Pondering the pages – Memoirs
So with everything that is happening around here right now I don’t actually have time to wax eloquent about these memoirs but every one of them is outstanding.
Jantsen’s Gift: A True Story of Grief, Rescue, and Grace by Pam Cope and Aimee Molloy.
Out of a family’s grief, especially Pam’s, she’s the mom, comes a life affirming change. With the money donated in Jansten’s name Pam and her family vow to make his young life carry on with meaning. Over time they’ve established the Touch A Life Foundation. The charitable work that this small organization carries out is simply short of amazing. I know that there are thousands of charitable organizations around the world and I applaud them for the work they do. To me what makes Touch a Life unique is they vow to provide life long, lasting support if needed. Now I won’t swear this is unusual but it strikes me that way.
One of the obstacles that Pam encountered when starting her fund-raising was why somewhere half way around the world and not here in her own home town? Honestly that’s usually my question. Yes America is referred to as the land of plenty and granted we have programs in place to assist those in need but still life here is far beyond happy and healthy for a large segment of our society. And what I realized as I was reading Pam’s story is this: for those of us called to help others in need we go where we feel we’re needed the most. If that little voice is telling us to help save slave children in Ghana, street children in Vietnam or runaways here in the States we’ll go where we’re lead. There is no denying what you hear. It niggles at you until you feed it and then it comes back for more and eventually you understand exactly what it is that is being said.
You better have a Kleenex or two to three handy as you read this one. But not all is grief and sadness. Pam is a very funny woman. She deals just like the rest of us – with a sense of humor and a dose or reality. There were actually times when I thought she was too hard on herself. After all while we may live with grace we are only human.
For Cope, life in her small Missouri town seemed perfect; she ran a hair salon, enjoyed a happy family life and lived in a beautiful home. Yet, she explains, I have to say, I put on a hell of a performance. For a long time, I even had myself convinced of how good and right everything was in my life. Her ideal was shattered in 1999 when Jantsen, her 15-year-old son, died suddenly from a heart ailment; this moving memoir recounts Cope’s transformation and growth after her world collapsed. Her metamorphosis began after she accepted an invitation from a friend to visit Vietnam. Though Cope was wrapped in personal grief following the death of her son, the trip illuminated for her the superficial environment she inhabited. After visiting a local orphanage, Cope found for the first time in her life a sense of wholeness and purpose. Soon she stepped outside her own circumscribed world and began creating better lives for the abused, neglected and at-risk children she encountered, first in Vietnam then in Cambodia and Ghana. This is a wonderful story of a woman whose personal tragedy gave birth to a gift and how she fulfilled that legacy to make the world a better place.
Next up was Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo. I knew instantly this book would capture my attention because I’ve always been interested in legal and police matters. A case of mistaken identity that could have destroyed lives instead turns into a one of redemption.
Two lives are shattered in the space of hours. Those hours turn into eleven long years. Just as sure as Jennifer is that Ronald Cotton is her rapist Ronald knows that he didn’t commit the crime(s) of which he stands convicted. There is a serious miscarriage of justice here and the blame doesn’t rest with Jennifer. The facts and omissions as presented seem to point to a mishandling of Ron’s case from the start. These can be the consequences of an over zealous, blinding belief that the ‘right’ person is in custody. I applaud this police department of instituting new procedures that reduce the risk of mistaken identifications on the behalf of victims and witnesses.
Ron’s capacity for forgiveness is a thing to behold. All those years knowing he didn’t do it. All those lost years that he can’t get back. Denied family, friends, freedom. Though Jennifer’s life wasn’t easy she wasn’t denied to the extent Ron was. How many of us could spend eleven years behind bars and not come out bitter, vengeful people? I’m betting not many of us. The guilt Jennifer faces could have been crushing but with Ron’s compassion, the man she accused of raping her, she learns to forgive herself. Once again a book full of living with grace and dignity. The friendship they’ve forged is nothing short of a miracle.
Jennifer Thompson was raped at knifepoint by a man who broke into her apartment while she slept. She was able to escape, and eventually positively identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker. Ronald insisted that she was mistaken– but Jennifer’s positive identification was the compelling evidence that put him behind bars. After eleven years, Ronald was allowed to take a DNA test that proved his innocence. He was released, after serving more than a decade in prison for a crime he never committed. Two years later, Jennifer and Ronald met face to face– and forged an unlikely friendship that changed both of their lives.
In their own words, Jennifer and Ronald unfold the harrowing details of their tragedy, and challenge our ideas of memory and judgment while demonstrating the profound nature of human grace and the healing power of forgiveness.
And I’m just pages away from finishing A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy by Thomas Buergenthal.
While all three are very powerful stories, each showcasing the courageous strength of will to endure and help others this one stands a bit above the others only because of the sheer magnitude of the horror of this young man’s situation. A fortune teller once told his mother his was ‘a lucky child’. Little did the fortune teller know just how much luck Thomas would need. This really is one of those ‘but for the grace of God go I’ stories.
Every narrow of escape of the death in a Nazi death camp comes with a high price and another day to live. With unspeakable atrocities everywhere Thomas is befriended by those who can help to save him or show him how to save himself. He survives this hell on earth and is eventually reunited with mother. And this reunion is pure luck. This young man was truly blessed by whatever powers that be.
I know they emigrate to the United States with Thomas pursuing a distinguished legal and human rights career but I haven’t gotten that far.
You think you’ve heard it all: the roundups, deportations, transports, selections, hard labor, death camps (“That was the last time I saw my father”), crematoriums, and the rare miracle of survival. But this one is different. The clear, nonhectoring prose makes Buergenthal’s personal story––and the enduring ethical questions it prompts––the stuff of a fast, gripping read. Five years old in Czechoslovakia at the start of World War II, Buergenthal remembers being crowded into the ghetto and then, in 1944, feeling “lucky” to escape the gas chambers and get into Auschwitz, where he witnessed daily hangings and beatings, but with the help of a few adults, managed to survive. In a postwar orphanage, he learned to read and write but never received any mail, until in a heartrending climax, his mother finds him. In 1952, he immigrated to the U.S., and now, as human-rights lawyer, professor, and international judge, his childhood’s moral issues are rooted in his daily life, his tattooed number a reminder not so much of the past as of his obligation, as witness and survivor, to fight bigotry today.
All three of these stories deserve your time and attention. My suggestion is you put Jantsen’s Gift, Picking Cotton, and A Lucky Child at the top your towering TRB pile.
A good book should leave you…slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it.
~William Styron, interview, Writers at Work, 1958