Genre: Nonfiction, Psychology
Length: 400 Pages
Release date: November 5, 2019
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
From “one of America’s most courageous young journalists” (NPR) comes a propulsive narrative history investigating the 50-year-old mystery behind a dramatic experiment that changed the course of modern medicine.
For centuries, doctors have struggled to define mental illness-how do you diagnose it, how do you treat it, how do you even know what it is? In search of an answer, in the 1970s a Stanford psychologist named David Rosenhan and seven other people — sane, normal, well-adjusted members of society — went undercover into asylums around America to test the legitimacy of psychiatry’s labels. Forced to remain inside until they’d “proven” themselves sane, all eight emerged with alarming diagnoses and even more troubling stories of their treatment. Rosenhan’s watershed study broke open the field of psychiatry, closing down institutions and changing mental health diagnosis forever.
But, as Cahalan’s explosive new research shows, very little in this saga is exactly as it seems. What really happened behind those closed asylum doors, and what does it mean for our understanding of mental illness today?
If you’re going into this book expecting an in-depth rehashing of that experiment and its conclusions, you may be disappointed. I hold a BA in psychology, so I was already somewhat familiar with this study going into the book. While I did get some new information from The Great Pretender, it was not nearly as much as I’d hoped. Part of the reason for this is that the focus of the book is not super specific. The synopsis from the publisher gave me an impression of a very different book than I read.
Another reviewer (who enjoyed the book a lot less than I did) made the comment that it felt like Cahalan did a lot of research on peripheral topics for this book and didn’t want it to go to waste. Consequently, it all gets included. While I get where this person is coming from, I disagree. A lot of the history of psychology included in this leads directly into David Rosenhan’s reasoning for conducting his famous experiment. He sent healthy “pseudo-patients” into mental hospitals for two major reasons: to expose the hazy nature of psychological diagnostic criteria as they existed at the time, and to provide witnesses who would be palatable to the general public who could relay the treatment the mentally ill were receiving in these institutions. The historical backdrop did not feel superfluous.
Cahalan also delves into several other famous experiments, again in more detail than I would have expected given the blurb’s focus on Rosenahn. These major experiments are also relevant, albeit in a tangential way, because of the controversy surrounding them. The Stanford Prison Experiment (Philip Zimbardo) and Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority. These experiments also share some thematic similarities with Rosenhan’s work; all of them explore the darker side of human nature in varying respects. Zimbardo purported to show that the overwhelming majority of people are capable of horrifically abusive behaviors towards another person in dehumanizing, institutional settings like prisons. Milgram’s experiment had an authority figure in a lab coat asking participants to administer electric shocks to people as part of an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning. The “teaching experiment” was actually a smokescreen, and the true purpose was to see how many people would agree to shock someone who was in pain, and to what degree.
All three of these experiments (Rosenhan’s, Zimbardo’s, and Milgram’s) have faced sharp criticism of their methodology, with Zimbardo facing probably the most scrutiny. Issues vary from the potentially inappropriate level of manipulation on the participants from the researcher to outright deceit.
Cahalan’s book explores a variety of issues surrounding psychiatry in a good amount of detail, some only tangentially related to the experiment referenced in the title. If your interest in this book is primarily out of a desire to understand Rosenhan’s research, you may end up feeling like you are wading through a lot of unneeded information in order to get it. However, if you have a more general interest in psychology and psychiatry, this may be an excellent book for you.
Thank you for reading! What was the last book you read that subverted your expectations in the a big way? How did it impact your reading experience?
Know My Name
by Chanel Miller
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir
Length: 368 Pages
Release date: September 24, 2019
The riveting, powerful memoir of the woman whose statement to Brock Turner gave voice to millions of survivors
She was known to the world as Emily Doe when she stunned millions with a letter. Brock Turner had been sentenced to just six months in county jail after he was found sexually assaulting her on Stanford’s campus. Her victim impact statement was posted on BuzzFeed, where it instantly went viral–viewed by eleven million people within four days, it was translated globally and read on the floor of Congress; it inspired changes in California law and the recall of the judge in the case. Thousands wrote to say that she had given them the courage to share their own experiences of assault for the first time.
Now she reclaims her identity to tell her story of trauma, transcendence, and the power of words. It was the perfect case, in many ways–there were eyewitnesses, Turner ran away, physical evidence was immediately secured. But her struggles with isolation and shame during the aftermath and the trial reveal the oppression victims face in even the best-case scenarios. Her story illuminates a culture biased to protect perpetrators, indicts a criminal justice system designed to fail the most vulnerable, and, ultimately, shines with the courage required to move through suffering and live a full and beautiful life.
Know My Name will forever transform the way we think about sexual assault, challenging our beliefs about what is acceptable and speaking truth to the tumultuous reality of healing. It also introduces readers to an extraordinary writer, one whose words have already changed our world. Entwining pain, resilience, and humor, this memoir will stand as a modern classic.
“I survived because I remained soft, because I listened, because I wrote. Because I huddled close to my truth, protected it like a tiny flame in a terrible storm. Hold up your head when the tears come, when you are mocked, insulted, questioned, threatened, when they tell you you are nothing, when your body is reduced to openings. The journey will be longer than you imagined, trauma will find you again and again. Do not become the ones who hurt you. Stay tender with your power. Never fight to injure, fight to uplift. Fight because you know that in this life, you deserve safety, joy, and freedom. Fight because it is your life. Not anyone else’s. I did it, I am here. Looking back, all the ones who doubted or hurt or nearly conquered me faded away, and I am the only one standing. So now, the time has come. I dust myself off, and go on.”
Let me start this review with a big fat (relatively obvious) trigger warning for sexual assault. Miller is not able to remember the assault itself, so you will not find graphic descriptions of it in this book, but the discussion of the aftermath when she awoke in the hospital can be disturbing. There is also a good deal of discussion of victim blaming, including quoted examples. So while I do absolutely recommend this book, it comes with the disclaimer that it will try your emotional fortitude.
Miller’s writing is eloquent and emotionally evocative. She remained anonymous for the duration of Brock Turner’s trial, and while this was for her protection, it had the effect of dehumanizing her to a certain portion of the public, from garden variety misogynists to women who felt the need to emotionally distance themselves from Miller in order to feel safe. (I.e., “If it happened to her, there must be something wrong with her. That would never happen to me.”) Miller’s victim impact statement (previously published anonymously online and included in full at the end of Know My Name) and this book have the effect of returning her voice and agency to her in a way that’s really powerful.
While the sexual assault and trail which resulted from it are the focus of this book, it also touches on current events and how Miller’s experience effected her perception. From the infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” Trump tape to the #metoo movement, to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about Brett Kavanaugh, Miller’s experience as a sexual assault victim could turn the nightly news into a huge psychological trigger. These ventures from the personal into the political never felt forced; they were in impactful part of her experience and the often blasé public reaction to sexual assault allegations is something that bears thinking about until things change. What do we tell victims when “grab ’em by the pussy” is dismissed as “locker room talk?” What do we tell young girls?
“Cosby, 60. Weinstein, 87. Nassar, 169. The news used phrases like avalanche of accusations, tsunami of stories, sea change. The metaphors were correct in that they were catastrophic, devastating. But it was wrong to compare them to natural disasters, for they were not natural at all, solely man-made. Call it a tsunami, but do not lose sight of the fact that each life is a single drop, how many drops it took to make a single wave. The loss is incomprehensible, staggering, maddening—we should have caught it when it was no more than a drip. Instead society is flooded with survivors coming forward, dozens for every man, just so that one day, in his old age, he might feel a taste of what it was like for them all along.”
This book moved me to tears multiple times. Miller does the narration for the audio book, and if you listen to audio books at all, I highly recommend opting for that format for this title.
For anyone who may need it, here is a list of resources for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors.
Genre: True Crime
Release date: July 25, 2019
Publisher: Audible Originals
America’s top gymnasts have been show stoppers at the Summer Olympics for decades – the women’s artistic team won nine medals in 2016 alone. But beneath the athleticism, smiles, sponsorship deals, and haul of gold medals was a dark secret: a story of sexual abuse and trauma that, when revealed, became one of the biggest scandals in the history of American sports.
In early 2018, Larry Nassar, the former doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, was sentenced to serve out the rest of his life in prison after pleading guilty to a variety of sex crimes. In a show of unparalleled force, more than 150 young women – from gold medalists to former Michigan State University athletes to old family friends – confronted the once beloved Nassar in court, sharing their pain and resolve. Many of them took legal, financial, and career risks to speak out.
But these women’s stories also reveal a stranger, more far-reaching truth: that the institutions responsible for protecting them – from the United States Olympic Committee to local police departments – had known in some form about the abuse for years, and had not put an end to it. Twisted tells the harrowing story of these crimes and how Larry Nassar got away with them for as long as he did.
New York Times best-selling author Mary Pilon and Carla Correa chronicle the scandal from its inception, tracking the institutions that Nassar hid behind, the athletic culture that he benefited from, and the women who eventually brought him to justice. In this Audible Original, you’ll hear directly from these people – including the voices of coaches, parents, industry leaders, and the survivors themselves – as they grapple with the truth about Nassar and describe what it took to bring him down.
My thanks to Audible for sending me a complimentary copy of this audio-book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher.
“Perhaps you have figured it out by now, but little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.”
The Larry Nassar case is one that has been haunting me since it hit the public. How could a predator like Nassar be so brazen and prolific, sometimes abusing his victims under the guise of “medical procedures” with their own parents in the room, and go undetected for so long? The short answer, as you will learn very quickly listening to this audio book, is that he didn’t go undetected. Numerous complaints were filed against Nassar and fell on deaf ears.
Twisted exposes the broken system in USA gymnastics that was necessary in order for a predator like Nassar to operate essentially unchallenged, and I think that’s the most important angle that this audio book covers. There will always be terrible people in the world who seek to victimize others, but there is no excuse for leaders in an organization, and in some cases law enforcement, looking the other way when victims speak out due to the perpetrator’s good reputation. Twisted gives listeners the opportunity to hear directly from victims, and it is beyond heartbreaking to hear women recount their experiences attempting to report what the went through only to be dismissed.
Once again, Audible takes full advantage of the audio format of this book, bringing in the voices of people who encountered Nassar in varying ways. It really brings to light the huge ripple effect of his actions and how many people were harmed in countless ways. How does one comes to terms with learning that what they thought for years was a valid medical procedure was in fact abuse? Or losing a child to suicide? Or finding that you were unknowingly complicit, sending young girls to a trusted colleague who took advantage of them?
This audio book was absolutely heart-wrenching, and the ending brought me to tears when I listened to victims giving their statements in court. An absolute must-read for anyone who followed this story in the news!
by Ann Napolitano
January 6, 2020 release
Goodreads Average: 4.15
In the face of tragedy, what does it take to find joy?
One summer morning, twelve-year-old Edward Adler, his beloved older brother, his parents, and 183 other passengers board a flight in Newark headed for Los Angeles. Among them is a Wall Street wunderkind, a young woman coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, an injured vet returning from Afghanistan, a septuagenarian business tycoon, and a free-spirited woman running away from her controlling husband. And then, tragically, the plane crashes. Edward is the sole survivor.
Edward’s story captures the attention of the nation, but he struggles to find a place for himself in a world without his family. He continues to feel that a piece of him has been left in the sky, forever tied to the plane and all of his fellow passengers. But then he makes an unexpected discovery–one that will lead him to the answers of some of life’s most profound questions: When you’ve lost everything, how do find yourself? How do you discover your purpose? What does it mean not just to survive, but to truly live?
Dear Edward is at once a transcendent coming-of-age story, a multidimensional portrait of an unforgettable cast of characters, and a breathtaking illustration of all the ways a broken heart learns to love again.
The Glittering Hour
by Iona Grey
Historical Fiction / Romance
December 10, 2019 release
Goodreads Average: 4.38
An unforgettable historical about true love found and lost and the secrets we keep from one another from an award-winning author
Selina Lennox is a Bright Young Thing. Her life is a whirl of parties and drinking, pursued by the press and staying on just the right side of scandal, all while running from the life her parents would choose for her.
Lawrence Weston is a penniless painter who stumbles into Selina’s orbit one night and can never let her go even while knowing someone of her stature could never end up with someone of his. Except Selina falls hard for Lawrence, envisioning a life of true happiness. But when tragedy strikes, Selina finds herself choosing what’s safe over what’s right.
Spanning two decades and a seismic shift in British history as World War II approaches, Iona Grey’s The Glittering Hour is an epic novel of passion, heartache and loss.
by Tarryn Fisher
Thriller / Mystery
December 30, 2019 Release
Goodreads Average: 4.07
Imagine that your husband has two other wives.
You’ve never met the other wives. None of you know each other, and because of this unconventional arrangement, you can see your husband only one day a week. But you love him so much you don’t care. Or at least that’s what you’ve told yourself.
But one day, while you’re doing laundry, you find a scrap of paper in his pocket—an appointment reminder for a woman named Hannah, and you just know it’s another of the wives.
You thought you were fine with your arrangement, but you can’t help yourself: you track her down, and, under false pretenses, you strike up a friendship. Hannah has no idea who you really are. Then Hannah starts showing up to your coffee dates with telltale bruises, and you realize she’s being abused by her husband. Who, of course, is also your husband. But you’ve never known him to be violent, ever.
Who exactly is your husband, and how far would you go to find the truth? Would you risk your own life?
And who is his mysterious third wife?
Red, White, & Royal Blue
by Casey McQuiston
Romance / LGBT / New Adult
May 14, 2019 Release
Goodreads Average: 4.39
What happens when America’s First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales?
When his mother became President, Alex Claremont-Diaz was promptly cast as the American equivalent of a young royal. Handsome, charismatic, genius—his image is pure millennial-marketing gold for the White House. There’s only one problem: Alex has a beef with the actual prince, Henry, across the pond. And when the tabloids get hold of a photo involving an Alex-Henry altercation, U.S./British relations take a turn for the worse.
Heads of family, state, and other handlers devise a plan for damage control: staging a truce between the two rivals. What at first begins as a fake, Instragramable friendship grows deeper, and more dangerous, than either Alex or Henry could have imagined. Soon Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret romance with a surprisingly unstuffy Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations and begs the question: Can love save the world after all? Where do we find the courage, and the power, to be the people we are meant to be? And how can we learn to let our true colors shine through?
Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue proves: true love isn’t always diplomatic.
Long Bright River
by Liz Moore
Mystery / Thriller
January 7, 2020 Release
Goodreads Average: 4.23
Two sisters travel the same streets,though their lives couldn’t be more different.
Then one of them goes missing.
In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. They don’t speak anymore, but Mickey never stops worrying about her sibling.
Then Kacey disappears, suddenly, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district, and Mickey becomes dangerously obsessed with finding the culprit–and her sister–before it’s too late.
Alternating its present-day mystery with the story of the sisters’ childhood and adolescence, Long Bright River is at once heart-pounding and heart-wrenching: a gripping suspense novel that is also a moving story of sisters, addiction, and the formidable ties that persist between place, family, and fate.
by Rivers Solomon
Genre: Science Fiction / Fantasy
Length: 176 Pages
Release date: November 5, 2019
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Yetu holds the memories for her people—water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave owners—who live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly, is forgotten by everyone, save one—the historian. This demanding role has been bestowed on Yetu.
Yetu remembers for everyone, and the memories, painful and wonderful, traumatic and terrible and miraculous, are destroying her. And so, she flees to the surface, escaping the memories, the expectations, and the responsibilities—and discovers a world her people left behind long ago.
Yetu will learn more than she ever expected to about her own past—and about the future of her people. If they are all to survive, they’ll need to reclaim the memories, reclaim their identity—and own who they really are.
My thanks to Saga Press and NetGalley for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher.
“Forgetting was not the same as healing.”
The Deep is an interesting novella, inspired by a song of the same name by the hip hop group clipping. (Daveed Diggs, Jonathan Snipes, and William Hutson.)
The premise is such an interesting one, bringing a sense of hope in the face of tragedy and injustice. Some of the fantasy elements, particularly Yetu’s role as the historian, make for some really interesting psychological exploration. What are the trade-offs when it comes to remembering generational trauma or letting it be lost to history?
The story holds a lot of food for thought, but the development of these themes can feel a bit thin, an the pace of the story can feel a bit slow at times, especially considering the relatively short length. I suspect a lot of readers will be left feeling a bit ambivalent towards the novella, as I did. It never quite feels like it lives up to its full potential, but I absolutely don’t regret reading it, and the story will be one that stays with me for a long time.
by Katharine McGee
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult, Romance
Length: 448 Pages
Release date: September 3, 2019
Publisher: Penguin Random House Books for Young Readers
What if America had a royal family?
When America won the Revolutionary War, its people offered General George Washington a crown. Two and a half centuries later, the House of Washington still sits on the throne.
As Princess Beatrice gets closer to becoming America’s first queen regnant, the duty she has embraced her entire life suddenly feels stifling. Nobody cares about the spare except when she’s breaking the rules, so Princess Samantha doesn’t care much about anything, either . . . except the one boy who is distinctly off-limits to her. And then there’s Samantha’s twin, Prince Jefferson. If he’d been born a generation earlier, he would have stood first in line for the throne, but the new laws of succession make him third. Most of America adores their devastatingly handsome prince . . . but two very different girls are vying to capture his heart.
Oof. Soooo, that was certainly… a book.
I think my major issue with American Royals is that this book doesn’t seem like it knows what it wants to be. Does it want to be a thought-provoking story set in an alternate version of the United States with a monarchy? Yes. Does it also want to be a fluffy young adult romance novel? Yes. Does it also want to be a reality TV-esque teen drama? …Yes. Are any of these elements playing nicely together? Definitely not.
This book is 448 pages and it felt loooooong. Part of the problem is that it’s trying to explore three (three!!!) separate forbidden romance plots which are all fairly redundant when taken together. I get what the author was going for in creating these parallels, but honestly, no single story line brings enough to the table to justify including all three.
First you have Princess Beatrice, first in line to the throne, who is in love with her guard, a commoner. Her younger sister, Sam, is in love with Teddy, the “suitable” potential king consort who has been hand-picked to marry Beatrice. Finally, Sams’ best friend, Nina, another commoner, is in love with Prince Jefferson. I think McGee thought it would be fun to have these parallels and explore how these characters with varying personalities handled the situation, but that doesn’t change the fact that all of these plot lines can be boiled down to “I love this person and my social station is keeping me from being with them.” The story feels extremely bogged down with all the separate romances and point of view characters.
The major characters themselves, while certainly fairly distinct from one another, are very shallowly developed. Beatrice is the dutiful daughter who is being pushed to her breaking point and flirting with rebellion for the first time. Sam has middle child syndrome to the extreme, feels invisible, and is obliviously selfish. Jeff is… well, honestly, after finishing the book I’m not sure I could tell you a single personality trait of dear Prince Jefferson. Finally, Nina, who has grown up understandably insecure as a commoner while the best friend of royalty, is basically Sam’s doormat through most of the book. At no point did I feel moved to care about any of these characters, except poor Nina, who probably should have punched Sam in the face at some point early in their friendship. (#ninadeservedbetter)
But back to the issue of this book clearly not having a good sense of what it wants to be, there is a weird mixture of teenage drama and a thought experiment on how an American monarchy would have changed the world as it exists today. Both of these elements feel like they’re getting in each other’s way rather than meshing well together. There are some great YA books which blend the personal and political together really well. (Red, White, & Royal Blue comes to mind.) This is not one of them. The bits of political philosophizing serve only to up the page count and break up the romance plot lines without ever saying anything new or interesting.
Have you ever read a book that takes place in the real world but with an alternate history? Did you like it? Tell me about it in the comment section!
Call Me God: The Untold Story of the DC Sniper Investigation
by Jim Clemente, Tim Clemente, Peter McDonnell
Genre: True Crime
Length: 7 hours, 4 minutes
Release date: October 24, 2019
Publisher: Audible Original
Wednesday, October 2, 2002.
Aspen Hill, Maryland. Northgate Plaza.
Inside Michael’s craft supply store, cashier Ann Chapman rings up another customer. Then it happens. A loud crack; a gust of wind; the light in register five goes dark.
Over the next 23 days, the entire DC area will be thrust into a reign of terror unprecedented in American history. Sniper attacks targeting and murdering everyday citizens will bring the entire region to its knees, as a nation still reeling from the recent attacks of 9/11 and the anthrax scare, are forced to confront a new type of brutal assault—this time in their own backyard. As law enforcement grapples with the mass carnage and chaos, media’s ravenous 24-hour cycle amplifies the very real fear, while steadily pumping new theories and bad leads onto a paralyzed public desperate for it all to end.
But who can stop it? And exactly how?
Call Me God is the never-before-told story of the fascinating and turbulent investigation that led to the diabolical and elusive killers’ capture; one that pitted protocol against instinct, sacred institutions against individual insight. Told firsthand by those few who had the vision and expertise to solve it, and including a fascinating look into the behavioral, ballistic, forensic, and electronic analysis vital to cracking the case, FBI agent brothers Jim Clemente (former FBI behavioral profiler) and Tim Clemente (former FBI counter-terrorism expert) take us through every facet and flaw of a nationwide manhunt that pressure tested nearly every aspect of law enforcement capabilities—and its glaring vulnerabilities.
Anchored by harrowing accounts from victims, intimate conversations with family members of those deceased, as well as candid accounts from those who knew the perpetrators best, relive the haunting events of the DC Sniper attack and piece together a true crime phenomenon that’s impact can still be felt today.
My thanks to Audible for sending me an advance copy of this audio book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher.
Audible always knows how to use the audio format to its full potential, and that’s really exemplified in this audio book, bringing the first hand accounts of people directly impacted by the DC sniper and those who helped investigate the case directly to the listener. I’ve said before on this blog that I have a hard time with some elements of true crime; it can be so easy for the genre to fall into the trap of feeling voyeuristic or exploitative. Call Me God keeps first hand-accounts in the forefront of the storytelling in a way that always feels very respectful and human. We must always worry about ethical storytelling when it comes to true crime and this was a great example.
Beyond that, though, it was just so very well done. I could not stop listening and binged most of this one in a day. (Coming in at just over 7 hours, if you’re like me and listen to audio books with the speed bumped up a bit, you’ll fly through this one.) I was 12 when the DC sniper was active, so I had a vague recollection of the case and not much more. Most of the info I learned here was new to me.
One of the more interesting aspects of the case, which I hadn’t considered before listening to this, is how the zeitgeist of the time period impacted the way people perceived the case. This came on the tail of the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks; law enforcement and the general public had been on guard due to the symbolic power of a potential attack on that anniversary. Random acts of violence designed specifically to terrorize an already on-edge populace rendered the city a powder keg.
Call Me God is a must-listen for true crime fans! Between the detailed accounts of the investigators and the statements from those who lost family members, there is something of substance in this for everyone, regardless of your level of familiarity with the case going into it.
Lee Boyd Malvo (i.e., the DC Sniper) has been in the news again recently as he fights his life sentence without the possibility of parole. Malvo was a minor at the time of the crimes, and it has been ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. Let me know your thoughts in the comments; should he get a new sentencing? Are certain crimes too severe for rehabilitation regardless of age?
Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church
by Megan Phelps-Roper
Length: 304 Pages
Release date: October 8, 2019
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
The activist and TED speaker Megan Phelps-Roper reveals her life growing up in the most hated family in America
At the age of five, Megan Phelps-Roper began protesting homosexuality and other alleged vices alongside fellow members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Founded by her grandfather and consisting almost entirely of her extended family, the tiny group would gain worldwide notoriety for its pickets at military funerals and celebrations of death and tragedy. As Phelps-Roper grew up, she saw that church members were close companions and accomplished debaters, applying the logic of predestination and the language of the King James Bible to everyday life with aplomb—which, as the church’s Twitter spokeswoman, she learned to do with great skill. Soon, however, dialogue on Twitter caused her to begin doubting the church’s leaders and message: If humans were sinful and fallible, how could the church itself be so confident about its beliefs? As she digitally jousted with critics, she started to wonder if sometimes they had a point—and then she began exchanging messages with a man who would help change her life.
A gripping memoir of escaping extremism and falling in love, Unfollow relates Phelps-Roper’s moral awakening, her departure from the church, and how she exchanged the absolutes she grew up with for new forms of warmth and community. Rich with suspense and thoughtful reflection, Phelps-Roper’s life story exposes the dangers of black-and-white thinking and the need for true humility in a time of angry polarization.
This post will be a little different than most on my page; I’d like to post less of a formal review and really talk more about why this book is so important to me. In terms of quality, I’ll be brief. Megan is eloquent and this subject matter of her memoir is totally riveting. Every time I had to set this book down to take care of real life felt like a chore.
But beyond being an enjoyable read, a lot of what Megan had to say feel so terribly timely. We live in truly weird times. The internet is forever and a ruined reputation can be increasingly difficult to escape, especially for anyone remotely in the public eye. Strangers snipe at each other on Facebook in public comment sections. Ten year old tweets are dragged from the depths of Twitter to discredit people who have long since grown out of and apologized for the attitudes they expressed at the time.
Let me be clear; this is not anti-accountability. People who mess up or hurt people should apologize and see if there is a way to make amends to those who were harmed. But implicit in Megan’s story is a message that is, at its heart, simply pro-empathy. Megan left her church in large part because of people who were able to stop seeing her as a cog in the Westboro machine and engage with her as a human being. They pushed back against her harmful ideas, but treated her as a person who was capable of improvement rather than a person who needed to be punished.
It is never the responsibility of harmed parties to try to change the extremist views of those who have hurt them. But for those who do have the ability and emotional energy to do so, we must first empathize. We cannot change views that we don’t take the time to understand. We cannot change people whom we treat as inherently unworthy and irredeemable. Megan was raised in a church that, like many extremist groups, taught her the world would reject her forever because of the way she grew up. If we want more people to experience the growth that she did, we must always be prepared to prove them wrong about us.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 560 Pages
Release date: October 1, 2019
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Six bestselling and award-winning authors bring to life a breathtaking epic novel illuminating the hopes, desires, and destinies of princesses and peasants, harlots and wives, fanatics and philosophers—six unforgettable women whose paths cross during one of the most tumultuous and transformative events in history: the French Revolution.
Ribbons of Scarlet is a timely story of the power of women to start a revolution—and change the world.
In late eighteenth-century France, women do not have a place in politics. But as the tide of revolution rises, women from gilded salons to the streets of Paris decide otherwise—upending a world order that has long oppressed them.
Blue-blooded Sophie de Grouchy believes in democracy, education, and equal rights for women, and marries the only man in Paris who agrees. Emboldened to fight the injustices of King Louis XVI, Sophie aims to prove that an educated populace can govern itself–but one of her students, fruit-seller Louise Audu, is hungrier for bread and vengeance than learning. When the Bastille falls and Louise leads a women’s march to Versailles, the monarchy is forced to bend, but not without a fight. The king’s pious sister Princess Elisabeth takes a stand to defend her brother, spirit her family to safety, and restore the old order, even at the risk of her head.
But when fanatics use the newspapers to twist the revolution’s ideals into a new tyranny, even the women who toppled the monarchy are threatened by the guillotine. Putting her faith in the pen, brilliant political wife Manon Roland tries to write a way out of France’s blood-soaked Reign of Terror while pike-bearing Pauline Leon and steely Charlotte Corday embrace violence as the only way to save the nation. With justice corrupted by revenge, all the women must make impossible choices to survive–unless unlikely heroine and courtesan’s daughter Emilie de Sainte-Amaranthe can sway the man who controls France’s fate: the fearsome Robespierre.
My thanks to NetGalley and William Morrow for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher.
“Beautiful, terrible humanity. Capable of the most inspiring and creative genius and the greatest and most unimaginable abominations.”
I’ve had a bit of an ongoing effort to read more historical fiction that isn’t set during World War II, and this novel was an easy choice because, hello, Kate Quinn. If you’ve never read any of her work, I (obviously) recommend this book, but also The Alice Network and The Huntress. Ribbons of Scarlet is set during the French Revolution and focuses on women’s role in these events.
The format of this novel worked very well. I’ve seen a lot of misunderstanding about this book online. Because of the number of authors listed, a lot of people have assumed it is a collection of short stories set during the same time period, and this is not the case. The novel follows a single linear narrative following the course of the revolution, but each section introduces a new point of view character. This is different from most novels with multiple POV characters in that, for the most part, we do not return to a character once we move on from her singular section. We get one peek into each woman’s perspective and then she is lost to us. I worried that this would feel disjointed overall, but this was absolutely not the case, and it provided an excellent opportunity to look at some of the same events through different eyes.
Despite what must have been a very difficult process, the six authors meshed very well together. Even while jumping from one one woman’s perspective to another relatively unrelated woman’s section, there is a strong sense of a central narrative following the course of the revolution. Each woman has a wildly different perspective on the historical moment they are inhabiting, and each perspective seems fully fleshed out and genuine.
It was refreshing to see a war novel which focuses exclusively on women’s experiences, as these are often overlooked. French women played a significant role in the revolution and women of different social classes were impacted in very different ways. It was particularly interesting to me to spend time in the mind of a female members of the aristocracy, who, while they did enjoy the benefits of wealth leading up to the revolution, often had little to no power of their own. In the end, they bore the consequences of the actions of their husbands and fathers alongside them.
Ribbons of Scarlet is an illuminating novel about a fascinating piece of French history. Seamlessly told and heartbreaking, this book is a jewel.