Book Review: They Talked to a Stranger by Len O’Connor
This book is centered around ten interviews with juvenile delinquents by then-radio reporter Len O’Connor in 1950s Chicago. Each of the boys is identified with a nickname, some their actual nickname, others chosen to protect their identities. They’re asked how they got into a life of crime, a bit about their home situations, what kind of reformatory or jail experience they’ve had, and so forth.
“Moustache”, for example, is a cop killer. It’s more bad luck and bad choices than something he planned to do, but a cop killer none the less. “The Loner” is an Israeli citizen, “Joy Ride” just likes stealing cars for the thrill (and his capture on a petty theft charge keeps him from being indicted for murder with the rest of his gang) and “One-Arm” is going to find it hard to continue his burglary career after his laundry machine accident.
It’s pretty strong stuff, and would have been even stronger when it was published back in the 1950s. Most of the boys are clearly doomed to continue being criminals in adulthood; even the Army won’t take them. The one ray of hope is “Boot Straps”, an uneducated black man who one day decided that stealing was getting him nowhere and quit cold turkey, turning his life around despite every hardship.
There is discussion of racism as one of the contributing factors of juvenile delinquency. Several of the boys talk about rape, but none of them admit to it. (There’s a fair amount of casual sexism both from the delinquents and from Mr. O’Connor.) Homosexuals are seen as disturbed, and the concluding chapter makes a disconnected suggestion that homosexuals = sexual deviants = child killers.
The concluding chapter has other thoughts on the problem of juvenile delinquency in Chicago. Suggested fixes include strong positive relationships between fathers and sons, free athletic programs to keep active young men busy, and better enforcement of curfew laws.
This is an interesting look at crime by minors in a bygone decade; it is disheartening to see how little has changed in some respects. I got my copy from a library discard sale, and reprints appear to be very rare.