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10 Books About Personal Tragedies
To say someone has recovered from emotional wounds does not mean they are forever and entirely freed of the hurt and rage which created them. By way of example, someone with a permanent disability, however much success they achieve may continue to sense subtle ostracism from some of their able-bodied compatriots.
Those who have felt controlled by leaders of a religious organization or political regime might suffer from the occasional flashback or nightmare, if a recent event evokes deep-rooted memories.
The authors of the books in this article are not necessarily liberated from a sense of injustice. Nor do they deny, where relevant, the part they played in their own difficulties. Instead, each of them accept themselves as human beings, making an ongoing effort to progress through life, though sometimes overshadowed by sadness.
Ideally, everyone reading their stories will find something which resonates through themselves, if not at the immediate moment, then stored as insulation against future strife or despair.
The following titles represent, disability, religion, racial issues, victims of crime, and political oppression.
1. Mafia Princess: Growing Up in Sam Giancana's Family by Antoinette Giancana
Sam Giancana, 1908-1975, became implicated in crimes, some of which were of such a political nature as to classify his murder as an assassination. The facts may never be fully exposed, or if discovered, will remain secreted in FBI files for an indefinite period.
It is, as a young man, attempting to enlist in the U.S. Navy, when asked to state his occupation, he simply said, “Stealing.” Farcical as this answer might seem, it is a matter of record, referred to, in his daughter’s memoir. If nothing more, it indicates his nonchalance as to the criminal lifestyle. As he would say decades later, if businessmen could, with no legal interference, collude in manipulating an aspect of the economy, why should not Mafiosi?
Was Giancana’s daughter Antoinette a princess or prisoner? According to her account, she was both. Superficially, she could have whatever she wished, including staying at a boarding school which threatened expulsion. Conversely, in order to retain the familial image, she must not dare to diverge from her father’s ideal of his daughter, the virginal girl, who must stay chaste until marriage.
This extended to her choice of a spouse. At one point, having developed a tender passion with a doctor, her father found him unworthy. When this doctor, having nurtured her through her pregnancy and abortion of their child, began to refuse to see her, she became bewildered and heartsick.
Many years after his death, she was told he had loved her until the day of his death. Still, her father’s subordinates had attacked and then warned him to sever connections with Antoinette, or risk far greater harm. In her memoir, Antoinette recounts, despite later relationships and marriage, she continues to place flowers on this man’s grave on significant occasions.
This episode, with all its sadness, summarizes the shackles by which her father imposed his will on every aspect of Antoinette’s life. Similar coercion continued, until her refusal to comply resulted in a near estrangement. Still, a profound though rarely expressed affection pervades the father-daughter relationship in the depths of this memoir.
2. In My Place by Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Ms. Hunter-Gault was named Alberta. Always called by her middle name, Charlayne, when she asked her mother what had impelled her to give and call her by such a distinctive name, her mother replied she wished her to have a name which people would notice. Inferentially, those who might have at first overlooked her might feel drawn to reconsider.
Born in 1942 in the south, Charlayne was forced to become aware, early on, of intense prejudice against African-Americans. Still, she was determined; by the time she reached adolescence, to become a journalist. Her belief in her potential was validated when civil rights leaders chose her, and another student Hamilton E. Holmes, to defy the University of Georgia’s policy of accepting applicants based on race; only white students were admitted.
Although this challenge succeeded, once inside university gates, the foulness began, her parents’ car being rocked and attacked. Once having moved into her dorm room, Charlayne was both tormented and ostracized. When smashing her window with rocks and bottles failed to defeat her resilience, bigoted students created such ongoing noise as to prevent her from barely sleeping or studying. Hence, her grades dropped to the point of her being placed on academic probation.
Still, having graduated, she began her quest for a journalistic career. Once she became the anchor person for the evening news for a television station, her articulate interweaving of humanitarian and political issues led to growing prestigious positions and a number of major awards. This stirring, powerful memoir covers an intense but fairly brief time period. As I closed the book, written some years ago, I hoped Charlayne Hunter-Gault might, in time, write a sequel.
3. Glitter and Glue: A Memoir by Kelly Corrigan
This sad but uplifting book chronicles Ms. Kelly Corrigan’s work as a nanny for a boy and girl whose mother had recently died, after a lengthy struggle with cancer. Given its framework and Ms. Corrigan’s tact, this memoir is pervaded by her fear of appearing intrusive, combined with a wish to offer whatever consolation she could.
While the widower did not seek a replacement wife or intimate friendship, Ms. Corrigan sensed his hopes she could nurture his children, while gently urging them to return to the ongoing flow of their lives. While the boy, five years old, sought lots of hugs and cuddles on her lap, the girl, aged eight, doubtless due to her deeper closeness to her deceased mom, initially resented what she believes to be Ms. Corrigan’s effort to supplant her.
This girl’s fragility was exposed when, during a ride to school, the father referred to a tree they passed as "diseased". At this, the daughter grew so overwrought as to render her nearly unable to leave the car to enter her school.
Still young herself, and never before asked to fill a maternal role, Ms. Corrigan has the grace to leave it up to each reader to determine the extent to which she succeeded.
4. Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country by Gillian Slovo
One way of working through the anguish of a scarred past can evolve by obtaining enough information to unearth its causes.
Born in South Africa in 1952, Ms. Slovo was aware both her parents were strong combatants of apartheid. Like most children, she was shielded, to the extent she could be, from the political menace caused by their stand. Although her fears were ignited when, at age eight, she was evacuated to England in order to secure her safety, it was only when her mother was killed by a letter bomb that she came to understand the true power of those deputed to maintain, by whatever means feasible, a system which allowed a ruling class to be served by those kept in a state of perpetual peasantry.
In time, Ms. Slovo became aware she could not allay her anguish without deepened understanding. Thus, she returned to South Africa in an attempt to halt the endless gnawing within herself as to reasons and causes. Initially, her father aided her in this attempt. Perhaps his nearness to death liberated him to speak to her of aspects of their lives she had not fully known.
On every level, her mother’s behavior had nearly always been more upfront than his own. This difference ranged from extra-marital liaisons, to their roles in the movement against apartheid. While both of them battled against this injustice, her stand was flagrantly stronger than his, and thereby more politically menacing.
Eventually, after intensive, exhaustive research, Ms. Slovo sat across a desk from the man who admittedly sent the lethal letter bomb to her mother’s office. Far from apologetic, this overfed, egocentric killer claimed this murder had been a political act, expedient to the needs of the time, and therefore as blameless as killing in war.
Despite her loathing, at least this allowed Ms. Slovo to leave this encounter, and South Africa, with a sense of the self-justification behind this seemingly pointless brutality.
5. This is Not a Love Story: A Memoir by Judy Brown
Those growing up in a home with a disabled sibling often feel profound resentment at the disproportionate parental attention required. Simultaneously, there may be guilt at this anger, given their own freedom from this often lifelong condition. This sense of injustice and conflict is voiced by Judy Brown in this gripping narrative. To a large degree, her early life was made wretched by her brother’s autism, during the last decades of the 20th century.
Exploration of the autistic spectrum was fairly new during the 1980s and 1990s; thus, a great deal of parental time was absorbed by a series of searches for innovative therapies. In addition, this brother’s behavior became so disruptive as to render Ms. Brown reluctant to invite friends to their home. In time, her anger evolved to a point where, Ms. Brown admits having watched her brother pluck and eat berries she believed might be poisonous.
Given a combination of advancing treatments for autism, combined with her growing understanding of his avenues of perception, during their early adulthood, they were able to begin to create a genuine friendship.
6. After the Madness: A Judge's Own Prison Memoir by Sol Wachtler
Naturally, the newsworthiness of a case determines its tabloid delight, as well as the extent of its media fanfare. Hence, what richer fodder could be found than the scandal of a judge, arrested, tried, sentenced and imprisoned, for having harassed and attempted to extort money from a client who had evolved into a long-term paramour, and then spurned him?
The facts have not been disputed; Wachtler admits to each of them. Originally introduced to Joy Silverman, while in her late teens, due to a 3 million dollar legacy bequeathed to her by her father, their connection continued. Despite marriages and children by both parties, in time they became long-term lovers.
It is clear that, during his later harassment of Ms. Silverman, Sol Wachtler was in the throes of a nervous collapse. Convinced he had a brain tumor, he underwent numerous tests. Then, receiving both medical and psychiatric care, he ingested hundreds of tablets during a period of several months. Still, he does not deny his persistence, often in bizarre forms, to re-connect with Ms. Silverman.
Unbeknownst to Walctler, early on, Ms. Silverman had alerted the FBI as to his various types of stalking. Apprised of these efforts, the FBI waited until their agents had collected sufficient evidence to all but guarantee his conviction for the charges alleged. And so they did. He found his consistent misconduct adjudicated from the same kind of court and bench from which he had so often presided.
7. Now I See You: A Memoir by Nicole C. Kear
What is it like, at age 19, to be diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition which, by degrees, diminishes sight, sometimes to the point of its total loss? Ms. Kear was compelled to accept this reality at the apex of her educational and social success. Given her age, and the stigma often inflicted upon those with disabilities, it is not surprising for her to have done all she could to camouflage her failing sight, for as long as feasible.
Consequently, as her sight dwindled, her refusal to acknowledge it resulted in potential harm to her children and those of others. Despite her fully sighted husband’s encouragement, she postponed explaining her dwindling sight to her children, long-time friends, and especially strangers, who she feared might identify her solely in terms of her impairment. The difficult, often circuitous path by which she triumphed over this anxiety is at the core of this compelling memoir.
8. Surviving Hollywood and Scientology by Leah Remini
As a young girl, brought into the framework of Scientology by her mother and stepfather, Ms. Remini accepted, almost without questions, the ever-growing demands of this sect. Still, perhaps in part because she had not had its values inculcated into her mind and soul since birth, she retained a spark of spirit which shielded her from absolute absorption.
Hence, while at first accepting nearly all she was taught, listening to a series of lectures, and even allowing her most private thoughts to be monitored, she began questioning some of its long-standing principles. While feigning eagerness to respond to any disturbing questions, she soon found her refusal to submit as a robot or marionette to every edict and rule, branded her a troublemaker.
Still, even as her unhappiness grew, long-term bonds can be hard to erase. Terror of being forced from this cocoon prevented her severing her connection, even after she knew her escape to be essential in order for her to live a healthy, autonomous life.
Eventually, she understood, while her mind spurned this sect, her heart was reluctant. Akin to most belief systems, it offered some ideas she did find worthwhile. Then, when sufficient distance and logic prevailed, she learned to preserve her independence of thought, while gleaning and benefiting from those aspects of Scientology she continued to believe valid.
9. How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood by Jim Grimsley
Growing up in North Carolina during the early 1960s, Jim Grimsley did not think of himself as a racist. From birth, he simply absorbed, by osmosis, the sense that white people were not meant to mix with African-Americans. By his own admission, had anyone asked him his views as to school de-segregation, he had not considered it deeply enough to give a definite answer. At any rate, he could not envision this policy impacting upon his life in the slightest way.
By way of background, in the 1954 pivotal case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, distance rather than race would determine school placement. This meant all students would be allowed to attend the school nearest their homes. Consequently, three African-American girls joined Jim Grimsley’s class.
On their first day, almost without his volition, he heard himself snarl a racial epithet to the girl sitting behind him. To his surprise, far from becoming intimidated into silence, tears, or rushing to report his abuse, this strong-minded girl simply returned his insult, with an added edge of derision.
Aghast at first, he soon began to feel admiration, when on the playground, she showed him no malice. Having spoken up for herself, she felt no need to continue their quarrel. This clash, once resolved, created an ambiance in which Jim Grimsley and his friends viewed these girls as fellow students, and in time, warm and genuine friends. Partly as a result of these bonds, Grimsley’s understanding kept pace with the sit-ins, racial riots and protest marches which characterized the late 1960s.
In time, he saw his own thoughts and emotions reflected and expanded in his community, and then to America as a whole. At school, African-American students need no longer wait at the end of a queue at the water fountain. Nor, on a larger scale, did racial origins force anyone to sit at the back of a bus, or accept denial of restaurant service. Grimsley saw these changes, sometimes hard won, from the perspective of one who had been imbued with bigoted values.
Now a professor of creative writing, he writes this memoir with awareness of the changes brought about in himself via his friendships, mirrored by the success of the civil rights movement.
10. As I Am by Patricia Neal
This book by actress Patricia Neal offers the reader a sense of her triumphs, intertwined with the rawness of agonies. At its core is her often thunderous marriage to writer Roald Dahl. Married in 1953, they divorced in 1983. Despite periods of tenderness and serenity, their union was plagued by miseries, encompassing the death of two children, and an injury to another, from which he needed two years to recover.
In 1965, hospitalized due to difficulties in pregnancy, she underwent three cerebral aneurysms, resulting in her being comatose for three weeks. Her recovery was tedious and exhausting to the point of her almost losing zest in life.
The most powerful source in her healing consisted of the rigorous help of her husband. Some friends found his methods too ruthless. By way of example, he might not pour her a cup of coffee, until she was able to request it with comparative clarity. Until she succeeded, he would repeat, “What do you want?” in a nearly mechanical tone.
Still, although she dubbed him “Roald the rotten”, she credits his draconian tactics as spurring her to return to the happiest aspects of her life. She later gave birth to another child, and returned to her acting career.
© 2016 Colleen Swan