Adrian Nicole LeBlanc was two years out of Leominster High School when the suicides began. It was February 1984. Fourteen-year-old Jeffrey Bernier shot himself after school with his father's .357 Colt revolver. By March of the following year, ten more teenagers in the working-class town northwest of Boston had taken their own lives, raising the teenage suicide rate in Leominster to ten times the national average and prompting supporters of a rival high school football team to wear T-shirts that read, "Kill Leominster Before They Kill Themselves."
The next year, LeBlanc, a senior at Smith College, began writing about the suicides in a course taught by Mark Kramer, now director of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard. She continued working on the piece through the spring semester when the class was taught by Tracy Kidder. The following December, the story was published in Daniel Okrent's now defunct New England Monthly, alongside works by Barry Werth and Susan Orlean. It was a virtuoso piece of journalism, drawing an intense portrait of teenage culture against a backdrop of depression, alcohol, and drugs.
Back home, the local newspaper ran a photo of LeBlanc next to the headline LEOMINSTER FEELS BETRAYED.
Eighteen years later, LeBlanc, now forty, is recounting the story to an auditorium of ninth graders in the Bronx. She says what struck her most about the experience wasn't the lash of the local paper or the hate mail sent to her parents. "What I thought was so interesting was that it wasn't the teenagers in the story who were upset--it was the townspeople who didn't know what was going on and didn't want to believe it."
LeBlanc is back in the Bronx this day to speak about her book Random Family, a work that follows several members of an extended Puerto Rican family in the South Bronx as they struggle in an environment of urban poverty. As she did in the Leominster suicide piece, LeBlanc writes about what is uncomfortable to accept but ultimately irresponsible to ignore. She spent eleven years reporting for the book, which passed through six editors and two publishing houses before its release in February 2003. Since then, Random Family has been reprinted five times in hardback and twice in paper, and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
The book is imbued with LeBlanc's intense observations; it draws upon skills acquired during an exceptional education at Smith, Oxford, and Yale; but it is, in many ways, informed most deeply by her own roots in Leominster.
Random Family began as a small project. Richard Todd, who had been LeBlanc's editor at New England Monthly, gave her a book contract at Houghton-Mifflin in 1992 after reading an article she had written for The Village Voice about the trial of a young drug dealer in the Bronx called Boy George. The book was to be a profile of an inner city entrepreneur who, by the age of twenty, grossed a half-million dollars a week in...