A Long Line of Mugshots: On Fox Butterfield's "In my Father's House"
Fox Butterfield | In My Father’s House | Knopf | October 9, 2018 | 288 Pages
Crime and those caught up in it, be they perpetrators or victims, are at the center of our culture. Frequently crime is at the crux of contemporary America’s popular media, be it cinema, TV, books, newspapers, or video games, and also its politics. Extended and heated vehement exchanges about mass incarceration, immigrant crime, and the decriminalization of legalization of drugs dominate the news cycle and occupy a prominent place in public debate. Fox Butterfield, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist known for his Pentagon Papers reportage and correspondence on crime and violence at The New York Times, contributes a fascinating and exceptional work to these discussions with In My Father’s House: A New View of How Crime Runs in the Family, published by Knopf in 2018.
In My Father’s House stakes itself at the intersection of the Bogle family’s tragic and inimitable history, a history including at least sixty criminal records spanning generations, and important research about marriage instability and networks of social support. Butterfield’s secondary sources range from the work of Gabriel Trade, a nineteenth-century French provincial judge who pioneered the sociological theory of criminal activity, to leading criminologist David Farrington’s Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, to the research of Harvard historian of marriage Nancy Cott. Butterfield’s book seamlessly blends these academic matters with the human subjects at the core of his book, building a personal and well-researched case for criminal justice reform.
Louis, the first of the Bogle patriarchs, left his log cabin in Tennessee for the promise of a better life in Texas during the summer months of 1920. Seeking “cheaper land and new beginnings,” Louis was one of many “pore whites” in the post-Civil War era who abandoned his roots and took off for Texas. Louis settled in a Paris, Texas, and put down roots that would grow deep and rotten—the foundations of a crime family.
Government’s first glimpse of the Bogle’s family’s criminal pursuits came in 1923 when Louis was arrested for making and selling alcohol, leading to a felony conviction—the first in the family. After doling out dozens of other convictions later that year, a Paris grand jury forewarned of an “unmistakable drift toward making the home an incubator of crime, when it should be the cleanest and holiest place on earth.” Whether or not this drift held true for other Texans dwelling in Paris is beside the point; the Bogle family home became an incubator of crime. Eventually, the Bogle’s criminal exploits were so broad and known in the community that police would pull over the family cars almost every day, a kind of profiling that led Charlie Bogle, one of Louis’s sons, to assert that the Bogle boys were guilty of a new crime: “Driving while Bogle”.
This tendency goes back in the Bogle family, beyond Louis to his grandfather, Carpenter, whose own deceptions earned him the title of “confidence man”—a con man. Carpenter aside, “con games were practically a way of life in the household where Louis grew up”; indeed, the Bogle family’s criminal history encompasses matriarchs and mothers as much as anyone male in the family. The women of the Bogle family hatched con schemes of their own, spent time behind bars, and learned to be tough just like the Bogle boys. One of the strengths of Butterfield’s study is that it includes a broad cast of Bogles (dozens of them, women and men) and brings them into focus, one by one. Many are left out, some are more prominent than others, but Butterfield breaks through crime writing’s tendency to focus only on specific actors and incorporates a bevy of Bogles. Just as important, Butterfield often goes beyond the Bogles’ stories themselves, which illustrate powerfully enough the intergenerational transmission of criminal tendencies, to critique the essential failures of the criminal justice system’s institutions to comprehend the complexities that create criminals—especially those which exist just out of the state’s reach in the recesses of America’s sacred space: the home.
The story of Rooster Bogle, one of Louis’s five children and the most fascinating and ferocious of the Bogles felons, reveals this reality. Rooster grew up wanting to “be a Bogle,” a strong, fierce man like his brothers and father, but “only tougher,” as his siblings recalled. Role models like those that Rooster observed in his youth taught him to fight, to predicate his manhood upon his ability to commit crime and violent acts. His mother, Elvie, while neither a criminal nor a fighter of her husband’s or son’s caliber, was “indulgent and permissive”—an enabler. Rooster was Elvie’s “pride and joy,” the apple of her eye. While on parole in 1963, all Rooster could do was “play the guitar”; he was “too lazy to work for welfare,” one of his parole officers observed, and he was constantly defended by Elvie. It was by the example of his father and brothers and the permissibility of his mother that Rooster became a criminal, and what one learns in the home is often hard to unlearn. As one of Rooster’s older brothers bragged about his time in prison, “They didn’t show me anything.” In my Father’s House hones-in on the faults in our justice system, namely the defects of Deterrence—the thought that hard prison time ought to prevent potential criminals from becoming, well, criminals. When the home becomes a safe harbor for criminals, it’s a fool’s errand to think that time behind bars will change someone’s behavior; what awaits them upon release is a simply often a reintroduction to crime.
Rooster had two wives, Kathy and Linda, and children with each of them. Drunken beatings of the children, but especially Kathy and Linda, were common, and on occasion so cruel as to render the reader in shock. Linda recalled one evening when Rooster got “mean,” he pushed Linda to the floor and said “I’m going to take you to the edge of death. If I stand on your heart, I can make it stop.” The direction and intensity of Rooster’s rage was as unpredictable as its specific cause was unknown, but it was a universal feature of the home. Complexity and dynamism defined Rooster’s rage, which ranged from beatings to “making his boys smoke a pack or two of cigarettes, one right after another, until the boys threw up” to forcing his boys to have sex with prostitutes in motels at around the not-so-ripe age of thirteen—and often right after he himself had “got off the woman,” as Rooster’s son Michael remembers.
Sports, the Boy Scouts, drawing, toys, and other childhood pastimes were unknown to the Bogle children’ “So,” Rooster’s daughter Tracy reveals, “our only game was stealing,” which was “the fun thing in [their] lives.” Criminal pursuits were at the core of the Bogle children’s upbringing, creating for the boys a “perpetual competition” in the home “to see who could be the baddest, or in their minds the greatest, outlaw.” Rooster is only one of sixty Bogles with criminal records, and his ten children have records of their own, but with a father like Rooster, and brothers like Roosters, the existence of cyclical, intergenerational criminality makes a bit more sense.
In My Father’s House is ultimately a nuanced condemnation of America’s current criminal justice system, one that does not attempt to absolve the Bogles and other criminals of accountability, but that contextualizes criminal accountability within institutional failures and family history—the latter constituting a long line of mugshots.