Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry
At some point in the mid-Sixties it became apparent that race relations was not just a southern problem; indeed, that in the North it wasn’t just Brooklyn’s and the South Side of Chicago’s problem. Every house had to be put in order. A solemnly self-conscious reappraisal began in a great many institutions, most intensely in prep schools and colleges, which see themselves as both the point of entry into the leadership class and the shaper of its values. Rather than simply moralize against racism, the schools would aggressively recruit black students while reshaping their white students’ racial attitudes.
Anyone who passed through these institutions afterward knows that this program did not go as smoothly as was intended. There was a constant buzz of white resentment over favoritism toward blacks in admissions and grading. Among blacks there was a strong pull away from whites, as one saw from the exclusively black tables that sprang up in campus dining halls up and down the east coast. Attempts to share feelings about race usually led to scenes of hostility or awkwardness. (I remember with a special wince a class at Andover Summer School in 1969 in which the white teacher lengthily berated a mild-mannered black army brat for failing to “express black rage.”) If the future leaders of the nation, black and white, learned a new lesson in school it was that race relations belongs on the long list of American problems that have been much more intractable than the preceding generation ever imagined.
When Edmund Perry, a few days after his graduation from Phillips Exeter Academy in the summer of 1985, was shot and killed by a white plainclothes policeman in Morningside Park near his home in Harlem, it struck a nerve; it seemed to dramatize the failure of this most empyrean of civil rights offensives. At first blush—HONOR STUDENT, 17, IS KILLED BY POLICEMAN ON WEST SIDE was the next day’s headline in The New York Times—it seemed to show that no black person, even a graduate of Exeter soon bound for Stanford, is safe from police brutality. Then, when it began to appear that the police officer who shot Perry was defending himself against an especially brutal mugging by Edmund Perry and his older brother Jonah, the meaning of the story changed radically. On the basis of the grand jury testimony of his neighbors, Jonah was indicted for assault and attempted robbery. There was a feeling, never quite directly stated in the press, that Edmund’s death showed that even the magnificent gift of an Exeter education couldn’t save a Harlem teen-ager from turning bad. Either way, the world now knew that all was not well on the movement’s prep-school front.
The mystique of an Exeter education meant enough to Robert Sam Anson for him to send his son there, and Edmund Perry’s death hit him with full symbolic force. Anson has found a clever way to use his own reaction to make Best Intentions work as a narrative, which is to cast it as a reporter-as-detective story—the story, that is, of Anson trying to find out who Perry really was. This allows him to make full use of the device of exposing the mistaken assumptions by other people about this seventeen-year-old’s life, and it frees him from the problems of credibility inherent in an account by an omniscient narrator of events he didn’t witness. Especially in the early pages Anson uses a lot of old tricks from detective novels (“Carreras kicked his desk drawer closed. It slammed like a gunshot”), but he’s able, also, to use long, interesting quotes from interviews with the school friends and teachers of Edmund Perry, his family and neighbors, and the police, without interrupting his basic conceit, which is that of the lone-wolf investigator calling on a series of tough, colorful characters to piece together the story of a murder. As a meditation on a serious issue that’s also a page-turner, Best Intentions works quite well.
Every good detective story involves the steady stripping away of illusions until the case is finally cracked. Anson begins by briefly sketching the image of Exeter as fount of enlightenment, Perry as the incarnation of promise, and his death as a racist murder. Then he destroys it with revelation after revelation.
First he makes it clear that the police story was correct, that Edmund and Jonah Perry were trying to rob a plainclothes cop when Edmund was killed. In the police version, Edmund and Jonah wanted to go to the movies but had no money, so they went to Morningside Park to look for someone to rip off, and found Officer Lee Van Houten, whom they were beating when he pulled out a hidden pistol and shot Edmund. None of the various claims made in Edmund’s defense at the time—that he was shot from a distance, that he was denied prompt medical treatment, that the officer who killed him hadn’t really been beaten up by the Perrys—stands up to even mild scrutiny. It plainly wasn’t a police-brutality case.
Anson’s next target is Perry’s family and neighborhood, which come across as troubled but not—important distinction—victimized. The block on 114th Street where Perry grew up has been a major beneficiary of the Great Society. The Department of Housing and Urban Development spent $25 million rehabilitating the houses on it. Spending per pupil at Perry’s public school is above the New York City average, thanks to supplementary government money. Drug dealing was pervasive in the neighborhood: dealers would ferry kids to high school in a pink Cadillac, and they once demanded the right to use a grade-school meeting room that was available to community groups. But the residents of the block were strong enough to kick the dealers out.
As a part of the initial effort to portray Edmund Perry as someone who couldn’t possibly have attacked a cop, the Perry family was idealized in the press. Its ties to the neighborhood go back generations. The Perry parents, Veronica and Jonah senior, are still married, and she is strong, employed, well known, and, as a member of the school board, she had considerable power—which she used to get both sons into accelerated programs and then to steer them into the embrace of A Better Chance, an organization that places black kids in white schools. Jonah Perry junior preceded Edmund to boarding school and is a student at Cornell.
Anson paints a gloomier picture. The boys’ father is an alcoholic, who is shown in a couple of vivid scenes as feckless and pathetic. Perhaps because she so insistently claimed that her sons were better than the other kids in the neighborhood, Veronica Perry is unpopular enough that there was no shortage of people on her block willing to inform on Jonah to the police after Edmund’s death. Anson’s research assistant was able to penetrate the protective shield Jonah’s lawyer, Alton Maddox, put up around Jonah for long enough to have one interview, in which Jonah confessed to an ugly resentment of his younger brother: “The girls Eddie did get were never as good as mine. They were ugly. Stupid, too.” Even Maddox, in an interview conducted months before he entered an innocent plea for Jonah in court, doesn’t bother to deny that a fight took place between the brothers and the police officer.
From 114th Street, Anson moves to Exeter, which in his account has none of the warmth that suffused prep-school memoirs of a generation ago. Exeter has always been the biggest and most worldly of the leading prep schools. When it, along with all the other old elite educational institutions, became more meritocratic, it became, more than the rest, a place defined by ambition. Edmund Perry obviously wasn’t the only Exeter student who was there not to learn or to grow, but to make it.
The teachers and administration there seem to be entirely out of touch with the true culture of the school. Anson has a wonderful brief portrait of Michael Forrestal, the chairman of the Exeter board, consoling a Rockefeller on a friend’s fox-hunting injury and then offering this unconsciously patronizing thought on the implications for Exeter of Perry’s death: “It might call for a little more care. But do we still want to have blacks? Of course we want to have them.” Is it any wonder that blacks at Exeter feel themselves to be both on display and on probation? In the last scene of the book, which is stagy but nevertheless powerful, Stephen Kurtz, the principal, confronted by Anson with news of the pervasiveness of drugs and racial tensions at the school, buries his head in his hands, murmurs “Oh, God” over and over, and says, hopelessly, about the black students, “How do you let them know we’re on their side?”
Finally Anson tries to strip away the veils from Edmund Perry himself, revealing an insecure, hostile, tough young man constantly struggling to keep up a front that would get him through Exeter and out into the world beyond Harlem. He told strangers that he wanted to use his education to help black people, but this was a pose mostly struck out of calculation; his real goal seems to have been to get rich. In an act of accidental self-revelation, he wrote an English paper arguing that King Lear had ruined himself by revealing his true feelings. Given the smug and gingerly way he was treated at Exeter, Perry may well have concluded that there was no point in his trying to have a closer than arm’s-length relationship with it. He probably sensed condescension in the comments about how smart he was, and anyone who has ever been a teen-age boy will know how much it must have stung when a white girl who claimed to love him gave him, as an expression of her feelings, a stuffed teddy bear.
Edmund’s efforts to keep himself intact failed spectacularly. By his senior year his hostility to whites became more obvious, and he began to draw more attention to it. He advised two black students to quit Exeter and go home, and they took his advice. On Martin Luther King’s birthday he delivered an angry Sixties black-power speech, the kind King had hated, to a school assembly. He lived in the bad-kids’ dormitory, a center for drug-taking, and he seems increasingly to have felt the need to impress white students with what a bad ghetto kid he was. Since he lacked what whites (and some blacks) think of as the conventional street virtues—he couldn’t even make the Exeter basketball team—lawlessness became his avenue to a tough-dude image at Exeter.
The form of Anson’s book dictates that it must have a climactic moment, when the reporter-detective uncovers the key fact that makes everything fall into place. This comes right on schedule, four-fifths of the way through, with the news that Perry was a minor drug dealer, importing marijuana and, once, PCP from a connection in Harlem. Given everything else Anson has told us, and given the high level of drug use at Exeter, this isn’t quite the revelation it’s intended to be, though it works well for the pacing of the story. Still, Anson’s description of Perry taking LSD, losing control, and pummeling a white student is affecting, especially since it echoes the opening scene of the book, in which Perry does the same thing to the plainclothes policeman in Morningside Park. By the end we know that Edmund Perry was screwed up enough to do something as crazy as mug someone on the eve of his departure for Stanford, and, specifically, that there was a precedent for his violence.
The coda to the book is a description of Jonah Perry’s trial, which ended in acquittal. Here Anson’s aim is to evoke the huge chasm between the races; the prosecution’s case crumbles as the citizens of Harlem close ranks around Jonah. One witness who was a key to the police case at first clams up completely on the stand, and insists that Jonah never said anything to her about the shooting of his brother. When another witness, uncovered at the last minute by the increasingly desperate prosecutor, leaves the courtroom after testifying against Jonah, “one of the black women spectators hissed at her, ‘Disgrace!’ “
This solidarity may not have existed in the days after the shooting when the police were doing their investigation, but during the trial, certainly, Alton Maddox was able to stimulate a feeling in the neighborhood that it is more important to defend blacks against whites than victims against criminals. The night of Jonah’s acquittal there was a block party on 114th Street to celebrate, in Anson’s words, “the great victory over white racism that had been won.” Anson means to leave the impression that people in Harlem simply do not believe that any good can come to them from doing things the white man’s way, and that they see the fate of Edmund Perry as a prime case in point.
Anson doesn’t explicitly deal with the persistent policy debate about black ghettos, but, since he barely mentions either of the two leading purported causes of the ghettos’ problems, industrial unemployment and welfare dependency, it’s clear that he sees the real issue as race, not economics. The story he tells is one of the tragic failure of the ordinary American process of ethnic assimilation to work for a young black man. The sticking point for Edmund Perry may well have been a feeling that succeeding in the white world inevitably meant turning against blacks—including, ultimately, his own truest self.
Like other reporters who have done research in ghettos, Anson finds that kids there who study hard and strive to succeed have to endure the accusations of their neighborhood friends that they’re acting white. One black Exeter friend of Perry’s tells Anson about an encounter with an old friend on a visit home:
He said to me, “You’re up there with all those white people. You talk white. You dress white. You even act white.” Then he took out a joint and asked me if I wanted some. When I told him no, he said, “You see what I mean? You are white.”
A young woman who went to another prep school, and who knew Perry, says:
You gotta fit in with your friends. How do you do it? I’ll tell you how you do it. You gotta snort more coke, smoke more reefer, shoot more baskets, and give up more poontang. You’ve got a week to prove you are black, before you’re on that bus Monday morning, heading back for class.
A couple of witnesses report that Perry had similar experiences himself. One older black friend of Perry’s tells Anson, “They ridiculed him for going away to school, they ridiculed him for turning white. I know they did because he told me they did.” Obviously the war over assimilation wasn’t just between Perry and the boys at home; it was internal too. A black Exeter graduate, class of ‘71, who had a long talk with Perry during a visit to the school, says,
You could tell he was hostile to white culture, and you could also tell he was very resistant to the notion of making any compromise. In a way it was hard to argue with him, because, let’s face it, what I was asking him to do was to give up everything, or at least much, of what he knew. Quite clearly he wasn’t willing to do that. He wasn’t going to give up those cultural coordinates or reference points, even if that was what it took to make it in the real world.
Aside from cutting off one’s roots, the simplest way to respond to the tug of these feelings is to renounce assimilationism, which is what Perry did publicly in his speech—actually a rereading of an old speech by a former Exeter student—on King’s birthday. “I see…a continuation of the efforts to teach blacks how to act ‘white,’ and at the same time teach them to deny the legitimacy of their own culture,” he said. “As the new black, I shall not tolerate the teaching of other blacks to be industrious, puritanical, and relatively unemotional.” However serious the pain and confusion from which this comes may be, it sounds false. Perry wasn’t about to renounce completely the white culture that promised him such a good life; he was headed for Stanford, after all. For his second line of defense he instead adopted cynicism as a way around assimilation: he was going to trick white culture into conferring its bounty on him, but not believe in it. “He talked about ‘getting over’ on people, about running a game on them,” the older friend tells Anson.
Black separatism—or, to use the current euphemism for it, “community development”—is a cause that is sometimes mystifying to whites of good will. (Whites who embrace it enthusiastically are often old-fashioned segregationists at heart.) Reading about the lacerating self-hatred that Edmund Perry felt over the leap from Harlem to Exeter makes it a little clearer what the appeal is. Then again, by concentrating on telling a single story rather than explicitly wrestling with issues, Anson has forfeited the right to traffic in lessons of the Perry case, if there are any. The note at the end of Best Intentions of utter despair about race relations ever working is really just an outgrowth of the internal logic of the narrative: all good detective stories end bleakly. Maybe there is a case to be made for the enormously dispiriting idea that blacks and whites might simply go their separate ways, but Anson certainly hasn’t made it here.