MAY 24, 2022
BEN WESTHOFF VOLUNTEERED with Big Brothers Big Sisters in St. Louis. First compelled by a mix of privilege, rebellion, conscience, and adventure, he grew close to his assigned little brother. But 11 years after they met, Jorell Cleveland was fatally shot, and Westhoff resolved to find out who killed him. Then the true mystery began: Westhoff quickly realized that he had no idea who this kid really was.
Westhoff’s new book, Little Brother: Love, Tragedy, and My Search for the Truth, is a memoir, a double bildungsroman, and a murder mystery. By combining these forms, it goes deeper than any one of them could.
The reader meets Jorell at age eight and falls in love with his enthusiasm just the way Westhoff did. The book also sets the backdrop early on: St. Louis’s racist history and the risks and patterns of its poverty.
Listening to others speak at Jorell’s funeral, Westhoff realizes that his little brother had a nickname, Relly or Relle — and a second life that went with it. “I’d always thought of him as a kid who wanted to do kid things — eat junk food, goof around with his friends,” Westhoff writes. “This was the Jorell I knew best. But they described an older-than-his-years, alpha dog type, who had the respect of his peers and rebelled against authority figures. […] How could I have missed that?”
That insight is the key to what follows. “The truth is, I didn’t want to see what Jorell’s behavior was actually telling me,” Westhoff admits. He lets the reader wise up ahead of him, but we know he’s getting there when he writes, “Possibly he didn’t understand the imminent danger; then again, perhaps the danger is what drew him in.”
Clues to this other life float upward: Jorell’s bouts of sleepiness. The man-purse that he keeps locked. Facebook posts that sound like someone else wrote them, somebody far more aggressive and carrying grudges. The fact that he could “take a gun apart and put it back together, as fast as doing a Rubik’s Cube.”
From the flashes of temper in otherwise everyday interactions, a startling number of suspects emerges. You can sense Westhoff still slowly shaking his head: “Jorell never revealed his temper to me. Not once did I see him lose control, or even so much as swear loudly.” Westhoff remembers how hard it was for Jorell to open up about anything that troubled him; how the school therapist reported, “He says that other people have it much worse than he does.” That boyish stoicism, that refusal of vulnerability, hardened into a posture he never allowed his big brother to glimpse.
“I could barely make sense of what I was hearing,” Westhoff admits. Finally, Mike, the boyfriend of Jorell’s sister, says gently, “He felt like he had to put on a fake persona for you because he didn’t want to ever let you down.” And then, more bluntly: “Nobody’s being honest with you about Jorell. I don’t know why everybody wants to sugarcoat shit.”
Jorell was not sinister, only complicated. As was Mike, whom Westhoff describes as a hard worker, “always trying to do right,” who faced a trial for second-degree robbery. To Westhoff’s credit, that does not come across as a contradiction. People can be many things at once.
Clues also come from a tight neighborhood where revenge is vigilantism, the houses of suspects shot up under cover of darkness; from prison, where people know each other and have time to gossip; and from a final lucky break that gives Westhoff the police file he’s been requesting for months. He pores over the file and, using his own investigative work to fill in gaps in the police work, figures out exactly who killed his little brother.
The alleged killer has yet to be tried because witnesses refuse to cooperate. But Jorell’s family no longer has to agonize, uncertain about everyone he knew.
In other hands, this story could have been dry sociology, moralistic preaching, or a condescending yarn. But because the relationship came first — and because Westhoff (disclosure: a slight acquaintance) is honest enough and humble enough to keep his ego out of the equation — the story feels both real and fair.
He is young when he meets his little brother, not yet fully formed himself. Westhoff writes:
Jorell’s companionship meant a lot to me at a time when my life was unstable. I drank too much, I could barely afford my mortgage, and I screwed up my relationships with women. But Jorell was always there. He never judged me and was always glad to see me. Whenever I got knocked off my axis, Jorell pulled me back to center.
This is not a hand reaching down from privilege to pull a kid up. Instead, their friendship is eager on both sides — sometimes too eager. Jorell’s insatiable appetite for junk food, for example, drives Westhoff crazy, and from that simple tension between them, we learn quite a bit. When Jorell drenches his entire breakfast plate in maple syrup, Westhoff lectures him about nutrition and the risk of diabetes. Jorell dumps the plate and eats a banana instead, and Westhoff wants to kick himself. “There was a part of me that just couldn’t leave him alone, that felt a dubious responsibility to try to fix everything,” he admits.
Yet he cannot forget Jorell’s reaction when an event organizer was giving away uneaten refreshments. The eight-year-old raced to be first in line, scooping up giant bottles of orange soda and boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes. “This is my hope,” Jorell announced.
Jorell and Westhoff came from such different worlds that they were sometimes incomprehensible to each other. Hearing about Westhoff’s first plane ride, alone at age five, Jorell asks instantly, “Were you running away from home?” Startled, Westhoff says no, he was just going to see his grandfather. Years later, seeing the danger Jorell had carefully hidden from him, Westhoff recalls his own high school friends — the times they lied, slept with one another’s girlfriends, stole from one another, as well as a fight one night that shook him up. Typical, trivial stuff — but what if it had happened in these neighborhoods, and everybody had a gun?
Privilege makes a difference. Jorell has a huge capacity for love, a strong work ethic, ambition, and a warmly concerned father. But his school is lousy, book learning comes hard, and his world is the other boys on his block, four of whom will be dead by the time the book ends.
Exploring this terrain is dangerous for an outsider. Westhoff finds himself squinting at any car with tinted windows that passes his house, worried about his little boys, his wife, his Dalmatian pup. “I was pursuing someone who thought he’d gotten away with murder, someone with very little to lose, someone who’d likely experienced a lifetime of disappointment and distrust in people,” he writes. “I didn’t know how killing me might play into this man’s calculus.”
He keeps going, though, until he has both answers: who likely killed his little brother and who his little brother really was. The book opens a navigable passage between their separate worlds, and it goes below the surface characterizations, the stereotypes and assumptions that kill any honest discussion. We learn how St. Louis neighborhoods wound up as they did, and we see the Ferguson of Michael Brown’s shooting from a new angle. Jorell knew him. Two years after Brown’s death, he was with a friend in a similar mini-mart, buying Swisher Sweets to empty out the tobacco and fill them with weed. Other bits of background, though, feel digressive. The writing is clear, but the information pulls us just a little too far from the main story, putting brakes on the speeding whodunit.
One of the book’s beauties is Westhoff’s ability to drop telling details. “One time, when Jorell’s dog got off its leash, police shot and killed it,” Westhoff writes and moves on. Jorell’s $25 gold chain necklace, engraved with the Freemason square and compass, “evoked images of rich and powerful men plotting in secret corridors of power.” One of his friends “came from a respected, monied family, the son of a drug trafficker and the nephew of a nationally known rapper.”
The point Westhoff most wants to make is that it’s too simplistic to divide the world “into good guys and bad guys.” But Little Brother also makes a subtler point: that it is possible for two people to love each other across worldviews that do not sync. Jorell’s life is as exhausting and dangerous as any double agent’s. The details Westhoff uncovered teach us about his home terrain, about the geopolitics of isolation, about realpolitik and the limitations of allies.
If a reporter had parachuted into this story, it would have ended up a flat, remote, predictable account of one more young Black man’s death. But because Westhoff lived it, because he cared, he lets us wonder and puzzle and rage along with him. And that caring, like Jorell’s orange soda and Little Debbies, is a form of hope.