the other wes moore

Last Friday I finished The Other Wes Moore. I can’t recall how I first heard about the book, but I was disappointed to learn last week that I just missed the eponymous author’s appearance at Politics & Prose. I wanted to ask him a question that’s been bothering me since I finished reading.

The book details the lives of two black men of approximately the same age who both grew up in inner-city Baltimore without their fathers. One (the author) is an Army combat veteran turned Rhodes Scholar turned investment banker turned youth advocate. The other is serving a life sentence in prison, without parole, for his role in an armed robbery that led to the death of a police officer.

The author first heard about his name-doppelganger when he was studying abroad in South Africa. When he called home the first time after arriving, his mom told him the coincidental story of a manhunt that was taking place throughout the mid-Atlanic region for a man named Wes Moore, a bank robbery suspect. Later, stories about the two Wes Moores (the Rhodes scholarship of one, the apprehension of the other) were published in the Baltimore Sun on the same day.

Upon learning about their similarities in background, the author began a correspondence with the felon, which eventually led to their meeting and, later, to the book. The author claims to have had the other Wes Moore’s full cooperation, which is born out by the detailed descriptions of the felon’s life, as well evidence of the many interviews that the author conducted with the other Wes Moore’s family and friends.

The stories of the two men’s lives are fascinating, both in their similarity and in their eventual divergence. And I think that the author is trying (and succeeding, for the most part) to make a very interesting point about the problems that young black men in particular face in in the inner city in the United States today. There certainly can be a hair’s breadth between success and failure in that environment.

The book’s cover contains these two trenchant sentences: “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.” I think the first sentence is true; the second, I’m not so sure about.

It turns out that Wes Moore the felon maintains his innocence of the crime for which he was convicted. The author (for reasons that are not clear to me) chooses to be somewhat circumspect about this fact; it’s not until the beginning of the third part of the book that the claim of innocence is revealed. Wes says to Wes during one of his prison visits, “I wasn’t even there that day.”

The author expresses to the reader his incredulity that the man sitting across from him, whom he’s been corresponding with and speaking to for years, could still be insisting on this version of events. The implication is that the author doesn’t believe the other Wes Moore, though he doesn’t say so outright. And I feel confident that the author would have vigorously pursued this claim had there been even a shred of evidence to support it; moreover, he would have been in an excellent position to do so, as he had gained the aforementioned cooperation and trust of those closest to the other Wes Moore. But he doesn’t, and so the reader is left to assume both that Wes Moore is guilty, and that that the author doesn’t believe his claims of innocence.

While in prison, Wes Moore became what the author describes as a “devout Muslim,” the outward sign of which is the long beard that he grows. And this is where the book’s central argument seems to me to fall off the tracks: I don’t understand how anyone can claim to be a “devout” follower of any religion and at the same time completely refuse to take responsibility for his/her actions. The author wants to argue that it was mere chance, for the most part, that allowed him to succeed while the other Wes Moore ended up in prison. But I think that it is perhaps the one man’s willingness to hold himself accountable — in contrast to the other’s complete abdication of that responsibility — that might be the key factor in the difference between the two.

For the most part, the author portrays the other Wes Moore as a likable character, a man limited by his environment despite his attempts to get out. But the reveal at the end of the book left me confused, and a little angry. I would find the other Wes Moore to be much more sympathetic if he had expressed even some regret for the actions that led to the death of a police officer. But at the end of the book, I was wondering how the author could expect me to care about his story. And really, I think the author was fully aware of this dilemma, which is why he buried the other Wes Moore’s claim and then quickly moved to another topic.

But I would have liked to ask him about it.

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