REVIEW: A Riveting Look at a Family with Generations of Criminals


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

Knopf 288 pp.

By Charlie Gofen

“If I’d been raised in a family of doctors, I’d probably be a doctor,” Tracey Bogle tells author Fox Butterfield. “But I was raised in a family of outlaws who hated the law.”

Butterfield gives new meaning to the term “crime family” in his book In My Father’s House, tracing the colorful history of the Oregon-based Bogle family through a century of robbery, arson, fraud, and other assorted offenses. Through exhaustive research and interviews with many of the family members, Butterfield ultimately determines that at least 60 members of the Bogle family have been arrested and convicted over the years.

The account reads at times like a Hollywood script. A father and his kids break into a fish hatchery and make off with a truckload of salmon, with mom serving as lookout and getaway driver. In another episode, the sons steal and crack a safe and then enlist their mother to sit at the kitchen table and divide up the loot.

In the Bogle family, becoming a criminal is a rite of passage, a way to gain your family’s respect. Family member Bobby Bogle tells Butterfield, “My father had been encouraging us to steal practically since I was born. … I wanted to go to prison from the time I was a young boy to uphold our family honor and earn my stripes.”

An earnest judge in Oregon named Albin Norblad continually reappears in the story like the paramedics in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. After seeing enough Bogles come through his courtroom, Norblad concludes, “With these families, we always lose.”

There isn’t a lot of focus on the victims of the various crimes, but it’s worth noting that Bogle family members committed murder, rape, assault, and animal torture – this is not a feel-good story about a series of frivolous capers in which no one gets hurt.

Butterfield, an esteemed former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, previously wrote a book about an African-American family with a four-generation legacy of criminal behavior, and he emphasizes that this time around, he wanted to profile a white family to remove race from the discussion.

Indeed, the statistics on crime within families – white, black, or any other background – are astounding. Studies have shown that 5 percent of families account for half of all crime, and 10 percent of families account for two-thirds of all crime. Having a parent or older sibling who has been convicted of a crime is a significant predictor of an individual’s likelihood to become a criminal, even after controlling for other risk factors such as socioeconomic status and teenage parenthood.

Of course, the criminal justice system itself may exacerbate the problem of intergenerational transmission of criminal behavior in a couple important ways. First, putting parents in prison increases the risk that their children will exhibit criminal behavior. Thus, as rates of incarceration in the U.S. have risen, so too has the rate at which children of convicts become criminals. (Butterfield notes that taking a child to visit a parent or sibling in prison can leave the kid thinking that life in prison is “normal, or even glamorous.”)

A second way the system may promote the transmission of crime from one generation to the next is by labeling certain families as criminal. In what Butterfield describes as an early version of police profiling, one Bogle family member was pulled over by police almost every day, leading to a new category of crime they called “Driving While Bogle.” If police, prosecutors, and judges target a particular set of individuals as “the usual suspects,” those individuals will almost certainly be caught and convicted more frequently, and they may even engage in deviant behavior because people expect them to act that way.

Butterfield addresses the age-old debate about whether the causes of crime – in this case, the causes of the intergenerational transmission of crime and violence within families – are entirely environmental, or, alternatively, whether there is also a genetic component at play.

Sociologists and criminologists know that suggesting criminal tendencies may be heritable is a dangerous business, potentially leading to wrongheaded conclusions about the biological inferiority of one race versus another, but Butterfield, to his credit, tackles the topic with nuance.

Genetics alone don’t determine one’s fate, but personality traits such as impulsivity, aggressiveness, and novelty-seeking that are associated with criminal behavior – and mental illnesses including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – do have a genetic component. The dangerous mix of inheriting some of these traits and also growing up in an environment with risk factors such as parental abuse and neglect raises the likelihood of undesirable outcomes.

With regard to environmental influences, it’s not difficult to imagine how a “crime family” might promote the transmission of criminal behavior from one generation to the next. First, parents are role models, and children imitate the behavior they see. When parents commit crimes, abuse alcohol and other drugs, and end up incarcerated, children may take their cues from these behaviors.

As Butterfield writes, “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.”

And although we often talk about how important a child’s peers are in influencing behavior, Butterfield notes that in families like the Bogles, “the boys did not have to find a gang at school to learn deviant behavior; their deviant peers were right there in their own home.”

Another way a dysfunctional family environment can raise the odds of creating young delinquents is the absence of traditional social controls such as effective parenting and a solid education. As Butterfield notes, social bonds help to “produce conformity to society’s rules” and can “inoculate a family against deviant behavior.” Conversely, weak ties to family and community increase risk. Poor parental supervision and inconsistent discipline are positively correlated with juvenile delinquency and adult crime.

Butterfield relates horrific stories of Bogle children subjected to drunken beatings and other trauma at the hands of their parents. Rooster Bogle, perhaps the most malignant member of the entire family, brought women to hotels and ordered his young sons to have sex with them while he watched. Some of the Bogle children describe a childhood with no nurturing, no toys, and no games. (“Our only game was stealing,” Tracey notes.) Many of the children dropped out of school at a young age.

A defense attorney who represented Tony Bogle on a murder charge told Butterfield, “If you were going to go out and create the perfect criminal, this is how you do it. It’s the Bogle blueprint. You take young children and mentally and psychologically torture them. Take away all their dignity as a human being. So they have no sense of empathy for others. Then they become perfect psychopaths.”

Butterfield argues that we need to refocus on the family as a cause of crime, do a much better job gathering information about the families of individuals who end up in the criminal justice system, and embrace policies that address the problem of certain families perpetuating criminal behavior.

One kind of program that has arisen to address the issue is intervention involving the entire family. Intensive in-home supervision by highly trained clinicians aims at changing the family dynamic in high-risk families. This approach seeks to promote better parenting and, in some cases, tries to identify and engage the “most pro-social member of the family,” even if it’s a relative who doesn’t live in the same house.

Another approach focuses on relocating offenders far away from their families. Forced relocation is generally not legal in the U.S., but Butterfield describes creative workarounds such as a program in Maryland in which officials offer housing subsidies for certain newly released offenders in Baltimore to move away.

An interesting series of studies has shown that removing criminals from an unhealthy environment can reduce recidivism. Hurricane Katrina offered a natural experiment in New Orleans in 2005. Many prisoners released after the storm were forced to relocate because their homes had been destroyed. Those who moved away were rearrested and sent back to prison at a lower rate than those who stayed in New Orleans with renewed access to their social networks.

And in Reggio Calabria, a Mafia stronghold in Southern Italy, a local magistrate began separating children from parents who had been convicted of mob affiliation and moved them into foster homes elsewhere in Italy. Many of these children ended up in the program after committing gateway crimes such as setting police cars on fire or serving as lookouts during murders. The program has been controversial in a country that values family bonds, but it has been effective in breaking the cycle of criminality.

Butterfield finishes his book on a hopeful note, profiling a granddaughter of Rooster Bogle named Ashley who has found a way to break the cycle of criminality in her own family through education and by making better choices than her relatives. The odds were heavily against her, but Ashley became the first Bogle to attend college, and she currently works in Oregon as a medical records technician. Neither genes nor family environment need be your destiny; Ashley has escaped the “Bogle curse.”

Charlie Gofen is an investment counselor in Chicago who has taught high school and been a newspaper reporter.