Alligator Candy: A Memoir by David Kushner. Simon & Schuster| March 15, 2016| 256 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9781451682533
Two people I was once close to vanished into the marshy expanses and dark creature-infested waters of Florida. My deadbeat daddy more or less disappeared after divorcing my mom when I was in elementary school in the mid-70s. Then my childhood friend was abducted on a walk while attending University of Florida at Gainesville in the late 80s. Case semi-solved but not definitively. Her body has never been found. Florida is the type of state where falling off the map isn’t that surprising. I’m not particularly a fan of the state. My intent isn’t to malign an entire state but it’s beyond argument that weird things go down in Florida.
“It was the early seventies. The Age of Aquarius had given way to the “Free to Be You and Me” generation. We were unbuckled and unrestrained, free from seat belts or helmets or meticulously organized playdates.”
David Kushner’s older brother Jon disappeared one day on a bike ride to get candy and two men savagely murdered him, sodomized him postmortem and mutilated his body. It’s a horrific event to happen in one’s family. Only four at the time, Kushner didn’t quite understand the full impact. He missed his brother but didn’t know the complete details. Now a journalist, he decided to revisit the case and provide a voice for and memory of his brother. Through compelling prose and devastating emotion this memoir potently addresses murder and its effect on the family.
For nearly 40 years, questions swirled in Kushner’s mind. When people ask Kushner how many siblings he has does he say one or two but one died? How does he assuage the guilt he feels that his brother was buying him candy that day? How many should’ve, could’ve, if onlys are there to answer for the Kushner family?
Both parents are quite remarkable. Gilbert Kushner is an anthropology professor and Lorraine Kushner taught Lamaze before it was hip and cool and everyone embraced the practice. Both remained politically and socially active. They moved to Tampa so Gilbert could take a professor position at University of South Florida. Of Tampa, Kushner notes: “But it didn’t take long after they arrived in Tampa to realize this wasn’t a city of liberal New Yorkers.” Au contraire. Quite a strange and conservative place.
After Jon’s death, they embraced the Kubler-Ross Death and Dying movement. Kushner writes: “But for my mother, the death and dying movement seemed like a natural extension of the social action she and my father had taken part in over their lives. The denial of death had created a kind of mass oppression, a culture of silence that left mourners feeling alienated and ill-equipped.”
In revisiting his brother’s case, Kushner reads through old newspapers and interviews detectives, school teachers and childhood friends. He talks with his brother Andy and details the experience when they both had to address a parole board for one of Jon’s murderers. He discusses as much as possible with his mother and reads through a journal she kept after Jon’s murder.
Everything’s changed since the 1970s and even 1980s. After Jon’s murder, there were tons of child abductions and Murders in the 70s and 80s -i Adam Walsh, which led to John Walsh hosting America’s Most Wanted and led to the establishment of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Now a parent, Kushner looks upon his brother’s death with a different perspective.
The passage of time, changes within our society to protect children from predators and Kushner’s personal and professional experiences ameliorates his ability to analyze, process and endure the details he couldn’t understand as a child. Divulging details about his family and Jon’s short life and brutal murder, Kushner composed an astonishing mediation on life, loss and family.
David Kushner is a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. He’s a contributing editor of Rolling Stone [if only I could write for that publication; every music journalist’s dream]. His other books include Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture and How a Gang of Geeks Beat the Odds and Stormed Las Vegas.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Simon & Schuster.