5 memoirs that help give words to one of life’s most enduring questions

My column today in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette (5/8/16) looks at 5 memoirs, all published this year (2016), that I have read since the first of the year.  Interestingly, all 5 book, in their own way, tackle one of life’s most enduring questions … “If God is so loving and good, why do such horrible things happen to people?”  Of the 5 books, Sue Klebold’s was the most gripping and tension filled; Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was the most philosophical as he approached the end of his life at just 37 year old ; Ruth Tucker’s memoir made me the maddest; David Kaczynski’s was the saddest and Jessica Kelley’s made me cry as it completely engaged me theologically.

Don Follis May 8 column: “5 new memoirs give words to life’s most enduring questions”
I never tire of knowing another person’s story. Since the first of this year, 5 newly-published memoirs have thoroughly drawn me in. If you will put even one of these book on your summer reading list, your mind will stretch and your heart will grow.  
            “When Breath becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi (Corcovado, Inc. 2016) is a runaway New York Times best seller. This memoir is by a physician who received a diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer at age 36 and died in March 2015 just weeks before his 38thbirthday. 
Instead of taking a neurosurgery position after completing his arduous residency, this Indian American surgeon spent the last year of his life writing his memoir and playing with his newborn daughter.  Kalanithi is a terrific writer with a formidable intellect, having studied British literature at Stanford as undergraduate and then in graduate school at Oxford in England before finally landing at Yale Medical School.  Kalanithi pulls you along with his sense of urgency.  Lucy Kalanithi, an internist and assistant clinical professor at Stanford Medical School, writes a beautiful epilogue to her husband’s memoir.
Sue Klebold is the writer of “A Mother’s Reckoning – Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy (Crown Publishers 2016). Now 17 years after the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two shooters that fateful day.  Reading her riveting story, I found Klebold to be a loving, compassionate and humble Jewish woman who argues that good people can do bad things, that all of us are morally confused, and that doing something terrible does not erase other acts and motives.
Not once does Klebold try to extract what her son did into sense.  Knowing that the worst kinds of crime are those in which children are the victims and ones in which children are the perpetrators, Klebold refuses to blame those who may have bullied her son. Nor does she blame the school or her son’s biochemistry.  Though unbelievably painful, she accepts what can never be explained away without trying to describe the perpetually confused line between evil and disease. 
She says she knows it would have been better for the world if her son Dylan never had been born. And yet, she carried him in her womb and nursed him at her breast.  She does not, then, believe it would have been better for her had Dylan not been born. This absorbing memoir is not for those who fear ambiguity or tension.
In “Black and White Bible; Black and Blue Wife: My Story of finding Hope after Domestic Abuse,” (Zondervan 2016), Ruth A. Tucker, seminary professor, scholar and writer of 20 books tells her story of being the victim of domestic abuse at the hands of her domineering husband, a charming and eloquent pastor.
Tucker thoughtfully dissects the ways that people even in the church may defend abusers and condone domestic abuse. Now 70, Tucker courageously tells of her abuse during much of the 1980s. The book will give hope to those caught in a cycle of domestic violence, helping them face the devastation it leaves behind.
“Every Last Tie – The Story Of The Unabomber And His Family” (Duke University Press 2016) is David Kaczynski’s memoir of how his mentally ill older brother Ted turned to violence. Ted Kaczynski was a brilliant mathematician who lived much of his adult life as a recluse in rural Montana. From the late 1970s to 1996 when he was captured by the F.B.I., Kaczynski constructed and delivered a series of sophisticated letter bombs that ultimately killed 3 people and injured 23.  Today Ted Kaczynski is serving 8 consecutive life sentences in a Colorado maximum-security prison. In telling the story of his family, David Kaczynski writes of the possibility of compassion for one’s siblings, without excusing their dark and horrible deeds.
Finally is 38-year-old Jessica Kelley’s memoir: “Lord Willing? Wrestling with God’s Role In My Child’s death” (Herald Press 2016).  When her 4-year-old son was diagnosed with brain cancer, Kelley was devastated and then caught off-guard by phrases directed to her such as God’s will and the Lord’s perfect plan.  After her son died, Kelley poured her life into tackling one of life’s deepest questions: If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why did her 4-year-old suffer and die in such a dreadful way?
Kelley finally determines that her son’s death was the result of a very bad devil prowling the world over. With her keen, questioning mind Kelley invites the reader into her theological wrestling match, as she decides to face the her dilemma and mystery of evil head on, fighting it as she felt Jesus did while he was on the earth.
    Every person needs a theology of pain and suffering.  Though sobering and extraordinarily sad, each of these 5 eloquently-written memoirs will stretch your mind and perhaps give you words to some of life’s most enduring questions.

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