The New York Times best-selling author Jeff Hobbs spoke at Amherst on Jan. 31 in Stirn Auditorium about his book “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League.” The talk was hosted by the Conferences and Special Events Office.
Hobbs received a bachelor of arts in English language and literature from Yale in 2002 and published his first fiction novel, “The Tourists,” in 2007. He published his first work of nonfiction, “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace,” in 2014.
In his introduction of Hobbs, Adam Hutchinson ’93, assistant coach of the men’s basketball team, said that though the book discusses Peace’s upbringing, his time at Yale and his return to Newark, it is also “about much, much more.”
The title, Hutchinson said, echoed the theme of “two Americas,” which is in itself a shorthand acknowledgement that there are a myriad of experiences to be found in the United States. He discussed how higher education is “almost universally recognized as an important key to upward mobility,” but pointed out that there are deep costs, not only in the financial sense, that come with the opportunity.
Following his introduction, Hobbs began by talking about his relationship to Peace. Peace was Hobbs’ “college roommate and friend for four years” at Yale. Peace was later a groomsman at Hobbs’ wedding, but after graduation, they lived on opposite coasts of the country and only talked “four or five times a year.”
“It seemed like there would always be time for a reunion,” Hobbs said. “There wasn’t.” Nine years after graduation, Peace was shot twice and killed by men in ski masks in a basement where he had been selling marijuana.
After laying out the facts of Peace’s death, Hobbs circled back and fleshed out who Peace was as a person. Peace was from a town outside of Newark nicknamed Illtown, a place that “wasn’t Disneyland, but it was home.” He lived with his mother, while his father, convicted of a double murder when Peace was young, was incarcerated.
When Hobbs met Peace, he quickly realized that “Rob was not typical, not just because of where he grew up but because he was a straight-A student in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, which is about as easy as it sounds.” Peace was also captain of the water polo team for two years, and was “very bright and very popular.”
Peace also “smoked a lot of weed and sold a lot of weed” from their dorm room. Hobbs said that Peace never seemed to spend the money on himself, however, and posited that he had been saving it for the future.
“But what I didn’t know, was not aware of, was the huge and complicated set of discomforts Rob experienced, coming from his home to Yale,” Hobbs said. “How to reconcile the gratitude he had for this education that was a gift … with a very real resentment of lively, affluent peers like myself. How to manage the guilt knowing that his mother was home crying every night” as well as “guilt for high school friends — also bright guys who had aspirations but they couldn’t go to college because of financial or other reasons.”
Peace didn’t know “how to ask for help without admitting that he needed it.”
Hobbs, however, was careful to emphasize that Peace had not been a “brooding Hamlet” because of these pressure. “When we watched him receive his diploma in the spring of 2002, he seemed not just destined but maybe even chosen to fulfill all of his dreams and all the dreams other people had for him,” Hobbs said.
But nine years later, Hobbs received the news that Peace had been killed. He attended the funeral along with 400 other people.
“Those of us in the church did our best … to celebrate him,” Hobbs said. People told stories about Rob, and after the funeral, many of them kept in touch.
“At a certain point, I probably foolishly volunteered to make some compilation of these stories,” Hobbs said. Six months after the funeral, he found himself in Peace’s mother’s home, asking for permission. Hobbs made sure she knew about his doubts and the uncertainties that came with the undertaking of such a project. Hobbs had never done nonfiction before this point, so he wasn’t sure what he was doing. Peace hadn’t been famous, and “it was really sad, so not many people would likely publish such a story.”
There was also discomfort over Hobbs’ role and the system he would be taking part in, “by which the vast majority of stories told in America are told by overeducated white men.” Hobbs recounts, however, that Peace’s mother simply said, “That would be nice,” and granted her permission.
Soon, what was originally intended to be a short piece grew and became over 1,000 pages. As the project got bigger, Hobbs began to question how Peace would feel about the book. “I think he’d be pretty pissed, in fact,” he said.
Collecting stories, Hobbs noticed “patterns of recklessness, patterns that didn’t become apparent until it was too late.”
“Rob was the man. Peace was the man. But we can get so used to thinking of someone through the lens of being ‘the man’ that I think we all forgot that he was a man,” he said.
Hobbs said that while some students “are geared to believe that adults exist to help them,” others, like Peace, “had to see himself as a functioning adult from a very young age.” Peace saw the “very act of asking for help … as an expression of weakness, maybe even a source of shame.”
Hobbs ended the talk by saying that “there are no answers, really, in this story.” In fact, he said many readers expressed frustration because Hobbs didn’t assign blame to anything such as institutions, drugs or racism.
“When Rob died … it was easy to talk about the two worlds he lived in, to call him two men: his mother’s son or his father’s son, a drug dealer and a nerd, Yale and Illtown,” Hobbs said. “It’s important to make sense of things, and it’s helpful to learn by putting stories into those boxes and trying to draw clean lines, but at the same time … he was one person, he lived in one world and he made it a pretty big one.”
A Q&A session followed the event, during which audience members asked for clarification of certain events in the book and inquired after the process of writing the book.
Katherine Hague ’18 said she read the book years ago and that she came to the talk because she wanted “to hear more about [Hobbs’] experience writing the book.”
Maria Mejia ’20, on the other hand, said that because the talk was prefaced with the mention of “two Americas,” she had expected that Hobbs “would go deeper into the reasons why Rob died,” and stated that the talk “left so many open-ended questions.”