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Book Review: Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System by Cyntoia Brown-Long and Bethany Mauger

book coverSummary:
Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison for a murder she committed at the age of sixteen. Her case became national news when celebrities and activists made the hashtag #FreeCyntoia go viral in 2017. She was granted full clemency after having served fifteen years, walking out a free woman on August 7, 2019.

This is her story, in her own words.

Review:
I think how people will respond to this memoir will depend a lot on what they believe justice to be. Do certain levels of crime deserve never-ending punishment? Can people change or be redeemed? Then there’s another level of do teenagers, people who are still growing and whose brains have not fully developed (brains do not complete developing until approximately age 25), deserve to spend the rest of their lives being punished for an act committed at this age? This memoir aims to be proof that people can be redeemed and, indeed, if we want people to change, they need to have hope that an end could be in sight for them.

The fact of the matter is that no one but Cyntoia, God, and Johnny Michael Allen know what truly happened that night. Cyntoia has never denied killing Johnny but has maintained it was in self-defense. The only facts that we know are that she, a sixteen-year-old who had been being sold for sex by her pimp, was picked up by Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old, and brought home with him, and they were alone in his bedroom together. Both potential stories told by each side are possible. It’s possible he brought her home for sex, like Cyntoia says. It’s possible he brought her home in an attempt to take care of a teenager he found living on the street, like Johnny Allen’s family says. Regardless, Cyntoia ended up killing him. The memoir dances around exactly what happened, with Cyntoia describing him picking her up and bringing her home but then describing the night as a red haze with no details. Was that to protect a guilty conscience or to protect details that would hurt Johnny Allens’ family that no one really needs to know? It’s very hard to say. But in a way I think this is appropriate because Cyntoia admits that she killed him, and the true point of the story is first, how did this girl end up here and second, can she be redeemed?

How she got here contains two of the more interesting aspects of the memoir. First, the school to prison pipeline is painfully obvious in Cyntoia’s story. She originally was placed in a gifted class, acted up some (didn’t get along with the teacher) and was downgraded. She started to be told over and over again she was bad. It was all downhill from there with her hanging out with the crowd of kids who were always in trouble and being constantly told she was bad and not listened to. The police were even called on her at school for her not wanting to give the teacher her purse in detention. If we want our children to rise to their potential, having school tied to prison in the way that it is is not the solution, and treating children like they’re “bad” when they’re just children who mess up sometimes is sending them a clear message that many children will just accept or fail to.

The other issue that came up during one of Cyntoia’s trials is that her birth mother admits to drinking alcohol while she was pregnant, and some doctors have diagnosed her as having fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. This is relevant, because fetal alcohol spectrum disorder can cause poor judgment, hyperactivity, poor reasoning, and problems in school. It seems, given both doctors’ testimonies her birth mother’s admission, and Cyntoia’s own perspective that this sad tale is likely, therefore, partially entwined with alcohol abuse. Cyntoia herself states multiple times that she doesn’t know why she has tended to act so impulsively. This could partially help explain it and be another of the many tentacles of how alcohol impacts our society with poor outcomes and violence.

Cyntoia ultimately chooses to have faith that she could possibly be redeemed and decides, even if she can’t be, she doesn’t want to waste her life. She goes to a unique program available in her prison that allows her to go to college. She pursues self-improvement and mentorship of others, and she works to help young girls who have also been trafficked like she was. (It is not a question that Cyntoia was trafficked as she was underage and had a pimp). Cyntoia attests much of her self-improvement to her new-found faith that she solidified after meeting her now-husband via letters in jail. (He felt called to write to her). A spiritual practice is important for anyone to have a well-rounded recovery, and I think it is also significant that the school that offered the college program inside the prison was also a religious school. I am glad for her that she has found comfort and faith, but I also hope it’s not too entwined with her husband and is her own source of strength. While healthy relationships are important, and it’s nice to share a faith, it’s also important for that strength to come from oneself and not from relying upon another fallible human being.

Overall, I think this shows a personal look at the school to prison pipeline, the potential impact of alcohol on a child’s life, and how redemption could look. It’s important to come into this book with an open mind and a willingness to not crave more than Cyntoia is willing to share, nor to think that this book will reveal all the truth or all the answers.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Shape of Night by Tess Gerritsen

March 29, 2020 3 comments

First, a note….

I hope all of my readers are as safe and well as possible in these difficult times we are living in. A few people have asked me what I recommend reading to get through things. My advice is what my advice always is – read what most entertains you. Read what distracts you. Feel no guilt for what you enjoy reading. Read whatever it is you most enjoy. I think now more than ever it’s important for all of us to get a respite from the world around us and visit another world, whether that’s fiction or nonfiction, romance or thrills. In the spirit of this, I’m just going to keep reviewing the books I’ve most enjoyed recently.

43808355Summary:
Ava is writing a cookbook of what Maine fisherman communities ate during the 1800s. She’s hit a bit of a writer’s block, so she rents a summer home on the coast of Maine for inspiration – and maybe to run away from the tragedy that is haunting her. But when she arrives at the home in Maine she starts to think it might actually be haunted. She also discovers the previous renter mysteriously disappeared.

Review:
I love house-sitting or house-renting thrillers. There is something decidedly spooky about short-term rentals, and I love how this type of thriller just goes there. It reminded me of the Victoria Holt books I would borrow from my grandmother in middle school only set in modern day Maine.

What I wasn’t expecting from this book or its summary was its deft handling of alcohol addiction. Ava’s alcohol addiction isn’t her entire personality – far from it. She is very well-rounded. We get to know her incredible talent at both cooking and researching then recreating historic recipes. She is intelligent and caring. She loves her sister. But she has definitely made a giant mistake that is haunting her, and I would argue it’s a mistake that was rooted in her alcohol problem although before it became as serious as it is in Maine.

There are no easy answers in this book – not for the “ghost” of Captain Brodie. Not for the disappearances. Not for how small towns handle things. Not for Ava straightening her life back up. The lack of neat ends makes it all feel more real which really works for a book with a creepy ghost.

There were many aspects of this book that kept me staying up too late reading it: the mystery, Ava’s addiction, the ambience, is there really a ghost, what happened in Ava’s past. I also just liked visiting the house and waterfront, which was well described and realistic. It had just the right amount of twists and turns and well-rounded characters.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: Try Not to Breathe by Holly Sedon

Book Review: Try Not to Breathe by Holly SeddonSummary:
Amy Stevenson was the biggest news story of 1995. Only fifteen years old, Amy disappeared walking home from school one day and was found in a coma three days later. Her attacker was never identified and her angelic face was plastered across every paper and nightly news segment.

Fifteen years later, Amy lies in the hospital, surrounded by 90’s Britpop posters, forgotten by the world until reporter Alex Dale stumbles across her while researching a routine story on vegetative patients.

Remembering Amy’s story like it was yesterday, she feels compelled to solve the long-cold case.

The only problem is, Alex is just as lost as Amy—her alcoholism has cost her everything including her marriage and her professional reputation.

In the hopes that finding Amy’s attacker will be her own salvation as well, Alex embarks on a dangerous investigation, suspecting someone close to Amy

Review:
I devoured this book so quickly that I forgot to mark it read in GoodReads for a few weeks. It’s a thrilling read on a lot of levels. Amy’s questionably vegetative state would give anyone chills, as would how she wound up there. Even before full details of the attack are known, everyone knows it was pretty gruesome. Alex’s “functional” alcoholism also sends chills down the spine. She’s lost almost everything,  but she still drinks enormous amounts of alcohol every day. The juxtaposition of the two women is what makes the psychological thriller so thrilling. They’re both being held paralyzed in a state by an illness and any one of us could fall to either of those states.

I know the average reader is probably most interested in the mystery aspect of the thriller–the whodunit. I will say in short that it’s a well-done mystery. I had my suspicions but exactly how things ultimately went down was still enough of a surprise that I was delighted, and I thought the resolution was well-done. What I was much more fascinated by though was Alex.

A “trouble-making journalist” or a detective who drinks too much is the norm of thrillers and noir but usually that is played up as something slightly dangerous but also sexy. Here there is nothing sexy about Alex’s alcoholism. She wets the bed every night. It at first seems this is because she drinks at least one glass of water per glass of alcohol to stave off hangovers but later it’s clear it’s from her body shutting down from her alcoholism. Alex is a great example of a “functional” alcoholic. She’s holding down a job (sort of, her alcoholism stole her dream career from her), she runs every day, she’s capable of looking into this mystery of Amy. But slowly other things are revealed that makes it ever clearer that no, she’s not homeless, but she is far from functional, unless by functional you simply mean she can sort of exist in human society. She is nowhere near what she could be because of the alcohol, and she’s lost almost everything (career, husband, and more). I really liked that the reader is both compelled to respect Alex’s smarts and tenacity as a reporter but also to feel empathy and horror at how much alcoholism is stealing from her. Even if the reader doesn’t have an interest in addictions, it still makes Alex a well-rounded character. She is more than just that smart journalist. There are whole worlds going on in her own life outside of her investigation.

Overall, if you’re looking for a thriller with a twisting plot that also turns some thriller/noir conventions on their head (not least of which the fact that both leads are women), then you should pick this book up.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Counts For:
Mental Illness Advocacy (MIA) Reading Challenge
Specific illness –> Addictive Disorders

Trigger Warning/Content Note:
Contains discussions of rape and sexual assault.

Book Review: Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola (Audiobook narrated by Sarah Hepola)

Book Review: Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola (Audiobook narrated by Sarah Hepola)Summary:
“It’s such a savage thing to lose your memory, but the crazy thing is, it doesn’t hurt one bit. A blackout doesn’t sting, or stab, or leave a scar when it robs you. Close your eyes and open them again. That’s what a blackout feels like.”

For years Sarah Hepola ignored her blackouts. She was a young woman with a successful writing career living in New York City. She was empowered, and part of embracing equality was drinking like one of the guys. But while littering her writing with references to drinking and laughing off her drunken escapades, she actually spent her daytimes cleaning up after her blackouts. Figuring out how she scraped up her knees or tracking down her purse. Eventually, she realized that drinking wasn’t making her the life of the party and one of the guys. It was stealing who she was, and it was time to get herself back.

Review:
I have a thing for addiction memoirs (and addiction documentaries….movies…tv shows…). But I have often found myself puzzled by the female drinking memoir. Often presented as a woman (usually a wife and mother) who appears to have it all and hides all of her drinking because women don’t drink. I’m sorry, but as a Millennial, that’s not the kind of drinking I’ve seen women in my generation partake in. Drinking was considered unladylike by generations even as recent as the one right before ours (that my brother is in). But in mine? What I often saw was women proving their coolness by keeping up with the guys. These women would never hide wine. They’d take shots and get praised for it. So when I saw this memoir talking about the impact on women of drinking like one of the guys; of how this equality of substance abuse is really impacting women, I had a sense it was going to be something good and insightful, and I was right.

Sarah Hepola shows the reader through a clear lens exactly how the different perceptions of women and alcohol impacted her drinking, and thus how they might impact other women. The book starts with some context of how young women are both encouraged by their peers to binge drink but then are also blamed by them when bad things happen to them when they are drunk. She then moves on to talking about her own childhood when she would steal sips of beer from open cans in the fridge, and how her parents never suspected she was sneaking beer because little girls wouldn’t do that. She then gradually brings us up through time and shows us how with drinking she was subconsciously trying to pursue both fitting in and equality. She drank to fit in and be cool in college. She drank with co-workers on her male-dominated first job to be one of the guys and get the same networking opportunities they got after work by going out for beers. She liked that it wasn’t necessarily feminine. She liked feeling strong and empowered.

By embracing something that is perceived of by the culture as hyper-masculine, like binge drinking, women are seeking to be taken seriously and viewed as equals. Women do this in other areas too. Just look at power suits or the short haircuts preferred by women in positions of power. Our culture devalues what is perceived of as feminine and elevates what is perceived of as masculine. There are many issues with this, which I can’t go into in a short book review, but what matters about this for women and alcohol is that women’s bodies just don’t biologically process alcohol the same way men’s bodies do. Sarah Hepola goes into this in quite some detail, but essentially, women get drunker faster on less alcohol than men do, which means women black out more easily, and blackouts are dangerous. They make anyone vulnerable, but they make women particularly vulnerable to things like date rape.

Sarah Hepola does a much more eloquent job in the book than I am doing here in the review of illuminating how gender and alcohol mix to make the modern alcoholic young woman. And the book doesn’t just detail the dramatics of her youthful drinking. She also goes into great detail about what it was like to stop. To find the empowerment of being completely in control again and not losing parts of herself and her life to blackouts. She talks about her sober life and how exciting it is, and she even talks about finding some spirituality. Most importantly to me, she discusses how women in western culture today are often told we are equal but are able to sense that things that are feminine are just not taken seriously. So they pursue the masculine to be taken more seriously and in some cases the masculine is simply not helpful. It is harmful. Sometimes, in cases like with binge drinking,  it’s even more dangerous for women than for men. I believe the book offers some hope when Hepola talks about finding strength in her sober living and in her accomplishments at facing life as a single woman.

Those listening to the audiobook will be entranced by Hepola’s own voice telling the story. I couldn’t stop listening and listened every second I could. One of the more haunting moments of the audiobook is when toward the end Hepola introduces a tape recording she made as a teenager discussing a sexual encounter she had while drunk with a much older boy. Hearing the incredibly young voice of a woman already being drawn into the harmful world of addiction was heartbreaking to listen to and made me want to fix things, even though I wasn’t totally sure how.

This book left me realizing that the reality of women and alcohol has changed, and the cultural narrative needs to catch up with it. Women aren’t drinking in closets to dull their feminine mystique pain anymore. They’re drinking loud and proud because they want to be empowered and taken seriously and yes, even perceived of as cool. While we can talk about finding more positive ways of empowerment, I think it’s also important that we as a culture strive to stop putting innate positive value on the masculine and negative on the feminine. Things should be valued based on their impact on the world and not on the gender norm of who does it. And young women will stop feeling pressured to act like a man when men and women are equally valued. All of these things I am saying play into male drinking as well. If you think zero young men are binge drinking to be seen of as more of a man, you’re very wrong. We just see less of the immediate negative impact of male binge drinking because women black out so much more easily.

Hepola wrote a brave book that illuminates the issue of binge drinking among young women today. It’s both personal and with an eye to the culture as a whole, thinking beyond just the author herself. Readers will be haunted both by the voice of the young Sarah and by the thought of young women seeking to empower themselves actually making themselves more vulnerable. A key read for anyone who works with or cares about these younger generations of women.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Counts For:
miabadge
Illness(es) featured: Addictive Disorders

Friday Fun! (People Who Have Fevers Probably Shouldn’t Blog But I’m Going To Anyway)

August 26, 2011 2 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  Goodness, it’s a good thing I had posts queued up and scheduled as I seem to have dropped off the face of the planet the last couple of days with a random high fever and sore throat.  Not sure what that’s all about.  Planning to apply whiskey and soup to it tonight.

Also this seems to be weird weather week here in Boston what with the tremors from the DC earthquake shaking our high rises and Hurricane Irene supposedly arriving Sunday.  I get slightly irrationally excited over storms.  This is quite possibly because they were one of the more exciting events around when I was growing up in Vermont.  In any case, when the weathermen and the media are all “SHIT’S ABOUT TO GET REAL” and then it doesn’t, I get majorly disappointed.

*shakes fist at sky* You promised me loss of electricity and storms and rain slamming into my window and comforting my kitten and hiding under a blanket with my kindle and secretly laughing at my new-found right to eat everything in my fridge before it goes bad!

Yeah.  Girlfriend has a tendency to get irritated when instead of that everything is sunny and normal.  Although I suppose I still could hide under the blanket with my kindle and kitty.

In any case, my preparation for  Irene is going to consist entirely of acquiring alcohol and a flashlight since I don’t own one.

Side-note: if anyone knows any sore throat cures I would massively appreciate it.  It hurts to talk.

I think it is still obvious I have a fever.

Oh!  Also, fellow east coasters, what’re your hurricane preps consisting of?  My work has already hid all of our picnic tables somewhere.