Lezley McSpadden with Lyah Beth LeFlore, Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil, Regan Arts, New York, 2016, $26.95, 254 pages.
By Pat Louise
Since Aug. 9, 2014, much has been written about Michael Brown, shot that day by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. In Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil, Brown’s mother tells her son’s life story before his death became a national story.
Author Lezley McSpadden, with author Lyah Beth LeFlore, takes up much of the story talking about her own life, including pregnancy at age 16 and then raising son Mike Mike and her other children before her oldest was shot on Canfield Drive. For those looking for a mother’s rant against police and government amidst racism in her town, this book deals up a surprisingly little of that. Instead, readers get a better understanding of the people behind the national news event.
The book opens with a punch to the heart of a mother’s learning her son has been shot and is lying in the street a few blocks away. As she races to the scene, McSpadden leaves us there, going back to telling the story of her childhood and then Mike Mike’s 18 years, before circling back to the shooting and its aftermath.
McSpadden seems to be exploring the questions of how did we get here and what happened. While she thoroughly answers the first, she says at the end she has yet to learn exactly what happened that day, as two of the three witnesses refuse to talk to her and the third is dead.
With a candor that doesn’t always put her in the best light, McSpadden chronicles her childhood, including disappointments with her father and her struggles to keep going to school and work once she has her son at age 16. Her choice of writing styles with slang and incorrect grammar can be jarring, especially as she writes in a prose as if talking to the reader over coffee at the kitchen table.
She and Mike Mike bounce around living with her mother, on their own and with the Browns, parents of her son’s father. Her son – nicknamed Mike Mike to distinguish between his father Mike — is raised by an assortment of family members, but always with plenty of love around him, McSpadden says again and again.
Who the world would come to know as Michael Brown from Aug. 9, 2014, on is described as a laid-back kid, always too big for his age and the target of bullying because of his size. He is not a good student, forcing his mother to try a number of tactics to keep him in school and obtain a high school degree, something she was unable to do. Brown does earn his diploma, becoming a high school graduate who turned 18 just weeks before his death.
That kid who, according to his mother, might have given her grief in the home but never outside of it, becomes the counter character to the Michael Brown police originally said had a weapon, tried to harm an officer and had just been involved in a robbery.
McSpadden does not attempt to fill in the gaps leading up to the shooting; instead she details her quest to talk to the man Brown was with at the Ferguson Market and who saw him get shot. An attempt to talk to him – a person McSpadden said she never heard mentioned by her son – resulted in nothing truthful being told, she writes.
Whatever one’s views of the shooting – justified or police brutality – the description of McSpadden and her family racing to the scene and forced to see Brown’s body lying on the street for hours, unable to even touch him, makes for painful reading. But this is where McSpadden’s story makes the most impact, as she strips away the controversy and questions and flashes back to standing for hours wanting to get to her dead son lying on the street.
McSpadden skims through her appearances at press conferences and talk shows in the days and weeks after the shooting and then the grand jury report. She touches briefly by name on those in law enforcement and government in Missouri who made promises, offering her view of whether they were sincere or not.
She spends more time on problems between her and Brown’s father regarding the funeral and meetings with Missouri leaders to update them on the case. While the question remains of what it felt like to get pushed into the national spotlight and see the devastation in the city of Ferguson over the shooting, McSpadden sets all that aside to focus on her grief over burying her son.
It works because what the reader gets is not a national spotlight view but something more intimate.
McSpadden wraps up her story by saying she shook out of her depression by starting the Michael O.D. Brown We Love Our Sons and Daughters Foundation. The Foundation brings together mothers of other males shot by police, a group known as the Rainbow Mothers. The Foundation offers a variety of ways to help them adjust to their new normal of life.
She says as her book went to press late last spring that she has yet to learn the solid truth of what happened in her son’s final moments. “This isn’t a black versus white issue. This is an issue about Right versus Wrong,’’ she states at the end.
Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil might roil those convinced Brown deserved his fate, as McSpadden’s view is most definitely that he did not. But her opinion comes strictly as that of his mother, and that is what mothers do. Readers are given fair warning on the cover with the description of The Life, Legacy, and Love of My Son, Michael Brown. Anyone expecting a balanced outlook from Wilson’s perspective will not find it. Instead, what you get is a detailed look into one family’s life in the face of losing a loved one to a cop shooting.