Finding Annie by Katherine Turner

TW: mention of sexual assault/rape

Earlier this year, I read Finding Annie by Katherine Turner, who is a friend and client. I had the privilege of working on Finding Annie in 2019, and reading it again for pleasure was a much different experience than reading it for work.

I wrote the review below at the end of the summer, shortly after I finished reading the book. However, I held off on posting it—I wasn’t sure why. I’ve learned, though, that when I hesitate to do something, there’s a reason, and today, that reason is clear.

It’s Christmas Day, and it’s also the anniversary of when I was violently sexually assaulted. It wasn’t the first time I’d been assaulted—that occurred when I was 15 and I went to hug a male friend and he instead grabbed my crotch. The assault on Christmas Day, though, was different.

I won’t go into details here; that isn’t what this blog is intended to do. (That’s why I have Don’t Ask Liv, a blog for the tougher topics.) What I want to say here is I realized I was holding on to my review of Finding Annie because it was incomplete.

Here’s my original review:

I’ve been blogging here on The Pensive Bookworm for nearly a year, and to date, there remain only two books which I’ve struggled to review—Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and Finding Annie by Katherine Turner. Gone with the Wind is my all-time favorite book.

Finding Annie by Katherine Turner, however, vies for that place in my heart. And in many ways, Finding Annie rivals the mastery of Gone with the Wind, and I love it for many similar reasons. The same way that Scarlett O’Hara has gumption, a determination to survive and overcome, Annie Turner of Finding Annie possesses these same qualities, and that’s what draws me to this book over and over again.

Last autumn, I was honored with the opportunity to assist the author by proofreading Finding Annie. As I started reading Turner’s debut novel, I kept thinking, “This book is special.” I recently re-read my beautiful, autographed hardback copy, and I can’t stop singing its praises.

The story of navigating romance after sexual trauma, Finding Annie follows estranged high school sweethearts, Annie and Rob. Annie has returned to her hometown to house-sit for her foster mother for a year; Rob has never left. Although the two haven’t spoken since graduation, their compatibility is palpable from the start. Of course, as is often the case with all fantastic love stories, Annie and Rob’s story is speckled with evidence that they have been crossed by the stars, and it’s only when the truth of Annie’s unexpected departure years ago is revealed that they can begin to navigate their romantic potential together once more.

The truth behind Annie’s departure brings much pain to Rob, knowing that someone he loved cost him a decade with the love of his life. And as Annie grapples with the pain of her past paired with watching the ways in which it impacts Rob (the exact thing she’d tried to prevent and avoid for so long) she begins a journey to find herself. This journey is something that will be incredibly familiar to survivors of trauma—sexual or otherwise—because it’s the journey of Annie discovering who she is now that she’s accepted what happened to her.

It’s that journey that keeps me coming back to Finding Annie every few months, either to read it again or share a passage with a friend. Like Annie, I’m a survivor of a sexual assault, and Katherine Turner flawlessly captured what it’s like to wrestle with the reality of what happened and the reality of where a person would like to be, despite the past.

There is one passage in Finding Annie that I find to be the most profound, and in this passage, the author reveals (through Rob’s thoughts) the exact thing I’ve been trying to explain to my loved ones for years.

A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth as I carried the board game over and started setting it up on the coffee table. The Annie I knew was still inside; she just needed a little coaxing. The road ahead would be far from smooth, but that didn’t make any difference to me.

That’s the thing normal people didn’t seem to understand about people who’d been through the fucked-up kinds of things we had—we were never really over it. We would always have setbacks. They seemed to think we could just flip a switch and be good from then on, but it didn’t work that way.

Finding Annie, page 197

As a survivor of trauma, I can say truthfully that sometimes, we might be broken, but never beyond repair. We’ll never be as “whole” as we would’ve if The Thing hadn’t happened, but when someone loves us anyway—when someone loves us, stands beside us, through the pain we still carry, even though The Thing is long past—we can begin to heal.

Rob’s thoughts continue, and there’s something else he says in this passage I want to bring to attention:

The journey with Annie had always reminded me more of one of the steep mountain roads that surrounded our secluded valley. You moved slowly back and forth along the switchbacks that might seem to be taking you back the way you came, and might seem to be endless, making no real progress toward the top of the mountain. But really, if you just back up far enough to see the whole road, you’d realize you were always advancing incrementally with each pass. And the winding road itself, if you just took a moment to notice, was at least as beautiful as the view from the top.

Finding Annie, page 197

We survivors…we’re like kintsugi—the Japanese art of using a precious powered metal to repair a broken piece of pottery.

If you look up kintsugi examples, it’s easy to see how they were broken, but it’s also stunning to see how they’ve been repaired. And that’s the treatment I beseech of the loved one of survivors. We may never be whole in the same way, but we can be whole again. If you’d just look past the pain—the brokenness—to see all of us, you’d see we can be beautiful this way, too.

That’s the gorgeous message of Finding Annie, too. As Annie finds herself again—practicing emotional kintsugi, so to speak—and as she and Rob begin to find themselves again, Katherine Turner remains flawless on each page. This book is to survivors what The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama was to the American people in 2006—a voice, rising above the din, to give us hope.

To give us strength.

To give us community in our needs, knowing that others on the same path need the same things, and that some of our fellow travelers have had those needs met, so we can, too.

Finding Annie is a five-star-and-then-some book. Finding Annie is the book I ask my friends to read to understand me better because Katherine Turner is so insightful and transparent with the shared plight of survivors, both recovering from trauma and finding a way to love and be loved again.

I strongly recommend Finding Annie to all survivors and loved ones of survivors. Katherine Turner doesn’t shy away from the realities of recovery, and these blunt truths are essential for the sake of community for survivors; for loved ones, they’re vital to begin some comprehension of what it’s like to be a survivor…and what we often need but don’t always know how to vocalize.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it many more times: Katherine Turner is the author our society, our culture, our world desperately needs. Finding Annie is the first book in Turner’s Life Imperfect series, and I cannot wait to read the next installment of Annie’s story. Everything Turner writes is noteworthy, whether it’s about recovery or striving to make the world a better place. You can follow her blog at kturnerwrites.com.

What was missing is something I only realized today:

Finding Annie is the book that broke open the years of repressed pain and gave me permission to call what happened to me what it was—sexual assault. It wasn’t “a guy getting carried away”—it was a crime. And crimes have victims, someone who was wronged, and we can use all the “survivor” terminology in the world, but first, I needed permission to say, “Dammit, I have been wronged!” Katherine Turner’s book gave me that permission.

Reading Finding Annie a little over a year ago set me on a journey that has changed my life in more ways than I can count. When I think back on last Christmas, I hardly recognize my life. The permission Finding Annie gave me to look back on the Christmas Day nearly a decade ago and say, “Hey, I didn’t want that to happen, I asked for it not to happen, then it did happen, and that was wrong” is freeing. As I read it again this summer, Finding Annie gave me the grace to ask tough questions and renew old connections so that I can begin to piece together my life after that assault… I’m grateful beyond words for that.

After I was assaulted, I didn’t recognize myself. I lived in a very numb state for almost two years. How I healed wasn’t what I expected to do—actually, I didn’t even realize what I did as healing at the time—and yet, looking back now, knowing what those experiences were, I see how I was putting myself back together. I was finding Olivia, to borrow Katherine’s terminology. What that person did broke something in me, and I had to piece it back together; I made myself into a kintsugi piece. I just didn’t recognize it for being that until I read Finding Annie and felt Annie’s heartache like it was my own. Then, I read it again, and I realized the heartache was my own.

It’s about four hours now before the exact “time anniversary” of what happened to me almost a decade ago. Back then, I had no idea what would happen to me Christmas Night, and that night, I had no idea where I’d be in a few years. All these versions of me seem so different, and yet, as I write this, I see how each version—the un-penetratively-assaulted, the un-broken, the un-healed—was a step to this version, the Olivia I am now. And, somehow, all those versions led me to connect with Katherine Turner and read her book, a book about a young woman finding herself as she deals with a long-hidden trauma…a book which lovingly forced me to do the same.

Finding Annie is the book we need because of the way Katherine describes and details the healing process, and Finding Annie is the book I needed to find myself.

As We Wait…

 Last night, my uncle texted me. “State of Emergency in Louisville??!!!!”

“Its scary as hell, Uncle Joe,” I replied.

My husband and I live in New Albany, Indiana, which is directly across the river from downtown Louisville. It would take us about fifteen minutes to reach the Federal Courthouse in Louisville, from which we’re awaiting news from a grand jury if an indictment will come down for the three police officers who killed Breonna Taylor earlier this year.

As of 8 AM this morning, I’ve heard on the news that concrete barriers and additional chain link fencing have been placed throughout downtown Louisville in anticipation of the grand jury’s decision. When Nick and I were in Louisville last week (for the first time in months), it was strange to see buildings we frequented in college boarded up and inspiring to see many with signs stating “WE STAND WITH BREONNA” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”

This year has been full of uncertainties globally. In my community, the one thing that’s had us the most confused is why it’s taken so long for the grand jury to make a decision about the people who killed Breonna. The evidence hasn’t changed; the circumstances haven’t changed. If the police acted completely according to protocol, and if the obligation to follow protocol would be their defense, why has it taken so long for a grand jury to say “What happened is unfortunate, however, we find that the police officers should not have charges drawn up against them”?

In my opinion, the lengthy delay in bringing the case to court and the debate regarding potential charges says that something is amiss. I think the delay is not simply subtly acknowledging that, but the reality that the act of publicly declaring “This shouldn’t have happened, the officials were at fault” goes so strongly against the norm.

As I often do when what is happening in the world is more than I can process, this week, I’ve turned to literature for comfort. Yesterday, I turned to the words of Martin Luther King, Junior, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,”* which he wrote to eight of his fellow clergymen who had expressed disapproval for his involvement in protests during the Civil Rights Movement. It was discomforting to read his pleas for a better America for people of color when, more than half a century later, the events of which he writes so closely mirror what we’re seeing on our streets this year, as well as the reactions of many, often condemning the hundreds of nights of protest.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (p. 221)

Our country is divided. I’d challenge any person—American or not—to say that America is united right now.

What perplexes me, though, is if we all value human life—because we’re Christians, because we’re pro-life, because we’re spiritual according to whichever deity we prefer, because we’re “just kind like that”—how can a single person condemn the demonstrations taking place throughout our country?

“Well, Olivia, you have to remember the vandalism and violence.”

Okay, let’s consider the vandalism and violence on behalf of some Black Lives Matter-associated protestors. But first, I want to ask you to consider something in your life.

Have you ever lost your temper—yelled, thrown something, slammed a door—with your partner or child/children or roommate for not completing a chore, even though you’ve expressly asked them to do the thing on multiple occasions?

Did you justify, even briefly, your reaction because you were frustrated?

Hold on to your answers as we move back to what’s happening in America’s streets this year with another quote from Dr. King.

If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides—and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (p. 230)

I will never agree with the violence some protestors have demonstrated this summer. As I’ve said, it was shocking for me to drive through Louisville and see how many buildings are boarded up or that have fencing surrounding the perimeter.

The rage some protestors have displayed this summer is not without cause. Rather than condemning the anger we’ve seen and ignoring the inciting incidents, we must join together to prevent further rage—not by locking up protestors, but by working to eliminate their reasons for the rage.

Let us make our streets—our homes!—safe for every person.

This rage that often has predated the riotous behavior is not exclusive to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—among the dozens of others—in 2020. This rage predates 2020.

Strides toward desegregation were made in the 1950s and 1960s. That work is commendable, and it remains unfinished.

Even if our businesses and schools are no longer segregated, there is still a prevalent segregation in the mind in American society. We see this mental segregation in statements like “If they would just ______”

“If they would just follow the rules first…”

“If they’d just obeyed what the officer said…”

“If he wouldn’t have been out after sunset in a dark hoodie…”

“If he wouldn’t have tried to defend himself…; he should know to trust cops…”

Some Americans are quick to make these “If” statements, followed by “Then they would be okay/safe/alive” or “Then ____ wouldn’t have happened.” However, those same Americans aren’t as quick to ask why someone might not want to obey an order given, sans explanation, or why someone might think they’re safe to walk in a hoodie in their own neighborhood, or why someone might not trust cops simply because they wear a badge.

Some Americans will quickly say what “they” should do, without first checking their own privilege—the safety that is guaranteed one group does not extend to everyone. If it did, statements like “If they’d just obeyed what the officer said…” wouldn’t be spoken as rampantly.

The segregation mentality will finally be vanquished when there is no longer a “they” and only an “us” remains.

I do not agree with the vandalism—smashing of store fronts, taking bats to cars, or anything else—exhibited by some protestors this summer.

I do understand it.

The vandalism is only one piece of a much bigger picture.

The thousands of people who have peacefully protested, who have only struck back when provoked/attacked, must be recognized. Moreover, the reason that brought them to our streets must be recognized. In Dr. King’s letter, he wrote:

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (p. 228)

When peaceful protests are met with violence to shut the protest down, when the peaceful protestors are provoked, intimidated, and antagonized, such occasions should be viewed for what they are: the creators of the tension enforcing the way of life that facilitates the tension to continue. And as we await the grand jury’s decision regarding the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor, I am sickened by the reality that the determined plea of Dr. King, more than half a century ago, may yet remain a whisper into the void of so-called justice in America:

Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (p. 229)

The safety of non-whites in America is long overdue.

When I told my uncle last night that what’s happening is “scary as hell,” I wasn’t referring to the barriers being placed to protect the privileged.

I was referring to the reality that the suits are barricading themselves inside their places of business in anticipation of what they decide “justice” will be for a young woman who was calmly sitting in her apartment then violently killed in a case of “Whoops, wrong address.”

It’s scary as hell that the people who will decide this piece of history are afforded protection at work while the victim of the circumstance was killed as her boyfriend sought to protect her home from an unexpected invasion.

I think it’s a shared experience for us all that, whenever someone knocks on our door to pitch us a pest/bug treatment or an attempt to share the Good News, we’re irritated, and probably startled (who of our friends doesn’t text before they show up unexpectedly anymore?!). But imagine that, instead of knocking and handing you a pamphlet on termite prevention, the door is rammed, broken, and the entire pest control team is suddenly in your living room…when they meant to go to the house next door.

We’d be furious. We’d call corporate; we’d want to be heard. We’d complain about the company on Yelp, making sure everyone knows how aggrieved we are. We’d say their name every chance we got, right?

That’s why we say their names—we want justice for them, justice that extends beyond a potential indictment. We want justice in the manifestation of change.

We will keep saying their names.

Rayshard Brooks, age 27.

Daniel Prude, age 41.

George Floyd, age 46.

Breonna Taylor, age 26.

Atatiana Jefferson, age 28.

Aura Rosser, age 40.

Stephen Clark, age 22.

Botham Jean, age 26.

Philando Castille, age 32.

Alton Sterling, age 37.

Michelle Cusseaux, age 50.

Freddie Gray, age 25.

Janisha Fonville, age 20.

Eric Garner, age 43.

Akai Gurley, age 28.

Gabriella Nevarez, age 22.

Tamir Rice, age 12.

Michael Brown, age 18.

Tanisha Anderson, age 37.

And so many more.

And if you didn’t take the time to read those nineteen names—every single one of them being somebody’s somebody—you are part of the problem.

For today, I will leave you with these words of Dr. King:

We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages: they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation—and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (p. 234-235)

P.S… I would like to thank my friend, Jason Fruits, for helping with the brainstorming behind this post.

*All quotes from Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” are taken from 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology, Second Edition as compiled by Samuel Cohen (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007) for the purpose of starting discussion using historical documents. I do not intend to and will not profit from their use.

Book Review: Dear Professor by Donna Freitas

Note: I received a free copy of this book from Net Galley and am leaving this review voluntarily.

Dear Professor by Donna Freitas is a quick read. I finished the book in a single sitting, lasting less than an hour, and instantly sent a recommendation to a friend for her to read this book as well. For those of us who are recovering from any sort of abuse or assault or interpersonal trauma, I think Dear Professor is a must-read.

Donna Freitas frankly and eloquently describes her thoughts and feelings toward her former professor, who stalked and harassed her in her twenties. Now, two decades later, this open letter details her rage and entirely justifiableunforgiveness for the man who drastically changed the course of her life. Her fantasies about justice and concerns about speaking her piece to him once and for all are honest, and while society might call her sentiments “ugly” or “unkind,” as a survivor of abuse and sexual assault, I can only beseech Freitas to SAY IT AGAIN FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE BACK!

I wholly believe that what Freitas says in her open letter includes many thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and concerns for all of us who have experienced trauma, especially cases which were followed by a lack or miscarriage of justice. As I read, I found myself rapidly highlighting passages, saving sentences for my journal and therapist that so perfectly put words to things I’ve felt for a decade. The author’s words gave me not only spot-on descriptions for my experiences, but also a sense of camaraderie—that even though I’ve never met Donna Freitas, I know she understands how I’ve felt and now feel, and that I’m not alone in a single piece of my journey.

I strongly recommend this book for survivors, and also the loved ones (partners, parents, siblings, friends…) of survivors. The diction throughout is masterful and raw, and every page is a much-needed, positive contribution to the current conversation about survivors’ rights and experiences.

If I could give Dear Professor a standing ovation, I would; alas, a five-star review will have to suffice.

Book Review: Vagina Problems by Lara Parker

Note: I received a free copy of this book from Net Galley and am leaving this review voluntarily.

As someone who has never shied away from calling it like it is—no matter what “it” is—Lara Parker’s Vagina Problems caught my attention instantly. It’s a catchy title, to be sure, but as I am someone with vagina problems, I wondered how Parker’s story and mine might be alike.

A blunt memoir of the harrowing journey to receive adequate medical care as well as an explanation for health issues spanning nearly half the author’s life, Vagina Problems is the book I quickly declared a “must read,” even posting about it on social media—“This book is AMAZING,” I said. “As a chronic illness gal, THIS is the book we need to rally around! If you have a vagina, enjoy vagina, or love someone with a vagina, READ IT”!

Vagina Problems is the type of book that makes the reader laugh; Parker is relatable and so incredibly human as she tells of her troubles, both physically and in her personal life. Vagina Problems is a book that will make the reader positively enraged because women still face so much uncertainty in the medical community, as well as disbelief. (Why are women so readily disregarded, told to “drink some wine” or declared “emotionally unstable” whenever we have a problem a man can’t readily fix?!) And Vagina Problems is exactly the book everyone who cares about vaginas (or, if they’re a misogynist and don’t care beyond the pleasure a vagina can provide) must read.

Lara Parker’s story of living with chronic pain—both as a struggling professional and someone who faces oh-so-many do-gooders who think they can use a cup of herbal tea to solve what medicine cannot—is the story of every single woman living with chronic pain and/or vagina problems. From struggling to be believed that yes, this pain is so much more than cramps to fighting for her right to proper medical care and compassion to trying to accept the reality that, unless something drastic changes, the way of life of a chronically-ill person won’t change, Parker is never afraid to share exactly how she feels or thinks. This is the sort of transparency we need in reading memoirs because it’s the type of storytelling that tells the reader we aren’t living through This or That alone. It tells the reader there is someone out there who gets it. And for potential readers with chronic illnesses or vagina problems, or both, I know you’ll appreciate this.

But I want to address the less-likely readers out there—those without chronic illnesses or vaginas.

As Parker addresses, both the medical community and our society know so much about male genitalia. However, very little is scientifically known or addressed about vaginas, vulvas, clitorises—a woman’s genitals. Even less is commonly known about the problems many women face with their genitals, and Parker’s book opens the door for this conversation. These are things we need to be talking about—as women, mothers, friends, spouses, girlfriends, yes, but also as the non-vagina-possessing counterparts. (I could say the same for heart disease in women versus men, but I’ll save that for another day.)

The reality that one’s organs could permanently influence one’s way of life is mind-boggling to all those who haven’t experienced it, and often, I think that’s why some folks will discount those experiences. “Oh, is it really that bad?” Yes, yes, it is, and we need to be educating ourselves and (as kindly as possible) others that there are many hidden, invisible-to-others ailments the human body can experience. Parker has plenty of experience with those, and her book is the perfect starting point for anyone who is curious about chronic illness or any long-term affliction.

And I say “any” because, as I read Vagina Problems, I was often reminded of my trauma.

Recently, I was diagnosed with Complex-PTSD, for many reasons—one of which is the repeated sexual assaults in my teenage years. My best friend and I have discussed these incidents. Once, she shared that it was hard for her to come to me with her problems because “They just don’t seem so big compared to what you’ve faced.”

I understood, and I do, but that doesn’t matter. I told her that if she’s in pain about something, that’s all that matters. I’m here for her, because I know what its like to not have anyone here for me. It doesn’t matter if it’s a simple romantic squabble or a family crisis—if she’s in pain, I want to know. I may not be able to help, but if I can, I will.

The way Parker described the “barrier” between herself and her friends sans-vagina-problems, I feel a similar barrier in my social circle. I have challenges that my friends simply cannot—and may not ever—understand, and that can be isolating. It can be isolating to be crippled by something unseen, even temporarily. Moreover, it can be infuriating to be crippled by something that you can’t just show someone for them to fix. If I walked into a doctor’s office with a limb missing, they’d be on it like duck on a June bug. If I walked into happy hour naked, my friends would notice.

But if I walk into a room feeling like a part of me is missing, or that I’m completely exposed for all to see? Not everyone picks up on that.

Vagina Problems by Lara Parker is a fantastic book that depicts the life of someone with chronic, incurable pain, and the focus is on the physical. However, so much of what Parker said throughout reminded me of my emotional pain that I want everyone I know to read it, simply because she put words to things I’ve been struggling to describe for years…things I’d imagine many of us struggle to verbalize.

The quality of Vagina Problems that makes it truly remarkable, though, is the fact that I could sing its praises for hours and still have more to say. Everything about this book is helpful, even the aspects that aren’t strictly positive. I want to take my gynecologist a copy and discuss the ways I’ve felt that way in the past—both in his office and other doctors’ offices!—and ask how doctors and patients can be working together to change the narrative for women everywhere.

Vagina Problems by Lara Parker is a five-star book, a must-read for everyone, and a book I can’t wait to share with my daughter in fifteen years or so, so that she enters womanhood fully-equipped, both for the “What if?” for herself as well as with compassion for other women.

Book Review: Wiving by Caitlin Myer

Note: I received a free copy of this book from Net Galley and am leaving this review voluntarily.

The first thing that caught my eye about Wiving by Caitlin Myer was the cover—full of color yet muted, the tones spoke to the desire for hope, however stunted that desire may be by circumstance. Next, I noticed the title. “Wiving?” I thought. “That’s unique. This has to be interesting.”

And it most certainly is.

As the author takes the reader on a painful, lonesome (but not altogether lonely), perplexing journey through the first half-century of her life, Myer recounts some of her most painful memories.

A childhood wrought with confusing messages about “a woman’s role”, how any sexual activity—consensual or forced—would ruin the woman’s reputation. Barriers set by the Mormon culture in Utah, meant to enforce the subservience and placidity of women. Familial discord and mental health struggles that impact children and medical negligence. The events that formed the youngest years of the author’s life are harrowing, many of which are part of the quiet scars so many of us bear.

These scars gained in youth form the path Caitlin Myer took through her early adulthood and into middle age, often finding herself in situations that ultimately added more scars to her heart. From wishy-washy, opportunistic, never-going-to-commit boyfriends to emotionally abusive, gaslighting partners, to a marriage so loving it was suffocating, Myer explores different versions of the “wifehood” she was prepared to seek, all the while knowing it isn’t what’s meant for her. After a medical crisis the author fully begins to shake free of the chains in which her upbringing bound her, setting out on a global quest for freedom—whatever that truly means to her.

Told in blunt terms and frank recollections, Wiving is the type of book I immediately texted my fellow survivor friends to say “I HIGHLY, highly, highly recommend this.” The thoughts and insights the author shares regarding the thought processes and ways in which multiple abusive events by various abusers changes one’s mindset, worldview, and self-worth are striking. Never before have I read a book and truly felt that my own thoughts were the words on the page, but Wiving is that book for me.

I wish I knew the words to thank Caitlin Myer for writing this book, as difficult as it may have been to recall such tortuous events.

This book absolutely deserves five stars for the message it shares and the way in which the author tells it. I started reading it at nearly midnight, and only when my eyes burned with exhaustion did I stop…only to pick it up again as soon as I awoke. I completely encourage survivors of abuse (especially an upbringing in a cult, gaslighting, and sexual abuse/assault) to read this book, and then find someone to share it with immediately. Wiving sets the standard for the type of memoir our culture needs.

Book Review: Brave(ish) by Margaret Davis Ghielmetti

Note: I received a free copy of this book from Net Galley and am leaving this review voluntarily.

When I began Brave(ish) by Margaret Davis Ghielmetti, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. My favorite genre has long been biographies/memoirs, but a book about traveling the world? That was a new one for me. Thankfully, Brave(ish) did not disappoint, and Ghielmetti’s book is far more than I ever could’ve hoped to read.

As Margaret follows her husband, Patrick, around the world for his job as a hotel General Manager, she played the role of Hostess perfectly—in many ways, reminding me of Bree Van de Kamp from ABC’s Desperate Housewives. Margaret felt obligated to fulfill these hosting duties and more in order to be the “perfect” spouse, but it was evident early on in the book that the duties weren’t fulfilling her in return. When Patrick is transferred from Paris to Egypt then Thailand, Margaret’s adoption of various values and customs from these cultures ultimately contributed to her realization that she striving for perfection isn’t the key to joy; rather, it’s authenticity.

On her journey to personal and spiritual enlightenment, Margaret combats not only her perfectionistic tendencies, but also her alcoholism. She realizes that filling herself with wine could never fill the void the perfectionism had left within her, and for the first time, she begins making true, lasting friendship (with plenty of disappointment along the way). While she explores the wonders of the world, she also explores herself and a potential new way of life, with her supportive, loving husband by her side.

In many ways, I felt like Margaret was telling me the story personally, as if it were one of her many “Trip Reports” sent via email to her loved ones around the world as she and her husband relocated. Brave(ish) is candid, with many relatable quips throughout. The author’s inclusion of detail—both of the world and her experiences with infertility, the loss of her parents, and loneliness alike—set this book apart from many memoirs I’ve read. Brave(ish) doesn’t shy away from Tough Topics; instead, Ghielmetti embraces them fully.

I’m awarding Brave(ish) five stars for Ghielmetti’s ability to immerse the reader in her perfectionism from the very first page, bringing the reader alongside her in the reflections and realizations on her journey. I’ve read dozens of memoirs and autobiographical works, but none like Brave(ish). I highly-recommend Brave(ish) for all readers, but especially women who struggle with “Type A Tendencies” or accepting that there is no such thing as the “perfect homemaker.”

And Margaret, if you ever see this review…congratulations on finally finishing your book. 😊 Your passion for the written word is evident. Keep writing.

Lifetime Reading List: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Since I began increasing my social media activity two years ago (namely, on Twitter), one of the books I’ve seen most often debated, discussed, praised, and criticized is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I’d been hesitant to read The Handmaid’s Tale because I like to read for pleasure, not to get angry, and rage seemed to be a reaction of many individuals I follow whose opinions I share.

After reading The Handmaid’s Tale, though, I just want to celebrate. This is the type of book we’ve needed for far too long. It’s a book that should (and does) start a discussion inspired by a very important question: How far is too far?

Much like the book from the past two weeks’ posts, The Hunger Games (analysis here; review here), The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a futuristic society where the government, known as Gilead, rules every aspect of each citizen’s life. If you haven’t read it, here’s a simple example: sex is meant for procreation, nothing more.

After talking to my friend, Valerie Storm, I realized that the book The Handmaid’s Tale varies greatly from the television production; so, in this analysis as well as next week’s review, I ask that you keep that in mind.

Anyway, back to sex only for the purpose of babies.

As many of you know, I’m married. I have two children. And I cannot imagine only being able to get my freak on for the purpose of having another munchkin, let alone sex with my husband being discouraged and having a surrogate (both of the gestational and sexual sense) to fulfill that part of my marriage. Perhaps worse still, I cannot imagine being the woman who is the surrogate (Handmaid) who is forced to copulate with another woman’s husband, conceive a biological child, carry that child, and then be forced to give the baby to the woman who has treated me not so well for the past nine-plus months.

This is the world under the Republic of Gilead.

The Handmaid’s Tale definitely brings some topics to the table, particularly regarding reproductive rights as well as the way a woman may choose to express her sexuality, either in daily dress or intimate attire.

I know where I stand on these issues; you know where you stand. There’s a good chance we disagree, at least marginally.

In Atwood’s own words, though, I think we’ll find we have the same opinion. As Atwood says in the introduction:

In the real world today, some religious groups are leading movements for the protection of vulnerable groups, including women.

So the book is not “anti-religion.” It is against the use of religion as a front for tyranny; which is a different thing altogether.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (p. xviii)

I am a believer in Christ, and I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state. Without getting on a soapbox here, the Gospel is full of examples of Jesus Christ saying “come as you are.” Nowhere, though, does He say you have to believe by a certain age or point in your life, except prior to death; if you don’t, the consequences are eternal, but even then, each person has the choice to follow Him or not. The walk of faith is not forced by God Himself. One of the biggest complaints I have about modern Christian society is the forcing of faith on those who are not yet ready to walk with Christ. A faith cannot be a person’s own if it is forced in the name of propriety, or “what the family is doing,” or “tradition.” If God Himself doesn’t force His way on us, then who are humans to do so to their peers?

Thus, I greatly appreciate the message of The Handmaid’s Tale as it demonstrates what “too far” looks like when one group forces its beliefs and customs on a nation. Incapable of finding another way out, many Handmaids commit suicide or desperate crimes, only to find another way to death for their trespasses.

This is the danger of forcing beliefs on people who aren’t ready – they resist.

Of course, in the Republic of Gilead, I cannot imagine ever endorsing their practices. The nation is controlled by zealots who are mad with power. Moreover, Gilead is anything but a free nation, and I will die on the hill of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s been about a month since I finished The Handmaid’s Tale and started writing this analysis, so my memory is a bit foggy. But from what I call recall, Gilead represses freedom of intimacy, both of sex and emotion, which is best illustrated in Offred’s relationship with Fred (he no longer is able to enjoy sex with his wife and craves any form of feminine contact, even playing a board game). Gilead forces each person to dress a certain way, so that at a glance everyone knows who everyone else “is” and where they belong. (But as I wrote in my post “Judging a Book by its Cover,” you know how I feel about appearances as indicators.)

I do not want to live in a Gilead. I may want Christ to rule my life, but I do not want to force my beliefs on my country, the same way I wouldn’t want someone else to force theirs to do the same.

There is so much more to be said about the topics The Handmaid’s Tale brings to the reader’s attention, but if I keep going, I’ll probably write a post as long as Atwood’s book! Instead, I’ll just say that I enthusiastically agree that The Handmaid’s Tale is 100% a must-read book. I’ll post my review next week!

“Let Them Grumble”

If you know me, you know that I am a complete and total Tudorphile. Both of my kids are named after Tudor figures, and the person from history I’d most like to have a conversation with is Anne Boleyn. So, in a way, it’s only fitting that when I was dealing with a vexing situation last week, I found myself quoting Queen Anne’s motto.

Aisi sera groigne qui groigne.

Let them grumble; that is how it is going to be.

As a narcissistic abuse survivor, one of the hardest battles I have to fight is within my own mind. I’ve been conditioned that if my existence bothers someone, it’s my job to fix myself so that I no longer cause anyone anything except joy. It’s exhausting, and I sometimes will find myself going over and over a situation trying to find what I did that was wrong. If I put the situation on someone else, pretend that my best friend is in my shoes, and ask myself what I’d tell her, my answer is often, “You didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t do anything that justifies this reaction from them.”

But my conditioning tells me I don’t have permission to be innocent. Ever.

My conditioning tells me everything, every single thing that even remotely involves me, is 100% my fault and it is entirely on me to fix it. It can take months, sometimes years, for me to realize, “Nope, Olivia, THAT is not on you.”

Last week, I shared an opinion, and someone took it personally. Then, that someone’s friend got involved, both explaining to me how I was in the wrong.

Logically, I know that an opinion cannot be wrong. It may not be factual; it may not be kind. But an opinion is just that: an opinion. It is a person’s thoughts. They probably came to form that opinion based on life experiences, and for us Americans (and some in other countries), we are completely justified to speak our opinion.

However, even after I’d explained that I was merely sharing an opinion based on professional experiences and it wasn’t about or directed at any one single person, their insistence continued.

And continued.

And continued.

I stepped back from the situation and said, “You posted an opinion on the Internet. Someone took it personally. If they are going to berate you and patronize you for sharing thoughts about the industry you work in, that isn’t your problem. You don’t have to put up with it, listen to it, or apologize for it. Let them grumble… Wait, that sounds familiar.”

Two minutes with Google later, I’d found Anne’s motto, one I’ve read in countless historical fiction books. Let them grumble; that is how it is going to be.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Anne’s motto seems to be her version of The Serenity Prayer, something I’ve had hanging in my house as long as I’ve lived on my own. (Of course, I can’t help but remember my grandmother Joyce’s handwritten passage on the back of her own hanging prayer – “Lord, I tried, I failed, and I just don’t give a damn anymore”).

Let them grumble.

The same way Anne spoke her mind about the Church and Reformation, I have the right to speak my mind about my job and the experience it provides me.

That is how it is going to be.

The same way Anne met much discord for having an opinion that wasn’t the one of the Catholics or Katherine of Aragon’s supporters, I will meet discord for my opinions.

Just because someone grumbles, though, that doesn’t mean I have to adjust my course. If people want to grumble, if they’re looking for a fight, they can swing all they want.

And I can walk away. I can go on, continue living my life, and let them think less of me.

After all, as a child of narcissistic family abuse, my parents have effectively already rejected me for having a mind of my own that I refuse to let them control. So losing clout with someone on the Internet doesn’t make me think any less of myself. I’ve already thought as low of myself as I can (“My parents would rather choose alcohol/deceit over me? God, what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be what they want me to be?” then, a year later, “Wait, if they prefer beer/lying to me, a person, my kids, my husband, then they are the ones missing out!”) so losing the esteem of a stranger, a friend, an in-law, or anyone else doesn’t matter to me.

I imagine Anne Boleyn would tell me that it isn’t what the people out there think of me, but what is in my heart that matters most.

That’s probably why I adore Rhett Butler so much, too. “Until you’ve lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is.” (Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind)

It’s been a journey for me to overcome the pain of being rejected by my parents, then proceeding from “I’ll always be rejected” to “Oh, you think less of me now? Okay.”

And that’s it.

I don’t need the approval of others; I don’t need the back-patting, compliments, or flattery of others.

Is this what self-esteem looks like? Just maybe.

I’d like to say I got to this point in my healing with the help of a therapist, but the truth is, it was three people from literature and history.

Katherine of Aragon, for showing me how to stick to your beliefs, no matter the cost.

Anne Boleyn, for exemplifying The Serenity Prayer for a decade with everything she did.

And Rhett Butler, for teaching me how to say, “My dear, frankly, I don’t give a damn” before walking farther into the sunset of my destiny.

To the authors, I thank you.

Novella Review: Q.W.E.R.T.Y. by Barbara Avon

What if you could go back?

What if you could revisit happier times?

What if you could rewrite your story?

These are all questions that Q.W.E.R.T.Y. by Barbara Avon asks the reader. As Luke is thrown into heart-wrenching grief after the loss of the love of his life, he receives a gift, a typewriter, from his deceased, mysterious, spinster aunt.

What he doesn’t know, though, is his inheritance is a gift that will keep on giving.

Luke begins hammering out his grief on the old typewriter’s keys, bringing happier times to life again. He’s able to see his beloved once more, and his spiraling-out-of-control grieving transforms into a new opportunity to give the one he loved most everything she lost – but only at the cost of losing everything himself.

Q.W.E.R.T.Y. profoundly demonstrates the woes and messy lifestyle of a person in unimaginable pain. As I read it (twice!), I felt like I was floating through the pages – disconnected from the book’s reality yet completely immersed in the protagonist’s experience. Ms. Avon completely captured the dreamlike state of grief and skillfully created a tale that brings the reader’s state of mind wholly into that of the protagonist.

It’s haunting, yes, but it’s also a book worthy of much conversation. How many times in popular culture are we shown a glamorized and tidy version of heartache? Q.W.E.R.T.Y. does no such thing, and for that alone, this book is worthy of each its five stars. This is the sort of story that does so much more than tell a tale – it starts a conversation.

I strongly recommend this novella for book clubs especially, as well as students studying mental health in any capacity. While the story includes paranormal elements, the experience of Luke is one worthy of much discussion.

Q.W.E.R.T.Y.  can be found on Amazon.

Judging a Book by Its Title, Part 1: Letters to Putin

I always like to promote my fellow indie authors, and one that I find myself promoting more than any other is Joshua T. Crowley. His book, Letters to Putin, was a healing reading experience for me because it features the story of his childhood with a narcissistic parent – a childhood that, at times, mirrored my own in an uncanny manner.

I enjoy this book for several reasons, and you can see my review here for a complete list of those – though I’m sure that I’ll find more with each re-read I do.

Today, though, I want to take a moment to publicly answer one of the questions I get more than any other when I’m suggesting someone read this book:

What does this book have to do with Putin?

I’ve gotten to know the author kind of well, and I’d like to think of him as a true friend of mine. We’ve discussed his reasoning for selecting this title, particularly from a marketing stance. After all, given the current political climate and events in the United States of America right now, the name “Putin” certainly evokes a lot of strong feelings, particularly regarding the 2016 election. I’ve talked to a few potential readers of Letters to Putin who express uncertainty because they don’t like political books (or politics, for that matter).

I want to address firmly that I’ve read Letters to Putin twice now, and I can say with the utmost sincerity that although Putin is mentioned directly, the overarching theme of this book is not politics, but rather, betrayal.

I’ve said before that the main action of this book begins to unfold after the protagonist finds a bunch of letters, written by his recently-deceased father, to the Russian President suggesting a way to help devastate the U.S. – all in an effort to make a buck. The impressive notion, here, is that the father claimed to be a patriot. This introduces the main revelation of the book: if a man is willing to betray a country he’s fought for, then it is absolutely possible a father could betray his son.

While a politically-charged event serves as the inciting incident of the story, international politics certainly do not compose the main action. Finding these letters was, in essence, a life-changing moment for Joshua T. Crowley, and the profound nature of that experience sets the tone for the primary theme of the book: unthinkable betrayal.

Regardless of your political leanings, this book is worth reading. It’s eye-opening, and it’s one story like so many others of children who had to learn to fend for themselves well before they should’ve. Crowley’s story is inspirational – it’s my opinion that it’s also educational, because the ways in which Crowley managed to combat his father’s narcissism and dangerous tendencies were absolutely genius.

I’ll say it again: Letters to Putin is so much more than a political novel.

But it certainly addresses more politics that one could possibly imagine; namely, the interactions and strategic maneuvers necessary to survive a childhood under the roof of someone who is anything but an ally.