A Wet Paradise

Politicians are suddenly eager to disown failed policies on American prisons, but they have failed to reckon with the history. Reconsidering Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on “The Negro Family,” 50 years later.

Never marry again in slavery.

— Margaret Garner, 1858

Wherever the law is, crime can be found.

— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1973

I.

“lower-class behavior in our cities is shaking them apart.”

By his own lights, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ambassador, senator, sociologist, and itinerant American intellectual, was the product of a broken home and a pathological family. James Patterson’s Freedom Is Not Enough furnished much of the biographical information in this section. Patterson’s book is deeply sympathetic to Moynihan in ways that I don’t quite agree with, but I found it invaluable for understanding Moynihan as a human. He was born in 1927 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but raised mostly in New York City. When Moynihan was 10 years old, his father, John, left the family, plunging it into poverty. Moynihan’s mother, Margaret, remarried, had another child, divorced, moved to Indiana to stay with relatives, then returned to New York, where she worked as a nurse. Moynihan’s childhood—a tangle of poverty, remarriage, relocation, and single motherhood—contrasted starkly with the idyllic American family life he would later extol. “My relations are obviously those of divided allegiance,” Moynihan wrote in a diary he kept during the 1950s. “Apparently I loved the old man very much yet had to take sides … choosing mom in spite of loving pop.” In the same journal, Moynihan, subjecting himself to the sort of analysis to which he would soon subject others, wrote, “Both my mother and father—They let me down badly … I find through the years this enormous emotional attachment to Father substitutes—of whom the least rejection was cause for untold agonies—the only answer is that I have repressed my feelings towards dad.”