How would you react if, when you were 17, you were thrust into the middle of a civil war, with your father a leader of a rebel army? Does everyone have evil inside of them, just waiting for the right (or wrong) circumstances to bring it forth?
Those are the underlying questions behind one of the most remarkable biographies that has appeared in recent years. Johnny Dwyer, a freelance journalist based in New York, has pieced together the strange, terrifying story of Chucky Taylor, American teenager turned Liberian warlord.
In the mid-1970s in Boston, Chucky Taylor’s mother, a Trinidadian American named Bernice Emmanuel, met a Liberian grad student, Charles Taylor, who attended Chamberlayne Junior College (now Mount Ida College in Newton). They moved in together in Dorchester, and in February 1977 their son, Chucky, was born. Charles worked in a plastics factory in Somerville and then at Sears. The relationship foundered, and by 1980 they separated.
Bernice then married a Trinidadian immigrant, a welder named Roy Belfast, and when Chucky was 10 the family moved from Boston to a working-class subdivision outside of Orlando. On the surface Chucky looked like a typical American kid, listening to hip-hop in his bedroom. But his home life wasn’t entirely stable — Bernice, after her marriage to Belfast started falling apart, got married again after Belfast moved out, without divorcing him. Chucky, adrift in a turbulent situation, became a troubled teen: gangs, shoplifting, drugs, a suicide attempt.
In the summer of 1992, when Chucky was 15, he and Bernice traveled to West Africa so he could see his father for the first time since he was a toddler. It was a bizarre family reunion. Charles Taylor, after many twists and turns, was now leading a Liberian rebel army.
They spent a few weeks together. Two years later, fleeing the United States with felony charges pending (aggravated assault with a firearm after a violent mugging), 17-year-old Chucky permanently moved in with his father. As Charles advanced from warlord to the elected president of Liberia in 1997, Chucky abandoned school (he briefly attended three different schools, two in Liberia and one in Ghana but never finished 11th grade) and assumed the position of commander of a secret paramilitary unit with this father’s blessing and direction.
In this period, Chucky also became a family man in Monrovia. He had courted and married his high school sweetheart from Florida; they had a child together. Simultaneously, he ran a training camp and prison in central Liberia where atrocities targeting both alleged criminals as well as recruits were common. This was horrific stuff: electric shocks, cutting off toes, forced drinking of urine, rape, prolonged isolation in holes in the ground, and summary executions.
After Charles Taylor’s government fell in 2003, Chucky fled to Trinidad. Three years later he tried to enter the United States and was arrested at the Miami airport. After a two-month trial in Florida, he became the first American ever convicted of the war crime of torture and was sentenced to 97 years in jail. (His father got 50 years for crimes against humanity by a special international court in Sierra Leone, becoming the first former head of state to be convicted thusly since Nuremberg.) Chucky’s trial was a supremely ironic moment: At the same time that the Department of Justice had legalized torture in the war on terror it was obtaining a conviction for torture against Chucky Taylor.
Cross-hatching this biography are the darker shadows of American foreign policy. If on one hand Liberia, with its child soldiers and oppressive humidity (“the air,” as Dwyer writes, was “thick and sweet with decaying vegetation and generator exhaust”) is a world apart, on the other hand it is intimately connected to the United States. Americans created Liberia, initially as a colony for freed slaves. Whether the sins of omission or commission that Dwyer uncovers in the State Department’s actions in Monrovia in the past decades, the persistent underdevelopment that prepared such a fertile ground for the Ebola virus that recently ravaged the country, or the telling fact that in the summer of 2001 two Al Qaeda operatives reportedly visited Chucky Taylor’s militia base — the story of one wayward Floridian does not exist in a vacuum.
Dwyer first wrote about Chucky Taylor for a Rolling Stone article published in September 2008, and he has done a tremendous job amplifying the story with additional research and reporting — State Department cables, interviews with militia members and torture survivors — and sorting out murky tales like Chucky mixing with international arms dealers.
At times the narrative overwhelms Dwyer. Acronyms pop up without attribution (a glossary would have helped); phrases and descriptions get repeated; and opaque, context-less quotes from Taylor’s trial preface each chapter. Dwyer also doesn’t plumb the depths of Chucky’s behavior enough to come up with more than the obligatory paragraph, laden with DSM-IV-talk, about whether he was a psychopath.
But perhaps it was just an unknowable combination of nature and nurture, bad luck and bad timing, that turned the American teenager into a torturer.James Zug is a Globe correspondent based in Wilmington, Del. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.