"I no longer belong in the projects, but still to them." So wrote Janet McDonald during one of the many troubled periods in her life. As a gifted African-American child growing up in the projects of Brooklyn, McDonald was placed on a path out of poverty not open to many, and yet she struggled to find her way in a world that was alien to her. At Vassar, she felt so alone that she turned to heroin to escape her feelings of isolation. Later she was subjected to a vicious rape that led to a nervous breakdown. But a year spent in Paris showed McDonald that there were people who were, in her words, "full of life, not ambition," and eventually, after acquiring her law degree at age 32, she moved to the City of Light. Project Girl sheds light on the cultural chasms that exist in the United States between people of different colors and classes.
...[A] devastating memoir...[with] drop-dead ghetto humor, and just a touch of schoolgirl psychobabble.
...[E]ngrossing....McDonald demonstrates yet again the strength of her perseverance and her spirit...
The New York Times Book Review
McDonald writes with lucidity and drama, but by the end of the book, her cynicism has become toxic....Her inspiring tale deserves more than it gets in this disheartening memoir.
New York Magazine
Harrowing... McDonald's ricocheting between identities...landed her in a top college, and in Harlem buying heroin; in law schools, and in a psychiatric hospital; in a high-paying profession, and in jail.
Los Angeles Times
[A] very personal story of one woman's journey that is full of heartache, tragedy and victory.
Washington Post Book World
Janet McDonald's Project Girl is much more than a book about a poor black girl trying to drag herself out of Brooklyn's Farragut Houses in the 1960s. It is a story about how the projects themselves changed from a tightly knit community of blue-collar working families to a drug- and crime-ridden wasteland. The difference between then and now, McDonald writes, "was between low-income and no-income housing, between working families and welfare-dependent single mothers, between adolescent pranks and violent crime."
It is also the story of McDonald's struggle, as a bright and talented child, to find a decent education. Once she had made it into several good schools -- she was educated at Vassar, Columbia and NYU -- she fought to fit into privileged white society. And then her life fell apart: She was assaulted, hit her psychological low point and was finally arrested for arson.
Project Girl begins by introducing us to McDonald's family. Her parents moved north from Alabama in the 1940s to escape Southern racism and raised seven children in New York City. It was a chaotic household characterized not just by Southern cooking but also by stern punishments and Southern-style religion. This large family existed inside the larger family of the housing project, a safe and cohesive community at the time.
McDonald distinguished herself in school and wound up at Vassar, a place that would be a culture shock to anyone who wasn't from the upper crust. Not surprisingly, she had trouble fitting in. Racism -- sometimes real, sometimes imagined -- followed her around like a dark cloud. She was raped one night in her dorm room at Cornell Law School by a student she didn't know, and she suffered a nervous breakdown. Frustrated in her search for an identity that would tie together her past and present, she turned to drugs and alcohol. But she persevered: She finished law school and ended up practicing corporate law in Paris, where she lives today.
McDonald is a lucid and often witty writer, but what's most admirable about Project Girl is her honesty. She includes many chilling entries from her journal, such as one in which, after her rape, she buys a gun and entertains intricate murder fantasies. The book's rawness and immediacy lifts it above most memoirs. McDonald's clear-eyed assessment of her life's highs and lows lingers long after you turn the final page.
...[A] compelling tale of struggle, survivial, redemption and awakening.
Now practicing law in Paris, McDonald was raised in the projects of Brooklyn, NY, in the midst of poverty, drug abuse, and violence. This is the wrenching story of her escape from that life to Vassar, Columbia, and then to NYU Law School and the personal crises she surmounted along the way.
Anger-filled memoirs, partly straight narrative and partly excerpts from a journal, of a professional black woman whose journey from a low-income housing project in Brooklyn to a law office in Paris is replete with violence, hostility, and alienation. McDonald, the middle of seven children, was singled out early as gifted. She recounts how a supportive program at Harlem Prep gained her admission to Vassar. Here, in a WASP world far from her family in the projects, her feelings of fear and isolation led her to heroin. Fortunately, Vassar provided counseling, sent her home on medical leave, and readmitted her the next year. She spent her junior year in Paris, meeting blacks from all parts of the world and having some of her racial and cultural stereotypes shattered.
Law school at Cornell followed, but her academic career was again interrupted, this time by a vicious rape followed by a nervous breakdown. At New York University, where she transferred, McDonald, still filled with fear and obsessed with homicidal and suicidal urges, was arrested for arson. Ousted from NYU, she went to the Columbia School of Journalism, where she interned at both a French press agency in Paris (where people are "full of life, not ambition") and at Newsweek in New York (where she felt like "an overeducated slave on the bottom of the white patriarch's totem pole"). Abandoning journalism, McDonald reapplied to NYU and, at age 32, graduated from law school. However, living in a Manhattan high-rise and working in a midtown corporate law office was misery for her, and her weekends were spent back at the projects in Brooklyn. "I no longer belong in the projects, but still to them..," her journal notes.
Eventually, McDonald moved to France, abandoning the US and her struggle to belong. Powerful and painful reminder of the enormous gap between the culture of an inner-city black ghetto and middle-class white Americanone so wide that education alone cannot be counted on to bridge it.