Book Review: ‘Born, Not Raised’ by Susan Madden Lankford

The most engaging elements came from the kids themselves.

Scrawled on the bottom of handouts, the backs of postcards or between the lines of wrinkled notebook paper, the writings from the kids in a San Diego-area juvenile hall provide a window into much more than just their mind and soul.

“I Really don’t Remember my childhood because I’ve tried so hard to block it out,” Brown, a 16-year-old girl inmate, wrote as part of an assignment “Born, Not Raised” author Susan Madden Lankford handed out. “The earliest memory I have is at the age of 11 when I was malested by my grandfather.”

Some wrote elegantly, poetically even, with a form that can only come from practice and attention in literature class – or perhaps just attending class at all. Others struggled to string together coherent sentences, or express their ideas and feelings in terms that could be understood. More often than not, the writings were dotted with misspellings and poorly executed penmanship.

Even from the one line, fill-in-the-blank answers that seemed common response on the author’s worksheets, the reader is offered a peek into a world seldom visited by those not forced to live it.

Worksheet question #8: If you have one wish to change something in your life, what would it be?

Joseph Minton, 16: “my mom and dad’s drug uses.”

For these kids, it was (and is) reality. Some never had a parent to teach them to read and write, or time to perfect their skills. Some were happier to find a bed in juvenile hall than return to their turbulent home lives. Others couldn’t wait to hit the streets again, with no plans to change the habits that landed them in the clink in the first place. Of course, each story is unique and impossible to sum up in a nicely worded paragraph, or even an entire book, but as you travel through the oversized pages of “Born, Not Raised,” an unmistakable pattern begins to emerge.

Spanning the course of two years, photojournalist and author Susan Madden Lankford paid weekly visits to the juvenile delinquents of San Diego, with her college-aged daughter in tow. She discovered that these kids, the juvenile delinquents, were much more than the label implied. They were ordinary people, not unlike teens across the nation, struggling with and searching for many of the same things as their peers.

The book is amazingly insightful about the lives, minds and challenges faced by many young people on the brink of criminal enterprise. But it isn’t a work of photojournalism or engaging literature, as one might hope.

Lankford, an award-winning photographer and photojournalist, starts by detailing the many hurdles and meetings it took to gain access to the other side of the metal doors at the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility in suburban San Diego.  She pulled it off, obviously, but early on you’re disappointed to learn that bringing the camera along was out of the question. So, we rely on the kids to paint a picture of their own realities.

Focusing predominantly on female inmates, the book chronicles the life of a small group of young offenders as they make their way in and out of state custody – leaving the narrative at the detention door. Lankford is searching for the reason, searching for the connection between life events, development and what led these kids to varying degrees of disruptive and destructive existences – often a tale of broken families, drugs, violence and ultimately, incarceration.

She largely drives the story through the guidance and professional insight of child-adolescent psychiatrist Diane Campbell. Throughout the book, Lankford offers short reprieves from the tireless Q&A-style transcriptions of interviews with the kids, Campbell and other professionals with brief paragraphs and introductions designed to move the narrative forward – forcefully at times.

Billed as a work of photojournalism and anthropology, the book is stuck somewhere between academic research and raw dialogue. The size of the sampling and the resulting work does indeed provide strong insight into the inner workings of troubled teenage minds, but can hardly be classified as anything more than a slice of the big picture.

Lankford, with Campbell’s supporting expertise, makes a strong correlation between early childhood development and teenage delinquency, pushing solid parenting as the best deterrent to criminal activity. But the flow becomes stilted as the author tries to transition from one Q&A session to the next, doing her best to stick in interesting details and set the scene with little more than a few paragraphs at a time.

Ultimately, you get the feeling you’re being led from one room to the next, hearing only the dialogue and exchanges that further the child development argument. At times the connection between the teens being interviewed and the broader insight Campbell dishes out is terrifyingly poignant, but by over-directing the conversation Lankford manages to oversimplify and cast doubts on her own argument. Often the interviews with officials in the juvenile justice system seem disconnected from the expert opinion and overall arc of the story. At the least, other factors that contribute to disruptive juvenile behavior are given much less weight by the author than early childhood development, while they seem to matter more – much more at times – to the staffers working with the kids.

By the end, each chapter had turned into a struggle, with more insight coming from the teen’s work than the writing itself. Parenting, especially in the early years, definitely plays a major role in childhood and life development. What you see from the kids, however, is not the gearing of hardened criminals – although some are in the making – but a yearning for stability, family and above all else, love.

For all the dull moments, “Born, Not Raised” is worth the read for anybody directly dealing with at-risk or troubled youth, or simply looking for an avenue into the peculiarities of the teenage psyche. Yes, times may change, but the foundation of what it means to be human remains unshaken.

“Take care of your kids cause it sucks when on one cares,” 15-year-old inmate, Yale, wrote.