Perry's death proved a disquieting question mark. Was it, as many loudly asserted, another example of institutional racism, of police brutality, of the dream denied? News stories about Perry quoted friends, teachers and relatives who claimed that Eddie was too good, too fine, to have been involved in a common street crime. Among the many people perplexed by the case was free- lance Journalist Robert Sam Anson, who had once covered the civil rights movement and whose son was a student at Exeter. On assignment from LIFE, Anson set out to discover how a young man like Perry, who seemed launched on a trajectory of success, could come to such a mean, abbreviated end.
That investigation eventually resulted in Best Intentions, which is less a book about Edmund Perry than a record of the author's own voyage of discovery, his piecing together of the puzzle of Perry's life and death. Anson talked with dozens of people who knew Perry and gradually learned that Eddie was not the blithe, well-adjusted young man that he had been depicted as being. In fact, he was a tortured, troubled teenager who could not reconcile his narrow past with his privileged present. Poised between two worlds, he felt at home in neither.
At Exeter, Perry studied hard but adopted a street-savvy swagger to mask his own insecurities. He was obsessed with race and brandished his blackness as both emblem and armor: he declared that he had a mission to help his people and bitterly attacked the school for racism often more imagined than real. But beneath his angry rhetoric lurked a secret, which Anson stumbles on almost by accident: Eddie was dealing drugs.
During the course of his search, Anson learns that Exeter was not quite the paragon of race-blind meritocracy it claimed to be. The often searing voices of Eddie's friends reveal the difficulties of leaving the gritty sidewalks of Harlem for the green quadrangles of Exeter. One black woman asserts that blacks were at Exeter as a kind of minstrel show to give sheltered white students a sense of diversity: "By God, their kids are going to be well- rounded. They're going to have Rossignol skis and Lange boots and a black roommate for 'an experience.' "
All the explanations from Eddie's friends and family still leave him enigmatic, undefined. Perhaps it is impossible to know a young man who did not know himself. And Anson's authorial presence sometimes pushes his subject further into the background, making the mechanics of his reporting seem more significant than the shape of his subject.
But Best Intentions provokes resonant questions. Is it right or possible to transplant an individual from one background into another? Are the efforts of schools like Exeter a patronizing way of superimposing bourgeois white values on inner-city blacks? Anson can hardly be faulted for not providing answers; they are all but absent in a nation still sadly rent by racial inequity. The loss of Edmund Perry, as portrayed in this often poignant book, makes the problem seem more intractable than ever.