Although Danielle Allen was only eight years older than
Michael, that’s how she always thought of him. He was a
mega-watt-smiling, introspective child with an easy-going
way, a beloved mischief-maker in a huge family. She
remembers when he was born.
She remembers when he died. It began when he was 15.
Allen says that her sprawling family always watched out for
one another but Michael’s mother had been raising three kids
alone and she ran into some trouble. She learned that her
oldest son, Nicholas, was gang-banging when she spotted him
on the street. She thought she’d saved Michael from all that
but when he was just 14, he was arrested for attempted
California’s unique laws put him in juvenile hold, then in
adult prison until he was 26 years old. While there, he fell
in love with an imprisoned transgender woman. Allen noted
the relationship, but she figured that the woman was out of
the picture when Michael was released. Being the cousin with
the proper resources, Allen began helping Michael put his
life together: she paid for an apartment, enrolled him in
college, helped him get a job but he couldn’t yet handle any
of those things.
He became depressed. He floundered. He moved in with Bree,
the transgender woman. Later, Allen learned that Bree came
from a world of violence that Michael couldn’t properly deal
with, and that was how he died.
So who did it? Allen says that she and Michael grew up with
a Do-the-Crime-Do-the-Time attitude, but she only partially
lays blame on Michael’s choices. Outside forces, cultures of
violence, and the system, she believes, were just as much at
While Cuz is very good and a thought-provoker, it has
As a professor at Harvard University, author Danielle Allen
cannot deny the effect of her job on her writing – which is
something she admits. That lends an aura of authority to her
story, but it can also feel lecture-like. Allen also
includes Michael’s writings within her book; some were
lengthy and could have benefitted from editing.
And while there are a lot of grief-raw questions left
hanging in-story, readers are also left with a sense of
grace and compassion from Cuz. Allen never points
fingers, but we’re skillfully led to see what’s what. She’s
rightfully angry at what happened to her cousin, but it
doesn’t hide her empathy for families who endure hardship to
visit their imprisoned loved ones, and it doesn’t lessen her
humanity toward the people whose imprisonment doesn’t make
That, mixed with an aching, soaring joy are what you’ll find
in Cuz, and it’s going to make you think - hard. Can
you afford to miss that? No, make no mistake.