No Wall Too High

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

Xu Hongci may be the only man to have ever escaped one of Mao’s prisons. Others caught attempting to escape were either killed on the spot or recaptured and put in chains. Despite two previous failed attempts in a less secure prison, Hongci escaped from Mao’s darkest prison. No Wall Too High is the fascinating account of his arrest, imprisonment, and freedom.

No Wall Too High by Xu Hongci
No Wall Too High by Xu Hongci

Hongci lived his early life in exuberant support of communism, studying to become a doctor under the regime’s orders. He met and fell in love with Ximeng, despite her relationship with another man. When the regime began looking for counterrevoluntionaries in their midst, Hongci was accused of counterrevoluntionary activities and multiple affairs (because of his unseemly relationship with Ximeng). He was sentenced to an undefined period in prison, where he would be reformed through labor.

After two unsuccessful escapes from prison, he was given a six year sentence. When the end of his six years approached, he was forced to remain as a “post-sentence detainee.” During this time, he was convicted and given another twenty year sentence. He was sent to Mao’s worst prison. It was from there that he escaped permanently.

Hongci was right to become disillusioned about communism under Mao.

Hongci loved communism and believed that it could still work. However, he saw so many things that were wrong with it under Mao’s leadership. Many of the prison convictions given out were complete fabrications. The prison systems that were meant to reform those who were convicted were ineffective because many prisoners had done no wrong. There was widespread violence and starvation in China, despite the regime’s insistence that they were providing abundance to everyone. In fact, some were so starved that they resorted to cannibalism.

Hongci’s desire for life is inspiring.

In an environment that supported the decision to commit suicide, Hongci chose to live. During his escape, he made a concentrated nicotine liquid to kill himself with in case he got captured. However, he fought as hard as he could to escape because he wanted to live. He knew that the prison was planning his execution, and that staying in prison would mean death. Refusing to accept his fate, he chose to take a small window of opportunity and escape. During his trip from the prison to Mongolia, he walked for hours at a time in bad conditions. His refusal to surrender and die kept him moving.

This book gave me a lot to ponder.

Books are great entertainment. There were a lot of things in this book that were fascinating. And while I was certainly entertained, I was also stimulated by information about a world I can hardly fathom living in. No Wall Too High has given me plenty of things to think about beyond the hours I spent reading it.

It made me think about the ways in which power corrupts.

Mao’s communism allowed those in power to do unspeakable horrors. The prison guards abused those in their care. In all of his years in prison, only one prison guard he encountered helped Hongci do anything to better himself. Unfortunately, even that small good was short lived because other prison guards saw that Hongci and the other inmates were talking and learning from each other. They used their power in a way that hurt and killed the prisoners.

It made me think about the ways I use my own words.

Hongci reflected on an incident where several men were forced to carry a heavy piece of equipment over a hill. While resting, the equipment began to slip and would have fallen to where it could not be retrieved. One of the prisoners jumped in front of it and used all of his strength to prevent it from falling. However, he did not receive a single word of affirmation for his good work. During Hongci’s years in prison, the guards only used their words to tear down the prisoners instead of building them up.

That made me really think about the ways I use my own words. While it may seem “helpful” when I instruct someone else about something that may have gone wrong, if all they ever hear from me is negativity, they may lose their desire to do anything for me. If all I see (in their perspective) is what they’ve done wrong, then what motivates them to do anything right? I can motivate more with positive language than negative.

It made my “first world problems” seem pretty silly.

I have had a dreadful cold all week. My husband can attest to the fact that I have been the whiniest person in the world. Yet, I’m not suffering from a cold while living in a prison cell. I don’t have to work hard labor for nineteen hours, whether I’m healthy enough to do so or not. On Thursday I was able to go to the doctor and the pharmacy to get antibiotics to treat the infection that has developed, something that Hongci would have been unable to receive. And as much as I whine for more, I’m receiving more than enough sympathy for my cold, something Hongci would not have received any of during his imprisonment. While my cold is still annoying, it is rather cozy when I compare it to all of the problems Hongci endured.

Quick Review:

No Wall Too High was a fantastic book. Xu Hongci’s perspective of life under Mao’s dictatorship was valuable and raw. Despite my liking it, this book contained pervasive violent material. However, I do not see how Hongci could tell his story without the descriptions of violence. There was some profanity and crude language. With its different perspective, this book will make you think. Although it is a longer book, it is worth taking the time to read.

Breakaway Amish

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

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.


I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

Trafficked is the haunting story of a young woman who is forced into prostitution by a close friend. This book had me so engaged that I finished it in two days. However, those two days were quickly followed by several nightmares because of some of the scars I carry from an abusive relationship in my late teenage years. I only suggest reading further in this post, as well as the book itself, if you have not been in one of these relationships or you are emotionally prepared to read things that might be upsetting to you.

Trafficked by Sophie Hayes
Trafficked by Sophie Hayes

For four years, Sophie’s friendship with Kas was perfect. He was kind and a great listening ear. They had one awkward conversation when she started dating another man, when he also confessed his love for her. But other than that, things were great. After breaking off her relationship with her boyfriend and having emergency surgery on her stomach, she was invited to go away on vacation with Kas to Italy. They began a relationship, and after the first night of their relationship, he told her he was in debt and she needed to help him. He told her that if she really loved him, like she said she did, she would sell herself as a prostitute to help him make back the money he owed. When manipulation did not work, he physically threatened her and her younger brothers, making it clear to her that she had no choice but to work for him on the streets.

“I knew people didn’t say things like that in real life, but however much I tried to tell myself it was all some elaborately cruel joke, I knew in my heart that I’d made a huge and potentially fatal error when I’d allowed myself to break my golden rule and trust him.”

Sophie Hayes

This was an emotional read because of my connections to it.

No, I was not forced into prostitution by my abusive boyfriend. But he did exhibit many of the same abusive patterns that Kas did. He was charming and charismatic (at first) to lure me into feeling safe in the relationship. When he lost his temper over something, he always found a way to make it my fault. When I took the blame to try to make peace with a situation, though, he would play the self-pity card. Everything that he did was to control my emotions and my behaviors. Where emotional manipulation alone didn’t do the trick, physical and sexual abuse further degraded my self-worth to the point where I believed no one else would want or believe me.

“I never spoke unless Kas spoke to me, and when he asked me simple questions that I couldn’t answer–usually because I was too anxious to be able to focus my thoughts–I told myself he was right and I was becoming more stupid with every day that passed.”

Sophie Hayes

Sophie struggled during and after her ordeal with feeling as if the entire thing were her fault. In the same way, I struggled after my abusive relationship. I knew logically that it wasn’t my fault. Emotionally, I could not process how I could let myself fall into such a relationship. Others who spoke harmful words about the relationship after the fact only did things to damage my view of myself. Although I had many people who were overwhelmingly supportive, some were not. Louder than any of those voices, though, was the memory of his voice saying things meant to tear me down. Even after years of counseling and four and a half years of a happy marriage later, I occasionally think of some of those things he said that destroyed my self-confidence.

“I know that if someone told me that what happened to me had happened to them, I’d feel sorry for them and wouldn’t blame them for one moment. Even so, I still felt as though it was all somehow my fault.”

Sophie Hayes

One last thing I found as a point of connection with Sophie was the struggle between telling people about the trauma I endured and not telling them. Sophie did not choose to tell many people about the abuse and trafficking she endured, and struggled to explain some of her fears and behaviors to her coworkers and friends. While I have tried to be fairly open about my past, it is still hard to explain why certain things can completely unnerve me. I can come completely unglued if someone touches me on the knee or leg. If anyone looks like the boyfriend who abused me, I am wary of that person even if I know it isn’t logical. Certain foods make me feel physically ill because I have only ever eaten them with him and his family. Although I do not think about him often, those fears and scars linger and can come back in an instant.

“Not telling people can make things difficult, though–for example, when I overract to something and can’t explain why, such as the time someone at work fired a toy gun at me and I fell on the floor with my hands over my head, screaming.”

Sophie Hayes

This book brings great awareness to human trafficking issues.

Sophie Hayes was an educated woman with a family who loved her. She was in her twenties with a stable job and an apartment. By most measures, she was not an ideal target for human trafficking except that someone she cared about took four years to groom her. He then lured her out of the country and threatened her younger brothers. He convinced her that he had people working for him everywhere and that he could see everything she did. She was afraid of her customers, strangers, and even the police.

Several times she was brought in by the police, who treated her like a criminal. They were convinced that she was doing this on her own free will, and made her life on the streets even more difficult. Although prostitution is a crime, she wishes that they would have asked questions that would have helped her feel safe to share what was really happening. She wishes that they would have recognized the signs that she was being abused and trafficked, and sought to get her home to her family. It was not until she was so sick that she went to the hospital instead of “work” that she ended up making contact with her family and getting rescued out of the life Kas had forced her into living.

Although this book brought up some bad memories (and may for anyone who has been in any kind of abusive relationship), I still felt like it added value because of the interest and the information it gave me about the issue of human trafficking. While Sophie is from England and this happened in Italy, human trafficking happens here in the United States, and knowing the signs can help those who are trapped in this horrible situation. Each one of us can do something about human trafficking when we see the signs. For more information on recognizing the signs of human trafficking, read here.

Good Chinese Wife

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

My words cannot fully summarize how brilliantly written this book is and all of the reasons you should read it. Susan Blumberg-Kason gives and honest and raw look into the ups and downs of an emotionally abusive relationship that crosses cultural divides.

Good Chinese Wife by Susan Blumberg-Kason
Good Chinese Wife by Susan Blumberg-Kason

From the first few pages, the reader knows that this book will be about a woman who falls in love with a man who does not treat her the way that he should. At each turn of the page, her beautiful foreshadowing left me breathless, asking, “What is this guy going to do to her next?”

Like all abusive relationships, though, it was not always bad. She detailed her courtship to Cai and the ways that he made her feel special when they were dating. She shares the way he wooed her while they were both studying in Hong Kong. She was from America and he was from mainland China.

When things started cropping up in their relationship, she chalked it up to cultural differences or his own stress over his doctoral work. Instead of spending their wedding night with her, Cai ordered porn and told her to go to sleep. He regularly put his preferences and comfort before hers when decisions needed to be made. When his professors pushed her to drink alcohol and Susan expressed her discomfort with the situation, Cai exploded with anger. One night, she caught him flirting with a prostitute on the phone. Despite these things, she did what she could to maintain peace because she did not want to go home to her parents with a failed marriage.

Two things Kai did stood out as especially dreadful.

The first happened when they were still in China. Susan contracted an STD, despite having been married to Cai for a year and a half and having no other partners. When she started treatment and told him that the doctor insisted that he start it as well, he bristled at the suggestion. He denied having an affair, although she knew that was the only way it could have been contracted. He then looked it up in a Chinese disease dictionary, started laughing, and told her it was a “women’s disease.” Thus ended the conversation.

The second thing happened after they had moved to the United States and had their son. Cai frequently got frustrated with their son’s crying and would grab him and dangle him over the stairwell in their home, threatening to drop him. He would shut him in an empty room, leaving him on the floor. The things he did to his child were scary, and motivation for her to get out.

This book serves as a great warning about the red flags of abusive relationships.

It is important for young women to know what red flags are for an emotionally and physically abusive relationship so that they can avoid being in one themselves. If they are already in one, seeing those red flags develop into an even worse version of the situation they are in might be the motivation they need to get out before the situation escalates. Reading a book like this one can give a woman information on red flags in an emotional, but concrete way. Susan brings her story to life in such a personal way that you cannot help but cheer for her when she gets out of her marriage with Cai.

“I’d been in this dysfunctional relationship for five years and could no longer tell what about it was normal and what was unacceptable.”

Susan Blumberg-Kason

For the woman who may find herself in a relationship or marriage to someone like Cai, reading a book like this one may give her the inspiration to reach out for help to get out of that relationship. Though Susan’s situation is unique in many ways, especially in that it is a relationship across cultural boundaries, there is a lot to be learned about the way she escaped. She sought the help of a lawyer and her mother, then left while he was at work. For those wishing to escape who do not have someone they trust to help them, there are centers willing to help women and children fleeing abusive relationships.