Open Book

Generations in Jail

When Crime Is a Family Value

Magazine Issue
November/December 2018
A headshot of a man and the cover of "In My Father's House"

In My Father’s House: A New View of How Crime Runs in the Family
by Fox Butterfield
288 pages

Over four generations, starting in 1920, 60 different members of the Bogle family, originally from Texas and now based mostly in Oregon, have at least one time, and often many times, been placed on probation or parole, sent to jail, prison, or juvenile reformatory—and in some cases all of the above. Only the rare family member has no rap sheet. 

Their repeated infractions and felonies represent a catalogue of crime, ranging from fraud and burglary, to physical and sexual assault, to arson and murder. Several have lived (or, by the end of their lengthy sentences, will have lived) a larger percentage of their lives incarcerated than free. Even before they left home for the first time, often for the reformatory, their daily diet growing up was heavily seasoned with abusive parenting and neglect. Their formal schooling was nil, but they received extensive homeschooling in the arts of scamming and stealing.

This is not a description of an updated version of a Charles Dickens novel. Nor is this a sick joke from the Guinness Book of World Records. And among family trees, it’s not even a rarity. As Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Fox Butterfield notes in his immersive chronicle, In My Father’s House: A New View of How Crime Runs in the Family, approximately five percent of families account for half of all crime in the United States, while 10 percent account for two-thirds. That means that families like the Bogles can’t be dismissed as outliers. Yet relatively little is known about how and why crime can become an ingrained way of family life so pervasive that it appears to be handed down from one generation to the next. That’s the phenomenon Butterfield set out to study.

In a previous book, All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence, published in 1995, Butterfield explored the impact that America’s structural and systematic racism had had on the violence recurring across four generations of a single African American family. Now, with In My Father’s House, which focuses on a white family, he demonstrates how a family imprint of crime and dysfunction, regardless of race, can seem to its members like an inescapable curse or contagion.

In both books, Butterfield employs similar narrative structures to powerful, page-turning effect. Like a forensic genealogist, he traces the trajectory of criminal behavior and pathology back across the decades. His goal is to shed light on the nature—or is it nurture, or both?—of the seemingly unshakable attraction, even compulsion, that keeps popping up in every Bogle generation to break laws, offend social norms, and get sent to the slammer. The individual stories of the different family members are by turns heart-wrenching, provocative, shudder-inducing. The cumulative impact is dizzying. Butterfield, a long-time reporter for The New York Times, incorporates research findings by psychologists, sociologists, and criminologists, and presents a variety of programs or interventions that have been tried or are ongoing.

Even so, in the end, Butterfield is unable to provide definitive answers as to how such cycles begin or how they can be broken. Still, his extensive research and in-depth reporting yield a devastating portrait of many types of brokenness, both within families and in the capacity of the mental health and criminal justice systems to begin to stop and reverse such destructive spirals. His book is essential reading for anyone who wants to aid that effort.

As Butterfield tells it, the Bogle family resembles nothing so much as a closed system, into whose code of values and behavior each new member is indoctrinated. Bobby and Tracey Bogle, brothers now in their 40s and both serving time in the Oregon State Penitentiary, recount childhoods where family crime sprees were enjoyed as madcap adventures, to be shared by the entire crew of nine siblings and half-siblings; perhaps not coincidentally, all these siblings, and most of their children in turn, found their way into correctional institutions.

With outside friends forbidden and no toys or books at home to play with, for them, stealing was the family game. “There were neighbors’ houses to break into, chickens and cows to steal for food, gardens to loot for tomatoes and corn, and construction sites where they could pluck valuable lumber or metal” to be resold for cash, Butterfield writes. Typically, their father would target the location, the mother rooting everyone on while the crime took place, even when not acting as lookout or getaway car driver.

The lifelong impact of such early experience was not lost on Tracey. “What you are raised with, you grow to become,” he tells Butterfield. “If I’d been raised in a family of doctors, I’d probably be a doctor. But I was raised in a family of outlaws who hated the law.” Honoring their parents, Tracy and Bobby learned, meant getting away with as many crimes as they could. “I wanted to go to prison from the time I was a young boy,” Bobby said, “to uphold our family honor and earn my stripes.”

For Butterfield, this is a prime example of the social-learning theory of crime, with the children imitating and modeling their bad behavior after that of their parents. The many instances of Bobby and Tracey egging each other on to ever more violent and destructive crimes further show how Bogle family members often became what Butterfield calls “their own deviant peers.”

As a whole, the Bogles embody a devastating transformation of the uplifting adage that it takes a village to raise a child into the dispiriting observation that it takes a family to raise a criminal. If we’re astonished by the notion of such a possibility, it’s a reflection of our own faulty assumptions. As Butterfield points out, “We talk about the importance of family values, and in doing so we tend to assume that these values are good, but family values can go off track and be bad, and the results, over generations, can be devastating.”

Butterfield discovered that the art of the con went way back in the Bogle family, with some post–Civil War-era ancestors trying to scam the government into paying Union Army pensions, and others inventing family fortunes to snag spouses (sometimes bigamously), whom they then dumped. Starting with these early Bogle generations and moving onward into the present, Butterfield also spotted recurring proclivities for impulsive, high-risk, or out-of-control behaviors, often alongside symptoms that suggest undiagnosed bipolar or schizophrenic disorders. 

The fact that in more recent decades a few Bogle family members have actually received diagnoses of psychiatric ailments raises the possibility that related genetic factors may play a part. Some researchers suggest that the newer field of epigenetics, which explores how the environment can affect the ways genes are expressed, might yield clues to a complex interplay of nature and nurture.

Butterfield dates the family’s modern legacy of crime and dysfunction to Bobby and Tracey’s grandparents, Louis and Elvie Bogle, who married in Texas in 1920. In search of adventure and easy money, they joined the circus—Elvie drew crowds as a daredevil motorcycle stunt driver—and began a Prohibition-era family moonshine business. Neither livelihood prevented them from slipping into an increasingly marginal, poverty-stricken, alcohol-driven existence, their income supplemented by a long list of scams involving insurance, clothing, you name it.

Instead of fairy tales, Elvie and Louis regaled their children (all five of whom were eventually punished for at least one crime) with heroic gangster tales featuring Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, and others. The message was clear: attending school was a lower priority than stealing a bottle of milk, walking off with a bucket of coal, or selling some moonshine. 

Although they followed no code or belonged to any community but their own, the family formed a strong clan loyalty through mandatory daily morning meetings. The resemblance to a cult is inescapable. “The family was like church for Louis, Elvie and their children,” Butterfield writes, “a place where they belonged, where they had something to believe in, a refuge where they all were accepted and forgiven no matter what they did.” And much of what they did was criminal.

The worst of the lot was their son Rooster, who was cruel, vicious, and Elvie’s favorite. When he was 15, he started a fight that left him with a traumatic brain injury that almost certainly exacerbated his already violent, paranoid, and impulsive behavior. His reign of terror extended to his nine children (including Bobby and Tracey) and his two wives. Rooster’s abuse of others was constant and brutal, physical and sexual. His was a malevolent presence, eager to train his children to do their “best” by doing the most crimes. And in this unremitting cycle, his children, too, we learn from Butterfield, went on to compile criminal records of their own.

It’s a juggernaut begging to be stopped. But how? One of the book’s most significant recurring voices belongs to Judge Albin Norblad of Marion County Circuit Court in Salem, Oregon, who presided over trials of multiple members of different generations of the Bogle family. He told Butterfield, “With a family like that, I’ve become convinced that whatever we do has little effect, because the adults have permeated their kids with their values through their everyday example. It’s just like an infection.” That’s why locking kids up repeatedly wouldn’t change their behavior, Judge Norblad said, but finding a way to separate them from their home environment might.

Butterfield reports on several pilot programs that have successfully reduced recidivism rates by moving whole families from their old, crime-ridden neighborhoods to new ones. But what if the old environment moves en masse to join up with the new one? That’s what happened when Rooster’s brother Charlie tried to start anew after being released from prison in 1960 by moving to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. He was soon joined there by Rooster, his immediate family, and other Bogle relatives. In time, Charlie’s daughter and grandson were imprisoned for drug possession.

Butterfield also reports on a different approach to breaking the cycle: an innovative pilot project in Jacksonville, Florida, encouraged information sharing among the police, schools, child-protective services, and local hospitals to identify children between the ages of six and 15 with troubled backgrounds who’d committed crimes and had significant behavior problems. The authorities would then find mentors to help oversee their education, making sure they attended school, helping them with homework, being a presence in their lives. The program was successful with the first child helped in this way—before the Florida legislature discontinued funding.

Contributing to this cycle is a prison system focused on warehousing inmates rather than rehabilitating them, which often results in inmates teaching each other criminal skills they can use upon release. In addition, Butterfield demonstrates the difficulties imposed by the justice system itself on anyone wanting to make a new start. Charlie Bogle complains of being picked up repeatedly by cops simply because his last name is Bogle. Other Bogle family members blame (sometimes as an excuse, other times with some validity) their inability to escape their family “curse” on their being sent back to jail for minor probation or parole violations, each one contributing to harsher punishments the next time around, making it nearly impossible to find an employer willing to take them on.

And yet from all the Bogle family wreckage some hope does emerge in those few who do manage to escape the cycle. Tammie Bogle Silver, Rooster’s niece, grew up surrounded by family members falling prey to crime, drugs, and alcoholism, but instead of accepting this fate as her own, she immersed herself in faith, and she sought to help those trying to start new lives by running a halfway house, with her husband, for ex-convicts. Such facilities, she became convinced, were the only way to separate them from environments that would encourage them to slip back into their old criminal habits.

Rooster’s son Tim determined to break the family cycle after the birth of his daughter Ashley Bogle in 1992. “There were regular mealtimes and bedtimes,” writes Butterfield. “There was benevolent, nonviolent discipline and well-monitored supervision of their activities, and none of the beatings or open displays of sex that Rooster had made his children endure.” It’s a symptom of the Bogle upside-down culture that Ashley felt that she didn’t want to “stand out and make my family think I felt special” by being dependable at home and excelling at school. But by detaching herself from the rest of the Bogle family culture, she became the first Bogle family member to attend college and find a steady job.

Butterfield saves one final possibility for change for the end of his book. Through a series of stranger-than-fiction coincidences, Bobby Bogle ends up sharing his prison cell with a young man whom he discovers to be a son he never knew existed. Sharing their stories, they form an attachment and connection that begins to heal them both. “I lived a life without love from my family, so I had to be hard,” Bobby tells his son. And when, after three years, his son is released, Bobby warns him, “When you get out, don’t mess up. Stop the crime. I don’t want to see you back here.”

Five years later, his son remains free, proof that it was possible that the Bogle family bond could nurture love and caring in a future generation.

Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.