Author Interview | Alex Abramovich – Bullies: A Friendship
Photo: Ceridwen Morris. Courtesy of Macmillan.
Being bullied isn’t an uncommon experience among men, but tracking down your bully and befriending him is. Alex Abramovich did just that when he sought out Trevor Latham, a kid who beat him up repeatedly while in the fourth grade of a Long Island elementary school. Upon contacting Latham, Abramovich found the tormentor of his youth not only remembered him, he was interested in getting together to talk for a story that Abramovich had pitched to GQ magazine. Within weeks, the two reunited in Oakland at the East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club, of which Latham was president.
Years after the GQ story ran, Abramovich decided to continue his inquiry into Latham, the Rats, and Oakland’s violent legacy. From the Your Black Muslim Bakery murder to the Occupy Oakland protests, Abramovich turns a journalist’s eye towards a city under siege and the characters that populate it, from the tatted motorcycle club members to homeless recyclers to overwhelmed cops. The resulting memoir, Bullies (Macmillan Publishers), is a brutal cautionary tale about how deeply place and people can damage one another.
Crave: Your memories of the childhood relationship with Trevor don’t always line up with his. How do you reconcile that?
Alex Abramovich: Our memories do line up pretty well actually. It’s just that our interpretations of those memories are very different.
Your lives mirrored one another in that both of your were living with single fathers that had bad tempers and had fallen on hard times. Why do you think your path and Trevor’s diverged so much as adults?
The short answer to that would be that I left. It was a pretty bad environment. Trevor stayed and became very comfortable with violence. I escaped into a different kind of world.
The book is heavy on the history of Oakland. What parallels do you see between Trevor and the city?
I think there was a one-to-one parallel between Trevor and the city and the motorcycle club and the city. The club is a direct manifestation of everything that is fucked up about the city.
Fighting seems like a form of communication among the Rats. Could the “consensual bloodshed” also be seen as forms of physical intimacy between men? A kind of affection for one another?
Absolutely. Not just men, but women, too. Women fight at the Rats’ things. It’s a form of communication, like a dance, like a squad of men on a soccer field, or a football team. It’s a lot of different things but one of those things is communication. It’s a form of exchanging affections as well.
Do you think bullying and/or violence such as that associated with the Rats are just phases that men go through? Or are violence and masculinity inextricably linked?
I don’t have anything profound to say about masculinity but I would direct you to H. Rap Brown who said, “Violence is as American as apple pie.”
So…do you think it’s something that exists throughout one’s life or are there periods during a man’s life when he’s more prone to violence?
Human beings are prone to violence from the moment of birth to the moment of death.
Why do you think war veterans are particularly drawn to motorcycle clubs?
It goes back to the soldiers in World War II buying the commissioned Harleys at auction, which is why Harleys are traditionally the motorcycles associated with American bikers. If I were to hazard a couple of guesses, I would say soldiers miss the adrenaline of combat, the camaraderie of the barracks, violence. Those are all things that motorcycle clubs provide that the civilian world doesn’t. If you look at the history of motorcycle clubs since World War II, enrollment numbers have spiked after World War II, after Korea, after Vietnam, after the Persian Gulf wars. Not just the Rats but motorcycle clubs in general were basically inextricable from the story of American wars.
Why aren’t women allowed to become Rats?
Women aren’t allowed in the Rats. It’s a man club. As far as I know, there are no motorcycle clubs that allow women, or women’s clubs that allow men. Clubs usually break down along racial lines, ethnic lines, lines having to do with professions, common interests.
“Bullies” initially started as a magazine story. After it was published, you said you didn’t want to turn it into a book because you were “finished with Oakland.” What made you change your mind?
I met Trevor again, for one thing. I kept thinking about the guys and wondering what they were up to. Only four years went by, but they were pretty formative years, during which people got straight jobs and got married and had kids. Two of the guys in the club had died and I was curious to know what effect that had had. People kept being interested in the story, so there was a steady accumulation of that. Also, things had sort of stalled out in my part of New York, so things on the West Coast seemed more interesting all of a sudden.
What was Trevor’s reaction to the book?
He liked it. He thought it was great. His wife was a little freaked out.
Ultimately, what did your relationship with Trevor teach you?
He’s a very patient and very even person and I’m neither one of those things. I learned about the virtues of steadiness and even-handedness as a means of exercising control, which is a useful thing to know as a writer as well as a useful thing to have as a motorcycle club president.