Mitchell Jackson’s new book, “Survival Math,” is by and about a man trying hard to make sense of where he came from and how that place formed him. Most simply, it’s a memoir about his life growing up in Northeast Portland among pimps and drug dealers, about how he survived, and eventually thrived, becoming a celebrated writer and a professor at NYU.
The book is also woven through with history, criminology, sociology and mythology. But it’s much more than just a personal memoir. Mitchell gives voice to other men in his life: a dozen family members, each of whom answered the same question: “What’s the toughest thing you’ve survived?”
We talked to Jackson in our studio back in 2013, when his first book, the novel “The Residue Years,” came out. For this new book, we wanted to do something different. So Jackson and “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller spent an afternoon walking all around Jackson’s old Northeast Portland neighborhood. They met at the basketball courts in Irving Park, where Jackson had spent many afternoons in his youth playing pickup games.
“So you would get a call Saturday morning at like 9: ‘Man, we running. Be there at 11.’ And there was no more information necessary,” said Jackson. “Everybody knew everybody. I mean, this hill right here would be like 30, 40 people waiting to get a game on this court.”
Growing up, Jackson spent time in a number of houses across Northeast Portland, shuffling between his maternal grandparents’ and his mother’s various apartments. One of his main father figures, his mother’s longtime boyfriend Big Chris, made a living as a pimp and brought Jackson along with him as he and his friends were doing their work.
“I think that he actually believed that he was in some way instilling me with a set of … like a survival guide … I can’t imagine that they raised me to be a pimp because they wanted me to be harmed or to fail in life,” Jackson said. “They raised me because at some point they thought I was going to need that because the structural obstacles were going to be such that there were not going to be those opportunities for me.”
Jackson dedicates a significant section of the book to understanding his relationships with women. He admits to mistreating women and to inflicting trauma on the women he’s been in relationships with. He says that part of the book is an attempt “to be brave enough to really interrogate these traumas and to really figure out where they came from.”
“Several women that I’ve talked to who have read that said, ‘I recognize myself here. I recognize my uncles or my father or my brother. And now I understand them a little bit better.’” he said. And that, Jackson added, is part of the point of writing about it.
“That kind of behavior … it’s prevalent. And I think that a lot of people that engage in it are part of a community that won’t share it,” Jackson said. ” … If the people that do it will never share it or interrogate it, how do you start to solve some of those problems that you can solve?”