Bad: The Autobiography of James Carr: by James Carr, 238 pgs. By Sean Carswell

Apr 15, 2011

When James Carr was nine years old, he tried out for a boxing club at his school. The boxing coach paired James up with a kid who was way bigger than him, and the kid beat the crap out of James. That night, James bought a gallon of gasoline, dumped it in his boxing coach’s office, and burned down the whole school. Things just went downhill from there for the kid. He went on to spend most of the rest of his life in reform school, juvenile detention centers, and prison. When he was out of prison, he mostly did things that landed him back in joint. This continued until Carr was in his early twenties, at which point he started to make some sense out of all the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of prison guards, police, fellow prisoners, and the justice system in general. He also started to make sense of all of his self-inflicted abuse, and he found an intelligent way to break the cycle. Once out of prison, Carr went on to do some interesting things, both with the Black Panthers and with his seemingly settled life of husband, father, and college teacher. He definitely had the kind of life that warrants an autobiography. Bad is a great read. And, strangely enough – because this never happens with autobiographies – it has a somewhat surprising ending on a couple of levels.

The stories Carr tells of his early years are as graphic as they are gripping. He talks about the brutality of prison life, from the fights to the race wars to rape, in a very matter-of-fact way. For example, he describes raping another boy while at a juvenile prison camp by saying, “He stammered something I didn’t pay much attention to, since by then I had his pants down and already had my cock halfway up his ass.” Carr makes no apologies. At the same time, he makes no excuses. He doesn’t blame society or the justice system. He doesn’t try to rationalize away his actions. He accepts them as part of his past and moves on with the attitude that the past is lost, but the present and future remain malleable. This way of thinking is most remarkable in the way that Carr is able to completely avoid dogmas. He doesn’t see himself as a martyr at the hands of a cruel society. He doesn’t view his past digressions as the result of poor parenting or economic inequality. Instead, he places everything into a much deeper, much more rational context. I’m not going to tell you what that context is. You have to read the book yourself to understand it. But, believe me, his examinations of the American penal system are refreshing and, though he wrote all of this thirty years ago, it’s all still relevant today.

Beyond the sociological examinations and graphic violence, though, there’s a lot of flat out good reading in Bad. You get an inside look at late fifties/early sixties inner city LA street gangs – the ones that had themes and wore costumes. Carr at one point was in a gang that dressed like farm boys, and later he started a gang that dressed like pirates. You get to learn about Carr’s lifelong friendship with Soledad Brother and prison reform leader George Jackson. You get a fresh perspective on the Black Panthers. And you get a view inside Soledad and San Quentin that is neither romanticized nor sensationalized. All in all, this is an amazing and insightful book. I highly recommend it. –Sean Carswell (AK Press, 674-A 23rd St., Oakland, CA94612-1163)