In­ter­view Au­thor and TED star Casey Ger­ald tells Nosheen Iqbal about the folly of the Amer­i­can dream

In 31 years Casey Ger­ald has risen from a trau­matic child­hood in the poor part of Dal­las to Yale, Har­vard, Wall Street and be­yond. In many ways he ex­em­pli­fies the Amer­i­can dream – only that’s the very myth his new book sets out to dis­man­tle.

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda - By Nosheen Iqbal

Casey Ger­ald knew he was spe­cial from a young age. Not in a con­ceited or en­ti­tled way – be­ing poor, black, gay, “a damn near or­phan”, and from the wrong side of Dal­las meant he would of­ten be told oth­er­wise – but spe­cial be­cause his mother in­sisted he was. “And she was the most mag­i­cal crea­ture I ever knew,” he says, “like some­thing from the movies.”

Ger­ald’s mother was, he later recog­nised, a manic de­pres­sive – “with big, crinkly, burnt-blond hair [that] made her look like a high­yel­low Whit­ney Hous­ton”. She left home and dis­ap­peared when he was 13. Some time be­fore, Ger­ald’s foot­ball star fa­ther, the son of a renowned Texas preacher, be­came hooked on heroin only to then carousel in and out of prison. And so this gifted, ath­letic teenager ended up in the care of his grand­mother and older sis­ter – un­til a foot­ball schol­ar­ship to Yale be­came his ticket “to live Amer­ica from the very bot­tom to the very top”.

Ger­ald and I talk via a video call from Los An­ge­les. Now 31, he is elo­quent, hand­some, thought­ful – the rags-to-riches poster boy for the Amer­i­can dream that his book, There Will Be No Mir­a­cles Here, sets out to dis­man­tle. On the sur­face, his life reads as the el­e­va­tor pitch for a Dis­ney movie, the Ho­ra­tio Al­ger myth beloved of pop cul­ture and politi­cians; so much so that af­ter meet­ing Ger­ald in 2016, for­mer pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush used his story in a speech to il­lus­trate the plucky, in­spi­ra­tional, pull-your­sel­fup-by-your-boot­straps nar­ra­tive that feeds the coun­try’s iden­tity.

“I think of my book as an in­ter­ven­tion,” says Ger­ald. “To turn this Amer­i­can dream on its head is like be­ing the warn­ing on a pack of cig­a­rettes: peo­ple will still smoke, but the way we’re taught to live our life in this so­ci­ety can kill you and it is killing peo­ple – even if they’re not dead, they are mis­er­able, sad, de­pressed. We need to have a ref­er­en­dum on the Amer­i­can ma­chine.”

What would the ques­tion be? “How do we build a so­ci­ety where ev­ery kid has a shot? It’s as sim­ple as that. One ex­cep­tional case [like mine] does not jus­tify the suf­fer­ing of 13 mil­lion Amer­i­can chil­dren who don’t have enough food or one in 30 who don’t have a sta­ble place to sleep. My gen­er­a­tion has in­her­ited a coun­try that doesn’t work any more.”

Ger­ald says he feels trau­ma­tised not only by his child­hood, but by his be­lief that a Yale de­gree in po­lit­i­cal science, a pres­ti­gious MBA from Har­vard Busi­ness School and a glit­ter­ing ca­reer on Wall Street would save him. “For sure, it’s one of the rea­sons I’m in ther­apy.”

As a stu­dent, he took an in­tern­ship at Lehman Broth­ers in the sum­mer the bank filed for bank­ruptcy. En­thu­si­asm undimmed, af­ter grad­u­at­ing he worked in eco­nomic pol­icy and as an en­tre­pre­neur, but nei­ther wealth nor suc­cess re­solved his in­ter­nal con­flicts. “I had to write this book to un­der­stand what was wrong with me,” he says. “It’s a long jour­ney.”

Ger­ald’s mem­oir is a non­lin­ear col­lec­tion of mem­o­ries and ex­pe­ri­ences, of­ten un­sen­ti­men­tal and stark, some­times ele­giac and el­lip­ti­cal. By writ­ing about the dual bur­den and in­vis­i­bil­ity of be­ing a black Amer­i­can man, he plays with a lit­er­ary tra­di­tion that has been canon­ised by the likes of Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, Richard Wright, Ralph El­li­son, James Bald­win, Ta-Ne­hisi Coates. It’s an am­bi­tious ex­er­cise.

“There is a great tra­di­tion of peo­ple writ­ing on the mar­gins of so­ci­ety and I am grate­ful for them, but I had no in­ter­est in writ­ing that kind of book,” he says. “I set out to tell the truth and un­der­stand why I and a lot of my friends were cracked up. I started this in 2016 and so the coun­try and a lot of the world was cracked up too, but I was sad. I wouldn’t say I was hav­ing a ner­vous break­down but I wasn’t far off.”

He wrote the first draft by hand, us­ing “Morn­ing Pages”, a writ­ing style pop­u­larised by Ju­lia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. This meant writ­ing three pages of long­hand ev­ery morn­ing, on lined A4 pa­per, in a stream of con­scious­ness. “I needed it to be a vis­ceral ex­er­cise and lose my­self in it.”

By 29, Ger­ald had suc­cess­fully founded (and closed) MBAs Across Amer­ica, a non­profit or­gan­i­sa­tion that matched busi­ness stu­dents with small busi­nesses. Its aim was to “show that pur­pose and not profit is the new bot­tom line”. The model was made open source and taught as part of a cur­ricu­lum at Har­vard Busi­ness School.

Ac­cord­ing to New York mag­a­zine, Ger­ald seemed poised to ei­ther “run for na­tional of­fice in ei­ther party, be­come the youngest-ever CEO of a multi­na­tional busi­ness or pro­duce and star in some vi­ral re­al­ity show”. For now, he balks at the idea that he may con­sider a ca­reer in pol­i­tics.

“I don’t have any po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions or will­ing­ness to be a politi­cian,” he says, shak­ing his head. “I do be­lieve I have been put on this planet to do real work but my pri­or­ity is to be well. If I’m well, every­thing I do will be well.”

‘We now have a pres­i­dent that re­flects a strain of de­prav­ity that has al­ways been part of Amer­ica’

The ex­pe­ri­ence of los­ing his grand­mother last sum­mer has un­der­lined every­thing he wants his gen­er­a­tion to rail against. “I was asked to write her obit­u­ary,” he ex­plains, “and I got the draft [from his fam­ily] which was in essence: ‘she was born, she met this dude, she mar­ried him, she had seven of his chil­dren, she was a beau­ti­ful wife and mother and she died.’ And I thought: ‘holy shit, who is this? I thought she was a whole per­son and we’re sup­posed to go to her funeral and praise her for be­ing sub­mis­sive?’” He sighs. “I miss her so much. But eu­lo­gis­ing her be­cause she never com­plained? All that stuff, wow, that world is done. My sis­ters, my friends, my cousins, that is not a way of liv­ing for any­one.”

Ger­ald’s book mir­rors the find­ings of a 2017 Pew study on the Amer­i­can dream that con­firms “the myth of boot­strap­ping” – the fan­tas­ti­cal no­tion that wealth and se­cu­rity can be achieved sim­ply if you work and dream hard enough. The re­port re­veals that so­cial mo­bil­ity be­tween those at the bot­tom and those in the mid­dle of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety has be­come in­creas­ingly harder, not eas­ier. Given the choice, most fam­i­lies are hap­pier to make ends meet and pay their bills than move up the eco­nomic lad­der; this reads par­tic­u­larly true of African Amer­i­cans who are stuck at the low­est lev­els and more likely to stay there and even po­ten­tially fall fur­ther be­hind from one gen­er­a­tion to the next.

“Yes, this is Don­ald Trump’s Amer­ica,” shrugs Ger­ald. “But let me be clear: I’m a black per­son, a queer per­son, my grandma’s grand­fa­ther was born a slave in Texas. Very few black peo­ple – if any I know – were shocked that Don­ald Trump was elected. Don­ald Trump may be the most Amer­i­can pres­i­dent we’ve ever had!

“For 200 some­thing years we’ve been taught that the pres­i­dent was sup­posed to be bet­ter than ev­ery­one else – a Washington or Lincoln. Now is one of the few times we have a pres­i­dent that re­flects a strong strain of de­prav­ity that has al­ways been part of Amer­ica. Life for peo­ple that Trump has been de­stroy­ing with his poli­cies – for poor peo­ple, peo­ple of colour, for im­mi­grants – that has been in­tol­er­a­ble and un­sus­tain­able for a long time.”

But Ger­ald isn’t with­out hope. “You can’t be a black Amer­i­can and not un­der­stand the ex­tra­or­di­nary po­ten­tial of the hu­man spirit.” In any case, he be­lieves a shift is un­der way. “Fun­da­men­tally, the way we are taught to be men in this coun­try is a dead end and it’s chang­ing – and I’m happy about that,” says Ger­ald.

His book, like the TED talk he de­liv­ered in 2016 ti­tled The Gospel of Doubt, be­gins with the end of the world: a flash­back of Mil­len­nium Eve when he was in church with his grand­mother pray­ing for the Rap­ture. “There’s a rea­son for be­gin­ning with that,” he says. “So much of my child­hood was the world end­ing over and over again; no one called a fam­ily meet­ing and said: ‘Hey Case, how do you feel about your momma dis­ap­pear­ing?’ It just hap­pened and then you have to fig­ure life out.”

Fig­ur­ing things out in­cluded his place in the elite in­sti­tu­tions he later found him­self in, how he might make a dif­fer­ence, and his sex­u­al­ity. “I didn’t want to write a dis­ser­ta­tion on be­ing an op­pressed gay per­son,” he says. “I wanted to bring wor­thy lan­guage to the beauty of lov­ing an­other boy in a so­ci­ety that hates gay peo­ple – but that doesn’t mean I have to hate my­self.”

The neigh­bour­hood of Oak Cliff, where Ger­ald grew up, has barely changed in re­cent years, he says. Run­ning east of down­town’s ever newer, ever shinier sky­scrapers, it is still a pre­dom­i­nantly African Amer­i­can area that strad­dles ex­treme wealth and de­pri­va­tion.

“A lot of white peo­ple want to make the con­ver­sa­tion about se­gre­ga­tion, but I grew with in­cred­i­ble, ded­i­cated black teach­ers, I had black cross­ing guards to get me across the street, there were hardly any white peo­ple and it did not oc­cur to me then that I was in­fe­rior be­cause I was black.

“Dal­las, for all its faults, is not that much dif­fer­ent to when I grew up ex­cept that there has been a con­tin­ual ma­te­rial as­sault on the poor, work­ing class, peo­ple of colour, that makes their lives ma­te­ri­ally more im­pos­si­ble. But that’s not a ques­tion of iden­tity to me, that’s so­cioe­co­nomics.”

Writ­ing and talk­ing about his ex­pe­ri­ence, which he is clear “does not fetishise or com­mod­ify black bod­ies for en­ter­tain­ment”, has come at a cost to his men­tal health. “I don’t think it’s cathar­tic; cathar­sis im­plies purg­ing and that didn’t hap­pen. I can just see it clearly now,” he says.

“I don’t know what it will be like for us in 30 years or whether we will be hap­pier. What I do know is that it will be dif­fer­ent.”

There Will Be No Mir­a­cles Here is pub­lished by Pro­file (£16.99). To or­der a copy for £11.99 go to guardian­book­ or call 0330 333 6846

‘You can’t be a black Amer­i­can and not un­der­stand the ex­tra­or­di­nary po­ten­tial of the hu­man spirit’: Casey Ger­ald pho­tographed by An­to­nio Ol­mos for the Ob­server New Re­view.

Ger­ald de­liv­er­ing his 2016 TED talk, The Gospel of Doubt.

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