Somehow, I’ve gotten trapped in a cycle of books that have kept my morning commutes occupied but that have grated on my in one way or another. I want to read a book that I can say I gobbled up, a book I can say that I loved because of this, this, this, and this, a book that was everything I wanted it to be.
This was not that book. The more I read, the more I’m likely to find it, right?
(Unfortunately, the book I’m currently reading, Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska is also not that book. But, let’s not get ahead of myself.)
Or, perhaps, the more critical I am to become.
The Invisible GirlsBy Sarah TheBarge
A memoir. I seem to be reading more memoirs these days than I have at any other point in my life. Maybe it’s because more people are writing them? Or because people are taking memoir more seriously? Or because I’m taking memoir more seriously now that I’ve hit the wise, old age of 26? Probably, it partially has something to do with the rise of blogs and the coveted blog-to-book-deal dream.
I think this one was a blog-to-book-deal. At least, TheBarge mentions a blog. I tried to find it, but all I found was a wiped template with a few pages advertising the book. Now that a publisher is paying her for her story, the blog is dead.
This makes me sad for blogs.
Sarah TheBarge does have quite the story, and certainly a story that belong on paper, reaching more people than her blog would have, perhaps. At the age of 27, her life fell apart when she discovered blood on her shirt and, upon squeezing her breast, realize something was very very wrong. A double mastectomy. And then, it recurred. Essentially, TheBarge lived through a nightmare.
A few years later, in a new city, trying to restart her life, she meets a Somalian woman and her children on a bus and a new part of her story begins as she gets to know the family and helps them survive in the new and unfamiliar country.
It was a touching story. Emotional. Difficult to read. There were times I had to close the book on my commute home or face the embarrassment of crying on the subway. But, this book is also problematic in two very different ways.
1) Are you familiar with the White Saviour Complex? Admittedly, I was warned before I started this book that its pages are filled with it, so perhaps it was all the more glaring for me, this idea that Westerners, specifically white westerners, will save Africa, that, without us, they will be lost, suffering savages. This complex is generally attached to the attitude of Westerners when they go to African countries, but I couldn’t ignore its presence in this book as well. TheBarge muses more than once about what would have happened to Hadhi, the Somalian woman, and her children if she hadn’t met them on the bus that day. The problem with this? Hadhi is not empowered by TheBarge’s attitude. Her work to care for her children, to eke out a life for them in this new place goes unacknowledged.
I would never say that we shouldn’t acknowledge our privilege and recognize that we can help those who struggle here at home or in other countries. I’m not saying that TheBarge should have ignored this family on the bus. I’m not saying that she shouldn’t have done all the things she did, bringing them gifts, helping them make ends meet. But her attitude about what she was doing irked me. Help, yes, but don’t assume that you are the only thing protecting them from sure death and suffering.
2) TheBarge grew up in a strict Baptist community. The book is strongly Christian, which, being a Christian myself, I actually enjoyed. She makes some beautiful realizations about God and suffering as she struggles with her illness and her relationships. But, as she described her upbringing, her church, and the community in which she was raised, I became frustrated with what she wasn’t saying. She shrugged off the emotional abuse, in one breath using it for shock value and in another, dismissing the actions of others as normal, as not their fault, as justified and rationalized. She holds the hurt of being abandoned by her church community and her boyfriend as she struggled through treatment at arms length, unwilling to acknowledge how absolutely shitty they were to her. It bothered me. Sometimes, I think people use religion as an excuse to be terrible to their kids, their spouses, those who are, in some way, under their control and no one ever holds them to their actions.
At the end of the book, I felt a little bit like TheBarge wasn’t necessarily ready to write her story yet. It felt raw at times, but at others, she seemed to be holding the reader or her experience at arms length, laying out facts and actions without exploring them further, without letting the reader into the deep, gut-wrenching pain she must have gone through. Her journey was powerful, but in this book, I don’t think she allowed it be.