At Peril:
Stories of Injustice


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At Peril

"A gifted social scientist and professor of education at Boston University, Cottle has published numerous other books... that also combine his objectivity as a sociologist and clinical psychologist with subjective anecdotes of people in crisis. Collected here are true stories of men, women, and children living on society's fringes-the poor, the drug addicted, the abused-as told in their own words during interviews with the author...Reminiscent of the work of Robert Coles and Jonathan Kozol, these stories are immediate and compelling...Woven throughout these stories are Cottle's sensitive comments about the interconnectivity and interdependency of all Americans."
Publishers Weekly

"A moving collection of personal accounts of people in the United States whose lives are continually at peril... Readers gain insight into how the individuals view themselves and how they view their situation in their daily lives and in the world that surrounds them. The stories are framed between an introduction that sets the theoretical framework for viewing the stories and an afterword that tackles the relevance and validity of the life story as a methodology...Due to the author's sensitivity and writing ability, the stories stand on their own and make compelling reading, leaving us with a powerful vision of the underbelly of America."
Contemporary Sociology


Forward by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot, Harvard University

At its heart, this book is a collection of personal accounts that speak to a variety of social concerns, from youth crime and domestic violence to public education and health care. Told by children as well as adults, these stories offer illuminating if sometimes disturbing testimony about the circumstances of life in the contemporary United States. One story, for example, depicts the precarious world of a thirteen-year-old drug dealer. Another presents the searing narrative of a woman convicted of killing her abusive husband. Still another tells the painful saga of an atomic war veteran fighting the ravages of a disease induced and then denied by his own government.

If the stories gathered here by Thomas J. Cottle seem removed from the experience of some Americans, his telling of them often blurs the line between the extraordinary and the ordinary. As he explains in his introduction, the rules and rituals, institutions and conventions that define our social life link us in a fragile web of interdependence, what Cottle calls "the ecology of peril." Viewed in this light, the lives we lead are all in some sense “at risk,” ever vulnerable to the harsh vicissitudes of inequity and injustice.

Cottle organizes his narratives into four sections—on the perils of health, family, school, and society at large. He concludes with an afterword that addresses some of the methodological issues raised by his approach. A blend of subjective insight and objective assessment, art and science, this book represents a vision of sociology as Cottle has practiced and refined it for more than thirty years. Alternately described as “story sociology” or “life study research,” its aim is to recover the personal, human dimension so often overlooked in the scientific study of society.

Excerpt from "At Peril"

It would not be inappropriate to call the last few decades in America the period of self consciousness. The term, of course, is a complicated, almost capricious one. To be self conscious can connote self interest to the point of wasteful vanity. On the other hand, it may connote a cautiously discerning approach to all matters, private as well as public. Self consciousness, after all, can emerge in the form that Ellen Langer calls mindfulness.

Recent years have revealed some Americans reveling in a state of narcissistic behavior that may even have surprised the late Christopher Lasch who wrote brilliantly on the subject. The concept of self interest and particularly self esteem has been glorified—or is it the self that has been glorified—and whether or not we admit to it, there is little incentive within the society for generous much less altruistic, morally motivated or what Gerald Fain calls “beneficent” behavior. In a word, there is little incentive to contribute to the goodness of another person’s life. Consonant with this philosophy, such as it is, and an overriding life style, the people most at risk in our culture claim to have observed minimal progress in the state of their well being. The Commonweal, they argue, has not been properly attended to, particularly during eras in which government scandal and celebrity activity loom more exciting than the improvement of someone’s daily life style. Governmental policies at state and federal levels have come and gone, it is alleged, but whatever the effects of these programs, a sizable group of people remain at peril. [continue]

Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION : The Ecology of Peril

1. A Child at Risk
2. The Waiting Time of Wilson Diver
3. Mother on a Train
4. A Child Watches Television
5. Just a Pharmacist
6. Feeling Ill With the City Disease

1. Mind Shadows
2. Retirement Account
3. Women Who Kill
4. A Son Dies of AIDS
5. Kidnapper

1. School Closing
2. My Brother's Keeper
3. Teachers and Students
4. Rainy Night of Poetry
5. A Family Prepares for College

1. One Job and They Would Have Had Smooth Sailing
2. Dying From The Lines
3. Dr. Pee Wee's Snow Storm
4. Men with No Answers
5. Hocking A Life
6. Witness of Joy

Life Studies and the Value of Stories


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