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Alice Goffman's Denial of Murder Conspiracy Raises Even More Questions

The sociologist wrote about joining a murder plot. Now she insists that it was "not about actual violence."

Ricardo Barros/University of Chicago Press

On the Run is the story of sociologist Alice Goffman’s six years of immersion in a struggling Philadelphia neighborhood, in which she tells the stories of the “routine stops, searches, raids, and beatings that young men navigate as they come of age.” The book was initially hailed as an ethnographic classic, but to me it raised red flags. Too many of the incidents seemed unlikely, based upon my own experience as a legal aid and criminal defense lawyer in similar neighborhoods. What’s more, I was stunned to read of an incident in which Goffman claimed to have participated in a plot to kill a rival gang member. 

Consequently, I wrote a critical review of On the Run, pointing out these and other problems. I believe in the value of ethnography, and it is especially important to chronicle the lives of men and women who are otherwise marginalized and oppressed. But to be worthwhile, the stories must be accurate and reliable. And to be responsible, the ethnographer must draw a firm line between observation and criminality. It seemed to me that Goffman had failed on both fronts, and I said so.

Now she has written a response to my critique, and I am even less certain how much of the book is true. Goffman essentially admits that she embellished and exaggerated her account of a crucial episode, which should leave even the most sympathetic readers doubting her word.

As I observed in my review in The New Republic, Goffman had—in her own telling—admitted to participating in a murder plot to avenge the death of her friend Chuck, allegedly at the hands of a rival gang. She volunteered to drive for Mike, who had earlier, Goffman says, “nodded his head in agreement” that “somebody gon’ die regardless.” 

We started out around 3:00 a.m., with Mike in the passenger seat, his hand on his Glock as he directed me around the area. We peered into dark houses and looked at license plates and car models as Mike spoke on the phone with others who had information about [the suspected killer’s] whereabouts. 

One night, Mike thought he saw a member of the rival gang: 

He tucked his gun in his jeans, got out of the car, and hid in the adjacent alleyway. I waited in the car with the engine running, ready to speed off as soon as Mike ran back and got inside.

Fortunately, "Mike seemed to think this wasn’t the man he’d thought it was." He returned to the car without shooting at anyone. 

These facts—if indeed they are facts—constitute conspiracy to commit murder, as any experienced criminal prosecutor or defense lawyer will readily confirm. Goffman agreed to assist in planning a crime, and she committed an “overt act,” in the language of the Pennsylvania Criminal Code, by driving around in search of a victim. Many people have been convicted for running the engine in a getaway car, which is a common role in criminal conspiracies.

Upon reconsideration, however, Goffman now insists that the ten pages of description in her book were only “a summary account [that] does not include significant points that are relevant to the claim that I was engaged in a criminal conspiracy.” What is it that she left out of the book? “Most important, I had good reason to believe that this night would not end in violence or injury.”  

Maybe so, but here is how she explained her reasoning in On the Run: “The hunt was on to find the man who killed Chuck.” And: “I got into the car because, like Mike and Reggie, I wanted Chuck’s killer to die.” 

That is far from the last contradiction in Goffman’s response.

In her response to my essay, Goffman writes, “Talk of retribution was just that: Talk.” In the published version, however, she writes that “the 6th Street Boys acquired more and more guns, gearing up for what they assumed would be coming: part three of the 4th Street War.” No one can compare those passages without realizing that they describe entirely different circumstances. Gearing up for war is the antithesis of “just ... talk.” 

And in case anyone thinks that preparation for the 4th Street War was really nothing more than posturing, Goffman tells us earlier in the book that at least two men had already been killed in that war, and the neighborhood had been sprayed with bullets in a subsequent drive-by shooting. These wars are deadly serious, and they often begin with talk. In fact, the 4th Street War, as Goffman explains earlier, itself began in an argument over a dice game, in which a losing player threatened to shoot the winner. Everyone was laughing, and no one believed the threats—until the gun went off and a man fell dead. “My intentions wasn’t to shoot him,” said the killer, according to Goffman's book. Maybe not, but those are the obvious risks when people wave guns around. Goffman’s revenge expedition, as she tells it in On the Run, was no different, and she could have had no way of knowing that the night would not end in violence.

There are two other serious discrepancies between Goffman’s response and her book that bear discussion. The response says that the hunt for Chuck's killer was only “a way to mourn a dear friend” by showing “people in the neighborhood that Chuck’s friends were doing something.” And anyhow, “it was common knowledge that Chuck’s killer had fled right after the shooting.” In the book, however, she writes, “Many knew the man’s name and the guys he hung out with,” and though he was hiding, they still went “looking for the shooter, the guys who were part of his crew, or women connected to them who might be able to provide a good lead.” She does not characterize the pursuit as a form of mourning or note the presumed futility of the hunt.

As to the crucial night, Goffman’s revised account states: “One night, when Mike could not find anybody else to go with him, I agreed to drive. I felt ambivalent, but I went because I knew these drives were about expressing anger and grieving, not about actual violence.” 

This is reinvention. In the book, Goffman describes driving “a few nights,” not only one. She writes that she “volunteered,” not that she ambivalently agreed. And how could these drives not be "about actual violence" given that Mike got out of the car, gun in hand, to check out a rival gang member? In On the Run, Goffman never says that she had any misgivings at the time about accompanying Mike on the manhunt, or about sitting in the car, engine running, ready to make a possible post-shooting escape. In fact, in her words, “I got into the car because, like Mike and Reggie, I wanted Chuck’s killer to die.” No second thoughts there. Ambivalence, by the way, is not a legal defense to conspiracy. Reluctant agreement is still agreement, and hunting for a man to shoot is still an overt act, even if he is never found. 

Goffman’s response has completely rewritten the episode in her book, virtually admitting that the original version was highly dramatized while omitting what she now calls the “significant points” that might exculpate her from what she implicitly concedes was a serious crime. It is as though we have now read about two entirely different events—the one described in the book, and the one in Goffman’s recantation—as indeed I think we have. But which is the truth? I would be perfectly willing to believe that Goffman never tried to kill anyone, if only she had made that plain in On the Run, rather than ending on the dramatic story of an armed manhunt. “I simply wanted him to pay for what he’d done,” wrote Goffman, “for what he’d taken away from us.”

Goffman objects to my efforts1 to verify stories in the book by consulting public defenders, prosecutors, and police officers, but how else was I to do it? She argues that my critique is based on a “hierarchy . . . of people at the top,” while disregarding “the claims and experiences of the people at the bottom,” but that is not so. I do not discount the lives and experiences of Goffman’s subjects, I simply question the accuracy and reliability of her own reports about them. It is important to hear from “people at the bottom,” as Goffman puts it, but we do not have to take her words on faith. Thus, I have attempted to obtain as much information as possible from available sources. 

I would have been happy to interview Goffman’s subjects, but they are all pseudonymous. I would be pleased to review her field notes, but she has shredded them. I might at least be able to read her dissertation, but she has sequestered it. 

Indeed, Goffman does not even name the hospitals or schools—which cannot possibly be confidential—where the alleged events occurred. If no one is allowed to get information from official sources—and I would hardly call public defenders “people at the top” of the criminal justice hierarchy—then we are stuck taking Goffman’s word for it, as she has made her book impossible to fact check. That is not how journalism, or responsible scholarship, is supposed to work.

  1. In this article, I have replied only to Goffman’s comments about my essay in The New Republic. Her response also takes issue with my other criticisms of her reliability, as I detailed in my longer review on The New Rambler. Goffman’s complete revision of the vengeance story, however, undermines her credibility on everything else. If she gave us only a “summary account” that “does not include significant points,” then what else did she leave out of the other questionable vignettes? Let’s just say that in every instance, she either misunderstood or mischaracterized my critique. If readers are still willing to grant Goffman any credibility, I suggest simply reading my New Rambler review—to which Goffman did not link—and drawing their own conclusions.