My Name is Mahtob by Mahtob Mahmoody

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Many years ago, I watched a movie called Not Without My Daughter, with Sally Field.  Have you seen it?

It was a true story about an American woman married to an Iranian man and together they had a 5 year old daughter named Mahtob.  They lived in Michigan and were happily married, until he suggested they take a 2-week vacation to visit his relatives in Iran.  This was just after the Iranian revolution during which the Ayatolah Khomeini overthrew the Shah.  Once they were in Iran, it became clear that Sayyed, the father, had no intention of taking his family back to America.  He embraced the law of the land, which claimed that women and children were the property of the man of the family, and he held them hostage, watching their every move and threatening them with their lives if they disobeyed him.  They lived like this for almost 18 months, until Betty, Mahtob’s mother, was able to earn his trust enough to be allowed to go shopping in the market and make secret contact with an underground network of people who were able to help her and Mahtob finally and miraculously escape.

I remember having had nightmares about this movie for months after seeing it.  And now here is the epilogue…

This is the story from Mahtob, the daughter, herself.  She recounts her story, as the daughter of these two very different parents.  She shares her early memories of America, in a very loving home, with tender memories of her father at the start.  She recalls a subtle shift in his attitude toward his culture and religion just before their leaving for Iran.  But the change in his attitude was like a tidal wave once they landed in Iran, and the loving father that she knew essentially disappeared, replaced by a monster, in her eyes – one who beat up her beloved mother, who threatened her mother, and who separated Mahtob from her mother for days at a time.  And that’s when she learned to hate.

What I did not realized was that the story did not end with their escape from Iran.  This mother and child had to endure years of terror, fearing a kidnapping by her father – or worse! – their whole lives.  And the impact spread to everyone around them.

Betty Mahmoody coped by using their experience  to advocate for others in this situation.  She fought for federal laws that protected children against international parental kidnapping, which President Clinton passed.  And she travelled around the country and around the world, personally supporting  many families who were in the same situation that she had been in.

This is a very, very hard book to read emotionally but it is an important one, I believe.  It serves as a portrait of the convergence of mental illness and religious fanaticism, which is a  terrifying combination.

It  brought it all back for me, but it also brought closure as well.  It seemed to have done so for Mahtob herself.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

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When Michelle Obama was quite young, she began to learn to play the piano, taught by her very strict aunt who lived downstairs.  The piano on which she studied and practiced had chips and imperfections that enabled her always to find the middle C, sort of grounding her and guiding her.  When she had her first formal recital, she suddenly found herself seated at a perfect, symmetric and distinctly un-chipped piano, and had to pause and figure out what to do to find her way.  With the help of her teacher/aunt, she managed to steady herself and to play her piece with great success.  This became a sort of metaphor for her life.  Michelle Obama has always worked hard, relied on important mentors to guide her, and whenever she encountered obstacles, she leaned on those she loved and who loved her to help her regain her center of gravity and succeed in a dramatic fashion.

Mrs. Obama’s story is a rags to riches story in some ways, but in many ways it is not.  It is true that she was raised in a poor neighborhood in Chicago and she may not have had much in the way of what money could buy.  On the other hand, however, she was rich in the ways that really mattered.  She had a loving family with mother, father and brother and many extended family members who were quite close and affectionate.  Her mother strongly advocated for her so that she was able to access an excellent education, which enabled her to attend Princeton and Harvard Law School, where she was able to raise her financial standing, in spite of where she came from.  She acquired an incredibly strong work ethic and was generous about helping others come along with her, rather than stepping on others to get ahead.  Her constant mission was to find mentors to assist her with moving forward, but also to then pay it forward and mentor others in return.  And each position that she held after her first job out of law school helped her to dive deeper and deeper into fields in which she could do good for others, which seemed to always be her driving force.

The discouraging part for me, of course, is the contrast between what was then and what is now.  The Obama’s were devoted to their country, both working so very hard to try to make things better for the people they were serving, both working to expand human rights, to give access to health care, to create jobs and improve the environment and to promote peace.  Barack Obama surrounded himself with wise advisers and listened to the advice of others and was thoughtful and respectful to others and read incessantly to learn as much as he could about an issue so that he could make the most informed decision.

Sadly, this is not what is happening in our White House now.

So while this book was inspiring, it was also quite sad, as it reminded me of what we’ve lost since 2016.

The Obamas were smart, dedicated to our country and to humanity, and were a class act.   I hope we find our way back to this again.

 

Educated by Tara Westover

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Deep in the hills of Idaho, among the potato farms and tiny villages, poverty reigns over large families like the Westovers, who cling to their Mormon faith for the little bit of truth that they can believe in.  Dad preaches to his children his beliefs that the government is part of a socialist plot to undermine the Lord’s will and public education is just a manifest of this.  So while the older children might have benefitted from having gone to school, the younger ones, Tara being the youngest of those, did not.  So the kitchen where Tara mixes herbs with her mother and the junkyard where Tara sorts metals with her father and brothers become Tara’s classrooms.   And the random, outdated history or mathematics textbooks that left around the house became her only source of book learning, such as it was. Sadly, her emotional learning was blunted by the abuse at the behest of her brother Shawn, and her ability to survive in her home was made possible only by quelling any feeling or reaction to what was going on around her. When she finally did allow herself to feel, she realized there was just too much rage at her whole family to do anything with it.  This was the face of mental illness and this was the face of her family.

This is the true account of the life of Tara Westover – and it’s truly a miracle that all of the children actually survived, especially Tara.  The severity of the neglect and abuse at the hand of her father (and her mother) is staggering.  It is really not entirely their fault, as they clearly are mentally ill – at least her father is severely so.  The most egregiously violent and abusive one, however, is her brother Shawn, who is viciously violent and his parents repeatedly turn a blind eye to his cruelty.

I find that the one I am most angry with by the end of the book, interestingly, is Tara’s mother.  She has so many opportunities to come through for Tara.  There are moments when it appears she just might finally side with Tara.  That she might stand up against Tara’s father, or against Shawn, and say that Tara may be right in accusing Shawn of acting violently toward Tara, or of Dad having mistreated Tara when she was younger, not having given her opportunities or believed her when she was telling the truth (that she was NOT a whore, as she was so often accused of being).   Even later, when her mother had more financial success and independence and might have had a chance to break free and it might have appeared she’d stand up for herself.  But no, she did not.  Such. a disappointment for Tara.  No wonder there was such heartbreak and fury.

The fact that Tara has achieved the success that she has is miraculous and I applaud her intellect and courage.  I only pray for her that she is able to find the support that will allow her to find kindness toward herself that will allow her to heal from all the hurt.

I thank her for sharing her story with all of us.  It has been so powerful.  Mental illness rears its ugly head in so many ways.  Sadly, the worst is toward children.

 

Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow

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Derek Black has been nurtured from the time he was born until the time he went off to college to be the great white hope for the future of the white nationalist movement.  His father, Don, established Stormfront.com, the earliest and largest promoter of racist propaganda on the internet, and David Duke, his godfather, is the well-known KKK/Nazi politician.  Everyone in this underworld knows Derek and believes he will take over for Don and Duke, as Derek has already begun to co-host their radio show, assist with the website, and even help organize their annual conference.  But as Derek enters college, he decides to keep this part of his identity secret, interacting with the diverse students in his classes and activities, even while he maintains his connection with his radio show daily.  However, what happens very gradually, when Derek is later exposed, ostracized and then quietly invited to the regular Shabbat dinner of an Orthodox Jewish friend of his, begins the process of challenging his deepest convictions — and is absolutely stunning.

This true story has been featured on various podcasts (The Daily is one) and has been written about in various newspapers, so you may know the basic story.  Derek himself has written opinion pieces for the New York Times.  But in this moment of unleashing of hatred and bigotry, this story is a crucial one – and the details matter.  It is crucial because it shows how hatred has been simmering underground for so long among those who are living their very insular lives, among those who think only like they do.  And it is crucial because it demonstrates, most importantly, that if we look at those who think differently from ourselves as human beings, only then can we start to have a civil and respectful enough discourse to come together on ideas.

I am in awe of the courage of the students who showed friendship to Derek even after he was “outed” as the co-host of the morning show on Stormfront.  They stuck by him, braving the derision of most of their peers, showing steadfast friendship to the the hero of the dark side, even as he degraded their racial groups on his radio show, even as they questioned their own wisdom in doing so.

And I am in awe of Derek himself, who has truly shown courage in the thought and heart that he has put into his own journey.  It is so much easier to go along with what your family and community preaches and to stick to your original beliefs.  It is so much harder to go against your family wishes, to turn around what you’ve been taught is right, to go against your indoctrination and open up your heart to other ideas.

But I am also not sorry he has accepted his responsibility to go public with his journey, because he has to share with others that those narrow-minded, absurd ideas about white supremacy are just wrong – and that the harm they do to others can not, under any circumstances, be justified.

In this moment, this book is absolutely a MUST-READ!

Hunger by Roxane Gay

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This memoir by Roxane Gay — an author, celebrated feminist, and educator — is the story of her experience as a person going through life extremely fat.  She reveals early on that she had been raped at the young age of 12 years, and, sadly, did not feel able to tell anyone about it for years.  Her way of coping was to eat in order to gain weight, to make herself unappealing so that she would protect herself from letting that ever happen again.  Unfortunately, it also had an impact on everything else in her life as well.

While the book does tell the story of her life, regrettably it does so in a very rambling, stream-of-consciousness sort of way that is extraordinarily repetitive.  There are segments that wind back around to prior themes and scenes that are repeated over and over again, much like her thoughts.

Nevertheless, it is also extremely enlightening and enables the reader to really understand and what it means to be in the shoes of someone who, as she describes, takes up the space that she does.  Her descriptions of having to research restaurants in advance to assess the seating situation, for example, is something that I might not have appreciated.  Because of her size, she cannot feel comfortable in most chairs with arms, nor in most booths that have a fixed distance between the seat and the table.  Hence, she checks that there will be seating that can accommodate her before she will go to a particular restaurant.  Sometimes, when she doesn’t, and she has to sit in a chair with arms, she sustains bruises that cause her pain that can last for days.

This broke my heart.

There is a daily onslaught of taunts, sidebar commentary from strangers, suggestions – people even taking items out of her shopping cart at the supermarket!  Having to endure the humiliations that people throw at her, both intentionally and unintentionally is both unfair and relentless.

So while the writing and probably more so the editing of this book is not ideal, I think the author is incredibly brave in sharing her experience with all of us.  I think it is important for people to understand how it feels to walk in her shoes so that we can all be a little kinder to those who are different sizes than we are.

 

 

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

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I’m probably the only person on the planet who has not watched the series on Netflix – and, nerd that I am, I have read the book instead.  But actually, I’m really glad I did.

Piper Kerman had just graduated Smith College and was unsure of her next step.  As she drifted toward an older, cooler crowd, she found herself falling for Nora, an older woman who she perceived as quirky but sophisticated and who had set herself apart by making quite a bit of money – by coordinating drug runners.  When Nora invited Piper to join her in Indonesia, Piper jumped at the opportunity and indulged in the opulent lifestyle that Nora’s business afforded them. When Nora asked Piper to transport money back into the States, Piper felt obligated to say yes, never thinking that years later, she’d be served papers that would charge her with a federal crime.  After court appearances and delays, Piper was finally required to serve a 15 month sentence in federal prison.  This book is the true story of her experience of that prison sentence in Danbury, CT.

Kerman writes about her experience with honesty, sadness, humor, and heart.  She describes how she’s finally matured into a life –  a successful job which she loves, an engagement to a man whom she adores and who adores her – and how painful it is to leave this behind.  She writes of the guilt she has about the agony she knows she’s inflicting on her family because of what she’s done. And she writes about how even as horrific as this experience is for her, she is aware of how privileged she is as a well-to-do, educated, white woman with resources and a supportive family, which is vastly different from the experience of most of the women with whom she’s incarcerated.  She describes so eloquently the bond which develops between her and so many of these other women because, at the end of the day, they are all in the same boat.  They need each other to survive and those who understand this develop a mutual respect that underlies the kindnesses they show each other.  It is these small kindnesses and empathy toward each other that help them to survive with their dignity and their sanity intact.

While this story is a few years old, it is still painfully relevant.  Our penal system is woefully broken and unjust.  Because of mandatory sentences on non-violent, drug-related crime, there are way too many people who are incarcerated for way too many years and a disproportionate number of these people are African-American and Latino.  In addition, there is an inordinate emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation and education and this only perpetuates the problem.  Piper never feels that she should not have been punished, but she does feel that there are random, myriad abuses of an inadequate system that she was witness to and that that need remediation.

I would highly recommend this book to others – and maybe I’ll watch some of the series now just to compare it to the book!

 

The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs

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Wow, this is a book you definitely have to prepare yourself for.   Written by an actual descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson, this memoir is a beautiful, almost poetic reflection on dying.   Not only does the author contend with the death of her mother from multiple myeloma (a form of cancer), but then she has to face her own impending mortality, as she battles her own aggressive form of metastatic breast cancer.  As we follow her through her musings and her fears, we glimpse into her very heart — sometimes full of self-deprecating humor, sometimes of abject sadness, and sometimes of sheer tranquility.

There is, of course, a lot of sadness here.  You cannot escape that when you’re talking about cancer.  But there is a lot of sweetness and humor as well.  Nina did not have a polyannish view of life at all – on the contrary, she was fairly sarcastic – but she did keep a faith and a hope for her future that was positive while still being realistic.  Her discussions with her 2 boys are honest and yet often comical, maintaining the innocence that young boys deserve.  She includes some details of her pain and suffering without dwelling on these.  She chooses to appreciate the days she has rather than lament those she has not.  This is something I think we can all learn from!

So while your heart will inevitably break from this book, it will also be touched in important ways, if you choose to read this one.