Tag Archives: contemporary memoirs

“When I Was White – A Memoir” by Sarah Valentine

 

Another lucky grab from the “New Arrivals” shelf at my local library. Sarah Valentine was a mixed race child born into an otherwise white American family.

Ms. Valentine’s childhood was in most respects idyllic – suburbia, good schools, friends, family (including two younger brothers). Her parents were devoted to their children. She was athletic as well as academically talented.

Her parents kept from her the fact that she had a different father from her two younger brothers. She was told that her skin tone (darker than her brothers) and relatively curly hair came from her father’s Greek and Italian ancestors. There’s too much for me to summarize here. Ms. Valentine still identified as white when she finished college, but considered herself African American or multiracial when she finished her PhD (in Russian literature) at Princeton University.

One thread running though is book is the power of secrets. The choice to keep a secret, to withhold important information from another person, is weighty. Secrecy distorted Ms. Valentine’s relationship with her mother and greatly troubled her brothers.

Ms. Valentine was a very high achieving child and continued to earn academic honors during college and graduate school. In this respect, she reminds me of Michelle Obama, whose memoir I reviewed on December 14, 2018. I wonder if the two ever met? Each is a very accomplished woman, but Ms. Obama has never had to wonder who she was or where she came from. Her identity was secure, though she occasionally encountered criticism for being “too white”. Ms. Obama, who has spent at least 15 years in the public eye, may envy Ms. Valentine’s “private citizen” status.

“When I Was White” is a wonderful, energetic autobiography and a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of race in our country.

“Where is the Mango Princess? A Journey Back from Brain Injury” by Cathy Crimmens (2001) and “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (A Memoir of Going Home)” (2010) by Rhoda Janzen

These two books were written by women who suffered personal calamities and wrote about them before they were really “digested”. In each case, I wonder if they hurried the work into print due to financial pressure.

Where is the Mango Princess? Is about the saddest book I ever read. Alan Crimmens was terribly injured in a freak motorboat accident. The man who emerged from that devastating brain injury was very different from his former self, and no longer capable of carrying adult responsibilities. His wife Cathy Crimmens tells their story with insight and considerable humor, but to me it seemed that she was desperate to write something that would sell.

My perspective on this may be slanted. A member of my family suffered a severe brain injury in an auto accident. I’ve walked the same path as Cathy Crimmens – emergency response, intensive care, rehabilitation, and the awful fear that perhaps medical science has saved the body but not the soul or personality. Our outcome was better than that of the Crimmens family. I’m sorry for what they suffered, and there’s just no way I can laugh at any part of it.

I didn’t share the misfortunes of Rhoda Janzen, author of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Leaving her Mennonite community to follow her literary and academic aspirations, she married a charming, brilliant man who suffered from severe bipolar disorder. After the marriage ended and she was injured in a serious auto accident, she went home, to stay with her aging Mennonite parents and heal.

My perspective on this book may be slanted by my age – I am closer to her parents’ age! I find this book often slides over the line from affectionate humor into rudeness, even malice. Snarky – I think that’s the word. Unkind.

The best aspect of this book is its account of life with a partner who refuses to consistently medicate for a treatable (and complicated) mental illness. As a culture and as individuals, we are now working hard to understand mental health, remove stigma and optimize treatment. A tall order, and honest, intelligent accounts like this one are worth a great deal.

Each of these books offers an authentic, highly intelligent female voice. I wish the authors well, and hope to learn, in the future, that each has found the good fortune she deserves.