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.

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.

Stand and Speak

As my friends know, this summer has been a long, hot one for me—and not just because I live in the Ohio Valley.

In early June, I received word that my former teacher had been fired from the school he’d been at since he’d left my high school in 2012. From what I understand, he was terminated because he’d lied about why he’d left his previous job. According to the rumor mill, he’d left my school because he’d been accused of sexual harassment by several students. At the time, I knew he’d left a prior job under similar circumstances. Now, in 2020, that’s three schools he’s left or been fired from for the way he talks to students (and, possibly, his relationship with a few).

This isn’t an easy bit of news for me to receive because, while I witnessed him cross the line several times verbally and my former high school friends have shared they’ve been sexually involved with him after graduation, this teacher was like a family member to me. He made sure I had what I needed as a student, but also as a person, ensuring I received food and medical care when I needed it. In a lot of ways, I’ve told myself that while I may morally disagree with him, that doesn’t make him a bad person.

But since I’ve embraced the part of my past that dictates I’m a survivor of sexual assault, I see him differently.

I wasn’t assaulted violently in an alley by a stranger. I wasn’t assaulted in a way that completely took me by surprise. I was abused for months by a man (not my teacher) I trusted, and it was only in retrospect that I understood it was abuse. Then, at senior prom in 2014, my date attempted to rape me—I barely got away at the last second. My date was someone I’d been friends with since the end of my freshman year. I knew that was assault, but what did I do with that information? I got away, and there was minimal evidence on me—if any—so what could I report? So I reported nothing.

Now, I realize that what happens—and what doesn’t happen—and which words we use to describe these things matter.

For years, I’ve said that it’s good to say what you mean and mean what you say, and when it comes to abuse of any kind and assault, there is nothing wrong with being explicit. There is nothing wrong with stating boldly exactly what happened and how it made you feel. There is nothing wrong with using words that express your anger, or your pain, or your confusion. Additionally, there is no rulebook that states when you should say what or how you should say it. You don’t have to start at the beginning, or the end, or by stating what you want to see happen or what you wish had happened instead. Speaking up in some way is all that matters.

As a society, I know we like to say that it’s okay if we never speak up. As a survivor, I understand the struggle in finding my voice in order to speak up.

But also as a survivor, I feel that we need to remember that when we keep our mouths shut about our experiences or what we witness happen to others, we are doing all the people who will follow in our footsteps a disservice. And I think it’s okay to take some time to find that inner strength to speak up.

But as I hear stories of what’s unfolding at my former teacher’s latest school, I’m sickened. All I keep thinking is that I should’ve been far louder, more proactive, and bothered administration about investigating him. I reported this teacher once, and the principal at the time did very little about it. Why? I’ll never know.

But now, this teacher has been at a new school for seven classes worth of students. It’s a much bigger school than the one I attended, so I assume he had more students there.

How many of them did he harass?

How many did he sleep with?

How many were groomed to his liking, so that by the time they graduated and they wouldn’t be breaking any rules, they were able to slide into his bed where a girl from the previous class just vacated?

The words I used back then were facts, stating what I’d seen happen. But I should’ve also used words to express my feelings: his statements about girls’ bodies made me feel inadequate, his frequent use of innuendo confused me because I didn’t know a lot about sex at sixteen years old, and his annual bedding of one of my friends made me feel like I had a big “I’m next, aren’t I?” neon sign over my head.

Even now, I feel like an object in the eyes of men, and I’m confused about how men in positions of power view their subordinates. I wonder just how I managed to escape his advances, if tradition were to hold. If he hadn’t left my school during my junior year, would he have started trying to get me into his bed my senior year? When I graduated? Or was he already trying all along, I was just unaware because I didn’t understand sex or recognize predatory behavior?

Or is it possible that I really was different to him, that I mattered like a family member to him, the same way I viewed him as an uncle, one for whom I bought Father’s Day presents?

I realize now that I shouldn’t be left with so many questions about someone who I should’ve been able to trust. Until now, I never really understood that line from the film Freedom Writers (2007), when Andre tells Ms. Gruwell, “Why should I give you my respect to you? Because you’re a teacher? I don’t know you. How do I know you’re not a liar standing up there? How do I know you’re not a bad person standing up there? I’m not just gonna give you my respect because you’re called a teacher.”

I’ve always been skeptical of authority, but now…I realize that just because someone carries a badge or has a license in something or is in a position of trusted authority, that doesn’t mean they’re worthy of my trust, either as their student or as the parent of their student.

Because now that I’m a mother, I see all these men who I trusted and who abused that trust so much differently.

I deserved better than what they gave, and I deserved better than the way the powers that were handled the situation when I cried “Wolf!” while providing pictures of the damn wolf.

All of us survivors deserve better than we received.

Likewise, all of the people who have yet to set foot on this path deserve better than the society we currently live in.

So what do we do? What can we do about it?

I don’t have that answer. Each situation is unique, but we all have one thing in common: we can all communicate, whether that’s with words or sign language or writing. And as long as we find a way to use those words, either to help bring charges against our abuser/attacker or to heal ourselves so that we can use our experiences to help others, then we’re doing something.

When we were being abused and attacked, all we had to do was survive. We did whatever it took, accepted whatever we had to in order to persevere. And now that we’re on the other side of it, I think it’s our duty to make the world a little easier for those who are still trying to survive. After all, isn’t that what we wanted?

Finally, to all the educators, lawyers, and policymakers who have the power to protect us when something does happen, it’s your duty to listen to the words we use, even if they’re messy, jumbled, and overwrought with emotion. It’s your job to hear our truth, rather than embrace your own preconceived notions. And once you’ve heard us, it’s your job to do something with our words to prevent the same tale from having to be told again, and again, and again.

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!

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.

Book Review: Letters to Putin

Since I was a teenager, I’ve enjoyed reading stories written by survivors of child abuse. In such tales, I find equal parts strength and encouragement, as I am a survivor, too. Letters to Putin by Joshua T. Crowley, however, was remarkably different – this book validated my own experience in many indescribable ways. I cannot recommend it enough for each and every child abuse survivor…and everyone else, for that matter.

Joshua T. Crowley is certainly one of the most incredible authors of our time. His unashamedly honest thoughts and revelations throughout the present-day events dealing with the aftermath of his father’s death make Letters to Putin one-of-a-kind. So often, I’ve read stories where the author attempts to censor him-/herself, but Crowley does no such thing. Rather, he shares his true reactions and reflections to present and past events, making Letters to Putin a refreshing reading experience.

As Crowley navigates the days and responsibilities following his father’s death, he discovers secrets his father kept from everyone, prompting him to reflect on his childhood, much of which was lived in a secrecy all of its own.

The abuse the author endured was painful to read, especially as a mother. I found my arms aching at times in a desire to embrace Crowley in his childhood, desperate to show him what love truly is and to shield him from the neglect of his father.

To read such horrific abuse of both a child’s mind and body was difficult, yes, but also motivating. Crowley’s story reminds me that there are often so many occurrences behind closed doors, and it is our duty to always be kind and willing to consider that reality is not always what it seems – particularly when masked by the “proper way of life,” such as church involvement, political affiliation, or community standings. After all, there are many things we don’t see about the people in our lives, and we must always be willing to protect children before our own interests or relationships.

Letters to Putin is exactly the book America needs right now. In the wake of what is happening in Washington and the involvement of foreign nations in our politics, it is imperative that we realize and understand that there are citizens among us who would betray our nation to make a buck. Moreover, we must realize that if so-called patriots are willing to betray America, it is absolutely within the realm of possibility that there are parents who would likewise betray their children. In my experience as a survivor and wife of a child abuse survivor, I have seen far too many times that people are all-too-willing to believe a parent to be blameless and the child’s action (even an adult child!) to be impetuous, unjustified, and unworthy of forgiveness, even from a Higher Power. Thankfully, though, Crowley’s raw experiences – both emotional and chronological – provide an opportunity for readers to see the lifelong effects of child abuse and thus prompt the reader to consider the tragic reality for many children around the world.

If you are a survivor of physical, emotional, mental, or sexual abuse, I must advise you to read this book with caution. However, please don’t let my warning discourage you from reading it! Crowley’s cathartic journey in the wake of his father’s death is one I believe many of us will one day face, or perhaps already have faced, as our abusers move into the next life and we are left here, finally completely free from their existence but not the memories they gave us. The emotions and reactions of Crowley reminded me that it is absolutely acceptable to feel the way I do about my abusers, and his revelations (both to himself and loved ones) throughout the book gave me the bravery-boost I needed to speak out about my own experiences.

I cannot recommend this book enough to every single person I know. Although perfect for anyone, I know Letters to Putin will particularly resonate with fans of books by Dave Pelzer (such as A Child Called “It”), Richard B. Pelzer (A Brother’s Journey), America DeFleur (Dandelion, see my review here), and Shy Keenan (Broken). As difficult as these authors’ stories are to read, I can only imagine how difficult their experiences were to live, and that is why it is our homage to them to read about their survival and share their stories in the hopes of encouraging another who is currently living through their own version of the hell that is child abuse.

I strongly encourage each and every person to head on over to Amazon to purchase a copy now! (Available in paperback as well as on Kindle and Kindle Unlimited.) The author donates a percentage of each royalty to RAINN.

*Shirt in featured photo was made by America DeFleur; photo credit to my husband, Nick Castetter.

Book Review: Dandelion by America DeFleur

Autobiographies and memoirs have always been my favorites genre. I can’t remember the first one I ever read, but I do remember thinking, “Wow, this is what the author wanted to make sure was left behind of their life.” As I’ve grown up, I’ve realized those who write autobiographies and memoirs often have a weighty reason for sharing a particular story – sometimes to clear the air, sometimes to commemorate an event or loved one, and sometimes to inspire people to think or act.

When I first encountered America DeFleur on Twitter and she suggested I add her book Dandelion to my To Be Read pile, I did a quick Kindle search. After I found the book, I immediately judged it by a simple phrase on the cover: “Once a foster child, always a foster child.”

The book was on my Kindle within moments, the digital cover open as I quickly scrolled to the first page. Once I began reading, I couldn’t put it down.

America tells a heart-wrenching story. Eloquently and bluntly written, Dandelion begins with one of America’s most difficult moments before taking the reader back in time to walk alongside her throughout her youth. From a dangerously negligent home life to the perils of life as a street kid, from a foster facility to an abusive and gas-lit experience with her father, to a seemingly perfect foster mother to juvenile hall, the reader feels the confusion and chaos of America’s youth with every word. As America recalls each potentially-defining experience of her life, she begins to feel hope – something the reader knows has been all too rare in the author’s life.

As a survivor of child abuse myself, reading America’s story was bittersweetly familiar. At times, her story was comforting to know someone else had felt the way I had as a child and still do today as an adult. However, it was also painful to realize my story is not unique – that so many others feel lost, abandoned, and “numbered” by an imperfect system that stereotypes many of those who pass through it.

The amount of courage it must’ve taken America to share her story is remarkable and worthy of so much praise. It is our duty, as citizens of the world, to read it (and the others like it) so that we may begin to recognize the footsteps of our peers and the paths that so many walk. We must discuss these lives and encourage those who are living them. We must work to improve our foster care system as well as our communities to embrace all members, no matter how difficult or messy their lives have been. And we can begin this process by reading Dandelion because America’s story is so similar to that of so many of our children.