Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Posted by nliakos on May 10, 2018

by J. D. Vance (Harper-Collins 2016)

Those of us who consider ourselves part of the “resistance” to Donald Trump and his GOP supporters often wonder why Trump’s “base”–those voters who are faithful to him, no matter what he says or does–continue to stand by their man–and whether we can bridge the divide between Us and Them and perhaps help them to see reason. Before we try to convince them that they are wrong and we are right and Donald Trump represents a disaster for our country, we should read this book about hillbillies–the “white working class” folks who live in (or originate from) the Appalachian mountains in the Eastern United States. And getting our message across to them won’t be easy, because as described by J. D. Vance (who considers himself a hillbilly although he was mostly raised in southwestern Ohio), they are more different from us than the most exotic Asian or Middle Easterner, African or European.

According to Vance, their honor code of protecting their family above all seems more like something you would find in Sicily than in America. If you insult a hillbilly’s family member, s/he would consider it normal to beat you up or shoot you. Rather than trusting the justice system, hillbillies mete out a harsh justice themselves. And if they criticize “welfare queens”, it’s because abuse of government assistance is so widespread among them that they assume everybody does it.

Vance is of this culture, but he was able to escape the poverty he grew up in and join the educated American middle class. He calls himself “a cultural emigrant.” He joined the Marines (which forced him to grow up and learn to take care of himself) and then went to college and Yale law school. But before that, he gives most of the credit to his grandparents, especially his grandmother “Mamaw”, who partly raised him and always gave him a place to escape to when things got too hard or stressful at home, where his mother alternately fought and then gave in to drug addiction and presented young J.D. and his sister Lindsay with a never-ending parade of boyfriends and husbands. His grandparents pushed him to do well in school and constantly assured him that he could succeed. But he confesses that without them and the safe haven they provided, without his older sister’s loving care, without his four years in the Marines, without any of the many factors that conspired to help him succeed, he couldn’t have done it. His present-day comfortable life would have been out of reach. Thinking about it now, about how close I was to the abyss, gives me chills. I am one lucky son of a bitch. Yet despite all the negative things he sees in his culture of origin, Vance harbors a real appreciation for these people, and a desire to see them do better, as he himself proves is possible.

I always enjoy reading books about foreign cultures, and this culture certainly qualifies, despite its being embedded in the heart of the United States of America.

 

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A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

Posted by nliakos on May 8, 2018

by James Comey (Flatiron Books 2018)

If you have been paying attention, you already know that James Comey did not unveil any deep dark secrets or smoking guns in the memoir he published after being fired from his position as FBI Director by Donald Trump, four years into a ten-year term. But the reader will learn much about Comey’s own life and career, which touched some of the most notorious cases of the past thirty years (including Whitewater, Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby, Edward Snowden and “the collision between privacy and public safety”, Marc Rich, Abu Ghraib and the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aka torture), David Petraeus, and of course, the notorious Clinton email investigation. As Assistant Attorney General of the Southern District of New York (the ones who are suing the Administration to prevent them from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census), as U.S. Attorney in Manhattan under Rudy Giuliani, as Deputy Attorney General and later Acting Attorney General of the U.S., Comey has had a front seat to many if not most of the big cases we’ve all heard about. He dealt with the Mafia, and he dealt with George W. Bush’s barefaced attempt to coerce John Ashcroft, Attorney General and Comey’s boss, to approve extensive surveillance of American citizens by the NSA. It was fascinating to read his retelling of these events.

The book is essentially an autobiography; after an initial chapter on his encounters with La Cosa Nostra, it begins with his childhood (when he was the target of bullies in his Allendale, NJ elementary school (I used to ride horseback in Allendale!). He spent years doing his utmost to avoid those bullies. He credits his parents (“tough, but kind”), some of his teachers, and an unforgettable boss named Harry Howell, with giving him the support and guidance which helped him to become the person he is. There is a marvelous story about how he once spilled 24 gallons of milk on the floor of Howell’s supermarket. He explains, “I stopped abruptly and pushed the hand truck hard upright, heedless of the basic laws of physics. The universe and the milk, of course, were not heedless.” Howell’s low-key reaction to the catastrophe (“Have you learned something? . . . . Good.  Clean it up.”) exemplifies Comey’s idea of “great leadership”.

But Comey was not only the target of bullies; he describes a memorable time when he participated in the humiliation of a nerdy classmate at the College of William and Mary when he was a freshman. But he learned from that experience, too: “Four decades later, I’m still ashamed of myself.” Despite his own experience being bullied and despite the teaching and examples of important adults in his life, he gave in to the temptation to belong to “the group”. Still, he concludes that being bullied made him a better person and instilled in him a hatred of bullies and sympathy for the victims of bullies. (Of course, the reader thinks of Donald Trump, Bully-in-Chief.)

Comey describes his career in public service and his family life. The Comeys had hoped to settle permanently in Richmond, where he worked as Assistant U.S. Attorney under another memorable boss, Helen Fahey. But after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, he returned to New York as U.S. Attorney.

Comey writes intelligently and thoughtfully about lying (in a chapter mostly about the Martha Stewart and Scooter Libby cases) and leadership. He writes that he spent a lot of time during his first year as FBI Director traveling around the country and abroad to every field office, where he met and listened to special agents and other employees. It was very important to him that each employee knew how much he valued him or her. Reading about his views on good leadership and how he tried his best to be a good leader, I thought that he must be a fantastic person to work for, able to get the best out of each employee.

Chapter 6, “On the Tracks”, is one of the most fascinating, describing the struggle between the Justice Department and the (second) Bush administration over Project Stellar Wind, a program of citizen surveillance which required the Attorney General’s approval before it could be implemented. Both Comey and Ashcroft opposed the project because they felt it was not within the law. With Ashcroft desperately ill in intensive care at GW Hospital, two White House staffers rushed to the hospital to get him to sign off on the program, but Comey and several of his staff beat them there and in the end, Ashcroft refused to approve it. I remember reading about this in the Washington Post when it happened but not understanding well what had happened. Comey’s chapter explains everything in great detail. It reminds me a little of what happened during the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973, and of what could happen if Donald Trump were to fire Robert Mueller or Rod Rosenstein. In such blatant power grabs by a President, the DOJ must function as a check on the White House. If not, then Congress must explore the impeachment option. I never realized that the Card-Gonzalez-Comey-Ashcroft situation very nearly precipitated that kind of crisis in 2004.

Of course, what most readers are itching to get to are the sections which describe Comey’s relationship with Donald Trump, Trump’s attempts to get Comey to pledge loyalty to him, and the horrible way in which Trump fired Comey. This was interesting, but these were also the parts that were quoted and summarized extensively in the media when the book came out, so there was less to learn that was new. However, I was impressed by the detailed description of Comey’s emotional reaction to having to leave the FBI and a job that he loved, just when he was hitting his stride as Director. I was amazed to learn that Trump was nasty enough to want Comey, who was in Los Angeles giving a speech to staffers in the field office there when he learned of his dismissal on TV (he thought it was a joke at first), to have to pay his own way back to Washington while the FBI plane he had flown out on flew home empty. It was Andy McCabe who authorized Comey to return on the FBI plane, and Trump was furious. Not satisfied with dismissing Comey in a horrible, public way, Trump wanted to humiliate him as much as possible by forcing him to fly back on a commercial flight, at his own expense. The mean-spiritedness of the man is astounding.

A few favorite quotes:

Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty. Those leading through fear–like a Cosa Nostra boss–require personal loyalty. Ethical leaders care deeply about those they lead, and offer them honesty and decency, commitment and their own sacrifice.They have a confidence that breeds humility. Ethical leaders know their own talent but fear their own limitations–to understand and reason, to see the world as it is and not as they wish it to be. They speak the truth and know that making wise decisions requires people to tell them the truth. And to get that truth, they create an environment of high standards and deep consideration–“love” is not too strong a word–that builds lasting bonds and makes extraordinary achievement possible. It would never occur to an ethical leader to ask for loyalty.

I say this as someone who has worked in law enforcement for most of my life, and served presidents of both parties. What is happening now is not normal. It is not fake, It is not okay.

There are men and women of good conscience in the United States Congress on both sides of the aisle. . . . But not enough of them are speaking out. They must ask themselves to what, or to whom, they hold a higher loyalty: to partisan interests or to the pillars of democracy? Their silence is complicity–it is a choice–and somewhere deep down they must know that.

The situation offers an opportunity to rebalance power among the three branches of our government, closer to the model the founders intended.

Far from creating a new norm where lying is widely accepted, the Trump presidency has ignited a focus on truth and ethics.

I choose to be optimistic.

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On My Own

Posted by nliakos on March 21, 2018

by Diane Rehm (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016)

On My Own is a brutally honest look at a loving marriage that included some real cruelty as well as deep friendship and mutual caring, and its aftermath–the first year following the death of one of the partners. Diane Rehm is well known to millions for her thought-provoking nationally syndicated eponymous radio show, which originated right here at American University in the District of Columbia. Diane’s fans know her as a self-educated woman who daily probed her interviewees’ ideas and opinions in her unmistakable voice, speaking slowly and articulating every syllable (I used to recommend her show to my ESL students looking for accessible listening practice). She was well-read (I believe she always read a book completely before interviewing its author) and very insightful in her questions and comments. You couldn’t shake her; she always remained calm, no matter what the topic.

Her husband, John Rehm, died in 2014 of Parkinson’s disease. When it became too disabling, he decided it was time to end his life. His death was traumatic for him and his family because the law prevented his doctor from assisting him to die, and he was forced to starve himself to death over a period of two weeks. Diane Rehm spends several chapters of the book explaining her feelings about this, and the reasons why she has chosen to become a spokesperson for Compassion & Choices, an organization dedicated to patients’ rights, including the right to aid in dying when appropriate.

Other chapters consider being alone for the first time; coping with grief;  thinking about her future without her husband; sleeping in the center of the bed; communicating with her dead husband (several chapters are actually letters written to him after he died); her children and grandchildren; living through holidays; how other people she is close to have dealt with loss; and other topics. The book is very loosely chronologically organized up through the first anniversary of John’s death: an introspective journey through that first year of widowhood. I was amazed at how honest Diane was about her deepest feelings, even those she was not proud of, even when it meant admitting truths about her marriage she might have preferred to keep private. It could be wrenching to read, but it was also inspirational in its honesty and courage. I am grateful to her for sharing, and wish her the very best.

I also recommend Finding My Voice, Diane’s earlier memoir of her life as a radio host. I must have read it before I started this blog in 2006. And after she retired from WAMU-FM, she launched a podcast, “On My Mind,” which you can subscribe to here. I must confess I haven’t listened to it yet because I have limited time to listen to podcasts and limited space for them to stack up on my phone! But I want to, and I will. Whatever Diane Rehm cooks up is bound to be interesting to me.

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Every Day I Fight

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2018

by Stuart Scott with Larry Platt (Blue Rider Press 2015)

I can’t remember why I added this book to my To-Read list. I had never heard of Stuart Scott; I never watch ESPN, where he anchored the show SportsCenter. I am not interested in sports, and passages such as the following, common in this book, are unintelligible to me: In 1999, just before announcing that Vince Carter–Tar Heel!–was the runaway Rookie of the Year, I broke down a dunk by him that everyone had been calling a 360-degree throw-down. Only it wasn’t. “I gotta drop some knowledge,” I said, while footage of Vince’s slam played on the screen behind me. “Vince Carter’s late-season 360 dunk was not really a 360. let me show you.” At this, we played a clip of a recent Kobe 360. “Most guys do a true 360–they start to their right, complete the circle, slam it.” Now we played Vince’s. “Vince basically did, like, a 450–he started the other way, went all the way around before ripping the rim.”  Suffice it to say I got none of that. I have never heard of most of the names Scott drops (exceptions: Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan), did not get the sports references, and was befuddled by the African-American dialect he used on screen and sometimes in the narrative.

But Every Day I Fight is fundamentally a memoir of cancer. We get the back story, of how Scott worked his way up to his anchor position at ESPN, his first marriage, the birth of his daughters, and so on. But the focus of the book is his seven-year battle against appendiceal cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, through clean scans and then new growths as the cancer kept coming back in new places, Scott continued to work when he was able and, incredibly, liked to follow bouts of chemotherapy with intense physical workouts, including mixed martial arts, a five-mile “Savage Race” and something called P90X. He insists that this made him feel better and gain weight. It’s not what most people would choose to do after chemo. Through it all, he was motivated by his love for his daughters, Taelor and Sydni. And he was able to bask in their presence as the cancer slowly destroyed his body–living in the now, not focusing on the future he would not have. I was crying as I read the final chapters.

I appreciated Scott’s insights into being a dad, a celebrity, a journalist, and in particular, a cancer patient. For example, he writes that once you have a cancer diagnosis, even if you are found to be “cancer-free”, your life is forever changed: My Buddy Brian wakes up feeling sore in the morning and thinks, “Man, this getting-old thing is a pain.” I wake up feeling sore and think, “Is that cancer? Is it back?”  Towards the end of the book, he writes, Well, when I started writing stuff down, I promised to keep it real, so I’ve gotta confess: I’m feeling that way (sick, tired, and depleted) now, with you. I’ve been filling up these pages with this cancer talk, and it’s gotten to the point where I can’t stand my own voice. I feel repetitive and pathetic and self-centered. . . .

When Scott writes about “keeping it real,” I am reminded of my friend Rhona Hall, who died of cancer in May of last year. Rhona often said to me, “That’s what I like about you, Nina–you always keep it real.”  I hope I will have the integrity and the courage to keep it real with my friends, my family, and myself in the coming years.

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March

Posted by nliakos on December 27, 2017

by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Top Shelf Productions 2013 (Book One), 2015 (Book Two), and 20  (Book Three).

The three volumes together comprise this graphic memoir of Congressman John Lewis, an icon of the Civil Rights movement. Book One opens in 2009 as the congressman prepares to attend the inauguration of the nation’s first black President. A woman brings her young sons to his office, and he begins to reminisce…. He recalls his childhood on his family’s farm in Alabama, going to school, hearing about the outcome of Brown Vs. Board of Education of Topeka and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the Montgomery bus boycott, enrolling in a seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, meeting Dr. King and others in the nascent civil rights movement, and learning about and practicing non-violent resistance in workshops which they then applied in lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. They were arrested and jailed, but they were finally successful when Mayor West recommended the desegregation of the lunch counters in the city. This was in 1960.

Book Two picks up the story at the end of 1960 and takes it to the March on Washington in August, 1963, through sit-ins at Nashville cafeterias and fast food restaurants, non-violent attempts to integrate movie theaters, and the Freedom Rides of 1961. Lewis describes his involvement with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which he was chosen to lead in 1963. He talks about Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, who did not believe in non-violent resistance, as well as the leaders of the non-violent movement: Martin Luther King, Jr.; James Farmer; Diane Nash, and other well-known figures of that era. Of course, the racist southern politicians such as George Wallace and Bull Connor figure as well, and so do the Kennedys and federal agent John Siegenthaler, to whose memory this volume is dedicated.

During one of the Freedom Rides, Walter Bergman, a college professor,  was beaten so badly that he was paralyzed for the remainder of his life. Once, during a sit-in at a restaurant, the staff turned off the lights, locked the protesters inside, and fumigated the restaurant, as if they were exterminating bugs. Lewis writes simply, “We did not die that day, but it was not the last time I thought I saw death.” The courage it took to confront racist hatred, knowing that one could not meet violence with violence, is astonishing. Yet they kept going back for more, and Lewis played a major role in both protesting and in training the protesters.

The last pages of Book Two recall the cowardly bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four little girls, and Book Three (which, inexplicably and by itself, is this year’s First Year Book at the University of Maryland) opens in the chaos of the burning church (prologue) and then moves on to the other major events of the Civil Rights Movement, in particular the fight for voting rights, culminating in “Bloody Sunday”, the terrible March 7 attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, which the marchers  had to cross to continue on to their goal of the capital of Alabama, Montgomery; the symbolic march to the bridge on March 9; and finally the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, March 21-25 1965. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law less than six months later; the rest of the country was appalled at video of the vicious attacks on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators.

2017 is a strange vantage point from which to reflect on those long-ago events. Last year, the Voting Rights Act was essentially gutted by the Supreme Court, and Republican states have already implemented new laws which result in severe restrictions on the ability to vote for citizens of color. Did the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers offer their bodies to be beaten for this?

I guess that making this a graphic novel makes it more appealing to younger people, but frankly, I would have preferred a traditional prose memoir with photographs. I don’t have the patience to try and figure out what the pictures supposedly show. I couldn’t tell the various characters apart–not Lewis, not John Kennedy, not Martin Luther King, Jr. Nobody was recognizable to me, so it was hard to figure out who was speaking. The action wasn’t clear to me, either. For example, on page 121 (Book Two), did a pick-up truck actually hit a child during a protest at the swimming pool in Cairo, Illinois? (I had to google that one.) There are a lot of confusing scenes of mayhem and beating, fire hoses and billy clubs and guns, with onomatopoeia like KRAK, KLOP KLOP KLOP, CL-CLANK, VR_VRMMM, WHAP, KRUNCH, ERT, WHUMP, BLAM, VOOSH, SCREEEEEE, which I guess is appropriate for comic books (but I don’t understand why they have to mangle the spelling)I impatiently read through the text and hardly looked at the illustrations, which were mostly inscrutable to me anyway. I suppose had they been drawn differently, they might have supported the text more, but as it is, it just made me anxious to read Lewis’ more traditional memoir, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998) or Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America (2017). I assume that March may appeal more to younger readers who are unaccustomed to reading an actual book (how snarky of me).

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Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over

Posted by nliakos on November 11, 2017

by Geraldine Brooks (Doubleday Anchor Books 1998)

I’ve loved Geraldine Brooks’ fiction (Caleb’s Crossing, Year of Wonders, People of the Book, and The Secret Chord, and March) and have been looking forward to sampling her non-fiction. Brooks, a former journalist, wrote Nine Parts of Desire (which I haven’t read yet) in 1994, Foreign Correspondence four years later. In it, she describes her Australian childhood. Growing up in a downscale suburb of Sydney, she longed to escape and see the world. Her correspondence with four pen pals–the first one a resident of a more upscale part of Sydney, and an American, a French girl, an Israeli Jew, and an Israeli Arab–was her escape route. As an adult, she manages to track down and meet all but one of her correspondents, and discovers that her childhood impressions did not reflect their reality. The happiest one, she realizes, is the one who has never left her home village to explore the greater world, as Brooks herself yearned to do when she was a child, and she succeeded.

In addition to the pen pals, Brooks writes about her parents, her sister, her neighbors and friends, her school, her obsession with Star Trek, her marriage and conversion to Judaism, her work as a foreign correspondent, and especially what her bit of Australia was like to grow up in.  It’s not a long book, just over 200 pages, and it all makes for very interesting reading.

Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Not Tonight, Josephine: A Road Trip Through Small-Town America

Posted by nliakos on September 1, 2017

by George Mahood (2016)

George Mahood publishes his own work, apparently; I can’t find any mention of a publisher anywhere. This may explain why this book cost only $2.99 (Kindle edition), and it was well worth it. It’s a travelogue by a young Britisher traveling around the United States (first with a boyhood friend, then with his girlfriend) in an old rattletrap of a Dodge Caravan (the eponymous Josephine). which breaks down frequently, requiring regular infusions of cash. It’s the usual compendium of encounters with surprisingly friendly folks, with the slight twist that it was written for a British audience, including little explanations like, “There was no real equivalent to the UK’s MOT test. . . .” Also, the subtitle implies that Mahood spent most of his time in small American towns; however, he actually visited quite a lot of tourist sights and national parks, which is not a bad thing; they just aren’t what I would call small-town America. But that’s not really a criticism, just an observation. I enjoyed reading about the national parks.

Mahood is very funny and I enjoyed his humorous descriptions of the many odd situations he and his friends found themselves in. And I liked the fact that he liked the U.S.A. He writes, “My travels across America had exceeded all of my expectations. Its cities were bigger, its mountains higher, roads straighter, rivers wider, lowlands sparser, buildings taller, lakes greater, winters colder, gas cheaper, portions larger, canyons grander, badlands badder, deserts desertier, desserts dessertier, taxis yellowier, Halloweens scarier, bears grizzlier, corn palaces cornier, ski slopes snowier, Brians greasier, prairie dogs dafter, walks hikier, bacon crispier, green salads beefier, park rangers speedier, mechanics wackier (and sometimes grease-you-up-and-screwier), crazy golf crazier, drive-thrus noisier, and its people friendlier than I could have ever possibly imagined.” (You just have to read the book to understand some of those references.)

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Walking to Listen: 4,000 miles Across America, One Story at a Time

Posted by nliakos on August 2, 2017

by Andrew Forsthoefel (Bloomsbury USA 2017)

For some reason, I love reading first-person accounts of very long walks (very long bike rides appeal, too)–perhaps because I will never do one of these marathon walks (across the US, across France, from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska…). This book fits right into this genre. Andrew Forsthoefel yearned to know how to become a true adult, and so he decided to set out walking from his home in eastern Pennsylvania with a sign that said “Walking to Listen”, hoping to meet people who could guide him on his journey to adulthood. He ended up in Los Angeles eleven months later, having understood that maturation is an ongoing thing, not one which we complete in any kind of recognizable way. The various men and women he encountered on his trek shared their stories with him (85 hours’ worth of recorded interviews), and he shares some of them with us. Partial transcripts from some of the interviews are shared between chapters, and other stories and guidance that he received are summarized.

Much of the book is devoted to the author’s experiences, his emotional ups and downs, his fears of the people he was about to meet (in every single case, until he met them and they turned out to be harmless/friendly/helpful/generous, and some of them became real friends), and the very real physical dangers he faced, such as the crossing of Death Valley.

He took three books along with him (Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman; The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran; and Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke). He quotes extensively from them, for they had many important lessons for him in their pages. He must have known these books very intimately after living with them for almost a year. After reading his book, I felt I knew those three books better too.

I enjoyed the book, like others of its genre.

(Excruciatingly created using the touchscreen of my Samsung tablet, while I am on vacation in Greece. I can’t figure out how to tag the post or categorize it; I guess I will have to do those things when I’m back home with my laptop. I’ve read reviews of the WordPress app for tablets and smartphones,  and they do not make me want to get it! Perhaps I should mention that I read the book on the tablet too, using my kindle app.)

 

 

 

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I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia

Posted by nliakos on April 23, 2017

by Su Meck, with Daniel de Visé (Simon and Schuster 2014)

In 1988, when the author was 22 years old, living in Fort Worth with her husband and two sons, aged two and six months, a ceiling fan fell on her in a freak accident, leaving her brain damaged for life. All of her episodic memories (memories of things that happened) and most of her procedural memories (knowledge of how to do things, like brush her hair and read) were wiped out when that fan hit her. Even her ability to form new memories was destroyed for many months, although as time passed, she was able to get a lot of that ability back. As a result, her remembered life begins at around age 23, but even at almost fifty, she is unable to remember as well as most people do. All of her childhood memories, what she learned in school, how to bring up her kids, her knowledge of interpersonal relationships, how to keep herself and her kids safe and healthy, the role of sex in a marriage–these were gone for Su Meck. To try and figure out who she was, she had to depend on others’ memories of what she was like before the accident. Her husband had to teach her how to do everything, sometimes over and over again because she would forget.

Incredibly, Su was discharged from the hospital in a state of complete confusion and sent home to a husband and children she did not even recognize. It is a miracle that they all survived her massive incompetence! Even had she known how to take care of herself and her children when her husband was working, she suffered “lightning” events in which she would collapse and spend several minutes unconscious of her surroundings. Her little boys quickly learned to take these episodes in stride and to call 911 when necessary. She admits that she must have left them unsupervised often. Somehow, they did not succumb to accidents or bad luck. Maybe little children are capable of more than we realize. Hers certainly stepped up and took over the adult roles when she could not. As she says, she and her three children (a daughter joined the boys in 1992) grew up together. For instance, by “helping” them with their elementary school homework, she learned to read again, very slowly.

Meck’s husband Jim was in some ways a model husband. Almost as young as Su at the time of the accident, he did what he could to get her cared for, and he stuck by her through thick and thin during the next 25 years. However, he was no saint. He had an abusive streak (he would call her stupid when she couldn’t remember things or when she behaved inappropriately, and he suffered from a kind of temporary insanity during sleep when he would physically hurt his wife, knocking her head against the wall, hitting her and calling her names; she was too cowed to protect herself from his inexplicable night-time rages. She didn’t realize that all marriages were not like hers. She was extremely dependent on Jim for everything–although as the years passed, he spent more time away, traveling for work, than he spent at home, leaving her to cope somehow. When they began to talk about the past for the book project, Jim actually realized, for the first time, how severely disabled Su was after the accident and how little she understood what was expected of her. She was somehow able to mimic other people’s behavior so that they did not realize the extent of her disabilities, but in her own mind, she was always afraid she would be unmasked and humiliated.

Still, she eventually returned to college and completed her degree (her daughter, then 18, taught her study skills she had no idea about). In an unusual move, she shared her story with one of her professors, who urged her to speak out about her life; this eventually led to an article in the Washington Post, and Su learned to accept herself and to come out of the closet of shame in which she had spent over twenty years. It’s a very inspiring story.

One thing I really enjoyed was that the Mecks lived for a time in Maryland, not far from where I live, and their daughter Kassidy was born in the same hospital where my daughter Vicki was born premature exactly one month later. Like me, Su Meck went into preterm labor three months before her due date, but she spent three months on complete bed-rest and somehow managed to avoid delivering the baby prematurely. This was what was supposed to happen in my case as well, but it didn’t work out the same way.  It is amazing to think that our stories almost came together at Georgetown University Medical Center back in 1992!

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I, Who Did Not Die: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption, and Fate

Posted by nliakos on April 17, 2017

by Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud, with Meredith May (Regan Arts, 2017)

I, who very rarely buy books and almost never buy them before I have read them (or have at least read an extremely positive review of them), stumbled on this one on a table of new releases at my local Barnes & Noble. The extraordinary coincidences that the narrative is built on are so compelling that I couldn’t resist it. Zahed Haftlang, one of the thousands of Iranian “child soldiers”, and Najah Aboud, a 29-year-old Iraqi soldier, tell their stories in alternate chapters. Thirteen-year-old Zahed, fleeing an abusive home, becomes a medic at the front and witnesses unspeakable horrors. Najah, unhappy to be called up again for the army just when his falafel restaurant is starting to do well and he has just fallen in love, barely sees any action before he is grievously wounded in the battle of Khorramshahr. He comes face to face with Zahed, who is searching the battlefield for wounded Iranians. Miraculously, instead of finishing Najah off, something inspires Zahed to spare him. He then hides him, stabilizes him, and protects him from harm as long as he can, and finally gets him to a hospital. After that, he keeps the strange encounter in his mind for a long time; he prays that the Iraqi will survive his wounds and be able to return to his family.

Najah survives, but he spends seventeen long years in various Iranian POW camps, long past the end of the war. Meanwhile, Zahed spends some time back in his home town, falls in love with a young nurse and plans to marry her, but loses everything when her home is bombed on the day of their engagement party and she is killed along with her entire family. Crazed with grief, Zahed re-enlists and spends several years as a sniper, trying hopelessly to avenge his loss by killing every Iraqi he can. He is captured just before the war ends in 1988, and he spends a couple of years in an Iraqi POW camp, where he is treated brutally by a sadistic commander. But he too survives, returns home, gets married, and starts a family.

Improbably, both men end up in Vancouver, Canada, where they meet again, and Najah is able to pay his debt to Zahed by saving him from his own self-loathing and depression. At the end of the book, each man sums up the impact that their experience had on them. Zahed writes, “Najah, you are the other half of my heart. . . . We saved each other not once but many times over, . . . Your smile turns a light on inside me, and I thought of you often during my captivity to help me survive.”  Najah writes, “Some force beyond human comprehension drove Zahed and me to be in the same place at the same time during the war. It is the greatest and most humbling mystery of my life. Zahed, I thank you in my heart every day for removing your finger from the trigger. You may not be my brother by blood, but you are my brother in humanity, which is indestructible.”

Seven hundred thousand lives were lost during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Through a twist of fate, these two enemies were destined not only to survive the war but to save each other’s lives and to love each other as brothers. A miracle?

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