die? Why was he in prison for so long? Why did he end up on this street corner when he was 15, holding a gun, trying to take somebody's car from them? And so, as I was just trying to understand what happened, at a certain point I decided I was going to try to write about this, try to tell Michael's story.

[O]ne day, it just came to me that the story that I needed to tell needed to be called "Cuz." And that it needed to be called that because that's what he called me. I was his "cuz," he's my "cuz," and because I want to understand. I wanted to say, why did it happen? 'Cuz! 'Cuz because of this, 'cuz of that. And so, I started just listing the "why" questions that I had. And the book kind of answers the "why" questions in the order that they were bugging me. Like the one that just hurt the most first was: Why was he dead? So that's where I started.

You asked, why was his prison sentence so long? And I think for that question to be answered, in the context of an African-American teenager in Los Angeles, don't you actually have to go back to kind of see where things are at in Los Angeles? How that history might've contributed to that?

He was arrested was just 18 months after the "three strikes, you're out" law had been passed. It was sort of the height of the moral panic in Los Angeles about carjacking, and people were scared for absolutely fair reason, and it makes sense that people were really wanting to address the problem of carjacking, no question about it.

But there were a lot of decisions made then that were really extreme in relationship to that fear that people had. And he got caught up in all of that.

One of the other things about the book that really struck me is the contrast between his life and yours. You mentioned how you grew up in Claremont college town, parents in academia. Michael growing up with a single mother, moving throughout his life.  I mean, there's just light years of difference between both of you. So what did you come to understand about the differences between your lives by writing about it?

Partly what I was trying to say in that passage is that the difference is actually not as great as it seems. It's not actually light years. So adolescence is a hard time, and we're all risk takers in adolescence, and in that story, what you can see is, Mike and I had that same teenage urge. We wanted mobility. I wasn't allowed to ride in the cars of my friends. That was one of the rules my parents had. I sneaked around, and I took rides from my friends to go to my college classes as a high school student.

But that's benign. That's a safe risk.

Exactly. But that's luck. Right? The fact that the risk I took was safe was pure luck. And so, that's where I think what matters is to see the different degree of difficulty that's presented to different young people on the path that they've been set on.  Michael and I both had that urge for mobility, but he lived in a world where what that meant was a completely different thing than what it meant for me. And the degree of difficulty confronting him, changing schools and so forth, trying to navigate rough neighborhoods in Los Angeles-- just totally different degrees of difficulty than what I confronted. So that's where the difference comes in.

When it comes to responsibility though, because here's the thing: Plenty of people grow up in rough neighborhoods with tough daily challenges to overcome, but they don't wind up in the penal system, so I'm wondering how much responsibility of what happened to Michael in his life do you put on Michael?

 I absolutely put responsibility on Michael. He made the wrong choices and he knew that and he could write about it. And he took responsibility for his actions. But for me the other part of the responsibility that it's important to talk about I think we don't talk about enough actually is family responsibility. And by that I mean family responsibility for extended family is one of the most crushing parts of Michael's story is the fact that, as a family, we did not talk about what happened to Michael. And at the time that he was going through the challenges and being exposed to risky situations, we weren't talking among ourselves enough to see what was going on.

Yes, Michael made bad choices. He understands them. He understood them. He could take responsibly for them. But as a family, we could have done more. And our failure to do what we could have done was because we we didn't talk, and we didn't share the troubles.