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

"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.

Writer Moore refuses to whitewash anything, including the heinous act that landed the criminal Moore in prison for life. On Feb. 7, 2000, during a fumbled jewelry robbery in Pikesville, four men, including the other Wes Moore and his older half-brother, Tony, killed a jewelry store security guard. He was an off-duty policeman, Sgt. Bruce Prothero, a father of five who had taken on a second job after his wife gave birth to triplets.

"Let me be clear," the author writes at the outset. "The only victims that day were Sergeant Bruce Prothero and his family."

The only way he could explore the criminal's life, Moore says, was to approach it openly and without "judgment." Still, the criminal's refusal to take responsibility for his actions continues to confound him. (He won't admit to being at the scene of the crime.) The author told the convict, "It's easy to lose control when you were never looking for it in the first place."

During one of his early visits, the prisoner declared, "Your father wasn't there because he couldn't be; my father wasn't there because he chose not to be. We're going to mourn their absence in different ways." The author's father, the first Wes Moore in this story, was a loving dad who was also a reporter and public-affairs host for radio station WMAL in Washington, D.C. (He met his wife Joy, Wes' mother, when she worked for him as a writing assistant.) He died of an undiagnosed rare virus when the boy was three.

Under the heat of his own quest and the other Wes Moore's prodding, Moore found himself pushing his own family members as hard as he did his counterpart's. "I had to be very honest with them to be very honest with me," he says. "At first I was getting what they wanted me to hear. At times I felt like an eight-year-old asking questions from my mom or my uncle or my grandmother."

Wes Moore's dad was Joy's second husband. He had never known that her first husband was a violently abusive man. "That didn't come out until after our first few interviews." Suddenly, he could make sense of an early-childhood memory. His mother furiously told him, when he was only three, "Don't you ever put your hands on a woman." He had just given his older sister a playful punch.

"When she told me about her first marriage," he says, "I was so furious…"

In the book, he comes clean on all his weakness and confusion. His widowed mother, knowing she needed help with her three kids, took them from Maryland to her parents' home in the Bronx, and enrolled Moore in the elite Riverdale Country School. He couldn't handle the disconnect between the cloistered, snobbish world of the academy and the street-bravado culture of his 'hood. His attitude worsened, his grades plummeted. He didn't drift into drug use or sales, like his prison counterpart. But police did cuff him once, when they caught him "tagging" a wall with an up-and-coming young dealer.

His mother assessed the situation and sent him to Valley Forge Military Academy. "Writing this book, I had to think about where I was mentally, emotionally and physically, and what would have happened if my mother had not made such an aggressive and creative intervention." Her parents mortgaged their house to pay for Valley Forge. But his mother's crucial act was asking a cadet captain to look after him.

"People took time to show me things; otherwise, my life could have gone in a different direction," he says. The other Wes "never had what I had in terms of support."

When the writer asked the prisoner, "Do you think we're all just products of our environment?" he answered, "Maybe products of our expectations," or "others' expectations that you take on as your own." The writer notes in his book, "I realized then how difficult it is to separate the two. The expectations that others place on us help us form our expectations of ourselves."

In its general outline of an unfocused kid from a broken family spiralling into drugs, violence and unwed fatherhood, the biographical part of the story is familiar from cutting-edge Baltimore-based TV series such as "The Wire" and "The Corner." But it gains new potency from its contrast with the tale of a young man who stumbles and rights himself with support from family and older friends.

"The Other Wes Moore" lucidly maps out how a boy-man builds a destructive existence from a string of bad decisions. The author insists that if Wes had hooked up with a better role model than his brother Tony, "he could have been different. Someone with a broader view of like than ‘the corner boys' would have taught him to look at the long-term consequences of snap decisions. He could have made something of his life."

But Moore also acknowledges the unfairness of accident and history. Johns Hopkins accepted his doppelganger's mother after she earned an associate's degree from the Community College of Baltimore; she was ready to attend until she lost a promised Pell Grant. At the time of the jewel heist her son was living mere blocks away from the Hopkins campus. One Wes Moore was being celebrated there while the other was on the run from the police.

As Moore puts it, in lines he believes in so strongly that he repeats them twice, "The chilling truth is that my story could have been his. The tragedy is that his story could have been mine."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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