the story behind the book

Bronwen Dickey on why we’re so afraid of pit bulls

david wilson for the boston globe

Until she met one, the writer Bronwen Dickey felt about certain dogs the way many people do. “I had always been afraid of pit bulls,” she said, “I had never been around them.”

Then, on a reporting trip in north Georgia, she was invited to dinner at a friend’s house. “He had this black pit bull. And she hopped up in my lap, and she was this really wonderful, sensitive, interesting dog,” Dickey said. “As a journalist, I started questioning, ‘Well why do I believe this? I’ve never had an experience with a pit bull, so why do I feel so strongly that there’s something wrong with them? Where did I learn that and how true is it?’ ”

The research she began resulted in “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon,” which looks at the history of a dog that, Dickey pointed out, “can symbolize just about anything you want.” To some, including noted pit bull owners Gary Cooper, Teddy Roosevelt, and Helen Keller, they represent “the best of American virtues: bravery, tenacity, courage, dependability,” while to others pit bulls are a symbol of “crime and criminals and everything that’s dark and depraved about human nature.”


This negative narrative is muddied by unreliable bite statistics and a vague, shifting definition of what makes a dog a pit bull. “We’re not talking about a breed,” Dickey said. “We’re talking about this huge group of dogs kind of not otherwise specified.” That doesn’t stop some landlords and even city governments from banning their ownership, and some protesters from showing up at Dickey’s readings to express their anger.

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“It’s been a little crazy,” said Dickey about the vitriol she’s encountered. “I expected that some of it would happen, but I was really surprised by how personal it was.”

Dickey will read 7 p.m. Tuesday at Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at