Little Brother: Love, Tragedy, and My Search for the Truth
Ben Westhoff, author of Original Gangastas and Fentanyl, Inc. has written another gritty book about poverty and the sinister forces lurking to snatch the nation’s youth from their promise. This memoir is a very personal story, as Westhoff searches for the killer of his little brother, Jorell Cleveland, from the Big Brother program, whom he loved since his university days. Not an easy read, as there are few lighthearted moments in this story of another young man cut down in his prime. This briskly paced story showcases Westhoff’s excellent forensic skills, while he owns his naivete, never trying to sugar-coat the facts. Like life, things are more complicated than they seem. Bad guys have families and seemingly good guys are conflicted.
More than anything else, Little Brother: Love, Tragedy, and My Search for the Truth illustrates how local grifting by elected officials and chronic underfunding of public schools and community infrastructure harm our children. If anything, Jorell Cleveland is a victim of callousness in the race-based, poverty punishing school funding crisis, which allowed a bright young man who worked hard to lack basic educational skills for any kind of stable life. No wonder the allure of the gangsters appealed, what else did he have in his neighborhood.
Westhoff really does have street cred as he still lives in St. Louis, Missouri, which has one of the highest murder rates in the country. In fact, he and his wife left the city of the arches for a while but were drawn back into its pull.
All the way into chapter 25 the yikes keep coming, like the harsh 12-year sentence Jorell’s mother receives for selling cocaine, despite her obvious substance abuse issues. And these sentencing disparities are rife in Black communities. Twelve years away from her children—it’s hard not to imagine someone getting back on the junk when her life is gutted.
Certainly, there is enough drama in Little Brother to compose a Wagnerian epic, but here, as he nears the end of this project, Westhoff speaks prophetically:
“As my reporting wound down, I began thinking more about the writing of this book. When it came to Jorell, what was the narrative? Maybe it was a three-act play. He’d started as a sweet young boy, been corrupted by guns, drugs, and local bad actors, turned into a predator who sealed his own fate through violent aggression. It felt more like a tragedy in one act. “
“In prison people kill over literature.”
If there weren’t already enough reasons for skepticism about Missouri’s politics, while interviewing characters for this book, the author learned that not only is solitary confinement routinely meted out to the regular prison population, their books are also censored. Can’t have an educated woke underclass, evidently. It is hard not to feel the jackboot of slavery on the necks of the Black community in Missouri.
Laughably, the colossal screw-up of a St. Louis County police department clerk, released all records to Westhoff in the active investigation of Jorell’s murder. Sadly, toxicology reports don’t lie, and Jorell, the erstwhile little brother, was not so clean. His killing was never prosecuted by the St. Louis District Attorney because witnesses were reluctant to talk to the authorities. And so ends another tragedy in proximity to Ferguson, Missouri.
Based on the author’s previous work, he leaves you wondering, “Was the story over, or is it just beginning?”