Know My Name

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When a friend of mine recommended this book on Facebook, I knew I had to read it. I purchased the audio copy of the book on Audible and began to listen. Although the content of the book is heavy, Know My Name makes an important contribution to the conversations about sexual assault and the legal system.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller
Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Chanel Miller was known around the world as the woman who was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner. Although her victim impact statement was published under a fictitious name to protect her safety and privacy, Chanel’s letter made waves around the world. Her letter and Turner’s lenient sentence became a topic of conversation across the globe.

In this memoir, Chanel writes about her entire experience. She reflects on the party where the assault happened, waking up in the hospital evidence, and everything that went into the long trial. Chanel writes about how it felt seeing her story in the news, as well as her worry that loved ones would react negatively if they knew that she was Brock Turner’s victim.

The #MeToo Movement

Chanel writes about the #MeToo movement and how it’s terribly misunderstood. Some people see #MeToo statements as attention-seeking. However, Chanel reflects on her own experience and how remaining silent became an unbearable burden. Speaking out and sharing her story wasn’t about getting revenge, but about making it bearable to talk about (and live with) what happened.

I’ve never publicly shared this story. When was a young teenager, a friend’s adult male relative slapped me on the butt to “wake me up” when I’d fallen asleep on a chair. I was horrified, but brushed it off. There were other things going on in my life.

Yet as I got older, this incident bothered me more and more. Was it one stupid moment in his life, or does he do this to other young girls? Since his job gives him access to underage girls, I’ve often worried about whether my silence allows him to do even worse things.

There are lots of questions I have about sharing this. In fact, my worrying about how this story may impact others is a large factor that’s kept this blog post in the “drafting” phase for so many months. What will people think of me? If the exact details got out, would it hurt my friend and other people in this man’s family?

Then again, is it worth staying up at night and wondering if he’s changed?

I get it. I understand why women speak up twenty or thirty years after something happened. It really can take that long to make the decision to tell. Sharing this story isn’t my way of seeking attention, but my way of sharing some insight into this issue.

Broken Trust Beyond the Rape Itself

Chanel’s book talks a lot about how rape isn’t just about breaking the trust you have for the opposite sex, but about breaking the trust you had surrounding your safety in public spaces.

Rape is about broken trust from systems that are supposed to help you. Chanel reflects on how she did everything right. She got a physical exam and filed a police report within hours. Her case was taken to court and her rapist even got convicted. But even though she’s one of the “lucky ones,” her rapist only spent three months in jail for his violent offense. The system failed.

Chanel writes about frustrating conversations she had with people about her case. Standford University reached out to her about building a garden in Chanel’s honor, with a quote of her choice. The quotes she shared weren’t as upbeat as the officials wanted. Frustrated, Chanel reflects, “Victims identify with pain more than platitudes.” Until people can sit with the discomfort of intense grief, true healing cannot happen.

I was in a physically and sexually abusive relationship in high school. When I told two of my closest friends about what happened, one of them told a distorted version of the story to everyone we knew. She claimed that I made up the abuse in an attempt to get a boy to like me. When I finally told an adult about it, her words were: “Faith, I thought you were smarter than that.” Another friend stopped talking to me altogether.

The failures of others in the aftermath of the abuse were a hundred times worse than the abuse itself. I felt seen and validated by Chanel’s frustration about this part of the experience.

Small Miracles

The book isn’t all depressing, though. Chanel writes about the small miracles she experienced, even on the worst days of her life. She remembers the two college studies who were passing on bikes, who pulled Brock off of her and later testified at the trial.

She also remembers a kind nurse, the kind victim advocates, and the court stenographer who gave her the emotional support she needed to get through the trial. Even though some horrific things happened, those small miracles are worth noting.

Review Breakdown

Writing – The writing was amazing. Even though the content was raw, it was clearly edited and presented in a clear and cohesive manner.

Story – Chanel’s story is compelling. Even though her case has been explored in the media, readers get a closer and more complete look at the situation in her memoir.

Mature Content – There’s a lot of very mature content. There’s a lot of profanity (which, in this case, is warranted) as well as sexually explicit content. Chanel also gives graphic descriptions of the medical treatment after her rape. There’s no way to discuss these topics without the mature content, though. However, I strongly recommend against providing this book to children and young teenagers.

Likability of Author – I found Chanel very likable. She was strong-willed and stubborn, but she also cared about others. In the aftermath of her rape, she was much more concerned about her little sister’s well-being than her own.

BONUS Audiobook Review – I always enjoy listening to audiobooks read by the author, since it allows me to listen to the book and hear the words the way they were meant to sound. It allowed me to get even closer to how she was feeling, which made me feel even more connected to this story.

Quick Review

Know My Name by Chanel Miller is a must-read book, especially for survivors of sexual assault. Chanel powerfully writes about the experience of a rape survivor. She reflects on the rape itself and its aftermath, giving the reader a glimpse of what victims experience. Although there’s a lot of mature content in this book, I highly recommend it.

Free Cyntoia

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After watching a documentary about Cyntoia Brown, I looked up her memoir, Free Cyntoia. After an extensive trial, the jury convicted Cyntoia for the murder and robbery of Johnny Michael Allen. During her trial, prosecutors painted her as a hardened criminal. This directly led to her lifetime sentence. She would not be eligible for parole until she was nearly seventy years old!

Free Cyntoia by Cyntoia Brown-Long
Free Cyntoia by Cyntoia Brown-Long

For the first few years in prison, Cyntoia was extremely angry about her situation. A Christian university offered her a chance to complete a college degree from prison. During her college years, she became a Christian and settled into a routine in prison.

When Cyntoia’s picture and criminal case went viral online, she saw that the public viewed her in a different light. In these social media posts, Cyntoia was painted as a trafficking victim who killed an older man who paid her for sex. Cyntoia and her legal team realized she might have justification for a retrial, as the law had changed to provide leneancy in cases like hers.

As she fought for her freedom, she began a relationship with the man she ended up marrying. In prison, she advocated for women facing situations similar to her own. Although she was sorry for the murder, she wanted to provide value to the world outside of the prison. In 2019, the governor granted clemency to Cyntoia. Freed, Cyntoia went home to enjoy life with her new husband.

Revisiting the Past

Cyntoia exhausted all of her legal means after her conviction. When she ran out of appeals, clemancy was her only remaining option. Although the laws had changed since she was convicted at sixteen years old, she remained imprisoned.

An older boyfriend forced her into prostitution when she was sixteen years old. By today’s definition, she was trafficked. However, trafficking was not the hot topic back then that it is today. The courts merely saw her situation as prostitution, painting her as a hardened criminal.

Reading this, I began to wonder about how many people remain imprisoned although new standards would have set them free. Rehabilitated individuals may deserve another chance at freedom, even if they haven’t served their entire sentence.

No matter how you feel about marijuana use, you have to struggle a little with the fact that people remain incarcerated in states where marijuana is now fully legal. Our justice system must take a look at these situations (as well as the convictions of minors) to remedy situations where the law has changed.

Rehabilitation in Prison

Although many claim that prison is for both punishment and rehabilitation, it’s no secret that our justice system often fails to rehabilitate criminal offenders. Educational programs, therapy, and classes on life skills should be provided more consistently.

There will always be criminals who offend again. However, we should not stop investing in life change because of criminals who are unwilling to change. It’s especially important to continue to offer rehabilitation programs for individuals incarcerated at a young age.

Maybe I’m naive, but I think we need to do more to holistically treat people facing long-term prison sentences. Cyntoia’s story reminds us that true change is possible, especially when resources and opportunities are provided to people in prison.

Review Breakdown

Writing – The writing was excellent. Cyntoia provided great insight into the feelings surrounding each event in her life.

Story – This story was phenomenal. It was told in an easy-to-understand and linear fashion. The story was engaging from start to finish.

Mature Content – There was sexual content and descriptions of crime, although none of these were described in an especially graphic way. It would be suitable for older teenagers.

Likability of Author – I found Cyntoia extremely likable. Although she made major mistakes, I found myself rooting for her throughout the book. When she started to make positive changes, I was so happy for her. Is it weird to say that I was even proud of her?

BONUS Audiobook Review – I loved the audiobook version of this memoir. Although Cyntoia talked fast, I enjoyed hearing her inflection. She was very expressive, giving me a deeper look into her life story.

Quick Review

I cannot recommend this book enough. It was a great story with inspirational subject matter. If you’re interested in reading about the justice system in America, I highly recommend this book. It gives insight into the appeals process, prison life, and ways the social justice system can be improved in the future. Cyntoia’s story provides a model for rehabilitation of prisoners with long-term prison sentences.

The Five

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It was by chance that I stumbled upon this book, which was in my recommended reads on Scribd. I wanted to listen to an audiobook to pass the time while I was in bed with a migraine. I found myself immediately immersed in the lives of Jack the Ripper’s victims.

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold
The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Ask anyone what they know about Jack the Ripper or his victims, and almost every single person will mention the fact that he killed prostitutes. But what would happen if I told you that he did not, in fact, kill prostitutes? Only one of his victims was an active prostitute at the time of her murder. What these five women have in common, in actuality, was the fact they were sleeping on the streets.

This book traced the lives of these five women. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly all lived lives filled with joys and sorrows before the fateful nights each of them met with Jack the Ripper.

These women had an education, often beyond what was typical of the time. After having an affair with their neighbor, Mary Ann Nichols’ husband cast her onto the streets. Husbands, siblings, and other relatives cast out some of the other victims for no other reason than their alcohol addiction

Debunking the Prostitution Myth

The five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper were not all prostitutes. These women all wandered and slept on the streets at night, due to poverty or circumstance. Jack the Ripper killed the last victim, Mary Jane Kelly, in the room she rented for the night. The murderer chose to kill women who were defenseless and most likely asleep.

For three of the victims, there is no evidence that they ever participated in prostitution. They were homeless and some of them were alcoholics. However, none of the people who knew these women knew of any prostitution. One of the women had been a prostitute but had turned away from prostitution for some time before her death. Only the last victim, Mary Jane Kelly, was a prostitute at the time of her death.

Alcoholism and Sexual Ethics

During the late 1800s, most middle and upper-class people viewed a connection between alcoholism and loose sexual morals. Because prohibition and anti-alcohol movements were common, people looked down on those who chose to drink, viewing them as degenerates.

At that time, people assumed that any woman who was drinking was probably also selling herself. This assumption was stronger if the woman was living on the streets.

Because people saw a correlation between alcoholism, homelessness, and promiscuity, it was a natural assumption that the women killed by Jack the Ripper were prostitutes. The print media went to great lengths to paint these women as prostitutes. This was easier than admitting that any woman was at risk if she was out at night.

The workhouse was a place where a woman could get a bed for the night and some food in the morning. Unfortunately, these charities created terrible living conditions that often drove women out of their care. When a woman entered the workhouse, she surrendered all of her belongings. With no possessions to her name, she would leave the workhouse poorer than she was before.

Many women had no choice but to choose between the terrible conditions of the workhouse and the instability of life on the streets.

Review Breakdown

Writing – The author provided a well-researched and beautifully written book. The author shared the stories of these women in a way that kept me reading.

Story – This was a compelling, eye-opening account of how the victims of Jack the Ripper have been misrepresented for over a century. It’s horrifying how this poor representation has influenced the opinions of people for so long.

Mature Content – There are sometimes graphic descriptions of life on the street. The book also explores issues of sexual morals and prostitution. While not overtly graphic, this may not be a suitable book for younger teenagers.

Likability of Author – The author, as a biographer, was not a character in the book itself. However, she did a good job of presenting the lives of these women and her opinions on their treatment in a way that helped the reader identify with them.

BONUS Audiobook Review – The audiobook was read by a woman with an English accent, which helped to transport me to England in the late 1800s. It was read in a way that kept me immersed in the story and helped me grasp the details.

Quick Review

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper is an amazing biographical look at the lives of these five women. If you’re a fan of true crime or crime history, this can be an exceptionally good read. Because this book explores the lives of five different women, it gives the reader smaller stories within the larger narrative of Jack the Ripper’s crimes. This made it a great read during my downtime on vacation and would make it a great read for anyone looking to read a little bit here and there.

American Heiress

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American Heiress is an interesting read about a turbulent time in history and the place of Patricia Hearst’s kidnapping case within that time. Jeffrey Toobin’s book will leave you questioning whether Patricia is guilty or innocent in the crimes she committed after being taken.

American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin
American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin

Patricia Hearst was kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a small group of radicals in the San Francisco area. She soon found herself involved in bank robberies and other crimes with the SLA. After most of the members died in a shootout with police, Patricia and the remaining two members remained in hiding for over a year before being arrested.

Upon her arrest, Patricia appeared to have been radicalized. Several people who witnessed her life on the run testified to her zeal for the SLA’s cause. However, after her father provided her with a lawyer, she completely changed. She cut ties with SLA members and became a model inmate. When at trial, she received an “average” sentence for her role in one bank robbery in exchange for testifying against the remaining SLA members about the bank robbery that resulted in the death of a woman. Her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter, and later pardoned by President Bill Clinton. Patricia never committed another crime.

Patricia Hearst: Guilty or Not?

For about three quarters of the book, Patricia appears to be guilty of the crimes she committed alongside the SLA. Her apparent radical behavior in front of strangers and her defiance to the police upon her arrest point to someone who has been truly changed by those who kidnapped her. Further, she kept a monkey necklace that was given to her by Willie Wolfe, one of the SLA members. During her trial she would claim that their relationship was non-consensual, but her keeping of the necklace raised doubts in the minds of many. Many of her actions, though done in captivity, make her look guilty.

And yet she was kidnapped. Although the SLA did little physical harm to her, these were radicals who were interested in and willing to harm other people. There is little doubt that they could have harmed her. Furthermore, her complete turnaround so shortly after capture points to her possibly being coerced by her captors. Despite the fact there are inconsistencies in her story, the fact she has never committed any further crimes speaks volumes.

So do I think Patricia Hearst is guilty? After finishing this biography I spent hours thinking about it. Although it seems like an easy answer, I believe that the only person who knows the extent of her guilt is Patricia Hearst herself.

Quick Review

This book was well-written in a journalistic style. While I prefer the personal style of memoirs over biographies, I found this biography enjoyable. Unfortunately it had a slow start as it tried to introduce all of the characters and their histories, along with the political atmosphere of the time. However, once I was into the book I found it hard to put down. The doubt surrounding Patricia’s guilt or innocence is extraordinarily intriguing. I cannot help but continue to think about whether or not she willingly committed her crimes, even after I’ve finished the book.

I Will Find You

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I Will Find You is a compelling and well-written memoir about a journalist’s journey to find out what brought her and her rapist together on the day of her attack. Joanna Connors writes her heartbreaking tale about how her rape changed the way she lived for over twenty years.

I Will Find You by Joanna Connors
I Will Find You by Joanna Connors

Joanna was thirty years old when she was raped by David Francis at a University theater where she had gone to get a story as part of her job as a journalist. It was by catching a glimpse of his tattoo that she was able to give a compelling description to police. They were able to catch him a day later returning to the scene of the crime. He was convicted and sentenced to thirty to seventy years in prison. But even with her rapist behind bars, Joanna went on to live in fear. A year after the rape, she had her first child with her husband. Unintentionally, she hovered over her two children excessively, afraid that they may fall into harm’s way.

After a college campus visit with her daughter, Joanna realized that she needed to put her fear to rest. She would find David Francis and find out what made him into a rapist. Although he told her that he would find her (a thought that once filled her with dread), she was now determined to find him. She gathered the court documents from her trial. Among them, she found his records and found out he had died several years prior. Although she was relieved that she would not have to face him, she also knew that she would not have all of her answers. Joanna found out that David and his siblings had been abused terribly by his father. This abuse, along with an older man willing to mentor David in crime, may have been contributing factors in David’s outcome.

Joanna powerfully reflects on the journey many survivors go through.

I found myself echoing so many of Joanna’s thoughts and words throughout her story. Although our stories are very different, the emotional toll it took is similar. Joanna is one of the rare cases of a rape committed by a stranger, while my abuse was carried out over a period of nine months by someone I knew. Yet there were several times that her reflected thoughts could have easily been my own.

Joanna reflected throughout the book about her guilt over the rape. She wrote that she blamed herself, even though she would have never blamed someone else in her shoes. Her guilt intensified when the attorney prosecuting her case asked her why she went into the empty building. When I opened up about my abuse, an adult I trusted said, “I thought you were smarter than that.” When they said these things, it only confirmed what we were already thinking: “This is my fault.”

“It was not your fault, even if you were drunk, even if you were wearing a low-cut minidress, even if you were out walking along at night, even if you were on a date with the rapist and kind of liked him but didn’t want to have sex with him.”

Joanna Connors

Joanna also reflected on the fearfulness she felt after her rape. Because of this, she developed a fear of everything around her, to the point that she could not function like she did before. While years of counseling have made that fearfulness less constant in my life, there are still times when I feel afraid for reasons I cannot explain. Men I do not know sometimes make me wary. I startle easily. I’m fortunate that the fear lessens over time, but when it is there, it is very apparent.

Joanna wanted to find out what made her rapist the way he was.

Instead of writing David Francis off as a “bad man,” Joanna wanted to find out what made him the way he was. On her journey, she found out about the abuse he endured at the hands of his father. She found his two sisters, both of which had also been rape victims themselves. Joanna found that in his vulnerability, David was mentored by an older criminal and jailed as a juvenile. In jail, it is possible that he himself was sexually abused.

While not all people who are abused become abusers themselves, those who commit these crimes have often been hurt terribly by other people. Although it is merely anecdotal evidence, the young man who abused me had been abused terribly as a child. I believe that the abuse he endured could easily have been the reason for his actions against me.

Quick Review:

I Will Find You is a very powerful book. It is very emotional. It also has mature content. Joanna Connors spends a chapter going into detail describing her rape, so I would not recommend this book for younger audiences, sensitive audiences, or for recent survivors of sexual assault. Additionally, there was some language throughout the book. It was a very good look at one woman’s journey to find answers about what made her rapist into the man he was. As a survivor myself, I enjoyed the rawness of her reflections of what it looks like to cope with a sexual assault.

A Daughter’s Deadly Deception

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After her father discovered her habitual lying, Jennifer Pan orchestrated the murders of her father and mother in a home invasion. What she didn’t expect was for her father to survive the attack and bear witness to the fact that she seemed to know their attackers. Jeremy Grimaldi writes about Jennifer Pan’s lies, murder plot, and undoing in A Daughter’s Deadly Deception.

A Daughter's Deadly Deception by Jeremy Grimaldi
A Daughter's Deadly Deception by Jeremy Grimaldi

The product of a Vietnamese immigrant family, Jennifer Pan was pushed to excel at everything she put her hand to. After school she was expected to participate in extracurricular activities that would allow her to expand her skill set. She was gifted at piano and enjoyed ice skating. After not winning any recognition for her achievements at her eighth grade graduation, Jennifer was crushed. Failing to see the point in trying as hard as she had before, she let her grades slip in ninth grade. Rather than facing her parents with the truth, she began forging her report cards.

What started as forged report cards eventually turned into a forged college career. Dedicated to keeping up the lie that she was attending school, she went to the library every school day to research and write down notes in case her father asked to look at them. During these college years, she convinced her parents to let her live with a friend closer to campus so that she did not have to commute. Instead of staying with her friend, though, she used these nights off to work at a pizza parlor and stay with her boyfriend, Daniel. She used this freedom to build up her relationship with him. Then she spent the weekends with her parents, pretending she had been at school all week. Eventually, her father discovered her falsehoods and forced her to break off her relationship with Daniel and move home until she finished her education.

Jennifer Pan took lying to an extreme.

At an age when some students might be thinking about forging a signature, she was forging entire report cards. The effort she put into keeping up the lie that she was getting her education may have been more work than it would have been for her to go back to school. However, she instead chose to continue to lie and cover up her earlier failures. Her behavior during interrogation suggests that she may have even believed some of her own lies.

Jennifer’s desire to be with Daniel likely contributed to the murder of her parents.

When Jennifer’s father had her break off the relationship with Daniel, Daniel moved on. Heartbroken by his betrayal, it is suspected that she began sending anonymous texts to his phone. These texts threatened Jennifer’s safety, effectively manipulating Daniel into spending more time talking to Jennifer. However, even these texts did not garner the attention she desired from him.

Jennifer and Daniel had an extended phone conversation before any of the planning of the murder began. After that, Jennifer began texting him constantly. Eventually he agreed to help her plan the murder of her parents, something that would inevitably tie them together. In the weeks between that phone call and the murder, all of the texts between Jennifer, Daniel, and the other conspirators show plenty of evidence of their planning. Some of Jennifer’s final texts in the days leading up to the murder of her parents hint at the fact that she is greatly concerned over whether Daniel will choose her or his new girlfriend when her parents are out of the picture.

I was most moved by the victim impact statements.

It is hard to find places to relate in books like these. I absolutely love true crime books because of how interesting they are. But I find it difficult to find areas where I feel emotionally connected to the people I am reading about. I often feel sad for the families of those who were murdered. But in reality, true crime books often focus on the murderer. They speculate about reasons why the murder occurred. That makes it difficult for me to connect emotionally with the majority of the book when the majority of the book is analyzing the mind of a killer. I mean, I’ve never murdered anyone. So what is there to relate to?

While I didn’t relate to them, I was deeply moved by the victim impact statements from Jennifer’s father and brother. Four years after the murder of Jennifer’s mother, her father is still in constant pain. He cannot work or enjoy hobbies he once did. His house cannot be sold because the Vietnamese community is superstitious about buying a house where someone has been killed. Her brother had difficulty finding work because whenever a potential employer Googled his name, details of the crime were the first results. He also struggled with how to relate to friends in the midst of his grief. Seeing the varied and severe ways that this crime impacted them was eye-opening and emotional for me. They did not only lose a mother to death and a sister to prison, but their lives were altered in ways I cannot even begin to imagine.

Quick Review:

Although I enjoyed this book, the writing was mediocre. It was an interesting story, and I feel the author did an adequate job of tackling the complexities of the case. Unfortunately, some of the writing was unclear. In some areas where brackets were used to change quotes to add clarity, they were unnecessary or used ineffectively. Overall, though, I would still recommend this book. It gives an interesting look at how extreme pressure without parental affection may have caused one woman to murder.


What did you find most fascinating about Jennifer Pan’s case?

True Notebooks

Why would any sane man with a self-preservation instinct teach a writing class for violent prisoners in his spare time? Mark Salzman, author of True Notebooks, didn’t volunteer at LA’s Central Juvenile Hall because of some idealistic notion of conquering juvenile delinquency through art, one misunderstood youngster at a time. No, Salzman just needed some exposure to young offenders to help flesh out a character in his latest novel, and the writing class was suggested by a friend. Salzman wasn’t crazy about the idea and tried to talk himself out of it by creating a list of reasons this was a bad idea:

  • Students all gangbangers; feel unqualified to evaluate poems about AK-47s
  • Still angry about getting mugged in 1978
  • Still angry about having my apartment robbed in 1986
  • Still angry about my wife’s car being stolen in 1992

His wife settled his indecision by telling him, “You don’t get out of the house enough.”

True Notebooks by Mark Salzman

Salzman was afraid of these kids at first. They were known as HROs, or High-Risk Offenders. Most of them were there for murder, rape, or armed robbery. They weren’t eligible for CYA (California Youth Authority, which releases offenders at age 25). They were to be tried as adults and sent to state prison when convicted.

Salzman’s recollections of the conversations in that class will alternately make the reader guffaw one minute and shake their head with sadness or disgust the next. The book is filled with actual essays and poems from the kids, most of them shockingly honest. They confess their deepest fears, hopes, and regrets. One of the writing prompts Salzman had given them was to write about a constant in their life; a personal North Star. Most wrote about an important person such as a parent or sibling. Family was always a popular topic, and a lot of the kids expressed regret at how their actions had affected those they love.

Many admit that they don’t really care about gang affiliation or race; that gang-banging is just what they have to do to survive in their neighborhood. Their insight into the foolishness of gangs is surprising. Most of them realize the gang was their downfall, and that their “homies” don’t care about them at all. There is the occasional exception to that though, such as the inmate who said, “The day I get released, I’ll go right back to bangin’. Only I’ll be better at it, ‘cause I’ll have had years of advanced study. Didn’t y’all hear? I’m goin’ to the pen—that’s graduate school on full scholarship, for y’all who don’t know.” Then, of course, there is the occasional piece that’s more what you’d expect from criminals—graphic, immoral, and just plain stupid. Salzman recounts a brief exchange between himself and a withdrawn, sullen student who had never actually written anything before: The boy asked him if he could help him spell a word. Salzman, eager to help him come out of his shell, agreed. The word that the barely literate young thug couldn’t spell? ‘Titties.’

Salzman repeatedly makes it clear that keeping order in his class doesn’t come naturally at all. He constantly worries about an inmate starting a fight, or disrupting class so much the guards have to intervene. Happily for Salzman, although he doesn’t demand respect, he gets it. The kids appreciate his time and don’t want to do anything that will make him stop volunteering for that precious hour every week. Still, the kids couldn’t resist his naivete; they had to needle him occasionally. One young man, Nathaniel (the same inmate who insisted he would go right back to ‘bangin’ if released), pretended to be sorry to the point of tears after a particularly difficult class where Salzman had to reprimand him. Salzman softened at the boy’s apparent remorse and told him, “I’ll do my best, I promise. All I ask is that you make an effort, too.” Salzman then sees that Nathaniel isn’t crying at all. No, he’s trying not to laugh! Nathaniel gives his teacher a reality check:

“I gotta tell you, man—you’re way too nice for a place like this! You gonna get played here, over and over. Only it won’t be by somebody like me, who tells you you bein’ played. It’ll be by somebody who really plays you, for somethin’ that matters.”

One inmate, though, impacted Salzman more than the others.

Kevin Johnson, incarcerated for one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder, was the prisoner who seemed to affect Mark Salzman the most. Kevin’s story was tragic: both his parents were killed in a car accident when he was just nine years old, and he and his older brother both turned to gangs and crime. He was a model prisoner. He never gave Mark any trouble, he was looked up to by the other inmates, and even helped to keep order in the writing class. He earned his diploma while locked up, and mentioned it in an essay:

“Graduating from high school taught me a lot about the courage to keep going. I feel I will make it because the look on my aunt’s and my grandma’s face made me feel like the man I was supposed to be.”

Salzman fought LA traffic for several days to attend Kevin’s trial and sentencing. At trial, he learned the full story. Kevin and a group of friends had gone to a movie theater. They were on their way in, and another group from a rival gang was on their way out. Gang signs were thrown, and someone asked Kevin, “What’s up, cuz?” In gang language, that particular phrase is very threatening. This young man then punched Kevin in the face. Fearing for his life (he claimed), Kevin pulled a gun and shot all three of the rival gang members. Two of them survived, but one of them died before medics arrived. Kevin and his friends fled the scene and went to another theater where the same movie they wanted to see was playing. They got there too late, however, and continued to cruise around the city. They were pulled over and arrested a short time later that night. Salzman wrote this about his thoughts and emotions after the trial:

That night I went to bed with a broken heart… One of my students’ victims had a name and a family now, and I had to wrap my mind around the fact that someone I had grown so fond of, and who seemed so gentle, had been foolish enough to go to a movie theater carrying a loaded gun, violent enough to shoot three people with it—two of them in the back—and then callous enough to want to go to a movie afterward.

Kevin was found guilty and sentenced to a total of sixty-six years, eight months for all his crimes. In spite of Salzman’s ambivalence about what Kevin had done, he took it hard. True Notebooks ended with a poem written for Salzman, sent by Kevin Johnson from state prison. The last line of the poem was ‘Dear old friend, North Star,” in reference to the earlier writing prompt.

Quick Review:

This book will get you thinking. The kids featured run the gamut from those who seem to be in the wrong place to young delinquents who appear to be rotten to the core. There’s Kevin Johnson on one end of the spectrum; he expresses remorse, he’s well-behaved and respectful, and he has a great work ethic. One has to wonder if sending him to prison is really the best thing for society. Of course this brings up the issue of justice for the victims, and there’s just no decent answer. Then there’s Ibrahim, who writes stories about a thug named T-Bone who goes around robbing and killing. One fictional clerk was shot for “disrespecting” T-Bone. Salzman asked what, exactly, constituted disrespect. Ibrahim’s shockingly depraved answer? “Tellin’ him to pay for stuff.” This young man genuinely did not understand what was wrong with that. It’s frightening that there are people out there with zero morals or empathy.

More than once I wondered why Mark Salzman kept returning week after week. I’m not the only one; his father and several friends had asked him why he continued teaching the class. After much consideration, he decided that the reason he went there was not because he always enjoyed it, and not because the boys always enjoyed it, but because everyone seemed to agree that it was a good thing to do, and a little good has got to be better than no good at all. That makes a lot of sense. True Notebooks is a thought-provoking, fascinating, hilarious, moving read. Whatever you’re in the mood for, you’ll get your fix. I definitely recommend it.

Breakaway Amish

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Ever since I was a preteen and visited Ohio for the first time, I have had a fascination with the Amish community. Breakaway Amish details the horrifying story of the Bergholz Amish community that took on cult-like characteristics under the leadership of their bishop, Sam Mullet.

Breakaway Amish by Johnny Mast with Shawn Smucker
Breakaway Amish by Johnny Mast with Shawn Smucker

Johnny Mast tells the story of growing up and leaving the Bergholz community, which is best known for cutting the beards and hair of Amish men outside of their community as an act of revenge. For an Amish man, the beard is grown out to show that he is married (and he can only be married once he is baptized into the Amish church). His beard and his hair are very important to him, and this act is absolutely a violation. Sam Mullet and his followers committed these acts against those who had wronged them, however small the perceived infraction.

The beard cuttings were not the whole story, though. Although he tells the story of the beard cuttings and his choosing to testify against Sam Mullet, his own grandfather, Johnny details the story that led up to these criminal acts. Sam Mullet began abusing his power by asking those under his leadership to write down all of their sins. He accused many people of not writing all of them down, including his own wife, who he cast out of his house. He forced many men to live in the chicken coop while he took their wives into his own home. Around this time, he told them to put away their Bibles and to stop having church, since the words of the Bible were only being twisted anyway. He even got one of the wives of another man pregnant. He abused his power, and his power increased. Sam Mullet demanded and gained absolute control over those in his care. Other Amish communities took note of this abuse of power and cut off ties with the Bergholz community.

Without glossing over the facts, Johnny Mast gives hope about life after Bergholz.

Johnny Mast does not sugar coat the horror of discovering his grandfather, the bishop, a man he trusted in bed with the wife of another man. He does not gloss over the fear of being thrown in jail along with the others who were more willing to participate in his grandfather’s crimes. He does not tone down his words of frustration toward those he loves who refuse to see how much they have fallen under the control of someone who does not care for their well-being.

Despite this, though, he paints a hopeful picture of the future. After leaving the Bergholz community and the Amish, he meets a young woman named Clara who had left another Amish community. They have a daughter named Esther. Despite reaching out to his parents on a few occasions and not hearing from them, he knows that he has a bright future ahead of him. He works hard to make ends meet, but at least he is free from the hold that Sam Mullet had on him and everyone else in Bergholz.

“I think that people who go through a Bergholz-type situation each respond differently. My cousin, for example: after we left, he found a church he liked within two or three months. He goes every Sunday. He really likes it. So I guess these things affect people in different ways.”

Johnny Mast

As someone training to be a chaplain, it is hard to me to think about people like this who have been so hurt by religion that they do not want to be around it. However, those wounds need time to heal (and to some extent, they may never heal).  As he even wrote in the quote above, some may find their healing in religion and some my find it in having a break from religion.

As a teenager, I had a relative who was addicted to drugs, causing religious delusions. While I was determined to live out my calling to go into vocational ministry, I cannot say that abuse of religious imagery did not leave its marks on me. Certain religious words, though I know their good, still bring back bad memories for me. My siblings are at different places in their relationships with religion and with God, from disdain to some amount of openness.

Although what we went through was in no way equal to the cult-like reality that those in Bergholz lived out, abuse of religion and religious images can leave its marks for years. When those with religious power abuse it, whether they are a family member or a bishop, that trust is difficult to earn back. My hope is that those like Johnny and so many others who have been victims of religious abuse can come to find that God is not like the one who manipulated them with some form of so-called “Christianity.”

Quick Review:

Breakaway Amish was a very interesting book. I tend to drift toward true crime books more than other memoirs, and this one delivered in quality more than many of them do. Johnny Mast was both a victim and a perpetrator in the crimes that happened at Bergholz, so his insights into what happened in that cult-like community are unique and fascinating. And although my interest in true crime books seems at odds with my desire for a happy ending, this book was able to deliver a happy ending as well.


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Conviction is the morbidly fascinating story of a woman who premeditated the brutal murder of her ex-boyfriend then told a number of unbelievable lies to cover it up. This book was written by Juan Martinez, the prosecuting attorney in the case. Perhaps no person knows the case and its intricacies better, except the murderer herself.

Conviction by Juan Martinez
Conviction by Juan Martinez

Juan Martinez was called to the house of Tyler Alexander, a young man who had been brutally stabbed and shot in the head. The district attorney in Arizona often would be invited to be a part of the investigative process as a witness, so he or she could better understand the crime scene when it was time for trial. Not long after Tyler’s body was discovered, his ex-girlfriend Jodi Arias called the police offering her assistance. They initially dismissed her, but her insistence on helping raised their suspicions, along with the allegations by friends that she was stalking Tyler.

After an investigation found her hair at the crime scene and her palm print in his blood, they executed a warrant for her arrest. When searching her belongings, they collected other evidence, eventually finding receipts that showed she purchased a gas can and enough gas to fill up a total of three gas cans (two of which she borrowed from a friend), allowing her to enter and leave Arizona undetected. While she had attempted to make sure that she did not leave any evidence of her being in Arizona, she inadvertently took pictures of herself during the commission of the crime, although they were blurry. For all her planning, she still left evidence of her being at the crime scene.

The way Jodi Arias lied and manipulated those around her repulsed me.

Perhaps I have an unusually low tolerance for habitual liars, but I found myself especially sickened by her lies. She used her words to manipulate everyone around her, hoping that in doing so she would keep her freedom. She manipulated her friends, the police, and the jurors.

Her first version of the story was that she was not in Arizona and that she was grieving the loss of her ex-boyfriend. She left three messages for him in the time between the murder and the discovery of his body in an attempt to throw suspicion off of her. She even spent time talking with her friend, supposedly grieving his loss. All this time, she knew how he died because she had been the one who had killed him.

When she was initially under the suspicion of the police because the camera that had blurry pictures of the murder also had pictures of her and Tyler posing nude only hours before the murder (and nude pictures of Tyler only minutes before the murder) she said that between the nude pictures and the blurry pictures of the murder, two people broke into the house and murdered Tyler. Those two people threatened her so she did not tell anyone. However, there was such a short amount of time between the pictures of Tyler posing in the shower and the beginning of the murder that this scenario was very unlikely. In addition, one of the pictures of the murder showed her pants and sock.

The third and final lie she told was that Tyler attacked her and that she acted in self-defense. Throughout the trial, she made unfounded accusations about his character. While there were emails that showed he lost his temper with her, there was also evidence that she manipulated him and pushed his buttons, and that the extent of his temper was only in verbal abuse (not to belittle verbal abuse in any way). She accused him of being a pedophile and sexually abusive, going as far as to fabricate letters in his handwriting about things he wanted to do. These letters were never presented to the jury, since they were determined to be fake. Despite her claims, though, the boyfriend she met the day after the murder said she acted completely normal. He said she even acted out sexually, which seemed out of character for someone who had just fought for her life after a sexually abusive relationship and won.

What bothers me the most about Jodi’s lies about the murder is that outside of the evidence, Tyler’s family will likely never have the truth. Whenever faced with questions about the inconsistencies in her stories or the lies that were proven to be false by evidence, Arias usually responded with phrases like, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t remember.” While the jury fortunately saw this as a sign of her guilt instead of a sign of her ignorance or forgetfulness, it is frustrating for those who want answers. Even during sentencing, Arias did not accept guilt for what she did.

I have only encountered a few habitual liars in my life (who I knew were lying to me, at least). They have not murdered anyone, but they lie to cover up everything. It doesn’t matter if it is something completely insignificant. I wish I could write more, but I am honestly at a loss because I have so little understanding of what makes people who habitually lie do what they do. While I cannot say I have never lied, I am so far removed from a life of constant dishonestly that I am actually bad at lying. My only hope is that honesty can bring healing to people like Jodi Arias.


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For the first three-fourths of this book, I was dreading the moment that I would sit at my computer to write this blog post. While I absolutely loved Jaycee Dugard’s first book, I found it incredibly difficult to get through most of this book. Fortunately, the last quarter of the book made the rest of the book worth it.

Freedom by Jaycee Dugard
Freedom by Jaycee Dugard

Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped and held prisoner for eighteen years by Phillip and Nancy Garrido. During that time she gave birth to Phillip’s two children, and lived in the back yard. I was living in Placerville when she was recovered from his home and reunited with her family in nearby South Lake Tahoe. Not long after, the trial of Phillip and Nancy Garrido would dominate local headlines as it unfolded. Her first book, A Stolen Life, details her kidnapping and captivity, as well as her reuniting with her family. This book details the years since, with many of Jaycee’s adventures and dreams.

“I have hope that life does not end when you are kidnapped or raped or abused. I believe life goes on and all that you can endure can be channeled into positive things for others to learn and grow from.”

Jaycee Dugard

Jaycee’s writing style left a lot to be desired, making it a difficult book to read.

Because I want to end on a positive note, I am going to start with why I struggled so much to get through so much of the book. There were two reasons, both of them having to do with the style of Jaycee’s writing:

The first, and perhaps most major reason, was that the book did not seem to be in chronological order. Each chapter had a topic, exploring something that Jaycee was experiencing for the first time. Within that chapter, though, she might get off on tangents or stories related to that topic, losing the chronological order entirely. Some chapters seemed as if they had been rearranged entirely. For example, one chapter talks about her mom getting her ordination renewed when a later chapter explains that her mom was able to get online ordination to do a marriage ceremony for a friend. I suspect that the chapters were likely in a different order that made more sense chronologically at another point. In the editing process, things like this were not caught after the chapters were rearranged.

The second reason I struggled to get through this book was because of the style in which it was written. It had frequent chat-speak acronyms sprinkled throughout it, as well as frequent sentence fragments. While I am never too bothered by the occasional sentence fragment because of the conversational feel it gives, the extreme number of them bothered me. Chat-speak, except perhaps in the context of explaining the content of an email, text, or conversation, really bothers me. I realize that is a pet peeve that might only apply to a select few, but it is worth mentioning.

Jaycee’s story is one of overcoming great things and living life to the fullest despite them.

That’s enough of the negative stuff! Order and style aside, I enjoyed a lot of things about this book. I loved Jaycee’s positivity and desire to impact the world around her. After initially making sure that her children would not be negatively impacted by media surrounding her case, she began going out in public without fear. She even began to travel to universities to speak about her case. Though she has reason to fear, she chooses not to.

“So there’s not any easy answer of why I’m okay. I want to be okay and I think that helps a lot.”

Jaycee Dugard

Jaycee is a fantastic advocate for getting proper counseling after trauma. While her trauma is in a different league than that of many people, I believe that her book is a strong testament to the value of getting good help. She travels with one or two therapists when she goes anywhere. She has a primary therapist that she goes most places with, and a secondary one who is doing research with her. Both of them have aided her in her recovery, and because of her investment in herself, she has gotten to the place she is today. Others who go through trauma (big or small) can learn from her example in getting the proper care.

“New moments and finding the joy in them is what makes me stronger every day, and a little help from family and friends never hurts, too.”

Jaycee Dugard

This book was in high contrast to her first book. While her first book was very heavy because of the content, this book is mostly light. She writes about her best friend’s wedding, her sister’s wedding, trips to Ireland, South America, and the Grand Canyon. She details the embarrassment of her first speeding ticket. Throughout the pages, despite the horrors she endured, Jaycee convinces me that she is like the rest of us, human.