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Alex Kotlowitz's book, There are No Children Here, is a story about two boys, Pharoah and Lafeyette Rivers growing in the late 1980's in Henry Horner, a housing project in Chicago. The boys try to retain their youth while they see constant gang violence, death of close friends, their brother in jail and their dad struggling with a drug addiction. In Horner, there are two gangs that claim it as their turf, and the Rivers family is constantly ducking from shots of gunfire there. They live in an overcrowded apartment with leaky facets, heating problems and animal carcasses in the basement. The boys' mother, La Joe, tries to keep them away from gangs and violence since her eldest children fell to the harsh reality of the neighborhood.
The children constantly have to protect themselves from danger and quickly lost their childhood along the way. La Joe even has to purchase burial insurance for her children because she fears the worst due to the severity of Horner. The boys find it difficult to have friends because most of the other children are involved in drugs and gangs. Pharoah desperately tries to cling to his innocence and is very conscientious in his studies. Unfortunately, Lafeyette made friends with a mischievous boy named Rickey and was lured into a gang. There are many problems in the neighborhood and even with La Joe's positive and upbeat attitude, she cannot move her family out of the projects.
Luckily, Kotlowitz is able to fund the boys' education to attend a private school. Even though this helps them receive a better education, they are still faced with other problems. The Ecological Theory is strongly related to the theme of family in violence in this novel. This theory examines how children develop based on the environment that his / her family resides. The development of a child is based on the interactions between their biology, family and community. To fully understand the development of Pharoah and Lafeyette, we have to understand the context in which they live: both their family environment and their global environment.
By keeping them away from the violent subculture as much as she could, the less they were able to conform to the norm and resort to violence. According to this theory, external forces can influence the development of emotions. A child can mature a lot quicker when they are placed in an environment where they have to take care of themselves to survive. "When tragedy struck, Pharoah didn't want to know. He continued to tell his mother he was too young to comprehend it all, as if he were trying to prolong his childhood" (Kotlowitz 216). Both boys did recognized at an early age that death occurs frequently in their neighborhood.
They had several friends die and they were reminded of this every time gunfire went off outside the apartment. Pharoah tried to maintain his childhood the best he could and excelled in school as a coping mechanism. Lafeyette, at thirteen, acted as a parent to fill his mother's role when she was out. The government makes one of the biggest contributions to the welfare of the family by providing financial safety. The problem is that the government fails to show any concern for these families unless it is brought to their attention, and even then nothing is changed. The lack of interest by the housing authorities leads to the neglect of Horner for over fifteen years.
"The rotting carcasses explained the putrid odor rising from the Riverses' toilet. It wasn't aborted fetuses, as La Joe had though. It was dead animals, the stench of rotting flesh rising through the pipes" (Kotlowitz 241). The government leaves the projects to fend for themselves, which increased the communities' turmoil.
If the government and the people worked together, more problems could be solved. The family is the closest, most stable element in the boys life. La Joe tries hard to make sure the boys are surrounded with positive influences so that they will grow up secure. This theory is based on the individual and the environment that the family lives in, we can see how La Joe has tried to steer her family away from this environment.
"There are many things you can do and get away with at Horner, because people, fearful that retaliation may spiral out of control, keep their anger and fury to themselves. But when it comes to family, particularly mothers, nothing, no one, is beyond revenge." (Kotlowitz 233). Since Horner is such a difficult place to live, residents have to take measures to insure that they protect their family. Terrance was lost to the neighborhood and La Joe feared the worst, reminding the boys that they need to do well in school and not to become involved in what the other kids do in the neighborhood. This positive enforcement in the family helped the boys to segregate themselves from the chaotic world, even if that meant not having many friends, in order to stay alive.
On the other hand, there are many negative influences in the boy's home environment that impacts them as well. Besides their mother, they had little in-house role models because their dad was a drug addict and an alcoholic. He did find work from time to time but he could not seem to keep a steady job. The boys began to realize that because of drugs his father was going no where in life. "He knew no song would hit his father over a lost dog.
It was the drugs. They had destroyed his relationship with La Joe and now with his son" (Kotlowitz 278). Having your father addicted to drugs can tremendously impact a child's development according to the ecological theory. Fortunately, La Joe could provide that important adult interaction the boys needed to keep them away from the deviant behavior their father was portraying to them. The Culture of Violence Theory argues that violence is more prevalent in lower socioeconomic areas creating an imbalance in our society.
Wolfgang (1967) proposed that "There is a subculture of violence, in which there is a 'a potent theme of violence current in the cluster of values that make up the life-style, the socialization process, the interpersonal relationships of individuals living in similar conditions'" (Wolfgang and Ferracuti, 140). A strong predictor of acts of deviance are ethnicity, class and occupational status. La Joe believed that her sons would be pulled into gangs and drugs and possibly even end up dead. It is hard for children to constantly observe these violent acts.
Lafeyette once told La Joe, "Mama, I'm real tired. I could go outside and don't have to come back. Anytime I go outside, I ain't guaranteed to come back" (Kotlowitz 216). This is a problem we see in urban black areas, but it is not as likely in the white middle class areas. We see an uneven distribution throughout the social structure. The subculture of violence theory states that delinquents in subcultures are reacting to the social problems which individuals outside the subculture do not come across.
The members of a subculture find themselves isolated and neglected from the mainstream population. The majority of people who lived in Horner were black and poor, two things that mainstream society looks down upon. They encountered racism and hatred from the majority population, even the police officers. Lafeyette once recalled "I've been living around here all my life and I ain't got hurt so far... only the police have hurt me" (Kotlowitz 161). This makes it quite clear that it is difficult to trust police officers in the projects.
The police seemed unbiased towards the children of Horner even though their duty was to protect the rights of all citizens. The Subculture of Violence theory stresses that violence is a learned response in lower socioeconomic areas and can become accepted by its members. The common form of this violent transmission is from adolescents and teens but the River's family even witnessed adults teaching children delinquency. "Then she watched in horror as the man handed a pistol to the little boy who reminded La Joe of Pharoah in his small size and bobbing gait" (Kotlowitz 256). Through the socialization process and interpersonal values, children internalize the values of society. If adults are teaching violence to young children, they will grow up thinking that this is the norm.
Pharoah and Lafeyette have different values that separate them from the rest of the subculture that they live in thanks to the positive impact La Joe has had on them. I thought that Kotlowitz did an excellent job in opening my eyes to the horrors of growing up in a housing project where murders frequently occurred and drug gangs ruled the territory. I was disgusted by the amount of violence and crime which took place in this type of environment. Surprisingly, like any other family, they still are human and share happy moments together, which helps them stay strong. I learned that what La Joe wanted for her family was what any middle and upper class mother wants for theirs: contentment, a quality education and safety. Kotlowitz did a good job showing that these children are smart and loveable just like any other child but because of their environment, they have a different perspective on life.
This book also made me realized that I should not take my life for granted. I think that many people, myself included, fail to realize that this type of poverty does not just exist in third world countries, they exist in America. I think that all people need to realize something like this either by reading a book or by becoming involved in volunteer work in that type of environment. We live with blinders on and for a change to occur, people need to become more aware of the problems others face. I have learned that children who are easily influenced by their peers may become gang members and involved in drugs.
These kids who live in the projects are just kids and should not have to lose their childhood and innocence at such an early age. My increased knowledge on this topic makes me want to help these children. I am going to college to become a School Psychologist and I know the impact of this book will carry on with me in my career. I now feel that I have a better insight about the true problems that exist in this type of environment and will be better prepared if I will be working in it.
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