The road to everglades city

I've largely been reading non-fiction this month. Flying from Detroit to Montego Bay, I started J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. Vance is a great storyteller, something that was probably enhanced by listening to it in audiobook format (he narrates). This book came out around the time of the 2016 election - a time when many were struggling to understand why so many people voted for djt. The working poor are an often misunderstood group to people on the outside - we make assumptions and assign blame, projecting the context of our lives onto their problems. 

I think he garnered that understanding to a certain extent. In telling his story, he brought to life the reality of many of the white, working class in Appalachia. But his narrative can lean narcissistic. I realize that this book is a memoir - he is entitled to write solely about his experiences and how they affected him. However, he turned this book into one that has sociological tendencies, and in that context, he missed an important opportunity to discuss the intersection of race and class. 

Sure, maybe there weren't many ethnic minorities in the towns he came from (I struggle to fully buy this). But in drawing conclusions about the parallels between the working poor and black america, there was an opportunity for dialogue that he dropped. 

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After the latest shooting in Florida, I decided to pick up Columbine from my shelf. It had been sitting there for around three years. Dave Cullen's novel covers events that took place in 1999, but remove the dates and it could have easily taken place today. This is the shooting that shaped much of the school shooting protocol still in practice today. 

The shooting at Columbine was so endlessly heartbreaking, but Cullen recounts the story and its aftermath with respect - not trying to speak on anyone's behalf. How can one empathize with something so horrific? In an effort to reveal the truth, Cullen paints a full picture of what happened at Columbine: in the months before, on the day of, and in the years that followed. 

After the fact, there were a lot of misconceptions about why the shooting occurred (many said it was the result of bullying). Cullen finds a way to cut through the noise and hysteria of that time to really examine the killers as people, uncovering the things that motivated them and excited them, made them angry or depressed. There are a lot of things preceding Columbine that could and should have been done differently, but there were just as many factors that were out of anyone's control. 

As with the shootings today, the Columbine community lost their sense of security in a matter of hours. Twenty years later, it is infuriating that we are still a country that holds second amendment rights over the lives of school children. No parent, spouse, or sibling should ever have to say "see you later!" and wonder whether they really will. 

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We flew south, but drove north with my in-laws (I really hate that title). Starting from the Keys, we used all 20-some hours to listen to Jeff Guinn's The Road to Jonestown. We had plans to take shifts sleeping but I'm not sure any of us did. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Jim Jones was a socialist disguising himself as a religious figurehead who ultimately led his congregation to participate in what became the largest murder-suicide in American history. 

Part of what makes this book so compelling is the build-up to the massacre. When hearing about Jonestown, you wonder how so many people could go through with ending their lives, and the lives of their children. Guinn helps us understand. Following Jones from his early life as a minister, you get a sense for the good that he did. For instance, I had no idea about the role he played in advancing race relations in Indianapolis. You can see why people would want to follow this man who preached about equality and offered solutions to their problems beyond prayer. His progression into madness was seemingly slow - hindsight is 20/20, after all. 

Like ColumbineThe Road to Jonestown was painstakingly researched. Guinn read FBI files, visited Jones's Indiana hometown, spoke with survivors, and even traveled to the site of the massacre in Guyana. There are so many components to this story and so many conflicting emotions, but Guinn brought it all together in a way that did justice to the people of The People's Temple.   

Book Review // The Witness Wore Red (Audio)

This is the sort of non-fiction book that reads like a fiction book because the events that unfold are so shocking and hard to believe. In The Witness Wore Red, Rebecca Musser tells the story of her life in, escape from, and trial against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). During her time in the church, Musser was pressured into becoming the 19th wife of the church’s prophet, 85-year-old Rulon Jeffs. Musser, her sister wives, and other women in the church - some of which were under 16 - were forced to participate in non-consensual sexual relations at risk of being banished or otherwise punished by the church.

This book is infuriating because as Musser recounts the events that took place, it becomes clear that the leaders of the FLDS knew exactly what kind of harm they were doing. It’s heartbreaking to read the accounts of men, women, and children alike who were brainwashed to accepting abuse as the will of God. Entire families would surrender their assets to the church, believing it was in their best interests. Furthermore, the women were wrongfully conditioned to believe their worth lay in how well they pleased their husbands and the men in the church.

From the outside, it’s easy to look at Musser’s situation and think, “I would never stand for that.” But, through the chapters of the book, she really gives the reader a deep understanding of how members in the FLDS are conditioned from birth to believe in the word of the Profit, and in him alone. When raised in this sort of bubble, where everyone is taught to fear a vengeful God, you can begin to empathize with these people who believed they had no other choice.

It’s hard to put a rating on someone else’s life experience, especially when what they experienced was something that no one should have to face. Rebecca Musser was heart-wrenchingly vulnerable in sharing her experiences so that future generations won’t have to endure what she did. Her narration is filled with compassion and respect for the church that she left behind, not one filled with vengeance at what they put her through. This is a story that needed to be told, and one that I deeply recommend taking the time to hear.

Rating: 4/5