AILSA CHANG, HOST:
When Rooster Bogle would drive by the Oregon State Correctional Institution with his sons, he would gaze out at the prison with nostalgia. Then he would tell his boys, look carefully because when you grow up, you guys are going to end up there. That was not a warning; it was a challenge. And so began the competition for who could be the meanest, baddest Bogle.
In a new book called "In My Father's House," journalist Fox Butterfield chronicles this family, and he shows how crime can spread like a contagion from parents to children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Fox Butterfield joins me now. Welcome.
FOX BUTTERFIELD: Thank you very much.
CHANG: So at the beginning of this book, you state a stunning statistic - I couldn't believe it when I read it - that as little as 5 percent of families are behind half of all the crime in the U.S. When did you start thinking about crime as a family affair? I know you covered criminal justice for quite some time.
BUTTERFIELD: I covered criminal justice for The New York Times for almost 15 years, and I had written a previous book about a black family with multiple generations of criminals. And I wanted to find a white family which could illustrate this because some of the studies were done so long ago that most of the - all the people in some of the studies - from the one in Boston, for example - were all white. And I wanted to see if I could take race out of the equation to disentangle race from crime.
CHANG: So let's talk about the family you focused on in this book. They're the Bogles. They're white, as you already mentioned. They're poor. You trace this family all the way back to right after the Civil War, and you discover 60 members of this family ended up in prison or jail or some juvenile reformatory, which is just staggering in and of itself.
BUTTERFIELD: Yes, it sounds like something out of Ripley's Believe It or Not, but it's - and the people who did the statistical studies that found that 5 percent of families account for half of all crime - they never went the next step and looked at individual families to see why crime spreads in families.
CHANG: How did you find the Bogles specifically?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, it was really an accident. A friend of mine who worked in the Oregon Department of Corrections called me one day. And we were talking, and I asked him if he knew of a white family with a significant number of prisoners in it. And he said, I'll have to call you back. And he did in a couple days. He said, I've got a family. They're white. And I think they've got six members who are now or have been in prison. But we had no idea at that point that there were as many as 60 who had been in prison or jail.
CHANG: Now the patriarch that you zero in on in this book is a man named Rooster Bogle. Can you tell us about him - how, as a father and as a husband, Rooster Bogle helped reinforce the terrible choices members of his family were making?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, Rooster took a lot of pride in being tough and having committed a crime which landed him in prison in Texas when he was only 17. And he wanted his sons to grow up to be at least as tough as he was and as bad as he was.
CHANG: And remind us. What was his first arrest for?
BUTTERFIELD: His first arrest was for a burglary of the local grocery store. He was living in Amarillo, Texas. And, in fact, almost everybody in the family participated in the burglary, including Rooster's mother and one of Rooster's sisters, as well as all his brothers. And they made off with $20,000, which doesn't seem like a lot now, but in 1960, it was a lot of money.
CHANG: Yeah. But it was like a family day. It was like going on a picnic or something.
BUTTERFIELD: Yes, exactly. Going on a picnic or barbecue in Texas.
CHANG: But as Rooster grew older, he continued his criminal behavior. And the family he raised - he taught them that it was kind of a badge of honor to get in trouble with the law.
BUTTERFIELD: Yes. And he would take his kids out and commit crimes with them. They would break into their neighbors' homes. They would break into their mailboxes and take their Social Security checks. They would steal people's cows and chickens. They would go into a lumber yard and take lumber, which they would resell - anything that they could do.
And one incident that the kids talked about was that one night, he had organized his entire family, including his wife, sons and daughters. And they'd gone to the Bonneville Dam, which is a big dam on the Columbia River outside of Portland, and gone into the fish hatchery and stolen all the coho and Chinook salmon that they could find in the fish hatchery there and loaded them in their truck and drove them home and either ate them or sold them.
CHANG: But it was more than just adventures and shenanigans. I mean, you explore a very dark side to the way Rooster raised his family. There was rampant physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, which leads me to the ultimate question. What's the more powerful force when it comes to shaping criminal behavior? Did you find it was genetics or family values?
BUTTERFIELD: I started out looking at family values. What was obvious in talking to the Bogles was that they were very conscious of imitating the behavior of their father and of their aunts and uncles and grandmother and grandfather, all of whom had criminal records.
And then they did not have any - what criminologists would call social controls. So they didn't go to church or Sunday school. They didn't belong to any organization like the Boy Scouts. They didn't have other adult role models. But beyond that, I began to get interested in if there was any role of genetics. And this, in criminology, has been a no-no or a taboo subject for a long time.
CHANG: Because it can dangerously tread into the question of how race can determine criminality.
BUTTERFIELD: Yes. So there were, in recent years, certainly since the decoding of the human genome, some scientists began to look at behavioral genetics. And there was a professor at Duke, who is a criminologist, and her work identified several genes which could be precursors to impulsivity, which is a characteristic of a lot of criminals.
But she stresses that there's no such thing as a criminal gene. It works in combination with the environment. So if you have a family environment like the Bogles and you have this variant of the gene, then you have kind of a double whammy.
CHANG: I want to end our conversation as you ended your book, by talking about Ashley. She's Rooster Bogle's granddaughter. She was kind of the aberration in this family. She's a good student. She wants to do good. She became the first member of the Bogles in 150 years to go to college. What did...
BUTTERFIELD: And graduate from college.
CHANG: And graduate from college. What did you learn from Ashley's story?
BUTTERFIELD: That, as she herself says, it's a matter of individual choice in the end. She chose not to do what she saw around her. She didn't like what was happening to everybody else in her family, so she decided to try to stick to a good path.
CHANG: And that she can break the cycle.
BUTTERFIELD: And she broke the cycle. And in her case, she had a little help because her mother was actually the daughter of a policeman and a prison guard and a grandmother who was a nurse. So she had some very good influences in her family that helped overcome some of the Bogle side of her family.
CHANG: Fox Butterfield's new book is called "In My Father's House: A New View Of How Crime Runs In The Family." Thank you very much for talking with us.
BUTTERFIELD: Thank you very much.
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