Bryan Stevenson puts human faces on the data-driven bodies of research exposing the injustices in our American criminal justice system. Stevenson's heartfelt book revolves alternating chapters around the death sentence of Walter McMillian, a black man in Alabama wrongly convicted of killing a white woman. In between chapters relating Walter's heart-wrenching story, Stevenson tells of the creation of the Equal Justice Initiative and their fight to challenge death penalty cases, unfair juvenile imprisonment, racism in the justice system, and injustice related to poverty and mental health. Stevenson repeatedly drives home the assertion that "The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned." Not only does he reveal a lot about racism, but he also shares deeply moving stories about inequity for the condemned simply because they can not afford good attorneys and bail. “We must reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent." Our justice system often blocks poor and mentally ill people from getting fair representation in legal matters. The stories he shares are incredibly powerful and sad but also reveal his expertise at channeling emotion through words.
I also recommend The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton. Hinton was another innocent death row inmate freed by the efforts of the Equal Justice Initiative. Hinton is mentioned briefly in Stevenson's book. He's remarkably resilient and a profound optimist. His story completely changed my views on the death penalty and left me with a whole new understanding of what our prison systems do to inmates, both innocent and guilty.
I wish I had read this years ago, and it was a perfect complement to White Fragility by DeAngelo. I can honestly say that my understanding of issues surrounding race and racism have been dramatically altered in the last year as I've been on a quest to read more nonfiction. Although Michelle Alexander's book was published over ten years ago, it continues to be a trailblazer, clarifying history and explaining how our current social and racial structure is just another version of the Jim Crow caste system from the Reconstruction era.
Mass incarceration started as a result of a loophole in the 13th Amendment. This amendment abolished slavery except in cases where it's used as a punishment for a crime. Southern whites, angry about losing their slave labor and watching blacks become part of "their society" enacted Jim Crow laws to forcibly separate blacks from whites, preserving the best schools, jobs and neighborhoods for whites. Additionally, free blacks were arrested for committing petty crimes in alarmingly higher rates than whites. Misdemeanor offenses were elevated to felonies, and new laws were created to criminalize black life. Crimes included stealing a pig, walking beside a railroad, spitting, speaking too loudly to a woman, and selling goods after dark. These black, incarcerated men, women, and children were then leased out to private businesses as laborers. Convict leasing became a huge economic boost for the South, and it's no coincidence that arrest rates went up during cotton-picking season. A lower caste is created to keep black people from upward mobility.
Michelle Alexander uses her book to point out that this lower caste system is propped up on the backs of the complex systems in place in our society. Mass incarceration is based on the label of jail and not necessarily the length of prison time. One a person is labeled a felon, they are immediately barred from ever moving up in society. Institutions in place in our country lock people of color (she focuses on black men) from being able to move from this lower caste. There are so many examples of this that I could go on forever. Some of the ones that stuck out the most to me included the traffic studies in New Jersey and Maryland. While studies showed there were actually more white people traveling on the roads, 80% of the stops were of black people, and they resulted in minimal amount of drug seizures. The Reagan-era War on Drugs has been largely ineffective in curbing drug use but highly effective at subjugating more and more black people to this undercaste system despite the fact that drug offenses are committed at roughly equal rates across races. Drunk driving rates and deaths were skyrocketing at the same time as the War on Drugs, but penalties were much higher for first-time users of crack. Statistics showed that drunk drivers were more often white males while the harsher penalties were given to black males for low-level drug offenses. Felons are not allowed on juries, can not vote, can not apply for public housing assistance, and have a nearly impossible time finding jobs. Once a person is labeled a felon, they are rarely able to better themselves. Jails were being filled up with black men during the War on Drugs, and the tough-on-crime attitude of the 80s and 90s seemed to be focused mainly on crimes committed by black people.
This caste system has been perpetuated by policies created under both political parties. In the version I read, Alexander has a new Foreward that discusses this book in today's politics. She discusses Obama's record-high number of immigration detentions, Trump's tweeting of a white power supporter and calling the Charlottesville white supremacists "very fine people", Reagan's ineffective War on Drugs, and Clinton's disastrous three strikes crime bill. The Supreme Court has effectively blocked black people from legally fighting against racial bias. The ruling in the McClesky vs. Kemp case requires people to present such an impossible burden of proof with regards to racial discrimination in the justice system that it virtually makes bias and discrimination constitutionally acceptable. The layered, interlocking systems in place in our society lock poor people of color into a second class status. Alexander also points out that our nation's emphasis on colorblindness creates a racial indifference that allows these systems to stay in place, to a point where today's racial caste is no different than that of the Jim Crow era. She calls for a society where we see one another, learning and caring about our differences.
When I finished reading this, I felt hopeless and sad. I can't even begin to imagine how people of color feel living with this grim reality every day. Alexander does not offer solutions in her book as she focuses mainly on research and data. I felt the need to read up on what solutions exist to combat some of the things discussed in Alexander's book. I found the Sentencing Project's Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System, and they recommend the following:
*Ending the War on Drugs
*Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences
*Reducing the use of cash bail
*Fully funding indigent defense agencies
*Requiring the use of racial impact statements
*Implementing training to reduce racial bias
*Addressing collateral consequences
I highly recommend this book if you're looking for some perspective on the complex issue of race in America. As a white person, I wish this had been required reading much earlier in my life, and I will forever sing its praises.
I've always been fascinated by religion especially those sects that veer off into the fundamentalist realm. There always seems to be so much secrecy and an acceptance of hypocritical thought among believers. Followers are fervent, and it's interesting to read what makes some people stay and others leave the religious communities they're raised in.
Hasids are ultra-Orthodox Jews who dabble in mysticism and practice a strict adherence to ritual laws. Deborah Feldman, assumed white, is raised by her grandparents after her mother leaves their Satmar community in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. Her father is mentally ill and the family doesn't seek treatment or help for him. Deborah struggles to understand why the Hasid community keeps such tightly locked secrets. She's not allowed to read secular books, and she spends her days hiding library check-outs under her mattress and stealing time to read. She questions Hasidic law and custom at every turn and feels like the adults in her life are always keeping things from her. She longs for freedom from the ritual structure of her community and finds her own ways to rebel in small doses until she eventually leaves the Satmar group for good.
Married women are required to cover their hair, and many Hasids shave their heads and wear wigs. Women are required to visit the mikvah, a bath for a ritual cleansing after their periods, and Deborah talks about how uncomfortable she feels being forced to participate in the custom. Marriage is arranged by a matchmaker, and elaborate gift-giving customs are part of the engagement. Deborah is married at age 17 and completely unprepared for life with a man. Both she and her husband experience sexual dysfunction and can't initially consummate the marriage. She's horrified when her new husband's family tries to intervene and longs for privacy and a marriage that's forged out of mutual love and desire.
There's a lot of controversy surrounding Deborah's version of events in her memoir. I wish she had explained Hasidic customs more in-depth as I felt lost trying to understand many of her brief recollections. Part of this may be because she didn't understand them herself when she actually wrote her story. As a reader with zero knowledge of this faith community, I was longing for more detail and background on the reasons for some of the practices. In my own personal view, religion should stand up to questioning. People who are truly curious thinkers will most likely never be satisfied with answers of "just believe" and "because this is how it is." I also find it appalling when religious groups ostracize and shun family members who choose another path. I can't get behind any system that treats people this way. I was also disgusted by how women are subjugated in Deborah's Hasidic community. Of course, this is only one perspective, and I can't assume this is reflective of all practicing Hasids, but I was alarmed by the repressive elements of her life story and can empathize with her choice to speak out.
I found this to be slow and klunky at first, but strange and engrossing as I got further along. The book got me interested in learning more about these enigmatic Hasidic communities and to follow up with learning about other followers' experiences.
Good Morning, Monster: A Therapist Shares Five Heroic Stories of Emotional Recovery by Catherine Gildiner
Be prepared for this book to tear your guts out and leave them in a sloppy pile on the floor. It will make you feel like complete garbage for ever complaining about anything in your life. Catherine Gildiner is a white therapist who tells about her work with five patients suffering from traumatic life experiences. She tells their stories with tenderness and obvious fondness. Each patient overcomes the debilitating elements of his or her own emotional turmoil, finding ways to create success and exemplifying the qualities of true emotional superheroes.
Gildiner starts with a white woman named Laura, forced into parenting her younger siblings after her father left them abandoned in a remote winter cabin. Next up is Peter, a painfully shy son of Chinese immigrants, who was left alone in a room above the family's restaurant for so long that he suffered severe developmental gaps that created intimacy issues in his adult life. Although all of the stories were heart-wrenching, Danny's struck a particular nerve with me. Danny, of the First Nations, lost his wife and daughter in a car accident and was referred to Dr. Gildiner by his boss when he was unable to show emotion or feel pain after the loss. After learning more about Cree indigenous cultural norms, Dr. Gildiner helps Danny discuss his painful childhood when he was torn away from his native family and sent to a Canadian residential school designed to eliminate his identity. He was horrifically abused and spent the rest of his adult life blocking out all emotion. Alana, white and of high intelligence, was sexually abused by her father, and Madeline, also white and from a wealthy family, suffers from OCD and shares how her mother would psychologically torture her in various ways, greeting her each morning with "Good Morning, Monster."
While Gidiner shares lessons from each person's story, she also discusses the mistakes she makes and how these cases helped shape her professional growth. She's quick to point out her own flaws and ways in which she could have done things differently, and this reflective quality makes me like her even more. While not for the faint of heart, this book will give you the space to consider your own emotional resiliency in comparison, and lord knows we can all use some hopeful models to look up to these days.
The Office is one of those shows that I put on when I need a guaranteed laugh, and it never lets me down. I really enjoyed hearing all of the actors, writers, and directors talk about the entire process in their own words. The style of this book highlights just how unique and special this show is. They reveal some of the actors that were originally imagined for Michael Scott's role, and how much work went into making sure the set and wardrobe were as authentic to the everyday world of a small paper company as possible. The actors/actresses also revealed the scenes that made them break, and of course, one that had them in fits was the dinner party episode. Between Dwight's dinner date, Jan's candle business, and Michael's tiny TV, the episode slays. I also really appreciated how much they thought through the characters and developed them in ways that were so much more than just comedic effect. If you're an Office fan, this is your Bible.
This book made me think about racism in a completely different way. Here I am, thinking I'm just fighting the good fight and trying to be anti-racist, and then this books knocks me down a few pegs, rightfully so. While a lot of this information is likely obvious to some readers, I found the material to be thought-provoking and discussion-worthy, which to me, is always the mark of a good read and will definitely inform my life going forward. Robin DiAngelo is white and is speaking specifically to white readers after years of training as a sociologist and working as a diversity trainer in the business world. She talks about how racism is not an action but a systemic fact. Racism exists pure and simple, and it's not in the binary good/bad ways we've always framed it. When people think of racists, they think of the Klan or those angry whites from the Civil Rights era screaming in the faces of little black children on their way to school. But racism is so much more than these scenes. Racism exists in structures. It exists because blacks have not been able to accumulate generational wealth. It exists because most of the "top ten" lists of wealthiest people are white men. It exists because most of the people serving in positions of power in Congress are mostly white men. Award winning movie directors are all white men, and the list goes on and on. Racism will continue to exist until whites give equality to people of color. She starts the book explaining this concept with the example of suffrage. Women were not given suffrage until those in power changed the laws. White men gave white women the right to vote. Women of color were not given that right officially by law until much later. It's up to the group holding the position of power to change it. Nothing will change unless white people stop acting defensive when talking about their racism and recognize these structural deficiencies in this power imbalance.
One thing that really struck me since I'm such a big reader is the idea of white as the default race. When I read and even write book reviews, race is only mentioned when a character is of color. Why is white the automatic default? Why do we assume that someone is white unless we specifically point out their race? I do this all the time in my reviews. I'm white, and the reason I do this is because of my own racism. Do I wear a pointed hood or scream at black children? Do I make racist jokes or say the N word? Never, but I've learned racist things without recognizing them as such just simply because I'm white living in a world where white has always been the default. This is something I'm going to commit to working on, and it's ever-evolving. Another poignant moment for me with this book was the section on segregation. Sure there have been laws to abolish segregation, but we still live in a mostly segregated society from housing to schools, etc.
This book angers a lot of people. If you read it without being open to the idea of discussing your own white race, you won't gain anything from it. The fragility exists when we are unable to talk about how whiteness is entangled with racism because we're afraid to be labeled bad or good. Our social environment insulates us from ever having to deal with stress related to discussions of our race, and therefore we become ultrasensitive to any kind of conversation about it. It's not up to people of color to end racism. It's our responsibility as white people to learn from POC about their experiences. I like how DiAngelo points our her own racism and what she did when she learned of it. Her personal examples and sociological points are the highlights of this book and cement it as one of those reads I just can't get out of my mind.
The Galvin family consisted of 12 children born between 1945 and 1965 which is worthy of a story just based on the sheer insanity of having that many children within a span of 20 years. The shocking thing about this family is that six of the children (all boys) were diagnosed as schizophrenic. Robert Kolker goes on to describe Mimi and Don Galvin's remarkable family as years of seeking, blaming, violence, denial, and abuse tear the family apart and break down their seemingly ideal lives. Kolker not only goes through the history of schizophrenia research, but he also does justice to the family by telling their devastating story in a humane way, showing empathy for the mentally ill boys, siblings, and parents despite the family's dark secrets and dysfunction. Eventually the Galvin family is studied by researchers at NIMH. Their case study informs genetic research and debates on nature vs nurture. The most fascinating part of this entire family study is that it helped researchers find a dietary supplement, choline, to add to prenatal vitamins in an attempt to alter or eradicate the illness completely. The trial is currently in progress. This book reminds me of another terribly sad history, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The authors in both tell the stories behind medical and scientific progress with particular attention to the sacrifices, humanity, and callousness in which these advances are often gained. It's important to hear the full stories and recognize what has been given and often taken behind the grandeur of progress.
Glennon Doyle has a very interesting voice. I appreciate a lot of what she's laying down, but some of this just felt a little selfish, to the point where it's borderline snobbery. Yet I also felt a kinship with Doyle and much of her take on the world felt like she was talking directly to me, absorbing right into my being. How can you not love a book like that? Doyle shares her experience with a divorce and a new relationship with a woman, retired soccer star, Abby Wambach. I loved the island metaphor that she uses to explain to family and friends that were not accepting of their new family unit. "When you are ready to come to our island with nothing but wild acceptance and joy and celebration for our true, beautiful family, we’ll lower the drawbridge for you. But not one second sooner." I especially related to her sections on parenting a sensitive child. She talks about how sensitivity is a superpower and not something to be ashamed of. Her mantra "We can do hard things," is something I've already started repeating to my girls especially in these last few months. Feelings are meant to be felt - all of them, not just the happy ones that we display to the world around us. Doyle is obviously a kick-ass mother but is also quick to point out when she doesn't do things right. She has a genuine ability to self-reflect, and this makes her thoughts that much more likeable and relatable.
I'm all for women taking stock of their lives and knowing when to say no. Selfishness has a rightful place in our lives, but it also needs to be balanced with empathy and awareness of others. Women often put others first to the detriment of their own sanity, but a healthy balance is what's missing not a full onslaught of self-talk, and a me-me-me-me-me attitude. But with that said, Glennon (I feel like I'm already on a first name basis with her, and I'm pretending we're friends) would probably point out that confident women all too often get labeled entitled, and to that point I agree. Quibbling over how much selfishness is too much or just right is not enough to take away from the other points in her book. She has so much good stuff in here to ignore. And then she says “When a woman finally learns that pleasing the world is impossible, she becomes free to learn how to please herself,” and I feel like I everything I just thought was wrong. She's so good and really makes me think about ALL OF THE THINGS.
And then she brings on the pizzazz with this gleaming pearl that I can't stop thinking about. “Mothers have martyred themselves in their children’s names since the beginning of time. We have lived as if she who disappears the most, loves the most. We have been conditioned to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist. What a terrible burden for children to bear—to know that they are the reason their mother stopped living. What a terrible burden for our daughters to bear—to know that if they choose to become mothers, this will be their fate, too. Because if we show them that being a martyr is the highest form of love, that is what they will become. They will feel obligated to love as well as their mothers loved, after all. They will believe they have permission to live only as fully as their mothers allowed themselves to live.If we keep passing down the legacy of martyrdom to our daughters, with whom does it end?" Gut punch. Doyle has a way of just getting to the raw meat of women's lives, and this is just one of her many juicy bits of wisdom that make me keep coming back to this book, cringing and loving it all at the same time.
I really had to force myself to finish this. It was marginally interesting but not memorable at all. Larson follows William Dodd and his family as he becomes the American ambassador to Germany in 1933 when Hitler comes into power. He slowly and painfully reveals how the world underestimated Hitler's reach and volatile power. Dodd is a basic guy who doesn't like showy things. His daughter, Martha, sleeps around with everyone in Berlin, enjoying the social scene and flirting with obliviousness. The books takes so much time detailing Martha's sex/dating life (not in graphic detail at all so don't get excited) that she takes a primary role in the book. She eventually gets a "meeting" with Hitler as a possible hook-up but she's not into him. Later, Martha gets involved with a Russian spy, and she's probably the most interesting character overall which is an indicator of how boring this whole book is. Tell me more about Martha's correspondence with poet, Carl Sandburg, and her endless attempts to engage the literary crowd while she woos the Nazis. I finished this only because of an annoying promise I made to myself not to quit books.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
My girls will read this book someday, and if I had sons, I would have them read it too. I don't care that it's graphic and raw; it's also dripping with an angry truth that everyone should hear and feel. Chanel Miller's voice is fireworks of emotion. The day I finished this book, I tried to explain it to my husband while he was driving, and I just couldn't get the words out. I cried and tried to explain what she wrote about. He patted my knee and then lightly squeezed my arm, and that's all I needed. He understood what I was trying to say without another word. I ached for this woman, for myself, for my friends, for every woman who has faced even the tiniest bit of the cruelty and injustice that comes with sexual harassment, assault, and rape. Chanel's voice is difficult to connect with at first, and I found myself confused about who she is. Then as she continued her story, and her writing style revealed her true voice, I got it. She didn't act the way survivors are expected to act because there are no set rules. She didn't ask questions. She expressed more concern for the well-being of her sister than for herself. She did what she was told. She was a victim put on trial while her rapist, Brock Turner, was pitied, and his lost swimming future lamented. Her life and private parts were put on display while people made excuses for his privilege. She eventually writes a searing victim impact statement only to have it edited for time, and the justice system demeans her further. Chanel finally gets her say when her entire statement is published and read by millions of people worldwide. Her words are uncensored, and the polished euphemisms often used in sexual assault cases are bravely and notably missing. Chanel Miller makes her name known to the world despite the outrageous slap on the wrist that Brock Turner gets at sentencing. I was enraged, devastated, and disgusted by what Chanel went through. Her story lays out the reality of sexual assault and the way victims are degraded in the current processes of our judicial system but also a path toward healing by creating justice with her own words.
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Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.