In 2013, agender white high school senior Sasha fell asleep on the bus on their way home from school in Oakland. Black teen Richard was also on the bus, and, egged on by friends, used his lighter to set fire to Sasha’s skirt. Dashka Slater’s enormously thoughtful and well-written book (staring life as an article in the NY Times Magazine) looks at the before and after for both victim and perpetrator.
Short chapters move between Sasha and Richard and move between narrative and background information. Starting with the two young men’s backgrounds, the author shows that though both teens have loving families and close supportive friends in common, their differences are stark: Sasha’s family is comfortably off, he attends an independent school and has Asperger’s; Richard comes from a poor family and has lost many loved ones to murder.
It is never clear why Richard committed this terrible act – he tells the police it’s because he’s homophobic, but it’s not clear if he actually is or if he even understands what it means. Many people in the book put it down to him being a 16 year-old boy and all the lack of foresight that goes with that. It certainly appears that he had no thought of the implications or seriousness of his act.
Slater creates empathy for both her lead protagonists, though I found myself more engaged by Richard’s story than Sasha’s. Sasha, apart from the obvious physical trauma of being set alight and the pain of recovery, appears to be relatively unscathed by the attack and takes a sanguine and rational attitude as he heads off to MIT where he seems to settle in socially and intellectually. Richard, on the other hand, is tried as an adult for committing a hate crime, though is able to serve his time in a juvenile facility. In fact it is likely that he will be released this year, having been a model inmate and used the time to study.
Ms Slater gives illuminating chapters on such contextual topics as the vocabulary of gender, sexuality, and romantic inclinations, and she explains clearly and concisely the judicial system including a sympathetic section on restorative justice. Her journalistic background shows in her exemplary use of sources including interviews, video, public records, and Richard’s two heart-twisting letters of apology that were not given to Sasha’s parents until fourteen months after they were written.
This is a short book and a quick read but provides rich material for thought, discussion, and even action.