The “free-range kids” movement seeks to give children the same sort of carefree childhoods their parents enjoyed growing up in the 1970s, those mythical days when moms would push their youngsters out the door on a sunny weekend or summer morning, allowing them to roam the neighborhood at will until dusk. The fact that the movement is so controversial (the woman who coined the term has been vilified in the media as “America’s worst mom”) demonstrates how far we have come; today, it’s considered completely normal to forbid children from playing alone outside even in the most secluded suburban cul-de-sac unless they’re constantly under an adult’s watchful eye.
In his powerful and affecting memoir, Alligator Candy, David Kushner takes us back to the era when children were “unbuckled and unrestrained, free from seat belts or helmets or meticulously organized playdates… When we had a stretch of hours to play, they let us put the free in free time, wandering off to learn and explore and find adventures. They shared our innocence. They hadn’t learned to be afraid.”
This book is about the day David’s family, and by extension his neighbors and city (Tampa, FL) learned to be afraid. On a Sunday in October 1973, David’s older brother Jonathan pedaled away from their home on his red bicycle, headed for the nearby 7-Eleven, located across the woods (“a thicket of freedom, a mossy maze of cypress and palms begging to be explored”). He had promised to return with a package of David’s favorite Snappy Gator gum, which came packaged in a toy alligator head. Jon never returned; after a weeklong search, his body was discovered in a shallow grave.
It later emerged that Jon had been abducted and murdered, but since David was just four at the time of his 11-year-old brother’s death, he knew very little about the details of the crime. He only knew Jon was gone forever. Much later in life, Kushner, now an award-winning journalist, decides to conduct a thorough investigation of Jon’s short life and brutal death. He interviews friends and family members; he reads the police reports, court documents and newspaper coverage.
He also documents his struggles with raising his own children. “The culture had changed,” he writes. “CNN broadcast news stories of missing kids. We heard about Amber Alerts, followed drawn-out abduction stories on Nancy Grace… at what point does fear subsume mindfulness? Parents, drunk on the fear, began hovering over their kids… Kids were more likely to die from an accident inside the house than get murdered by a kidnapper. But the reality of statistics didn’t matter.”
Alligator Candy is part true-crime story, part meditation on grief and loss, and a book that will no doubt prove to be tremendously valuable to families going through the sort of suffering the Kushner family endured. It can be a tough read due to the subject matter, but it’s beautifully written, and David has certainly fulfilled what he set out to do with this book: “I wanted to be the memory harvester,” he writes. “I wanted to learn and tell the story, the whole story of everything. I wanted to bring Jon back to life.”