Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor
Sometimes to properly tell a story you must start at the end and work your way back in time. Writers do it for various reasons but most often to give context to a well-known and much-told story, an insider’s view of details and history missing from common accounts. Perhaps no recent story needs more context than that of teenager Michael O. D. Brown and his death at the hands of rogue cop Darren Wilson. And no one is better suited to provide that context than Michael’s mom, Mrs. Lezley L. McSpadden-Head.
Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil: The Life, Love and Legacy of My Son Michael Brown is McSpadden’s book that chronicles the space between her life and his death. The first chapter begins with the day he died, telling how she had taken her break after making a sandwich for a customer at the deli where she worked when she received the call saying Michael had been shot. Her description of the heart-stopping fear and panic she felt as she raced to Canfield in Ferguson will make your hair stand on end. The narrative juxtaposes that bracing episode with the next chunk of the book—up to chapter 23—which is a tender, raw, and honest look back at Lezley’s childhood and family life, her pregnancy and relationship with Michael’s father and the father of her two youngest children, and her life as a young mother raising a family.
Like Michael’s life and death, there’s more to this book than meets the eye. It is on the one hand what you might expect from a grieving mother whose son was brutally shot down and then left to bake in the searing Missouri August sun for four and a half hours, uncovered and unexplained. She works hard through intimate details and funny anecdotes to cast a warm light on who Michael was. She shows that everything about his life was sacred, respected, and loved from his very beginning. Lezley’s mother tried to persuade in favor of aborting his life. Arguments commonly made were used to help the then-15-year-old see the grinding hardship that likely awaited Lezley trying to raise a son. But even at an age when brain researchers now tell us adolescents don’t have mature decision-making skills, Michael’s mom decided against abortion and to just love her son fiercely and do the best she could for him. The book is on another hand something maybe unexpected: an unflinching revelation of Lezley McSpadden. Knowing as they do the mindset of most Americans to lay every flaw, every failure of a child at the mother’s feet, some women in her position might seek to sanitize their story. Not McSpadden. In fact she is clear that her son’s life can most well be honored by simply telling the truth, thus the title of the book. Make no mistake; her truth is not glamorous or tidy.
Multiple vicious, unrestrained beatings by both fathers of her children, navigating a difficult relationship with her mother, being unable to finish high school after efforts to find and keep jobs: she knows these things and others could be used to support media and commentator characterizations of her son as a thug, an 18 year old whose background somehow justified his murder. But she tells it all anyway. In refusing to cover up the hard things of their lives, Lezley makes a bold and revolutionary statement of resistance. In essence she says yes our lives included violence, low income, joblessness, but shooting my son was still not justified, period.
Michael’s struggles are shared with the same honesty. She mentions that she knew he occasionally smoked weed although he knew she disapproved. He resisted eating better to deal with his high blood pressure and weight. He was diagnosed with ADHD and had a hard time academically. To the right kind of mind, these truths only reinforce what should be obvious. Every life, every family has good and bad, joy and suffering, triumphs and defeats. This is the push and pull, the normality of human existence. But Michael Brown and Lezley McSpadden and others with similar lives are not always afforded inclusion in the common experience of humanity. They and their children are seen as something outside the realm of ordinary experience. Their kids are perceived to be older than they are, even young ones are viewed as threats and dangers. The mothers are counted as conspirators in the inevitable problems of their sons and daughters. Hardship is pathologized, and struggle is considered self-inflicted. To this decades-old sociological paradigm, this book says NO.
Lezley wants justice for her son. With this book, she takes a step toward that goal. Maybe if people know more about his life the need for justice will become more clear.
Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil: The Life, Love, and Legacy of My Son Michael Brown can be purchased at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and other places where books are sold.