Backgrounder: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. Photo: © Kristine Larsen.

In a September 2001 episode of the radio program This American Life, Adrian LeBlanc related the story of helping her father Adrian compose his obituary. A union representative who believed fiercely in the nobility of blue-collar life, he insisted on only one thing: the headline had to read, "Adrian LeBlanc, Product of the Working Class." This tagline could easily apply to his daughter as well. Weaned on progressive ideology, LeBlanc gives voice to the experiences of common people.

Over the past 41 years, she has had plenty of opportunities to embrace elitism, but has maintained a deep pride in her working-class roots. She left Leominster, Massachusetts, the small, industrial town where she grew up, to attend Smith College, a bastion of privilege. While just 70 miles apart, the psychic distance separating Smith from Leominster was immediately apparent to LeBlanc. “It was clear that in the eyes of a lot of people my experience was invisible and irrelevant," said LeBlanc, in a 2004 interview with the Columbia Journalism Review.

After graduating from Smith in 1986, LeBlanc moved on to Oxford University, where she earned a masters in philosophy and modern literature. In '93, she attended Yale Law School on a fellowship from the Knight Foundation. But years of rubbing elbows with the upper class only fed LeBlanc's need to tell the stories of the underrepresented.

LeBlanc has written for The New Yorker, the Village Voice and Esquire, among other magazines, on topics ranging from juvenile justice to women in prison to ostracized children. But she is best known for Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx, a nonfiction novel chronicling the lives of an extended Puerto Rican family from the South Bronx, caught in the inexorable cycle of poverty. In it, LeBlanc explores the socio-economic conditions that conspire to bar the family's entry into the middle class.

Published in 2003, Random Family was the product of 12 painstaking years of research, reporting, and writing. Although LeBlanc went through five editors and two publishers, she remained convinced that she'd found a story worth telling, a leap of faith vindicated by the book's phenomenal success. To date, it has gone through seven reprints and won numerous awards, including a Margolis Award (a prize granted to emerging writers concerned with social justice) and an International Lettre Award, an honor bestowed on reporters exploring "unfamiliar territories" by the Aventis Foundation and Lettre International.

In 2005, LeBlanc told an interviewer from the Worcester, Massachusetts-based Telegram & Gazette that her next nonfiction book would focus on the lives of stand-up comedians. While reluctant to discuss the details of the project, LeBlanc told reporter Craig Semon that she’d been working on the book for roughly two years. In an interview with this writer in early November, she said that she is deeply immersed in the lives of her subjects and in no rush to define her book-in-progress. Said LeBlanc, “It’s my nature to give myself room to not know for a long time.”

Orli Van Mourik is a graduate student in the NYU Department of Journalism.