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Brothers and Keepers: A Memoir

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“A rare triumph” (The New York Times Book Review), this powerful memoir about the divergent paths taken by two brothers is a classic work from one of the greatest figures in American literature: a reflection on John Edgar Wideman’s family and his brother’s incarceration—a classic that is as relevant now as when originally published in 1984. A “brave and brilliant” (The Phil “A rare triumph” (The New York Times Book Review), this powerful memoir about the divergent paths taken by two brothers is a classic work from one of the greatest figures in American literature: a reflection on John Edgar Wideman’s family and his brother’s incarceration—a classic that is as relevant now as when originally published in 1984. A “brave and brilliant” (The Philadelphia Inquirer) portrait of lives arriving at different destinies, the classic John Edgar Wideman memoir, Brothers and Keepers, is a haunting portrait of two brothers—one an award-winning writer, the other a fugitive wanted for a robbery that resulted in a murder. Wideman recalls the capture of his younger brother, Robby, details the subsequent trials that resulted in a sentence of life in prison, and provides vivid views of the American prison system. A gripping, unsettling account, Brothers and Keepers weighs the bonds of blood, affection, and guilt that connect Wideman and his brother and measures the distance that lies between them. “If you care at all about brotherhood and dignity…this is a must-read book” (The Denver Post). With a new afterword by his brother Robert Wideman, recently released after more than fifty years in prison.


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“A rare triumph” (The New York Times Book Review), this powerful memoir about the divergent paths taken by two brothers is a classic work from one of the greatest figures in American literature: a reflection on John Edgar Wideman’s family and his brother’s incarceration—a classic that is as relevant now as when originally published in 1984. A “brave and brilliant” (The Phil “A rare triumph” (The New York Times Book Review), this powerful memoir about the divergent paths taken by two brothers is a classic work from one of the greatest figures in American literature: a reflection on John Edgar Wideman’s family and his brother’s incarceration—a classic that is as relevant now as when originally published in 1984. A “brave and brilliant” (The Philadelphia Inquirer) portrait of lives arriving at different destinies, the classic John Edgar Wideman memoir, Brothers and Keepers, is a haunting portrait of two brothers—one an award-winning writer, the other a fugitive wanted for a robbery that resulted in a murder. Wideman recalls the capture of his younger brother, Robby, details the subsequent trials that resulted in a sentence of life in prison, and provides vivid views of the American prison system. A gripping, unsettling account, Brothers and Keepers weighs the bonds of blood, affection, and guilt that connect Wideman and his brother and measures the distance that lies between them. “If you care at all about brotherhood and dignity…this is a must-read book” (The Denver Post). With a new afterword by his brother Robert Wideman, recently released after more than fifty years in prison.

30 review for Brothers and Keepers: A Memoir

  1. 4 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    We Supposed to Die Complicated family history can be wretched. If the complicated family history is that of a black American, it can well be unendurably tragic. John Edgar Wideman has such a family history: a brother sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1977; a son sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1986 (recently paroled); an uncle shot and killed in his own house. Being black in America exaggerates and accelerates all the typical problems of family life. And then adds a whole We Supposed to Die Complicated family history can be wretched. If the complicated family history is that of a black American, it can well be unendurably tragic. John Edgar Wideman has such a family history: a brother sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1977; a son sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1986 (recently paroled); an uncle shot and killed in his own house. Being black in America exaggerates and accelerates all the typical problems of family life. And then adds a whole lot more. Wideman writes as a man sitting on a knife-edge. How easily history could have been different. The slightest mis-calculation or mis-step or chance event and he could have been his brother locked up with no chance of release. While his brother broods continuously about what brought him to such a hopeless place, Wideman can only do the same and wonder at the consummate randomness of life in which there is no protection only the threat of the system. His personal success in the system has produced, "A self no more or less in control than the countless other selves who each, for a time, seem to be running things." And even this tentative status is undermined in his conversations with his brother during the writing of the book. Not even his memories are secure. He is a man without a determinate history at all: " ...if his version of the past is real, then what's mine?" How honest is he really about his own life? How much of it has been wasted in not giving attention to that most important in it? But Wideman is an artist. Every ounce of suffering and confusion and dissociation is used to produce something beautiful. He is a man, for example, who lives uneasily in two worlds. As a celebrated teacher and writer he has made it. But his siblings and extended family are where they always have been – largely struggling to maintain recognition of themselves as human beings. Wideman captures part of this state in his alternation between standard English and dialect. His prose in both is mesmerising. Each sets the other off as valuable and uniquely expressive. This is a memoir which is hard to take. Not just because of its existential punch. The scenes of disintegration of the black community in Pittsburgh, of the rise of a compensatory drug culture, of the persistent and deep racism in the United States, of the expensive and counter-productive vindictiveness of the entire penal system were written forty years ago. The events themselves occurred twenty years before that. Yet they could have been written last week. Even after eight years of a black man as president, arguably the most intelligent and articulate in its history, America appears even more violently intent on maintaining the subjugation of its black population. Wideman's makes his purpose in writing clear, "I was trying to discover words to explain what was happening to black people." That he succeeds in this is beyond doubt. Only the effects of the words he has found are in question. They may not have been enough. His brother’s desperation in prison may sum the situation, "We see what's going down. We supposed to die."

  2. 4 out of 5

    Ned

    1980s in downtown Pittsburgh, a story of two black brothers who took very different paths. The author, apparently a widely read author of many novels, tells the story of his brother as dictated from inside a penitentiary. The brother, Robby, is 10 years his junior and had been incarcerated for over a decade for his presence in a murder resulting from a botched robbery where he as present. But this is as much about the author, and his deeply conflicted inner life, as his brothers. He feels guilt 1980s in downtown Pittsburgh, a story of two black brothers who took very different paths. The author, apparently a widely read author of many novels, tells the story of his brother as dictated from inside a penitentiary. The brother, Robby, is 10 years his junior and had been incarcerated for over a decade for his presence in a murder resulting from a botched robbery where he as present. But this is as much about the author, and his deeply conflicted inner life, as his brothers. He feels guilt as the failed “Keeper” of his brother (this term also used to discuss those who maintain the prison system) who strayed by seeking what he felt was his only path to glory, a street crime boss. The author took his out when he could, being smarter and luckier, and left his past behind by hundreds of miles. What I enjoyed about this book is the unvarnished outpouring, and richly detailed of life in urban black poverty in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s not easy to get this view from my safe, white, privileged vantage. Wideman alternates his experiences with his brother’s story, told in common, colorful slang. It explains how difficult it is to escape the environs of one’s upbringing, and the unique experience of being black in a world controlled by mostly white men. This isn’t a political statement; in fact, the author does a laudable job helping the reader understand what day to day life can be with rich prose and very little pontification. Poor Robby doesn’t recognize the risk of his dope habit and takes foolish risks in his unquenchable hustle for a little more cash. Only in prison can his trapped brain reckon the consequences of his actions and see his mistakes. The soul-crushing routine of prison stifles a creative and intelligent young man and, thankfully, his brother recovers his flame by sharing his story. I wonder where the brothers are now, and I would certainly love to hear there has been redemption. But I fear this is unlikely because of the fear instilled in law and order politics and business interests in the prison industry. An interesting aspect of the book is the period during the late 1960s, especially 1968, and how the MLK murder both empowered and destroyed key parts of our cities. This is a story of a family trying to hold together during turbulent times, centering on the one son that slipped away and may forever pay a price for the errors of his youthful ways. Wideman is a teacher, and beautifully lays his process down in a preface from 2004 in this edition (xvi): “I write because I’m lonely….to remind myself I own a voice with the power to construct a thing of my world, no matter how private or subjective or useless to anyone else on the planet…” Here he recounts the fertile history of his grandfather, part of the great migration from the south (p. 22): “He found a raw, dirty, double-dealing city. He learned its hills and rivers, the strange names of Dagos and Hunkies and Polacks who’d been drawn, as he had, by steel mills and coal mines, by the smoke and heat and dangerous work that meant any strong-backed, stubborn you man, even a black one, could earn pocketfuls of money. … Like so many others, he boarded in an overcrowded rooming house, working hard by day, partying hard at night against the keen edge of exhaustion. When his head finally hit the pillow, he didn’t care that the sheets were still warm from the body of the man working nights who rented the bed ten hours a day while Harry pulled his shit at the mill.” Wideman illustrates the character of his beloved mother, the strength and glue of the family through hard times (p. 70): “Her easy disposition and sociability masked the intensity of her feelings. Her attitude to authority of any kind, doctors, clerks, police, bill collectors, newscasters, whites in general partook of her constitutional gentleness. She wasn’t docile or cowed. The power other people possessed or believed they possessed didn’t frighten her; she accommodated herself, offered something they could accept as deference but that was in fact the same resigned, alert attention she paid to roaches or weather or poverty, any of the givens outside herself that she never pushed herself or her point of view on people she didn’t know. …On the other hand, she knew the world was a vale of tears and one’s strength, granted by God to deal with life’s inevitable calamities, should not be squandered on small stuff.” The brothers’ mother fretted her whole life over her family, especially Robbie, her youngest and she dealt with his “keepers” and the those administering the system as best she could as she saw her son slowing despairing from any hope whatsoever (p. 72): “She could see their side, but they steadfastly refused to see hers. And when she realized fairness was not forthcoming, she began to hate. In the lack of reciprocity, in the failure to grant that Robby was first a man, then a man who had done wrong, the institutions and individuals who took over control of his life denied not only his humanity but the very existence of the world that had nurtured him and nurtured her – the world of touching, laughing, suffering black people that established Robby’s claim to something more than a number.” The author’s father, even in the 60s, was oddly missing from the book, but when he makes an appearance it is memorable as in this colorful bit that displays the author’s skill and dark humor (p. 106): “Daddy could still shake him up. Edgar Wideman was six foot tall and weighed around two hundred hard pounds. Robby knew Daddy could tear up his behind and knew that if he pushed the wrong way at the wrong time, Edgar would punch him out. My father’s rage, his fists were the atom bomb, the nuclear deterrent. Robby feared him so he gauged his misconduct with a diplomat’s finely honed sensitivity to consequence and repercussion. Yet Robby understood that he had launched himself on a collision course. His determination to become an independent power setting his own rules would bring on a confrontation with Daddy. The shit had hit the fan sooner or later, so it became a question of biding his time, of marshaling his forces, and convincing himself that he’d survive the holocaust generally intact.” Here’s Robby, telling his story and how he started down his path, the rage of being black in America (p. 152): “How else I’m spozed to think? Couldn’t see myself on no porch in no rocking chair crying the blues. Like, what else I’m spozed to do? No way Ima be like the rest of the niggers scuffling and kissing ass to get by. Scuffling and licking ass till the day they die and the shame is they ain’t even getting by. They crawling. They stepped on. Mize well be roaches or some goddamn waterbugs. White man got em backed up in Homewood and he’s sprinkling roach power on em. He’s steady shaking and they steady dying. You know I ain’t making nothing up. You know I ain’t trying be funny. Cause you seen it. You run from it just like I did. You know the shit’s still coming down and it’s falling on everybody in Homewood. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t tell me don’t, cause we both running. I’m in here but it’s still falling on me. It’s falling on Daddy and Mommy and Dave and Gene and Tish and all the kids. Falls till it knocks you down.” Finally, the author openly shares his inner conflict about his relationship with his brother who so often is out of mind (p. 222): Gradually, I’m teaching myself to decompartmentalize. This book is part of the unlearning of my first response to my brother’s imprisonment. In spite of good intentions, I constantly backslide. In large matters, like arranging for Omar to accompany me on a visit, or small neglecting to relay somebody’s greeting to my brother or a hello from Robby to some friend on the outside, I’ll revert to my old ways. My oversights embarrass me, shake me up, because I’m reminded that in crucial ways my brother still doesn’t exist for me in the intervals between visits. The walls become higher, thicker, unbreachable when I allow myself to be part of the conspiracy.”

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jeanne

    How do we flourish in a world that seems owned by others, others who’ve been bent on our oppression if not our downright destruction? – Mitchell S. Jackson (p. IX) Brothers and Keepers is the story of a man sent to prison for 44 years for a murder during a robbery. Although the robbery was intended, the murder was not – and the death appears to have been a complication of other factors. It is also the story of that man's brother, John Edgar Wideman, and how a family is impacted by a family member How do we flourish in a world that seems owned by others, others who’ve been bent on our oppression if not our downright destruction? – Mitchell S. Jackson (p. IX) Brothers and Keepers is the story of a man sent to prison for 44 years for a murder during a robbery. Although the robbery was intended, the murder was not – and the death appears to have been a complication of other factors. It is also the story of that man's brother, John Edgar Wideman, and how a family is impacted by a family member's crime and imprisonment – especially when the greater society already sees you as guilty just for the color of your skin: "prison isn’t just the time that you do, but the way that your family carries that time with them" (Reginald Dwayne Betts, pp. XIII-XIV). In order to succeed in a world where the situation was already weighted against him, John Edgar Wideman had to deny and distance: "The problem was that in order to be the person I thought I wanted to be, I believed I had to seal myself off from you, construct a wall between us" (p. 30). At some points, Wideman seemed to believe that we can be good, successful, and White – or bad, unsuccessful, and Black. Wideman might have been able to avoid facing his biases if his brother had not been sent to prison, if Wideman had not worked to maintain a relationship with his brother. I felt like I was reading something recently published when reading Brothers and Keepers. Unfortunately, Brothers and Keepers was published in 1984. Things have changed but not to the degree that we would like and perhaps not even in the direction that we would like. Incarcerations of Blacks continue to be disproportional relative to Whites and relative to that of people engaging in similar crimes. Poor Blacks and Latinx in the US have several strikes against them relative to poor Whites: (a) disproportional policing in poor Black neighborhoods, (b) disproportionally-negative policing in those neighborhoods (ask George Floyd and Daunte Wright), and (c) a community that prevents success in societally-desirable ways (e.g., fewer opportunities for well-paying jobs, poorly-funded schools, problems in transportation and housing). If Robby fell because the only stardom he could reasonably seek was stardom in crime, then that’s wrong. It’s wrong not because Robby wanted more but because society closed off every chance of getting more, except through crime. (p. 225) It is easy to believe that Robby had choices – and certainly he had some – but I also wonder about those that were less available to him. What if we had invested in his schools and neighborhood to a greater degree? How much less expensive would it have been to develop a good jobs program in his school and neighborhood, for example, than putting him in jail for 44 years? How much more sense does it make to intervene before there iss a problem than afterwards? The costs to society, to all of us, are even more poignant when reading Robby's graduation speech (he was the only one to graduate before the program was eliminated), when reading his Afterward, written after his release. What are our goals in imprisonment? Punishment? Rehabilitation? Keeping the rest of us safe? I'm not sure that these goals make sense, at least as they have been enacted. The prison officials and the political constituency they claim to represent took their platform of “tough on crime” to new levels, ignoring truth and their moral compasses, deciding what prisoners needed was worse conditions, greater suffering, fewer programs, and more time. That will teach ’em. – Robert Wideman (pp. 280-281)

  4. 4 out of 5

    Vincent

    This was a really good book. I liked it alot. Very different than anything I have ever read. The authors brother is serving a life sentence in prison for his part in a botched robbery of people who they were fencing hot TV's too. Although the brother was not the trigger man he still recieved a life sentence. The author who is ten years older and was not close to his younger brother writes the book with his brother to determine how their paths differed and where the decisions were made to go diff This was a really good book. I liked it alot. Very different than anything I have ever read. The authors brother is serving a life sentence in prison for his part in a botched robbery of people who they were fencing hot TV's too. Although the brother was not the trigger man he still recieved a life sentence. The author who is ten years older and was not close to his younger brother writes the book with his brother to determine how their paths differed and where the decisions were made to go different ways. Also the book may cause a person to reconsider the current prison system and the "get tough on prisoner" mindset. A bit depressing in reading in as I read the book. The prisoner hopes for a release/parole at some point in the future. The book was written in 1984 and he is currrently still imprisoned today.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ally Armistead

    Why did I not discover John Edgar Wideman sooner? Wow: "Brothers and Keepers" is haunting, searing, and one of the most wonderful memoirs I've ever read. In "Brothers," Wideman revisits the incarceration of his younger brother, the pain, the misunderstanding, and, at its root, a lingering discrimination in this country. What is most moving--to this reader--is Wideman's brutal honesty, including his own discomfort with his brother, with visiting him in prison, and with--at its heart--finding a way Why did I not discover John Edgar Wideman sooner? Wow: "Brothers and Keepers" is haunting, searing, and one of the most wonderful memoirs I've ever read. In "Brothers," Wideman revisits the incarceration of his younger brother, the pain, the misunderstanding, and, at its root, a lingering discrimination in this country. What is most moving--to this reader--is Wideman's brutal honesty, including his own discomfort with his brother, with visiting him in prison, and with--at its heart--finding a way to forgive him. It is this honesty that makes this memoir transcendent, human--rather than simply a recounting of an author's conflict.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Erika Monaghan

    Wideman's writing is so descriptive and so vivid, I felt transported back to 1975. He painted the painful situation of his brother's time in jail so intensely, I had to do some further research on whether Robby got out. Unfortunately, he is still incarcerated and has been partitioning for a pardon for many years. I really enjoyed this memoir. Tragedy did not end with Robby being in prison, John Wideman's middle son is also serving life sentence for a 1985 murder. I would like to read some of Wid Wideman's writing is so descriptive and so vivid, I felt transported back to 1975. He painted the painful situation of his brother's time in jail so intensely, I had to do some further research on whether Robby got out. Unfortunately, he is still incarcerated and has been partitioning for a pardon for many years. I really enjoyed this memoir. Tragedy did not end with Robby being in prison, John Wideman's middle son is also serving life sentence for a 1985 murder. I would like to read some of Wideman's later books. His style is provocative and thought-provoking.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Roslinda

    Although I have a special place in my heart for this author (he's from Pittsburgh), Brothers and Keepers is a beautifully written memoir nonetheless. Mr. Wideman offers a thoughtful account of his family and his relationship with his brother Robby...a story of two brothers who come from the same family, same background, but take two very different paths. I can put this one down and read it again two years later...it never gets old! Although I have a special place in my heart for this author (he's from Pittsburgh), Brothers and Keepers is a beautifully written memoir nonetheless. Mr. Wideman offers a thoughtful account of his family and his relationship with his brother Robby...a story of two brothers who come from the same family, same background, but take two very different paths. I can put this one down and read it again two years later...it never gets old!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

    "You never know exactly when something begins. The more you delve and backtrack and think, the more clear it becomes that nothing has a discrete, independent history; people and events take shape not in orderly, chronological sequence but in relation to other forces and events, tangled skeins of necessity and interdependence and chance that after all could have produced only one result: what is." Brothers and Keepers is the memoir of John Wideman and his brother, Robby. Robby is serving a life se "You never know exactly when something begins. The more you delve and backtrack and think, the more clear it becomes that nothing has a discrete, independent history; people and events take shape not in orderly, chronological sequence but in relation to other forces and events, tangled skeins of necessity and interdependence and chance that after all could have produced only one result: what is." Brothers and Keepers is the memoir of John Wideman and his brother, Robby. Robby is serving a life sentence as accomplice to murder. John is an author, scholar, professor. The writing is dense and evocative. The reader is compelled to face some hard truths about the Black experience in the US as well as our increasingly dysfunctional prison system. Mr. Wideman has transcribed his brother's words about how the happenstances of his place of birth and color of skin led him to trouble. This retelling is mingled with Wideman's own reflections on life in the ghetto in the 1960's and the struggles of dealing with the stigma of not being White. Tragically, not much has changed during the ensuing decades. Young men of color still find themselves trapped in the violent world of poverty and hopelessness. Police still viciously target people based on skin color. Politicians still have to take a stand on rights for people who aren't white. Most heartbreaking is the knowledge that 30 years after the book was written, our judicial system is pushing an ever increasing percentage of the population into the prison system. A system that is ill-equipped to differentiate between habitual offenders and candidates for rehabilitation and release. The family of the victim in the case of Robby Wideman successfully sued the hospital where he was treated for malpractice. His death was caused, not by a gun shot, but by shoddy medical treatment, making Robby Wideman guilty of being an accomplice to attempted homicide. Not a life sentence. Still, he remains in prison. There's nothing easy or uplifting about this book. Nor should there be.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Emma

    Ahh, I'm torn about this book. It might be four stars. I liked the way the voices of the two brothers went in and out, and I liked the way Wideman used the structure to question his own decisions and perspective as a writer, interviewer, storyteller, brother, husband, prison visitor. In general, I found the dialogue between the two voices to be thoughtful and illuminating. And, unlike Philadelphia Fire, I felt like I mostly understood what was going on. Which is certainly a plus. On the other hand Ahh, I'm torn about this book. It might be four stars. I liked the way the voices of the two brothers went in and out, and I liked the way Wideman used the structure to question his own decisions and perspective as a writer, interviewer, storyteller, brother, husband, prison visitor. In general, I found the dialogue between the two voices to be thoughtful and illuminating. And, unlike Philadelphia Fire, I felt like I mostly understood what was going on. Which is certainly a plus. On the other hand, some of Wideman's observations and reflections on the prison system itself felt weighted down by his own writing style. It didn't seem like there was enough depth to his critique of the prison system to merit the extent of the florid metaphors that it was wrapped in. The unfortunate effect of this, in my mind, was that passages that should have felt compelling and true, instead felt more like a slog through the obvious.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Benjamin Vu

    I read this book for an assignment for my English class. The book probed my interest at first, but was unable to fully capture it and I set the book down to be read later. When I picked it up again, I found myself connecting with John and began to develop a sense of what it was like to pass through those walls every visit. I appreciated Robby's part of the story because I could sympathize with him and his perspective created conflicting emotions between what John felt about him and what I, the r I read this book for an assignment for my English class. The book probed my interest at first, but was unable to fully capture it and I set the book down to be read later. When I picked it up again, I found myself connecting with John and began to develop a sense of what it was like to pass through those walls every visit. I appreciated Robby's part of the story because I could sympathize with him and his perspective created conflicting emotions between what John felt about him and what I, the reader, felt about him. I was trying to fit myself in John's shoes and Robby's shoes at the same time. "This book will work if the reader participates, begins to grasp what I have. I hadn't been listening closely enough, so I missed the story announcing itself. When I caught on, there I was, my listening, waiting self part of the story, listening, waiting for me."

  11. 5 out of 5

    Rusty

    One of my favorites all-time, to read and to teach.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Masked

    wideman's language is so easy on a reader, but the words carry so much with them. he tells you about his brother and who they are to one another and how they got that way. but he's a professor and a black man married to a white woman and a father living in the northwest while his brother is in prison for a killing back on the east coast so it's not just some professorial memoir. wideman explores what it means to be who he is, what he represents to others and how he and his brother came from the wideman's language is so easy on a reader, but the words carry so much with them. he tells you about his brother and who they are to one another and how they got that way. but he's a professor and a black man married to a white woman and a father living in the northwest while his brother is in prison for a killing back on the east coast so it's not just some professorial memoir. wideman explores what it means to be who he is, what he represents to others and how he and his brother came from the same place.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Elaina Vitale

    I love this book and recommend it endlessly.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Leorah

    A gut wrenching, beautifully crafted memoir.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    Finishing this book I just sat there stunned. I can't remember the last time that happened to me. Why did I waste my stars on all those other books, and now I can't give this one more than 5! Admittedly, I have a reason this book would resonate, having my brother been in prison. While his circumstances are about 100 times better (three years compared to 44), there was a lot to relate to. The author has described in unflinching honesty the horrors the judicial system inflicted on one brother and t Finishing this book I just sat there stunned. I can't remember the last time that happened to me. Why did I waste my stars on all those other books, and now I can't give this one more than 5! Admittedly, I have a reason this book would resonate, having my brother been in prison. While his circumstances are about 100 times better (three years compared to 44), there was a lot to relate to. The author has described in unflinching honesty the horrors the judicial system inflicted on one brother and the guilt of successfully fleeing the ghetto in the other. The fear involved with seeing first-hand the difference between being on the inside and being on the outside and how it plays out in the visitation room. The capricious and arbitrary rule-making of prison life. The utter helplessness in not being able to do anything about it, on the individual scale or the macro. I've said so many times, "If this is what they can do to my white, middle-age, middle-class, highly-educated brother, what would they do to a poor black kid from the hood?" I was intensely affected by the prison-bound brother's story of his crime told in his own words. As my brother's defense attorney said, "Everyone in prison is there because of five seconds of stupidity."

  16. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    A powerful and moving memoir.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Peter

    Stunning memoir of two brothers and the dramatically different paths of their lives.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Karon Luddy

    May 20, 2004 Karon Luddy “The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame” Eudora Welty This is a memoir of two brothers, one behind real bars and the other behind unreal bars. It’s both a ballet and an opera—or perhaps a long blues song with intermittent tap dancing. It’s a theatrical shuck and May 20, 2004 Karon Luddy “The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame” Eudora Welty This is a memoir of two brothers, one behind real bars and the other behind unreal bars. It’s both a ballet and an opera—or perhaps a long blues song with intermittent tap dancing. It’s a theatrical shuck and jive show between keepers and those they keep. As in most memoirs, the author had to find a place from which to tell this particular story. Where do you start? Instead of the chronological view, Wideman decides to view the story from the associate context of his experience, which works beautifully, allowing him to go backward and forward picking up pieces of the puzzle that fit the wiser, broader picture he’s trying to create. The story unpacks itself throughout the narrative through the use of human memory. As Eudora Welty says, “Memory is a living thing—it too is in transit. It’s definitely not a chronological thing . . . Writing a story is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon the cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life.” The title is descriptive and provocative. Perhaps a great subtitle might be: Doing Time in America. Essentially, that seems to be one of the abiding themes in this narrative: how we spend our time, whether together or alone, caged or uncaged. The narrative is told in three major sections and then a postscript. The first section is Visits: Told from the author’s POV, mainly exposition and narrative about the who, what, where and when of the forthcoming story. The next two sections: Our Time and Doing Time include intermingled sections by the author and his brother. Including poems, letters, and first person POV narrative from the author and first person narrative in Robby’s POV, as told by the author. Postscript: This includes three brief sections. Update by author on Robby, the text of Robby’s graduation speech, a letter from Robby to author. Thematically, Brothers and Keepers is a story about all the different kinds of freedom, artistic, spiritual, economic, social, political, etc. Ultimately, it’s a story of brotherly love and understanding. It’s a story about how, in order to survive, you need to be strong—and lucky.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jan

    Very sad account of two black brothers- John, a university professor and writer (the author) and Robby, serving time for participating in a crime where a man was killed (he was not the trigger man.) Issues of race are explored and the disadvantages that make it harder for minorities to find success. "A healthy, handsome son, a good loving wife, the sort of family unit and simple, everyday life Robby dreams of now, were once within his grasp. But it all came too soon. He wasn't ready. He blew it Very sad account of two black brothers- John, a university professor and writer (the author) and Robby, serving time for participating in a crime where a man was killed (he was not the trigger man.) Issues of race are explored and the disadvantages that make it harder for minorities to find success. "A healthy, handsome son, a good loving wife, the sort of family unit and simple, everyday life Robby dreams of now, were once within his grasp. But it all came too soon. He wasn't ready. He blew it. Not alone, of course. Society cooperated. Robby's chance for a normal life was as illusory as most citizens' chances to be elected to office or run a corporation. If "normal" implies a decent job, delayed gratification, then for Robby and 75 percent of young black males growing up in the 1960s, "normal" was the exception rather than the rule. Robby was smart enough to see there was no light at the end of the long tunnel of hard work (if and when you could get it) and respectability. He was stubborn, aggressive, and prickly enough not to allow anyone to bully him into the tunnel. He chose the bright lights winking right in front of his face, just beyond his fingertips. For him and most of his buddies, "normal" was poverty, drugs, street crime, Vietnam, or prison." This book was written in 1984 and today the prison population has increased by about 500%- the majority of inmates are black men. Such a sad commentary and waste of life. I tried to find out if Robby was ever paroled- after 35 years there was a petition for his release but I don't think it was successful. It was later determined that the shooting victim may have died because he was neglected in the emergency room for hours before being treated for his wound.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Terrell

    Wideman told the story of his brother Robby who has spent years in prison for murder. Of course John was an intricate part of the book, being that he was the author. At the on set, John said "I felt much more confident borrowing narrative techniques learned from fiction than employing a tape recorder" (ix). That is while talking with his brother.John and Robby exchanged discourses while the former visited his brother in prison. One such technique would be John writing as Robby, from the first-pe Wideman told the story of his brother Robby who has spent years in prison for murder. Of course John was an intricate part of the book, being that he was the author. At the on set, John said "I felt much more confident borrowing narrative techniques learned from fiction than employing a tape recorder" (ix). That is while talking with his brother.John and Robby exchanged discourses while the former visited his brother in prison. One such technique would be John writing as Robby, from the first-person. John claimed to have jotted down his brother's words. Even if Robby's words are Robby's words, why didn't John write the book in the third person? This technique allowed the reader to have an intimate relationship with Robby, although some aspects of Robby may have been fictionalized. The word "Nigger" provided all readers with a kind of intimacy that (quite possibly) only African ¬Americans are able to be a part of. One could argue if the word is appropriate in today's street lingo or everyday conversations; but one cannot argue that it should have been excluded from the book. The Widemans incorporated "nigger" into their speech, back then. If John was expected to be honest, then the word was mandatory.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    Reading this for our Let's Talk About It group. Looks a bit grim, but it is a memoir, not fiction like the other books in the series. Update - I am really glad i read this. It isn't a book i would have picked up to read and it certainly gives you a look at a slice of life that I am not at all familiar with. It is the story of brothers -- one well educated, successful and a man who "got out" and the other, the youngest, had a complex about living up to the success of his older brother and other s Reading this for our Let's Talk About It group. Looks a bit grim, but it is a memoir, not fiction like the other books in the series. Update - I am really glad i read this. It isn't a book i would have picked up to read and it certainly gives you a look at a slice of life that I am not at all familiar with. It is the story of brothers -- one well educated, successful and a man who "got out" and the other, the youngest, had a complex about living up to the success of his older brother and other siblings. The youngest was the one who was smooth talker and was always looking to scoring his second million when he didn't have his first thousand dollars taken care of first. The younger brother commits a crime, someone dies and both brothers have quite a journey of discovery to come to terms with many things. It is also a story of a black family in Pittsburgh and the very different choices these two brothers make during their lives there. It is both uplifting and sad at the same time. And lord, lots of bad karma floating around that comes back to haunt all of these people eventually when you find out what happen to them after the memoir ends.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Susan Katz

    This probing exploration of how the same family situation could produce both a noted scholar/author and a prisoner involved in a robbery-turned-murder presents much of its material from the viewpoint of Robby, the brother in prison. The book provides psychological insight as well as an indictment not only of the prison system but of the social conditions of poverty and racism which feed that system. For Robby crime was to some extent his way of living life on his own terms, the terms of the stre This probing exploration of how the same family situation could produce both a noted scholar/author and a prisoner involved in a robbery-turned-murder presents much of its material from the viewpoint of Robby, the brother in prison. The book provides psychological insight as well as an indictment not only of the prison system but of the social conditions of poverty and racism which feed that system. For Robby crime was to some extent his way of living life on his own terms, the terms of the street, succeeding in the place to which society had consigned him. He saw joining society, and following its dictates, as a form of capitulating to it, and since society, by placing him in the ghetto, had treated him contemptuously and unjustly, his defiance of society was a way of asserting his manhood.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    The story of two brothers one of whom was part of a robbery that killed a man and is serving a life sentence. The good brother is a professor and loves taking purple flights of over intellectualizing everything. The first part of the novel crawls along as the good brother (the author) sets how anguished and conflicted and blah blah blah he is. The middle moves along because the bad brother tells the story who thankfully uses a lot less adjectives and a lot more verbs. This part of the story cook The story of two brothers one of whom was part of a robbery that killed a man and is serving a life sentence. The good brother is a professor and loves taking purple flights of over intellectualizing everything. The first part of the novel crawls along as the good brother (the author) sets how anguished and conflicted and blah blah blah he is. The middle moves along because the bad brother tells the story who thankfully uses a lot less adjectives and a lot more verbs. This part of the story cooks along but then gets bogged down again when the story comes to the present. Getting to the present the good brother takes back over and has nothing to contribute to the story but more pointless verbiage. The bad brothers story is interesting as is the way he tells it, but the good brother does his best to bury it without contributing much of interest himself.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Patrick

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. An account of the murder that lands John's brother in jail for the rest of his life. A confidence scam involving another criminal goes bad and a gun fight ensues. Wideman recounts their lives growing up and how he feels responsible for the man that his little brother became. Good quotes: "I thought of death. Entertained the silly idea that what was most frightening about dying was the inability to rehearse it. You only died once, so you couldn't anticipate what would be required of you. You could An account of the murder that lands John's brother in jail for the rest of his life. A confidence scam involving another criminal goes bad and a gun fight ensues. Wideman recounts their lives growing up and how he feels responsible for the man that his little brother became. Good quotes: "I thought of death. Entertained the silly idea that what was most frightening about dying was the inability to rehearse it. You only died once, so you couldn't anticipate what would be required of you. You couldn't tame death by practicing." "Dying with your hands on an enemy's throat is better than living under his boot."

  25. 4 out of 5

    Phi Beta Kappa Authors

    John Edgar Wideman ΦBK, University of Pennsylvania, 1962 Author From the publisher: A haunting portrait of lives arriving at different destinies, Brothers and Keepers is John Edgar Wideman’s seminal memoir about two brothers — one an award-winning novelist, the other a fugitive wanted for robbery and murder. Wideman recalls the capture of his younger brother Robby, details the subsequent trials that resulted in a sentence of life in prison, and provides vivid views of the American prison system. A g John Edgar Wideman ΦBK, University of Pennsylvania, 1962 Author From the publisher: A haunting portrait of lives arriving at different destinies, Brothers and Keepers is John Edgar Wideman’s seminal memoir about two brothers — one an award-winning novelist, the other a fugitive wanted for robbery and murder. Wideman recalls the capture of his younger brother Robby, details the subsequent trials that resulted in a sentence of life in prison, and provides vivid views of the American prison system. A gripping, unsettling account, Brothers and Keepers weighs the bonds of blood, tenderness, and guilt that connect Wideman to his brother and measures the distance that lies between them.

  26. 5 out of 5

    mc

    This was such a difficult book at this particular moment my life and I found it a more difficult read than I would have if I had read it before I met the guys, before I began learning about prison abolition, before I went to a prison and realized what these places actually are. So glad Mahurin kept this on the syllabus after her class did not read it last year, they have no clue what they missed. I relate so deeply with Wideman and his anxiety as a writer telling someone else's story, and trying This was such a difficult book at this particular moment my life and I found it a more difficult read than I would have if I had read it before I met the guys, before I began learning about prison abolition, before I went to a prison and realized what these places actually are. So glad Mahurin kept this on the syllabus after her class did not read it last year, they have no clue what they missed. I relate so deeply with Wideman and his anxiety as a writer telling someone else's story, and trying to parse out where his life ends and his brother's life begins. This is another one I will be re-reading for years to come.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Andy Zell

    Really powerful and tragic memoir about two brothers, one a successful novelist and the other in prison for life. I first came across this as an excerpt in a composition textbook I was teaching from. It was good enough that I got the book, but then I let it sit on my shelf for years. I'm glad I picked it up. Wideman does a good job letting his brother Robby speak for large sections of the book, but then he also interrogates himself and how he isn't all that different from Robby. It's also a powe Really powerful and tragic memoir about two brothers, one a successful novelist and the other in prison for life. I first came across this as an excerpt in a composition textbook I was teaching from. It was good enough that I got the book, but then I let it sit on my shelf for years. I'm glad I picked it up. Wideman does a good job letting his brother Robby speak for large sections of the book, but then he also interrogates himself and how he isn't all that different from Robby. It's also a powerful indictment on the American carceral state and how we look too many people up and for too long, destroying people and their families.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jahmila

    At first this book started off slow for me, and it took me awhile to really get into it. I really loved this book once I started reading Robby's part, and his breakdown of what happened that led to the murder. I kind of sympathized with him the entire book and towards the end of the book you definitely felt a sense of growth that had occurred within him. Johns part wasn't my favorite, but it was nice to get his input about how he was feeling and the constant battle he was facing, a conflict betw At first this book started off slow for me, and it took me awhile to really get into it. I really loved this book once I started reading Robby's part, and his breakdown of what happened that led to the murder. I kind of sympathized with him the entire book and towards the end of the book you definitely felt a sense of growth that had occurred within him. Johns part wasn't my favorite, but it was nice to get his input about how he was feeling and the constant battle he was facing, a conflict between him, his brother, and prison itself.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Donna Spencer-storie

    The author does a wonderful job of "painting the picture" of his experience of going to visit his brother who is in prison. You can "feel" his emotions and "see" what he envisions. The sections where he records the life experience of his brother's life sentence are a little more plodding to get through......some of the "expressions" of that life are not familiar to me so am a less able to "picture or feel" it. There is no denying the frustration/the bonds/the love that exist between the two. Rea The author does a wonderful job of "painting the picture" of his experience of going to visit his brother who is in prison. You can "feel" his emotions and "see" what he envisions. The sections where he records the life experience of his brother's life sentence are a little more plodding to get through......some of the "expressions" of that life are not familiar to me so am a less able to "picture or feel" it. There is no denying the frustration/the bonds/the love that exist between the two. Read this for a book club selection.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca Thatcher-Murcia

    I picked up this book because I am fascinated by the question of what causes some young people to succumb to the poverty of their surroundings while others stay on the straight and narrow and get out. Wideman's reflection on his brother's downfall and life prison sentence is heartbreaking and fascinating. I would like to know why Wideman's life turned out so differently--I think basketball had something to do with it. Having read my first Wideman book, I am eager for more. I picked up this book because I am fascinated by the question of what causes some young people to succumb to the poverty of their surroundings while others stay on the straight and narrow and get out. Wideman's reflection on his brother's downfall and life prison sentence is heartbreaking and fascinating. I would like to know why Wideman's life turned out so differently--I think basketball had something to do with it. Having read my first Wideman book, I am eager for more.

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