Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Bookmarks, Who Failed Robert Peace?

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Bookmarks, Who Failed Robert Peace?

Article excerpt

Bookmarks

Who Failed Robert Peace?

Even a Yale Degree Couldn't Save Him

By Diane Cole

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League

By Jeff Hobbs

Scribner. 406 pages

ISBN: 9781476731902

I've seldom read a book as riveting and ultimately devastating as The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League . With deftly chosen detail and precision, author Jeff Hobbs chronicles the obstacle-ridden rise of Robert Peace, an intensely talented young black man, who went from inner-city poverty to the brink of promise offered by a Yale degree, the bill paid in full by a fairytale-like corporate benefactor impressed by his potential. But what comes next isn't the inspiring uplift of a rags-to-riches story: it's the harrowing fall and all-too-quick descent back into the illegal drug and deadly street culture that Peace never seemed to have truly escaped. Murdered at the age of 30, he became another casualty of the lure of the streets.

Long after finishing the book, I remain haunted by Peace's fate. At what point, I keep wondering, could someone have intervened to change the course of this man's life? And what would such an intervention-whether from friend or clinician or academic authority or mentor-have looked like?

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Hobbs, a college roommate and friend, paints a portrait that offers a variety of clues and suggestions-all of which, unfortunately, spring to the fore only in retrospect. As a white, well-to-do suburbanite whose father was a surgeon, Hobbs is especially aware that there was plenty he never comprehended about the impoverished minority neighborhoods and crime-infested streets his friend came from. That makes Hobbs's achievement all the more extraordinary as he dramatizes the drastic differences between his roommate's raw, wounded neighborhood and the worlds of wealth and privilege represented by the landscape of Yale University.

To a casual observer-and to Hobbs, too, during their college years-Peace's straight-A average suggested that he'd found a way to straddle those universes with uncommon ease. But in the aftermath of his death, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Peace's academic success only helped mask his inner turmoil. Throughout the book, the insidious undertow of the inner city is felt as a presence in the lives of Peace and his family-and so is the equally powerful desire to escape its grasp. Robert DeShaun Peace (known to his family as Shawn, to his Yale friends as Rob) was born in 1980 in Orange, New Jersey, an urban area just outside Newark with, Hobbs reports, "the second-highest concentration of African Americans living below the poverty line in America, behind East St. Louis." About 1 in 30 residents became victims of violent crime each year.

Against this grim backdrop, with legitimate jobs scarce and a market for drugs insatiable, it's sadly unsurprising that someone as smart and personable as Rob's father, Skeet, thought nothing of supplementing his occasional day-job earnings by working as a drug dealer. What was more unusual in that setting was the close attention Skeet paid to his son, spending hours coaching him with his school work (father and son both possessed encyclopedic memories and high-level math aptitude) and proudly taking Rob with him on his rounds through his neighborhood turf. From Skeet's point of view, he was showing his son how to act like a man, someone to be looked up to and respected, who also had the street smarts, charm, and guile to get out of a scrape, take care of his friends, and not have to worry about being snitched on.

Although Rob's mother, Jackie, was glad Skeet took such interest in their son, she saw things differently. Fearful of being legally tied to someone whose unlawful activities risked endangering them all, she refused to marry or even move in with Skeet. She chose instead to remain a single mother and raise her son at her parents' home. …

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