memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Since Sinai: A Convert’s Path to Judaism by Shannon Gonyou

Another Jewish book from NetGalley! I’m on a roll, baby!!!

I’ve followed Shannon Gonyou on Twitter for a while now. She converted to Judaism, like me, and I’m always interested in the perspectives of other converts: the whys, the similarities and differences to my own conversion. Shannon has always seemed insightful, with a good sense of humor, so I was thrilled to learn she’d written a conversion memoir. Lo and behold, there it was on NetGalley! I requested (of course!), and voilà, the acceptance email for Since Sinai: A Convert’s Path to Judaism by Shannon Gonyou (Msi Press, 2022) landed in my inbox a few days later. I may have gasped in excitement. Huge thank you to NetGalley, Msi Press, and Shannon Gonyou for the opportunity to read and review this book!

Shannon Gonyou grew up Catholic, the stipulation of her birth mother to the parents who adopted and raised her. They weren’t super into it, but they dutifully raised her in the faith, which didn’t particularly interest her as a young child, but in which Shannon took a greater interest as she grew older. She had a lot of questions, of course; maybe more questions than her religious educators cared for, and the answers often rang a little more hollow than she would’ve liked, but Shannon held on, trying to carve out a place for herself in Catholicism. The evangelical church she tried out next was much the same. Both churches’ white savior complexes felt faulty, along with their one-size-fits-all belief systems. What’s a spiritual-seeking girl to do?

Judaism was something Shannon just kept coming back to, over and over. She’d question friends, co-workers, classmates, anyone who she met and learned was Jewish. The tradition kept calling to her until finally, she blurted out to her husband one Christmas eve (what better time?) that she wanted to be Jewish. To his absolute credit, despite being caught somewhat off guard, her husband was remarkably understanding, and eventually he came to fall just as deeply in love with Judaism as Shannon did. This is the story of Shannon’s religious journey, from questioning Catholic to deeply committed Jew, and all that happened in between.

This is an absolutely lovely memoir. Shannon’s story is winding, full of questions and the struggle to find herself in traditions that weren’t quite meant for her. Conversion is a huge, intimidating leap (I sat in front of my first email to the rabbi I converted with for over a week, struggling to come up with the exact words that expressed how deeply I had fallen in love with Judaism); being able to travel her journey with her in all its stops and starts, in the moves she now considers uncomfortable at best (such as the mission trips she went on), was truly enjoyable. I saw a lot of my own story in hers and it was a true joy to not only read about Shannon’s path to the mikvah, but to also be able to compare and relive my own journey there.

This is no dry, dusty, stodgy memoir; Shannon Gonyou writes as though she’s having a warm, comfortable conversation with her oldest friend, and every sentence is infused with her love of Judaism and her absolute delight in having made her way home to where she belongs. If you don’t know much about Judaism and are curious as to why someone would choose to become a member of a traditionally persecuted group, Since Sinai will lead you to a greater understanding. If, like me, you’ve converted to Judaism, you’ll definitely see yourself in these pages. And if you’re in the process or are considering converting, this book will enlighten you as to what the process might look like for you – and you can pass it along to your family and friends when they have questions, too.

Since Sinai was an absolute delight to read. Pre-pandemic, I was staying off the internet on Shabbat, but fell away from that practice when the internet became my sole connection with family and friends who were similarly isolated. Reading this moved me back to the place where I felt ready to do that again, and I very much welcomed that haven of calm and peace the last few weeks.

Follow Shannon Gonyou on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson

If you’re of a certain age like me, you likely read Go Ask Alice when you were a teenager. This book purported to be the real diary of a real teenager who fell victim to drugs and who ultimately died due to her addiction. This book used to be everywhere (and still is; I actually saw a copy of it at a used book sale this weekend!). I’m not sure I knew of many people who didn’t read it. I was probably around 12 when I first read it; I don’t remember too much of my reactions to it, but I’ve always been aware of its prevalence in American literary and pop culture. So when I saw Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson (BenBella Books, 2022) up for offer on NetGalley, I. Was. IN. As someone who had looked into the story of the woman behind Alice before, I knew this book was going make some waves. And now, having read it, I’m even more certain that this book is going to be huge.

In the 1970s, the war on drugs began to rage, and parents were terrified. What could they do? How could they even begin to talk to their children about the dangers of drugs and how easily their lives could be ruined? Suddenly, a book appeared on the scene that answered all their questions: a diary, written by a real-life teenager, whose life was destroyed and ultimately ended by drugs. Teenagers saw themselves in it. Adults saw their children in it. Go Ask Alice was impossible to keep on the shelves (whether due to selling out or due to panicked legislators banning it), but it opened pathways to communication between parents and children.

The only problem: it wasn’t true. None of it was. Go Ask Alice was the creation of a con artist, a Utah housewife named Beatrice Sparks who claimed to be a psychotherapist who worked with teenagers, but who, in reality, had been desperately trying to reinvent herself for years. And while her lies about young Alice may have lead to some positives, her next offering, Jay’s Journal, quite literally destroyed lives in a multitude of ways.

Rick Emerson has penned a well-researched eye-opener about a cultural icon whose effects are still being felt today, both the positives and the negatives. Beatrice Sparks was a scammer of the highest order, in multitudes of ways that would be much easier to verify these days, but back in the 70s, information wasn’t quite so easy to come by. Her religious housewife façade allowed her to ooze through the cracks and cause incredible harm to grieving families, along with setting the stage for what would eventually become the Satanic Panic of the 80s (and which would ultimately lead to people wrongfully convicted of various crimes and spending decades of their lives in prison). With humor, pathos, and empathy, Rick Emerson tells the story of a book that so many of us grew up with, but about which we never really knew the truth.

Whew. This is an absolute page-turner, and an incredible story. I absolutely flew through this book, because the story spreads so far and wide, and I was absolutely incredulous that one woman’s scamming had so many devastating consequences. I hadn’t known that Art Linkletter’s daughter’s suicide had set the stage for Alice to be published in the first place; I had no idea that Jay’s Journal (which I read in 2005 and immediately pinpointed as a whole entire load of horse dung) set the Satanic Panic into motion (the story behind this book is absolutely heartbreaking). It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Beatrice Sparks had some sort of diagnosable condition, such as narcissism or sociopathy; she had absolutely zero empathy and hurt people with wild abandon. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes.

I hope to see more from Rick Emerson in the future. Beatrice Sparks’s story is both horrifying and fascinating, and his voice absolutely added to my enjoyment of this book. And this is the third book I’ve read in the past few years from BenBella Books that I’ve really enjoyed. They’re definitely a publisher I’m going to have to keep my eye on!

Visit Rick Emerson’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland

At-home DNA testing is all the rage these days. How much percentage British are you? Where did your ancestors come from? To whom are you related? So many of us want to spit in that tube and then peer at the pie chart that comes out of it, but the results can be far more complicated than that. I’m one of the millions of Americans who spit in the tube and clicked the link that wound up in my inbox several weeks later, informing me that I’m a good 30% Norwegian, but almost not at all Italian, despite my mother’s Italian maiden name. Fascinating! And that’s why The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland (Abrams Press, 2020) appealed to me so much.

The Lost Family starts out following the family of Jim Collins, the Irish Catholic patriarch who had grown up in an orphanage, and who always struggled with his fractured family. Technology hadn’t advanced far enough at the point of his death, but afterwards, when home DNA testing was in its early days, his daughters began uncovering some shocking mysteries. Why weren’t they Irish at all? How on earth were the tests saying Jewish??? Why was Dad (Jim) so very short? What was going on?

Interwoven between the stories of the Collins family and other families whose DNA tests came up with surprises or mysteries are in-depth looks at how the ancestry and at-home DNA testing industry runs: how it began, what it means to the people who ran it (most of them genuinely seem like good people and are super enthusiastic about genealogy), and what the implications are, legally and morally, both for now and in the future. If you’ve ever taken one of these tests or you’re thinking about it, or you just want to put together a family tree, this is a book you need to pick up!

Phew. There is a LOT of information in this book. I was expecting it to be a little bit more about stories like the Collins’ family (and they’re definitely in there; their story and others like theirs are just scattered in between more broad information about companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe), but I walked away with far more knowledge about the genetic testing industry as a whole than I expected. A lot of it was beyond me; I couldn’t begin to explain to you how any of the genetic comparison works and how to distinguish a third cousin from a great-uncle, genetically speaking, but there are plenty of people who could, and they’re REALLY into it (I envy their ability to grasp that kind of stuff. My brain just doesn’t work that way). I did like learning about how the companies grew and how they’re dealing with the more ethical concerns (how to aid customers who are shocked by their results; how to deal when the FBI comes calling and wants to compare genetic data on file with what they have from a crime scene or two), but what I really enjoyed were the personal stories, the family searches and bewilderment, the joy in discovering new relatives, the pain at losing what they thought was family-by-blood, or being rejected by newly discovered blood relatives. Those were the stories I enjoyed most about this book.

This was a slow read for me, simply because the book was densely packed with info, but it’s great science writing with a personal touch. I enjoyed settling down to read this book.

Visit Libby Copeland’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Dude Making a Difference: Bamboo Bikes, Dumpster Dives and Other Extreme Adventures Across America by Rob Greenfield

Earlier this year, my daughter and I read a book for her homeschooling about making a difference for the planet. Recycling, refusing things that you don’t need, reusing the things you have in creative ways, being smart about how you use energy and water, biking and walking to get to places when you can, it was all pretty fun and inspirational. The author was a man named Rob Greenfield, and the book told a little bit of his story and about the wacky things he does to call attention to the need to live a sustainable life. I did a little research and found he’d written a book for adults as well, so I checked, and sure enough, it was living its best life on my library’s shelf! So on one of my next trips, I grabbed Dude Making a Difference: Bamboo Bikes, Dumpster Dives and Other Extreme Adventures Across America by Rob Greenfield (New Society Publishers, 2015) and brought it home.

Rob Greenfield, known for wearing all his trash in a suit on his body for a month at a time, decided to go bigger to get his message across. He was going to bike across the US, with a list of rules for guidance. He could only eat local (to where he was) organic food, nothing packaged, unless it was food that was going to go to waste otherwise. He couldn’t use any electricity that wasn’t generated by his solar panels (with a few exceptions), and this even included walking in electric doors (he would have to wait until someone else went in and go behind them). Water had to come from natural sources (he had a purifier), and at times, he could only drink water that would have gone to waste. These were the rules that would follow him biking over 4,000 miles across the country.

And he did it! There were a few foibles along the way – flat tires, outrunning tornados, no bank branches in an entire state – but the over-one-hundred-day-journey taught Rob a lot of things along the way, both while he was on the road and when he stopped at various organic farms along the way. This is a wild and crazy journey that will definitely get you considering what you use, and how you can do more to be earth-friendly.

Wow.  First off, I love these kinds of adventure/experiment books, where people live out certain ideals or go on long adventures that take large amounts of time. Although I felt like sometimes Rob took things to the extreme (in no way shape or form would I drink unpurified water from a stream, nor would I EVER drink a half-empty bottle of water I found at the side of the road *gag noises*), I deeply admire his commitment to living out his ideals. He’s young; I feel like he recognized a lot of room for growth in himself and how he treated the friend who accompanied him for most of the journey, so hopefully that’ll be something he works on in the future. I do really like that he’s calling attention to food waste by dumpster diving a large portion of the food he ate while biking cross-country; he’s even mentioned in his TED talks about this experiment that he gained ten pounds while biking 20-50+ miles per day for over a hundred days. That’s pretty wild!

The book is written in journal format, so there are times it gets a little repetitive and navel-gazey, and his youth and immaturity show through, along with his lack of knowledge on certain subjects (there was a bit in there about race that made me cringe), but overall, this is an enjoyable read about something I’d love to be able to do but can’t. I do wish he would have spoken to the privilege that allows him to make fantastic journeys like this. He’s young, physically fit, and healthy (my garbage back alone disqualifies me from a trip like this); he’s male (the dangers a woman would face making a trip like this? Not something I’d want to risk) and straight (ditto) and white (he had a few interactions with the cops where he was very much given the benefit of the doubt in a way most Black and brown men would not have been offered). I’d definitely like to hear him speak on these topics a little more in the future (and maybe he has and I haven’t read it or listened to it yet; I have enjoyed several of his TED talks, however!).

Overall, this was a fun read, and definitely inspiring.

Visit Rob Greenfield’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir

Book Review: A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise by Alex Sheshunoff

It was while searching my library’s catalog for books on tiny houses that I stumbled across A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise by Alex Sheshunoff (NAL, 2015). (There’s an entire long subtitle that I’m not going to write out here, but feel free to click on the Goodreads link so you can see it in all its unwieldy glory!) I love a good travel memoir, and I also love a good ‘picked up and moved halfway around the world memoir,’ so this called out to me for those reasons, but what really intrigued me was that the author moved, at first, to the outer islands of Yap.

Yap? What’s Yap?

Yap, my friends, is an island group in the federated states of Micronesia, and it’s where I had a penpal for a brief period of time when I was about 11. Every once in a while Yap comes up in conversation and it feels pretty cool that I’ve been familiar with this place that most people haven’t heard of since I was a kid.

Anyway.

Alex Sheshunoff wasn’t satisfied with his life. The website he’d started up wasn’t doing well and was no longer providing him that feeling of contentment. Living in a big city and working for the weekend wasn’t doing it for him, and his relationship, it was becoming clear, wasn’t made to last. He needed to make some changes and figure out what he wanted out of life, and what better place to do that than a tropical paradise? So Alex sells everything, packs up, and heads off to Yap in order to find himself and discover that which is meaningful to him.

It’s not exactly the lazy island utopia he pictured before the plane touched down. Cultural differences are massive, and making friends – or even getting to know people at all – is challenging. Moving between islands is far more complex than Alex had anticipated, and he finds himself in a lot of wacky situations. It’s a move to a different island that changes everything, where Alex meets the woman he falls in love with. Together, with friends brought over from back home, they build a home (kind of…) and Alex doesn’t necessarily end up with all the answers, but he at least finds some of the things he wasn’t necessarily looking for.

This was…okay. Alex’s journey to Yap and the surrounding islands felt a bit rushed and lacked research, but I suppose if you have the kind of money that I’m reading he did, you can afford to do wacky things like picking up and moving halfway around the world on a whim. His recounting of his interactions with the locals felt awkward and like he wasn’t sure how to fit in (which very well may have been the case; cultural exchanges can be really tough!), and I did feel bad for him in that aspect.

I don’t know, there was something about this book that made it hard for me to connect with. Part of it might be how different our lives our to begin with; it’s hard to find something to connect with in a story of a man who’s able to drop everything and leave the country to find himself, when I don’t have the money to find myself here in town. While I don’t necessarily need to see myself in every book I read, I couldn’t find much at all to connect with here. Still an interesting story, but…it was lacking, for me. But that’s okay. Not every book is meant for every reader. : )

Visit Alex Sheshunoff’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction · memoir

Book Review: The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams

I’ve been on a kick lately, reading about tiny homes. I’ve watched documentaries about them in the past and enjoyed them, but I think I’ve just reached that part of middle age and that stage of the pandemic that a small house all to myself seems like the ultimate fantasy. Combine that with all the environmentalism stuff my daughter and I have been reading for her schoolwork, and having a smaller carbon footprint in a house mostly run on solar and built out of used materials sounds amazing. I dug through my library’s catalog and one of the selections they had was a book called The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams (Blue Rider Press, 2014). Yes, please! Into my bag it went on my next library trip.

Dee Williams lived a normal-to-hippyish life in the Pacific Northwest. She owned her own home (which was constantly breaking down in various ways) and had been building her DIY skill set since she was young (which came in really handy when her house needed repairs!). When a health problem surfaced that couldn’t be ignored, Dee began to take a hard look at her life and what mattered. What did she want? What would truly make her happy?

Almost overnight, she purchased a trailer and began to build an eighty-four square foot house on it. She had help; friends, neighbors, random passersby, the men giving free advice at the hardware store, they all pitched in to help her dream become a reality. And suddenly…it was built, and eighty-four square feet became home.

Dee Wiliams has written a charming memoir of the ups and downs of building your own home, of learning the skills you need to create a place you can live in, of figuring out what’s important and what can be discarded, and how to build not just a dwelling place, but a community. There are definite downs: her health scares are stressful, and she writes about an incident involving falling off a ladder that resulted in multiple unable-to-be-casted-or-splinted bones that made my whole body cringe (because I’ve also broken one of those bones, and it’s awful); pulling her house behind her down the highway is my actual nightmare (I’ll stick with my smaller vehicle and continue fantasizing about tiny homes that don’t need to be moved anywhere); not having a shower or washer in my tiny house is a no-go for me, but she manages just fine. But the ups outweigh it all. The community she builds around her, the friends who rally and cheer her on when she’s building and afterwards, the family she builds when the house is finished, it’s all so lovely and cozy-feeling.

You might not be ready to give all your possessions away and move into a house smaller than most bedrooms, but it’s still fascinating to read about someone who was, and did. I enjoyed the time I spent living vicariously through Dee Williams’s tiny house-building journey. What a fun and thoughtful book.

Visit Dee Williams’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide by Nice Leng’ete with Elizabeth Butler-Witter

Years ago, in my very early 20’s, I was introduced to the concept of female genital mutilation when my online book club read Do They Hear You When You Cry by Fauziwa Kassindja. Since then, I’ve read other books on the subject, and it never gets any less horrifying. Last summer, my library announced they would read The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide by Nice Leng’ete with Elizabeth Butler-Witter (Little, Brown and Company, 2021) as a book club selection. I’m still not going to in-person events, so I missed out on what I’m sure was an amazing discussion, but I definitely still wanted to read the book. That FGM hasn’t disappeared off this planet yet is a tragedy, but it’s a relief knowing there are still brave women (and men!) out there, fighting so hard against it.

Nice Leng’ete grew up in Kenya, a member of the Maasai tribe. Her parents were more progressive than most, and her father had a deep commitment to ensuring that his children were educated. Unfortunately, both of Nice’s parents died when Nice was still in early elementary school, and she and her sister were shipped off to an uncle who wasn’t much interested in raising his brother’s children. Education remained a priority for Nice, and she fought hard to be able to stay in school, but by the time she turned nine, her family began demanding that she undergo the ritual of female genital mutilation. Having seen these scenarios performed and knowing that its risks included infection and death – and especially knowing that having this done would mean early marriage, babies, and the end of her education – Nice refuses, even running away multiple times to escape the knife.

It’s not easy to avoid being mutilated; pressure is intense and Nice is nearly shunned by her family and her community for refusing (her sister is, unfortunately, not so lucky), but she holds fast and not only gets the education she deserves, she goes on to college and begins a career with a nonprofit, working to stop the practice of female genital mutilation around the world.

What a fascinating book! This is another easy read about a tough subject. It’s not as in-depth as, say, Do They Hear You When You Cry, but it’s definitely more accessible for younger readers and would make a fabulous read for the mature middle-to-high schooler looking to become better informed about issues that affect girls and women around the world. FGM is still happening, even in countries where it’s been banned, and Ms. Leng’ete makes an excellent case for why people like her – girls and women who know the community, who are intimately familiar with the communities – need to be at the forefront of demanding change. There are a lot of great lessons in this book about what amazing modern-day leadership looks like.

This is another book I read quickly, but it’ll stay with me. I’m in awe of Ms. Leng’ete’s bravery, and her commitment to becoming educated despite so many challenges. This is another book I’d love for my own daughter to read in the future.

Follow Nice Leng’ete on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández

“You don’t know what you don’t know” is something we say often at my house, and I wonder a lot about how many things are out there that I don’t know about (this is why I’m so drawn to nonfiction! I want to know ALL THE THINGS). And when I learned about a book about a contagious disease that affects millions but that most people have never heard of, my curiosity was immediately piqued. And that’s how The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández (Tin House Books, 2021) ended up on my TBR. And Ms. Hernández was right: I’d never once in my life heard of Chagas.

Daisy Hernández grew up with a sick aunt. Tía Dora had become sick by eating an apple, Daisy believed, until she was older and learned that her aunt, with whom her relationship was often contentious due to, among many things, the aunt’s homophobia, had been infected with Chagas disease after having been bitten by a kissing bug. Tía Dora suffered terribly throughout her life, and Daisy later learned that yet another aunt had died as well of Chagas in South America. What was the insect that had so troubled her family? Despite the phobia Daisy had developed of it, she set out to learn more.

As it turns out, kissing bugs are all over in South America and the southern US. “Every adult with Chagas is a child that wasn’t treated,” one doctor says, and it seems to be true. Many adults who are found to be infected (usually discovered when their blood donation is tested) aren’t symptomatic, though it can take years until symptoms (like heart failure) make themselves known; others begin showing symptoms early on, and no one is sure why. Several years ago, Zika was all over the news, but Chagas, which affects more Americans than Zika, hasn’t gotten a fraction of that kind of attention. With bravery, determination, and a deep-seated curiosity, Daisy Hernández has penned a part-memoir, part-scientific narrative that clues readers in to the dangers of Chagas (with climate change, kissing bugs are heading north – this is everyone’s problem) and the devastation they cause.

When I picked this up, I was a little hesitant. I had just finished a fairly heavy book and wasn’t sure I could handle any intense scientific reading at this point, but Ms. Hernández deftly combines her research with her family’s story. Instead of being bogged down by this, I blew through it in a day. The effects of Chagas are difficult to read about; Tía Dora’s suffering is detailed throughout the book and it’s not pretty, but it’s less shocking than the fact that even with all the medical and science writing I’ve done throughout my life, Chagas had never once appeared in any of it. How does this affect so many people and yet no one talks about it?

The Kissing Bug combines the best of open, honest memoir writing with science writing that is simple enough for even the most science-phobic brain to grasp (I *really* wasn’t much of a science person growing up; it’s only being married to a molecular biologist and getting a daily lecture on All Things Science that has helped me appreciate it more). I appreciated Ms. Hernández’s admissions of how terrifying it was for her to research and write about the very thing that killed her aunts and devastated her family so deeply; knowing how tough it was for her to be out in the field with researchers, collecting kissing bugs in the dark, bending over microscopes to peer at T. cruzi, added another layer of humanity to her story. I’m honestly not sure I could’ve gone on this journey if I were her. Mad respect.

The Kissing Bug is an easy read about a tough subject, and one that desperately needs this kind of light shone upon it. Highly recommended.

Visit Daisy Hernández’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Chosen: A Memoir of Stolen Boyhood by Stephen Mills

Trigger warning: this review will contain mention of childhood sexual assault. If this is a subject that’s too painful for you to read about, be kind to yourself and skip this review. I wish you peace.

I received a notification of a new Twitter follower one day not long ago and was delighted to find an author named Stephen Mills had followed me. One of his recent tweets made it clear that he was also Jewish (WOOHOO!), so I followed him back and added his book to my TBR. And when Chosen: A Memoir of Stolen Boyhood (Metropolitan Books, 2022) showed up on NetGalley, I requested it. I know I read a lot of emotionally heavy books, but it’s because I believe so much that these are the stories that deserve to be heard the most; these are the topics that need to be at the forefront of our discussions; these are what everyone should understand a little more about. And Chosen is no exception to that rule.

Thank you so much to NetGalley, Stephen Mills, and Metropolitan Books for offering me a copy of Chosen in exchange for an honest review.

Stephen Mills was thirteen, the son of a father who had passed away when he was very young, growing up in an emotionally unhealthy blended family, when the director of his summer camp began spending more time with him. Longing for positive attention and approval (and aren’t we all?), Stephen falls into his trap, and soon Dan is molesting him regularly. Not only is Stephen deeply confused about what’s happening to him, his trauma is furthered by Dan’s weaseling his way into every aspect of his life. His family loves him and has no qualms about sending the young teen on solo trips and foreign vacations with Dan, and without the words to describe what’s going on, Stephen is powerless to stop the abuse.

It’s not until college when the trauma begins destroying his life. Still unable to speak about the abuse, Stephen turns to drugs, to religion, to foreign travel, in order to ease his pain, but nothing helps, and the darkness begins to pull him in. As society begins to wake up to the pervasiveness of childhood sexual abuse, Stephen is finally able to understand the root of his anguish…only to discover that those with the power to change things still don’t give anywhere near enough of a damn.

Chosen is a painful, heartfelt memoir that doesn’t hold back on raw emotion. Mr. Mills doesn’t shy away from the physical acts perpetrated against him, nor does he sugarcoat the depth of his suffering that the abuse caused. ‘Soul murder,’ Oprah Winfrey has called childhood sexual abuse, and it’s clear from this memoir, from how much Stephen suffered as an adult from the trauma foisted upon him as a child, how accurate this phrase is.

As difficult as the subject is, Stephen Mills’s writing flows like the most enjoyable novel. His honest prose is open, accessible, inviting the reader to share his pain for a while, to walk in his shoes and gain just a hint of understanding about what he’s been through. It’s a story of pain, but also one of courage, and ultimately, a demand for change. We have got to do better. More listening to kids, better treatment for survivors, and a never-ending commitment to keeping the monsters who hurt them away from any children whatsoever for all time. We can do better, and we should have started doing better a long time ago. Chosen is proof of that. Stephen Mills was failed over and over again by so many adults in his life, and while he’s written an amazing book that shares his pain and trauma in the most eloquent of ways, I truly wish he hadn’t had to.

If you love someone who has suffered childhood sexual abuse, Chosen by Stephen Mills should be on your reading list in order to better understand that loved one, what they’ve faced in trying to heal, and what they’re up against in seeking justice. And if you don’t know anyone who’s been traumatized this way, Chosen should also be on your list – because yes, you do; they just haven’t told you.

May Stephen Mills experience continued healing throughout his life, and may justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream for all survivors.  

Chosen is available now at all major retailers.

Visit Stephen Mills’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Reivew: Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer

I was going through my email a few weeks ago when I came across one from the Jewish Women’s Archive. They hold a few virtual author talks every now and then, and I’ve attended quite a few, all of which have been fabulous. The email was announcing the newest round, and one of the books sounded familiar. I looked it up on Goodreads, and sure enough, it was on my TBR! I picked up Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer (One World, 2020) from the library the next day and immersed myself in the world of art and disability activism.

Riva Lehrer was born in 1958. Her mother, a former researcher, recognizes her infant daughter’s spina bifida immediately. At this point in history, infants with disabilities like these aren’t expected to survive. Most are institutionalized, but Riva’s mother is sure she can care for her daughter’s complex medical needs. Riva becomes among the first of her generation with spina bifida to live to adulthood.

That doesn’t mean her life is easy. Everyone around her, including her family, defines her by her disability and by their own standards for her, constantly telling her that she’ll never have a romantic partner (she’s given a hysterectomy at age 15, ostensibly due to cysts, but disabled people were routinely sterilized at this point in history), she’ll never live alone, she’ll never hold down a real job. But she forges ahead anyway, living out her life as an artist, a queer person, whose disability affords a unique perspective of the world. Riva Lehrer’s art is displayed throughout the pages, offering the reader a journey through her career and the empowering way she views her friends and colleagues with disabilities.

This is a fabulous memoir (and it’s so beautifully Jewish!). Riva has lived a complex, fascinating life, and I wish I could sit down with her and hear more stories. She’s been through so many surgeries and medical procedures, and her success has obviously been hard-won; how could it not be in such an ableist society?

There are so many gems scattered throughout this book that provide such insight into what Ms. Lehrer’s life has been like, and what the world was like and how it’s changed (and how it hasn’t…) for those with disabilities. From the stories of her earliest days growing up in a hospital, to the way her parents and her teachers spoke to and about her, the dawning realization of her queerness and what that meant for her life, the casual mention of her countertop coming up to her mid-chest (the world really isn’t built for those whose bodies differ from the standard issue), her writing paints a very clear picture of a woman who has definitely struggled, but who has forged ahead despite not only the obstacles her health has presented, but those placed in front of her by both society and the people who loved her.

I really enjoyed this and was sad that it ended. Fascinating fact: I figured out about halfway through this book that Ms. Lehrer works (at least sometimes) in the same (very large!) building my husband does. I love when my reading life and real life collides. : )

Visit Riva Lehrer’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.