Friday, December 31, 2004

True Notebooks - by Mark Salzman

A book review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover: 352 pages
* Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition, 2003
* ISBN: 0375413081
* $24.00

My daughter, soon graduating with honors with a degree in social work and planning a career working with at-risk youth and juvenile offenders, is currently completing an internship in the probate courts. Her work, to boil it down to its essence, is to champion the young people society has forgotten. She stands up in the courtroom as they are about to be tried and sentenced, offering an articulate perspective on the background of these young lives so few seem to care about any longer. Certainly, a great many of these youth are without champions among their own family members, even fewer champions in society in general.

When I picked up Salzman's "True Notebooks," I expected it would give me more insight into the world my daughter is now entering. I, too, have spent some time visiting various at-risk youth homes and juvenile centers and prisons. I found the deeper insights I was looking for. I recognized my own mirrored insights in Salzman's experiences in a Los Angeles Juvenile Detention facility. My understanding of my daughter's passion for her developing career was expanded.

The United States has the world's largest prison system. We are the only country to my knowledge that sentences juveniles to the death penalty. While crime rates for juveniles have actually dipped, the detention facilities become increasingly crowded and increasingly ineffective in rehabilitating these young souls. Should we not ask why? Should we not seek these deeper insights?

Salzman's account is invaluable in disspelling the dispassionate views of many who are only too ready to blame others (oh, but it does take a village!) for the losses within our younger generations. He fears the unknown, as we all do, when he enters this facility and first touches on the lives of these young criminals. For they have committed crimes, many of which are serious, even brutal, but to know only this about them is to know and understand, and, more importantly, solve nothing.

I can remember the first time I walked into a similar youth detention facility to meet similar "gangbangers" and offenders. I was afraid. I didn't know what to expect. What I found, almost exactly as Salzman relates in his book, were children like all children. The only difference was that these young offenders had come through the filter of neglect, abuse, and apathy that would transform most any of us into a deeply damaged psyche. But for that, they had the same hearts with the same dreams, the same aches, the same longings, the same confusions, the same hopes. Looking into their faces, I found myself looking back at myself, at my own children.

If a few of us have been given the role in society to pass judgment, then we must do so armed with knowledge and understanding of those we judge. Salzman's book helps us to gain some of that much needed knowledge and understanding. Highly recommended reading.

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