Born to what was considered a royal Hasidic family — a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov — Abby Stein was raised as a boy in one of the most gender-segregated societies on earth. From an early age, she knew she was a girl and when she, at the age of 4 years, expressed this to her mother, she was given the very clear message that this was never to be spoken about again. Throughout her childhood, she rebelled, against god, against her restrictive society, and against a world that did not allow her to be herself.
This memoir was so detailed and heartfelt – until it wasn’t. We hear about every moment in Abby’s early life. Her journey from one yeshiva to the next, from one rebellion to the next. There are very intimate passages, revealing her first love for a young man who is obviously struggling with his own sexuality. This episode is quite tenderly written and the reader feels such empathy for these two who cannot pursue their love in the restrictive society in which the two “boys” live. We hear about the details of the study in which Abby immerses herself, how she advocated to learn about law and ultimately about mysticism. And some of the details about Hasidic life are quite interesting. And we hear about her marriage to Fraidy, which is actually quite sweet and hopeful, to some degree.
But suddenly, when she describes Fraidy giving birth to their son, and all of a sudden, it is as if she drops off a cliff and, POOF! she is a woman. There is little to no mention of how she disengages from her prior life, with the exception of an epilogue, which tells only of how she tells her father she is a woman. We do not hear about her connection with her child, we do not hear about she experiences the transition from her insular world of Hasidism to the outer world, we do not hear about much of anything else. This I find unbelievably disappointing and a sorely missed opportunity. After hearing so much detail, the absence of detail is astounding.
I did learn from this book, but I was disappointed by the ending. On the other hand, I do hope that Abby finds peace with her family and can connect with them. She obviously loves them dearly and they do her. I hope they can find a way to see that she is exactly who she always was.
Bryan Stevenson is a graduate of Harvard Law School who, after graduating, went down South to work to establish the Equal Justice Initiative, which began as a legal nonprofit defending those who found themselves unjustifiably on death row, but expanded to defending others who were also victims of our imbalanced justice system here in the U.S. The primary thread that runs through the book is the story of Walter McMillan, an African American framed for the murder of a white woman in a laundromat in Alabama. And while Walter’s story is compelling and tragic in and of itself, the many others that Stevenson shares with us along the way similarly intrigue and horrify in their revelation of the truth of how racially biased our criminal justice system is and has been for decades.
I honestly feel like this book should be required reading for every American. Whatever we think we know about racism and bias – it’s just not enough. Racism is ugly, and painful and insidious and pervasive and it infects our law enforcement, our criminal justice system, and our politics and even our day-to-day interactions with others. This book reveals the magnitude of the problem. Thousands of individuals have had outrageous sentences for smaller crimes and so many children – 13 and 14 years old! — have been given extremely harsh, long sentences really just because they were of color. Most of these “criminals” were victims themselves, whether of their circumstances, of trauma they’d experienced, or of their poverty that prevented them from obtaining suitable defense.
I think that Bryan Stevenson is one of the true heroes of our time. He has stood up for the impoverished and for those who have had no voice and given them a voice. He has bravely fought for those who would have been killed because of inhumane death penalty laws (one could argue – as I have, that all death penalty laws are inhumane).
I have not seen the movie, but I believe the movie could not possibly have all the details that this book provides and I always believe the details are crucial. Especially in an important book such as this one.
This is absolutely a MUST READ!
P.S. It’s been awhile since a book has made me cry the way this one has. There is one particular vignette that really threw me, for its beauty and its power. If you read this book and come upon a story about a chocolate milkshake, you’ll know when it was that I cried the hardest…!