Born a Crime

by Trevor Noah

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Chapters 17–18 Summary and Analysis

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Chapter 17

Tempted by a good sale on cell phones across town, Trevor borrows one of Abel’s cars without asking permission. It’s in such a state of disrepair that it doesn’t even have license plates, so he affixes a set from another car to appear street legal during his errand. On the way, he gets pulled over.

At first Trevor is worried about what Patricia and Abel will do when they realize he took the car, especially Abel; by this point, he is well aware of the man’s capacity for violence. Soon, he realizes his trouble extends beyond his own household. The officer runs the plates and, finding that they don’t match, assumes Trevor must be a carjacker.

At the station, Trevor is afraid to call home for help. Realizing he will be in jail for the night no matter what, he decides to try to handle the situation without them. He calls a friend, who connects him to a lawyer, and soon he is taken to the cell. Unsure how to handle himself around the others locked up in the same space, he takes an inventory of the room. The most dangerous gangsters in South Africa are the colored gangs, he notes, and decides to keep to himself in the hopes that he might be mistaken for someone nobody wants to anger.

One night turns into several. Soon, a large, terrifying man with giant muscles joins the detainees in the cell. The cop tries to interrogate the man, but the two cannot understand each other; Trevor realizes that the cop only speaks Zulu and the man only speaks Tsonga. Trevor, who has both a knack for languages, steps in and helps the two communicate. Before long, he and the man become friends. As they get to know each other, and he learns the difficult circumstances of the man’s life, he begins to reckon with a difficult truth: So much of what determines success in this life—one’s skin tone, one’s resources, one’s opportunities—is a matter of pure chance.

Eventually, Trevor is taken to a holding cell to go before a judge. He enters and realizes he now has to make a very precarious choice. The room is clearly divided along racialized lines, and if he picks the wrong one he could start a fight. What has historically been an alienating inconvenience is now a life-or-death decision with incredibly dire consequences. He picks the white group. “They just didn’t look like they could hurt me,” he rationalizes.

When he is brought before the judge, the judge sets a trial date and lets him go. He returns home, trying to figure out how to explain to Patricia why he has been gone all week. But when he gets there, he realizes she has known all along.

Chapter 18

Trevor reflects on his mother’s relationship with Abel. It starts when he is six or seven, and the family Volkswagen keeps breaking down. Every time it does, they take it to a mechanic near Robert’s house.

Soon, they seem to be visiting the mechanic even when the car is working fine. But Trevor doesn’t mind—the mechanic, Abel, is charming and funny, friendly and helpful. Before long, Patricia gives her son the big news—she and Abel are getting married. Without knowing why, he tells her instinctively that he doesn’t think it’s a good idea. “I don't trust him,” Trevor explains.

The two marry anyway. A year later, Trevor’s half brother Andrew is born. When they take the baby to meet Abel’s family, Trevor is struck by how patriarchal Tsonga culture is in comparison to his own upbringing. When Patricia tells Trevor to make his bed, Abel’s mother tells her that is not his job, instead suggesting that he should go outside and play and leave it for one of his female cousins.

Patricia chafes against this edict and begins to mock the dynamic, behaving with an aggressive, showy form of submission to her husband whenever his family is around. After returning home, Trevor starts to notice Abel’s ingrained mode of dominance slowly revealing itself in his new marriage. Intent on keeping Patricia from spending so much time at church, he stops fixing her car so she can’t drive herself anywhere.

As Abel’s temper intensifies, so does his drinking. During one drunken episode, he nearly burns the house down by leaving something cooking while he dozes off. In the fight that ensues, he gets physical with Patricia for the first time. She tries to file a police report but is not taken seriously. He eventually apologizes, and she takes him back.

The first time Abel hits Trevor, Trevor is much less forgiving. He learns to avoid Abel at all costs, always remaining conscious of where his stepfather is in the house so he can plot his movements around him. By the time Trevor is seventeen, the relationship is so precarious that Patricia helps him move to a nearby flat. It’s like having two male lions around, she explains.

Shortly after Trevor moves out, Patricia is shocked to learn that despite her being forty-four and having a tubal ligation, she and Abel are expecting another baby. He is born healthy, and they name him Isaac. After his birth, Abel’s violence escalates. Patricia and Isaac move to a building in the backyard to live separately from him. Eventually, she moves out entirely.

A few years later, Trevor receives a call from Andrew. “Mom’s been shot,” he says. Trevor races to the hospital, not bothering to ask who shot her. He already knows.

At the hospital, Patricia is in intensive care after being shot in the head. Trevor, furious and despondent, calls Abel and says, “You killed my mom.” Abel responds in the affirmative, adding a threat—if he could find Trevor, he would kill him too.

When the doctor finally emerges from the operating room, he has some unexpected news. Patricia has, miraculously, survived the shooting. The bullet managed to avoid all of her critical tissues on its path from the back of her head to the front, and she needs only minor surgery.

The doctor sends everyone home for the night, and Trevor returns in the morning. When he is allowed in to see her, he starts to cry. She insists that he stop crying, but he can’t. With a touch of humor, she tells him to look on the bright side: “Now you’re officially the best-looking person in the family.”


In chapter 17, one of Trevor’s major anxieties is finally realized. Jailed for driving one of Abel’s cars without proper registration, Trevor once again enters a room to find that his peers have voluntarily segregated themselves by race. This time, the stakes are much higher than they were on the school playground: If he walks over to a group that identifies him as an outsider, he may spark an incredibly violent fight.

This puts him in a very difficult position. To some extent, Trevor is always an outsider—he is considered white among Black people, Black among white people, and an imposter among colored people. When he picks the white group, it is not because he thinks he will fit in; it’s because they look like they can cause him the least harm.

In chapter 18, the other of Trevor’s main anxieties is finally realized. In his most violent act yet, Abel shoots Patricia in the back of the head. It’s the culmination of a progression that Trevor saw coming. For years, Patricia has lived under the constant threat of Abel’s volatile rage. For years, she has been attempting to lodge formal complaints against him, eventually leaving the house entirely. Ultimately the shooting—attempted murder, per the court—does not prove enough to get Abel in lasting legal trouble. Just as white oppression of South Africa’s Black citizens did not automatically dissolve just because ­apartheid’s legal foundations fell, Abel’s dominion over Patricia proves virtually intractable.

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Chapters 15–16 Summary and Analysis