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At Peril: Stories of Injustice

reviewed by Bonnie Johnson - 2002

coverTitle: At Peril: Stories of Injustice
Author(s): Thomas J. Cottle & Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA
ISBN: 155849278X , Pages: 328, Year: 2001
Search for book at Amazon.com

A federal report, based on Census 2000 data, found that as many as 15 million young people are currently at-risk of not reaching productive adulthood -- falling prey to crime, drugs and other problems that make it difficult to obtain an education, successfully enter the workforce, or otherwise contribute to society. Further, approximately 1.5 million children have a father or mother in prison, over half a million children are in foster care, and more than one out of six American families with children live on an annual income of $17,000 or less (White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, 2001). Additionally problematic is the fact that many families and children must confront multiple, co-occurring hardships. As James Garbarino (1995) sees it, Americans are raising children in a "socially toxic environment" polluted by the combined effects of poverty, the breakdown of families and communities, and the neglect of children.

Thomas J. Cottle gives a voice to these grim societal statistics in his book At Peril: Stories of Injustice. Through the words of those living "in peril," the reader is taken on a journey into an America that is disturbing and unsettling. As Cottle states in the introduction, "numbers…make the confrontation with injustice easier; faces and stories make the confrontation painful, if not outright unbearable" (p. 6).

Thomas J. Cottle, a professor of education at Boston University, is a sociologist and practicing clinical psychologist. His writing style is reflective of his professional training and practice. Utilizing what he calls "storytelling research," Cottle, through a series of vignettes paints a portrait of lives in peril. 

Essentially, the book is a collection of personal accounts that speak to a number of social ills. The stories told by both children and adults create a collection of personal descriptions of perceived injustice and inequity. The "characters" of the book describe their experiences with domestic violence, drug abuse, lack of adequate medical care, school failure, unemployment and other social ills. Cottle masterfully weaves the individual pieces into a rich tapestry that represents some of the best of his lifework.

The book is divided into six sections. In the introduction Cottle explores what he calls the "ecology of peril." The term is meant to capture "the richness and complexity of the environment in which human needs and lives develop and evolve, as well as theories of injustice and how they affect these needs and our thinking about people whose lives are led at peril" (p. xiv). Cottle draws from Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecology of scheme, as well as concepts from John Dewey (and others) to develop and explain his ecological approach to justice and the realms of peril. In subsequent sections of the introduction the author explores theories of injustice, theories of individual protection and fulfillment and what he calls ideal visions and real dangers. The theoretical framework of the book is well defined in the introduction and helps the reader to understand that the collection of stories that follow are designed to help the reader learn about the storyteller and the teller’s society and culture. Cottle makes it clear that he believes that no human story is ever purely idiosyncratic. He skillfully uses the storyteller’s words to describe the realities of lives in peril, to dissolve some of our self-fabricated isolation from those that are in peril, and to honor life (p. 27).

The next four sections of the book present personal accounts of Health Peril, Family Peril, School Peril and Societal Peril. Health Peril begins with a seventeen-year-old youthful offender recounting a chilling tale of murder. He tells how he shot a twelve-year-old boy in the head two times for stepping on his shadow. The subsequent stories cover a variety of health related topics from the story of a welfare mother with uterine and breast cancer who receives the best medical care money can provide because her thirteen year-old son’s illicit drug dealing pays the bills, to the story of a caring pharmacist who takes the time to be a friend to his elderly customers. While Cottle offers some commentary on the stories, the reader is left to deal with the emotional impact of these dramatic recountings.

After Health Peril is a section on Family Peril. The section begins with an introduction followed by individual tales of family upheaval. Drawing from Eric Erikson’s theory of development and Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological orientation, Cottle opens the section with a discussion on the power of family or family-like interactions and their impact on the larger society. The section includes stories about a woman convicted of killing her abusive husband, a family’s struggle after a son dies of AIDS, the impact of suicide on family members, the parent-child relationship, and a divorced father’s fight for custody of his children. The stories of family peril illustrate that what goes on in the family affects the greater society and culture just as the society and culture affects what occurs in the family. Likewise, family peril affects societal institutions, like the public school.

In the introduction to the fourth section of the book, School Peril, Cottle claims that "there is no doubt that school can destroy people, adults and children alike, just as it can redeem people and breathe life into them as no other institution can" (p. 149). In School Peril the author relays stories about the importance of caring teachers, the sting of a special education label and the pressures a first generation college student endures as her parents link their worth to her admittance to the top colleges.

Societal Peril is the last of the four peril sections. Societal Peril includes tales of the psychological impact of chronic unemployment, the working poor, and atomic war veterans who battle the ravages of a disease that their government exposed them to and then later denied any responsibility. The section closes with children telling stories about what gives them joy.

Finally, in the Afterword, Cottle explains his interest in collecting other people’s stories and discusses the theory behind and process of collecting the sort of stories told in the book. He then addresses some of the methodological issues raised by his approach.

Although he never explicitly states this, Cottle seems to use the stories in At Peril: Stories of Injustice, to reflect on his long professional career. Readers will notice that some of the stories included in the book are quite dated, as evident from references to television programs such as Baretta, Charlie’s Angels and The Little House on the Prairie. In the prelude to some of these dated conversations, Cottle informs the reader that the conversations were "undertaken quite a few years ago, as the reader will soon recognize…" (p. 63). It is not altogether clear as to why more recent stories (data) were not included to supplement the older material. Whatever the rationale, the historic nature of some of the conversations does not detract from the powerful impact of the book.

Through his careful selection of the stories told, Cottle takes the reader on an emotional roller-coaster ride. Stories of despair are followed by stories that inspire hope. The first-hand accounts are so moving, and the heartache and pain of the storyteller so palpable that the reader may feel voyeuristic at times - like one is intruding into private, personal moments.

In At Peril: Stories of Injustice, Cottle challenges the reader with questions like: "Why is it that America lets so many children get injured, die, fall out of school, or live with illnesses their families cannot afford to have treated? Why does our culture refuse to find the resources to uplift each child and allow each child to discover the intelligences, no matter what their form, that he or she possesses?"(p.260).

One barrier to finding positive, proactive answers or solutions is the fact that many Americans are simply unaware of the number of people in this country living in genuinely perilous circumstances. Americans generally respond with great and generous compassion when they learn of people suffering. However, we tend to be blind when it comes to seeing the suffering in our own backyard. We embrace the myth that because of the public schools, all people have equal opportunities in America. To change, we must recognize that even in America some are born into lives of peril and others arrive there as the result of circumstances that are often beyond their control. For example, it is clear that children in low-performing schools, especially those located in highly distressed neighborhoods, are not at the same starting line as the children in affluent suburban schools. As one interviewee in the book explained: "My kids are as deserving as anyone’s kid, but it’s not a race with an equal start. It’s a race with a staggered start, except the track’s a straightaway, not an oval" (p.186).

A first step towards authentic solutions to societal peril is to raise awareness of the enormity of the problem. Cottle’s book contributes to that first step. Hopefully, it will help readers to remove the blinders that keep us in our comfort zone and inspire us to work toward solutions for a better tomorrow.


Garbarino, J. (1995). Raising children in a socially toxic environment. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (2001). Rallying the armies of compassion. Available at: http://www.hud.gov/offices/fbci/rally.pdf



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 5, 2002, p. 910-913
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10820, Date Accessed: 1/26/2022 11:59:13 AM

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About the Author
  • Bonnie Johnson
    The University of Kentucky
    E-mail Author
    Bonnie C. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Education in the Department of Administration and Supervision at The University of Kentucky. Her scholarly interests include social justice/educational equity, school/agency collaboration, international comparative education, urban education and the politics of school reform.
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