Why Memoirs Are So Important

Twelve Years a SlaveEvery time I read a memoir I am reminded of their power to connect us to something beyond ourselves. A memoir invites us to step into a life and an experience that are not ours. Even if we have experienced something similar, we are able to relate, but that particular experience is not ours to claim. And because we cannot claim that experience as our own, it exposes us to a different and possibly broader perspective. It’s that broader perspective and different experience that is so important for us.

I recently read three very compelling memoirs that were a far cry from anything in my little, limited life. Each story had pieces that resonated with me; threads that I understood because of something in my own experience. But more powerful were those things that opened my eyes and exposed me to reality for someone else. When we are open to someone else’s reality, even if we don’t understand it and may never experience it for ourselves, we become connected. And when we become connected, we care.

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup has recently been made into a feature film, but the Northup’s memoir of being born free in New York and then captured and sold into slavery, was published in 1853. Out of the 101 slave narratives written between 176o and 1865, Solomon Northup’s was the only one that told by someone who was free, captured and sold into slavery, before escaping back to the North.

Slavery is a scourge in U.S. history that is really hard for any of us to fathom. Not only have we not dealt with the horrific atrocities of slavery, we haven’t confronted the despicable remnants from the institution of slavery. Northup’s book poignantly tells the dehumanizing effects of slavery on everyone. We may say slavery was wrong and deny holding attitudes of superiority over any group of people, but our true attitudes will be exposed in how we treat others, especially strangers, immigrants and people from other religions and cultures.

Amanda Lindhout was a twenty-something avid world-traveller trying her hand at freelance journalism when she and her partner were kidnapped and held for 460 days in Somalia. Her account of finding her passion for travel and her brutal experience in captivity is masterfully portrayed in her recent memoir, A House in the Sky co-authored by Sara Corbett.

What is impressive about this memoir is the ability of Ms. Lindhout to transcend her horrific experiences of being repeatedly gang raped, starved, beaten, and kept isolated from her companion to seeing how lack of education and constant war and poverty have led her captors to who they are. She is then able to understand them, and while not excusing their behavior, at least forgive them. She has gone on to found Global Enrichment Foundation addressing women’s empowerment, education, and famine relief in Somalia.

Next time you are looking for something thoughtful to read, why not pick up a memoir. Of course, you’ll learn something about the person whose story you’re reading. But more importantly, if you’re open to the possibility, you just may learn something new about yourself!

One of these days, we’ll have to tackle the Bible as memoir.

I’ll See You Again: A Memoir of Unspeakable Grief


I’ll See You Again by Jackie Hance and Janice Kaplan is not the kind of book I pick up to read. I’m very selective about the type of memoirs I read and I usually steer away from tragedy-to-triumph stories. I know that seems weird for someone who sees God’s redemptive work in the strangest of people and places. Consider it another one of my qwerks.

I was especially hesitant to read this particular memoir. The unthinkable tragedy was in the headlines when it occurred in July 2009. Often headline tragedies become sensationalized memoirs of shock and awe. I really dislike that kind of drama.

I’ll See You Again wasn’t like that at all. It is a raw, intimate account of how a mother encounters the unimaginable loss of all three of her daughters in a traffic accident caused by her sister-in-law. It is grief in all of its despair and disruption for Jackie, her husband, and their family. It is bears witness to the lifeline of support their friends commit to over a period of years. It exposes the flaws and vulnerabilities of people and acknowledges the tensions in the unknowable and unanswerable. It is heartfelt and heart-wrenching at the same time … just like grief.

What makes this book so powerful is its reminder of the depth and extent of the grief process. Grief is not the same for everyone. While there may be stages of grief, it is really more a process, and a messy process at that. Relationships are difficult under the best of circumstances and become extremely threatened or challenged during grief. This book reminds us that even the bonds of love fracture, and can still withstand, devastating grief.

I’ll See You Again is intense. But then so is grief. Sometimes by experiencing it through someone else’s story we can tuck away some insight that will be useful in our future.

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castleamazon

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.

That’s how Jeannette Walls memoir, The Glass Castle, begins. Having read her first book, Half Broke Horses about the life of her maternal grandmother, I knew Jeannette Walls was a masterful storyteller. What a story she has to tell!

You know by the opening sentence of the book, this will be no ordinary story. You have no idea, however, how extraordinary Jeannette and her siblings childhood will be. She masterfully weaves her astonishing experience with grace and humor. The many laugh-out-loud moments in the story provide a counter-balance to the otherwise unbelievable intensity.

I’m very selective about reading memoirs. I hate shock-and-awe techniques used by so many to grab an audience. There are many who overcome incredible odds on the way to a productive life, but so few are able to share their story without sensationalizing the truth of their lives. The Glass Castle isn’t devoid of emotion, but there is a certain no-nonsense approach the Walls children grasped to survive.

I don’t want to say too much so as not to give away any of the story, but think this is a must-read book for anyone. We’re confronted with the age-old question of nature versus nurture and why some succeed against amazing odds. It also reminds us that we never really know someone’s true story and what, if anything, would be different if we did.


Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood

Joker Oneamazon

I was reflecting the other day on war, trying to recall if there has ever been a time in my lifetime where we, as a nation, have not been at war or participating in a war somewhere on the planet. Some of the wars were referred to as conflicts, but they really were wars. I think of Korea and Vietnam.

What got me to thinking about all of this was a leadership seminar sponsored by The National Museum of the Pacific War here in Fredericksburg, Texas. Our company, Cloudtippers, is a business partner and one of the perks is this yearly seminar. The speaker was a U.S. Marine officer, Donovan Campbell, who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. His book, Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood, put him on the radar of the museum foundation’s CEO, General, USMC (Retired) Michael Hagee, former Commandant of the Marines.

The chatter as we were making the rounds before the start of the program was Have you read the book? Of course, I had not. I had recently finished Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption chronicling Louis Zamperini’s amazing experience. (Zamperini is another Foundation sponsored event here in May. Not bad for a rural town!)  I sort of needed a break from that kind of intensity. But the few people who had read the book, all mentioned that, while they don’t usually read that type of book, found they were captivated and were so glad they had read it. Hmm. Maybe I would reconsider IF our library had the book.

The program started and we were all captivated by Donovan Campbell. It wasn’t the intensity of war stories as much as it was the revelations of leadership and lessons learned alongside a group of young men in the worst of battle situations in Ramadi, 2003 and 2004. He wrote the book, part of his Harvard MBA program, as a way for his platoon to relate their experiences once they returned home. The book served as a spring board for a broader talk on leadership.

Most of us have no idea of the impossible situation these 18, 19, 20 year-olds are faced with as they perform their daily duties in an urban war, under harsh environmental conditions (130-degree temperatures, no running water and no electricity), without adequate equipment (like working radios or enough armored vehicles). Campbell’s ability to frame the context for the rest of us and articulate principles that can be incorporated into real life a part from war, was inspiring.

Surprisingly, our library does have the book. It is definitely worth the read! Campbell is a captivating storyteller, but that’s not the main reason to read the book. The main reason to read the book to is better understand why we need to make sure we, as a nation, provide whatever services are needed for those returning from war. They volunteer to do the work and make sacrifices none of the rest of us can or will do. Whether we agree with the decision or not to get involved in this, or any, war, is beside the point. As citizens of this nations, we all share in the responsibility.

Ritual, Routine, and Religion

Fragile Moon
Creative Commons License photo credit: xyzpdqfoo

Well, as you can tell by the title, the alliteration bug bit. I was going to add Ramadan in there too, but thought that might be a bit much for some. But thinking about Ramadan is what got me started on this post in the first place. (Sometimes I wish my thinking mind would just turn off!)

Like many Americans, I have an extremely limited understanding of Islam. I had some exposure to Muslims when I was at UCLA in the late 1970s. There was a lot of anti-Shah demonstrating on campus and I didn’t have a clue what it was all about. Muslim male students were trolling the campus trying to arrange a “financial” marriage to an American woman so they could stay in the country. There were even Visa issues back then. I think the going rate in 1976 was $10,000 for a “financial” marriage.

Then there was Malcom X vs. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. Almost like the message was violence vs. pacifism. Islam was about violent resolution, Christianity was about peaceful resolution. Somehow the “Christian” roots of the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t talked much about during their violent reign. Malcom X would never have been quoted by the general public back then and just yesterday a quote of his circulated among my friends on Facebook.

When I feel uninformed, I read. Last year, I finally made myself read two books that had circulated on The New York Times bestseller’s list: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. I had been resisting reading either of these books, probably because I unconsciously I knew they would be disturbing.

And they were. But not because of what I thought. What was so disturbing, for me, was how girls and women were denied access to education and the complete control exerted over them in every conceivable part of their lives. It was the worst imaginable form of dehumanization I could think of…not that I react well to much authority in the first place.

Since September 11, 2001, much has been politicized about Islamic beliefs,  jihad, and terrorism. It’s all very confusing, very complex, and been going on for a very long time. An iTunesU podcast I listened to led me to a small, very informative book by John Esposito, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam. It was an excellent overview of the complicated history of Islam and an insightful look at the precipitation of and key leaders in militant Islam.

Last week I finished reading Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks. She wrote this book in the 1990s when she was a Middle East journalist for the Wall Street Journal. I finished reading it as Ramadan was beginning. Oh, and I saw a lot of parallels between fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity. Not surprising and very disturbing.

Ramadan has also hit the radar screen for some blogs I follow. In fact, a couple of Christian blogs I saw in passing were lamenting the lack of sincere ritual in Christian churches and how Christianity can learn from the piety of its Islamic kin. Hmm. I know plenty of churches who are guided by liturgical ritual. Maybe they were reacting to the routine that occurs when ritual becomes too familiar? They didn’t say enough to know much.

It’s normal to be disturbed by stuff we don’t have experience with or understand. It’s also easier to look askance at people, cultures, and beliefs we’re not familiar with. It’s also dangerous to not acknowledge the similarities there are between people, cultures, and beliefs. And, as with everything under the sun, there are always extremists among people, cultures, and beliefs. It’s usually the extremists who get most of the attention and who, by default, become the examples lifted up as the norm.

This isn’t quite where I thought I was headed when I started writing this post, but it’s where I ended up. Thankfully, there is never a famine of food for thought!

All That Is Bitter and Sweet


I read just about anything new that comes into our local, rural library. I knew nothing about any of the Judds when I reserved the book. My ever-worldly husband was amazed that I didn’t know about the mother-daughter country singing duo or the actor sister who did a slew of movies. Well, I must revise that. Having watched the Indy 500 in 2010, I knew that Ashley Judd was married to race car winner Dario Franchetti.

I didn’t have any expectations about All That Is Bitter and Sweet. Was I ever wonderfully surprised!

Ashley Judd is an articulate, thoughtful writer. Her personal story unfolds alongside her work on behalf of women and girls in the global south. As she witnesses the abuse and invisibility of girls and women trapped in sexual slavery, ravaged by HIV/AIDS, and the other injustices wrought from no access to education, healthcare, or economic hope, her own experiences of abuse and being invisible are crying out to be voiced too, if only to herself.

This is not your typical tell-all-I’m-a-victum-celebrity story. There is none of that in the book. Her insight is hopeful and affirming and speaks to the inner longings of most of our hearts. Her message is inspiring, but her unconditional love is contagious.

I get asked what books I’m reading and what I recommend for various topics. You’ll find some suggestions in the Recommended Books category. There will be sub-categories by topic to make it easier for you to find books under topics interesting to you. I’ll be adding books regularly. I’m ALWAYS looking for good recommendations myself. Feel free to email me your favorites reads!