‘The Other Wes Moore’ tells a tale of two inner-city destinies

They knew the same neighborhoods, but in 2000, one Wes Moore was on his way to Oxford, the other on his way to prison

April 30, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

"The Other Wes Moore" is a book that bridges the gap between Inner Harbor and inner city in the most startling and revelatory ways. The title might suggest the tale of a hidden life. But it's something completely different: the story of two Baltimore men with the same name, roughly similar backgrounds — and wholly opposite journeys.

The Wes Moore who was just on "Oprah" became a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the Johns Hopkins University, a Rhodes scholar, a White House Fellow and an Army officer in Afghanistan, as well as the author of this book. The other Wes Moore became a drug dealer, a thief and a convicted killer.

Instead of stoking the "good" Moore with a sense of pride and accomplishment, the contrast bedeviled and haunted him. Seeing reports of the crime juxtaposed in The Baltimore Sun with profiles of himself as the ultimate "local boy makes good" roused a driving curiosity. It kept getting fired up as the coverage of both men continued in 2000 and 2001.

"One of the titles I tried out for this book was ‘Baltimore Sons,' " he says. On June 9, 2001, The Sun reported that a judge had sentenced the criminal Wes Moore to life without parole. Exactly a month later, you could read The Sun's coverage of Wes Moore, the Rhodes scholar, as one of People magazine's top 50 bachelors. (He's now married.)

Moore, who was born in Southern Maryland and grew up in the Bronx, kept thinking about the coincidence even after two years at Oxford. He knew it had become a life-altering obsession.

"The thing just grabbed me and captured me," he says.

He started immediately to see parallels to his own past. "When the stories started coming out early in the investigation, and reported that Wes' mother had started to cooperate with police, and was making public statements to Wes and [his half-brother] Tony, saying, ‘come home, I'm worried about you, turn yourself in' — just knowing the community, I guessed that the mother was the only parent in the house. … It resonated with me. I had seen my mother's pain when she had to do things on her own."

He had to follow his inchoate urge to investigate the life of someone he thought "may have carried part of me with him" into his prison cell. He sent a letter to him at the Jessup Correctional Institution.

"I wasn't sure he would get what I wanted," Moore now says, "and I wasn't sure, even if he did, that he'd be interested in writing me back." Having no expectations turned out to be freeing. "I had no fears of being disappointed in any way." When he did respond, and the two began exchanging life stories in letters and occasional prison visits, the similarities and differences proved to be equally profound.

The age-old cry, "There but for the grace of God go I," resounds throughout the book. The process of writing it fit two goals Moore has held throughout his adult life: introducing urban tribes to society at large, and helping adolescents achieve true manhoood. He reminisced about what it was like to enter Hopkins a dozen years ago after graduating from Valley Forge Military Academy and College in Wayne, Pa.

"It created an emotion in me that was different from what the rest of my classmates were feeling. Many students who go to Hopkins can't understand the dynamics of the streets around it. I was able to look at this campus from a unique perspective: I knew what was going on beyond its gates. I felt that Hopkins embraced me for it, that the institution welcomed me warmly because of my passion for the city and the surrounding neighborhoods."

Moore feels that inner-city children from an early age should experience that kind of connection: the kind that expands their world without ignoring or insulting their roots.

He says he would have wasted his life without a succession of helping hands. So he led a Hopkins initiative called STAND!: "Students Taking A New Direction, for kids who've had contact with the criminal justice system. The idea was to mentor kids who had never seen a college campus or been to the Inner Harbor or Washington. So many kids simply know 'the block,' and that's it. I wanted to show them that they had other options than what they might see on Greenmount."

The emotional pull and momentum of "The Other Wes Moore" reflects his urgent desire to reach the same sort of kids with a rocketing real-life narrative, not a clinical study. It's a rare creation. The author doesn't spare himself, and he doesn't go easy on the other Wes Moore, either.

The autobiographical parts ruthlessly analyze how the writer fell into bad behavior, then developed his brain and conscience thanks to his mother, Joy, and other relatives, as well as a string of mature advisers. The biographical parts chronicle the sad waste of a smart kid who never found a sounding-board or a foothold in society, and drifted ever-deeper into crime.

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