Book Review – House Rules by Rachel Sontag

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sontag’s memoir of growing up with an emotional abusive father is extremely well written.  I wanted to devour the entire book in one sitting.  This novel perfectly illustrates how damaging emotional abuse is, much worse than physical abuse.  The scars from emotional abuse never heal.  

Sontag’s parents were professionals, her father a respected doctor and her mother a social worker.  Yet, despite their shiny facade, the book details how Rachel was singled out for her father’s abuse while her sister was ignored.  Sontag uses examples like forgetting her house keys and her father refusing to let her inside, even in the freezing cold, because she broke a house rule and needs the punishment.  His punishments are completely without mercy.  He even made Rachel write apology letters to him and forced her to edit them until they sounded more heartfelt and sincere.  He would have nightly talks with her and make her write down all the awful things about herself, like “I’m a brat.  I’m worthless.”  

Sontag chronicles how she managed to survive high school and go on to Smith College.  She drops out and roams around Boston basically homeless with no help from her parents.  Sontag finally reaches a breaking point with her father when he refuses to allow her to visit her friend in Colorado and tells her she needs to lose the money she spent on buying an airplane ticket.  She goes anyway and when her father finds out he cuts her off completely.  
Sontag still does not currently have a relationship with her father.  Sontag’s memoir discusses her struggle in trying to repair her relationship with her mother, which is almost impossible since her mother continually chooses her husband over her own children, and navigating a relationship with her sister who was largely ignored and discounted her entire childhood.  You would think this is just another bad parent memoir, but really Sontag’s book is filled with hope, over-coming, and becoming her own person despite the programming she was given by her father.  Her voice is strong and it left me grateful for my own mildly dysfunctional family.   
The Reader gets the impression that Sontag’s greatest journey is to find unconditional love.  Sometimes as an adult you have to give yourself what your parents never gave you.  I hope she finds that unconditional love within herself.
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Book Review – Half the Sky

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women WorldwideHalf the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Women hold up half the sky.” –Chinese Proverb

No other book I have ever read has affected me the way this book has.  This is a non-fiction book written by two journalists who are married who describe what it is like to grow up as a girl in much of the world.  Kristof and WuDunn were journalists covering world events and human rights violations when they discovered that 200 million women are missing from the world.  That’s 500 times more people killed than in the Holocaust.  They were covering events like Tiananmen Square and being outraged that something that horrific could happen to ordinary citizens in China, when they learned that because of gender discrimination as many infant girls die unnecessarily every week in China as protesters who died in Tiananmen.  Every year, another 2 million girls disappear because of gender discrimination.  Gaining that knowledge led them to a crusade of telling the world these lost girl’s stories.

Kristof and DuWunn split up the book into different sections, the first dealing with twenty-first century slavery.  There are more slaves in the world in 2012 than there were back during what we commonly think of as the time of slavery during the African slave trades.  In these chapters, Kristof and WuDunn recount how common it is for peasant girls in parts of Asia and the Middle East to be kidnapped and sold into brothels.  There they are slaves to the brothel owners and are often raped and beaten into submission.  They are given drugs to make them compliant, but also far less tempted to run away when they become addicted.  Little girls as young as 8 years old are sex slaves in brothels.  This happens in 2012, people!  How is this acceptable?!

The next few chapters, Kristof and WuDunn talk about mass rape as often a weapon of war against women in places like Africa and the Middle East.  There is no faster way to break a civilization than to rape women to show how weak a culture is.  Many times these women are gang raped and tortured to bring dishonor to a family.  The worst place to be a woman in the world right now is the Congo where it is estimated that 90% of the female population has been raped.  Kristof and WuDunn feature the stories of a few women who have spoken out against being raped (often victims of rape are raped again if they go to the police by the police, are shamed into killing themselves to save the family honor, etc.) and have done things to fight back and change their culture and how their culture views rape and women.  Rape is more effective in killing a woman than actual poison.

Next Kristof and WuDunn talk about maternal mortality and how common it is for women to die in childbirth around the world.  Any American reader should be shocked that our own maternal mortality is much higher than it should be.  These chapters were my favorite because the authors discuss different heroes in the world doing something to help women give birth and survive.  I’ve  been a huge fan of Dr. Catherine Hamblin and the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital since she appeared on the Oprah Show for the first time over a decade ago.  We Western women probably have never heard of a fistula, let alone live with something so easily fixable but so debilitating to African women. A fistula is a small hole that is formed in the vagina during obstructed labor that either creates a hole to the bladder wall or rectum, causing the victim to leak urine or feces constantly and uncontrollably.  Dr. Hamblin treats fistula patients in Africa giving them back their dignity, their families, and their self-worth.  Kristof and WuDunn talk about how easy it is to give women access to good maternal medicine and how it is just not a priority in some countries.

The next section of the book deal with ways to help poverty-stricken countries and women.  Micro-lending through organizations like Kiva has done much to improve the quality of life for the women and men mentioned in the book.  Kristof and DuWunn do a good job of describing what kind of aid actually helps, and what hurts.  This was probably the most inspiring section as the authors chronicle ways that these countries have been helped through charitable entities.  It has been proven that when you empower women, give them equal voice and say, that countries and culture profit for the better.  You cannot discriminate against half your population and expect your country to succeed.

This book does a fine job of interspersing statistics and facts in with stories of real girls and real women.  I found these stories so readable and fascinating that I couldn’t help but feel sucked in to their worlds.  And I have found a new shero, Dr. Tererai Trent, a one-time victim of domestic violence, poverty, and illiteracy who went from being a cattle-herder in rural Africa to a woman with a doctorate degree.  As a reader, I wept with these women, rooted for them, and was immensely humbled by their stories.

I felt my American priviledge just dripping off me with every page I read.  Why did I deserve to be born in American?  Why aren’t I living on the Saharan desert struggling to survive in my mud hut, raising more children than I can handle, being beaten by my husband because that is his right, possibly being infected with AIDs, and not even having the ability to write my own name?  This is a reality for millions of women and here I sit on my laptop doing nothing.  Until I read this book.  Kristof and WuDunn have inspired me to give of my money, time and voice to help change the lives of these women for the better.

In the Appendix of the book, Kristof and WuDunn list organizations that the readers can get involved with to start helping these women change their lives for the better.  I love that the book is named after the Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky,” because you cannot discriminate, eliminate, silence, rape, and kill, half the population of the world and not have devastating consequences.

I beg, implore, plead with you to read this book.  It will change your life.  I promise.

The book ends with one of my most favorite quotes:

“You must be THE CHANGE you wish to see in the world.” -Mahatma Ghandi

View all my reviews

Women of the Civil Rights Movement

Ella Baker.

Fannie Lou Hamer.

Septima Poinsette Clark.

Coretta Scott King.

Ruby Bridges.

Diane Nash.

Do you know these names?  They are a few of the integral women of the American Civil Rights Movements.

When I was a sophomore in college, in one of my English classes the major project for the quarter was to write a research paper on any subject of our choosing.  We had to submit three topics to our professor, defend our top subject, and then she decided what we should write about.

I only had one subject:  The women of the Civil Rights movement.

My argument:  We frequently hear about the men of the Civil Rights Movement, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, etc.  But so often the only female name you hear from the Civil Rights movement is Rosa Parks.  And yes, she was an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement, especially being the catalyst for a lot of change in Birmingham, Alabama, but who are these other women?  I want to know the women.

My subject was immediately approved by my teacher.  She asked me why I was so interested in the Civil Rights Movement.  I guess all she saw of me was a 19 year old little white Mormon girl from Utah.  Why should I care about the Civil Rights movement, right?  Ahem.  I explained that my mother lived in Washington, D.C from 1960 to 1973.  She lived the Civil Rights Movement.  She would often tell us stories about driving home to Silver Spring, MD from her job at the USDA in D.C. and both sides of the beltway would be burning.  She hated the 60s because it was so scary.  That’s why I’m interested.  This is my history, and my heritage, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from in America or your race or ethnicity, we ALL should be interested in the civil rights of our fellow human beings.

(I was pretty assertive as a 19 year old, for those of you who are wondering if I was always like this…)

So who are the women I listed above?  I was delighted to find out so much about these names I had never heard of before.  This paper began to mean so much more to me than just a research project I had to do for an English class.  I can’t find my paper now.  It was written in 1997.  But I remember their names.

Ella Baker

Ella began working for the NAACP in 1938 and her work with the Civil Rights movement spanned 5 decades.  She worked with the prominent leaders of the movement, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.  She was involved in Montgomery Bus Boycott, was a staffer for the Crusade for Citizenship (a voter registration camp), worked for student de-segregation with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.  She died in 1986, but was honored with a US Postage Stamp in 2009.  One of Ms. Baker’s most famous quotes:  “Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.”





Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie’s activism started in the 50s organizing the Mississippi Freedom Summer and became the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party.  Fannie was deeply religious and soft-spoken and often used Bible verses in her speeches.  She ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965.  She worked at a grassroots level as well, and helped start Head Start, the Freedom Farm Cooperative, and worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Poor People’s Campaign.  Fannie died of breast cancer in 1977.  Ms. Hamer’s most famous quote is: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Septima Poinsette Clark

Septima was born in 1898 and was an educator as well as a civil rights activist.  Her father was born a slave and after the Civil War he worked as a caterer. Her mother refused to let Septima become a domestic for a white family.  Instead, Septima graduated from high school and became an educator without a college education at that time.  In 1919, Septima taught at Avery Normal Institute, in Charleston, S.C., a private academy in for black children.  It was here Septima started her work with the NAACP.  She then went on to earn her Bachelors and Masters degrees and worked with noted Civil Rights Activist, W.E.B. Du Bois.  Septima is most known for starting Citizenship Schools which taught black adults in the Deep South how to read.  Septima worked with many health organizations.  In 1979, President Carter award Septima with a Living Legacy Award.  Septima died in 1987.  Her most famous quote:  “I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking.  I consider chaos a gift.”

Coretta Scott King

Coretta was the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. and helped lead the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  Coretta was part of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped pass the Voting Rights Act in 1964.  Her most prominent role in the movement was after her husband was murdered as she continued his work and his legacy as the new leader of the movement.  As a new leader of the movement she founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and broadened her focus to include women’s issues, LGBT rights, economic issues, world peace, racism, poverty, and war.  Coretta was a published author and educator.  In the 1980s Coretta worked to end apartheid in South Africa.  Ms. King died in 2006 and was eulogized by former President Jimmy Carter.  My most favorite Coretta Scott King quote:  “Freedom and justice cannot be parceled out in pieces to suit political convenience.  I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.”

Ruby Bridges

Ruby was born in 1954 in New Orleans.  In 1960, Ruby’s parents answered the call from the NAACP and volunteered to have Ruby integrated in the New Orleans school system.  She is known as the first African American child at an all-white elementary school in the South.  Ruby walked to school every day despite protests from parents, citizens, and backlash the landed her father jobless and her share-cropper grandparents turned off their land.  Can you imagine how brave Ruby must have been?  Can you imagine that courage of that 6 year old girl?  I can’t think of Ms. Bridges without tears coming to my eyes.  Ruby currently lives in New Orleans and there have been many books written about her and movies created about her life.  My favorite Ruby Bridges quote:  “I now know that experience comes to us for a purpose, and if we follow the guidance of the spirit within us, we will probably find that the purpose is a good one.”

(edited to add…)

Diane Nash


Diane was born in Chicago and attended Howard University.  She was a part of the most successful act of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement – The Freedom Rides.  As a college student, Diane was successful in desegregating lunch counters in Nashville, TN.  Her activism did not stop there.  When the Freedom Riders decided to cut their rides short (because of outrageous violence and deaths), Diane, and other Nashville college students, promptly decided they would finish the trip.  Her courageous act caught national attention.  Robert F. Kennedy, himself, begged her to stop (fearing more violence and deaths).  Her response was to say everyone who was going on the Freedom Rides had signed their last Will and Testament the night before.  Diane was also integral in the Selma Campaign (a non-violent Army to combat church bombings), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and has been the subject of two books and numerous documentaries.  Diane continues to advocate for the civil rights, the rights of the poor and impoverished, and for the rights of children.  My most favorite quote of Ms. Nash’s is:  “Every time I participated in segregation, like going into a ‘colored’s only’ bathroom, I felt like I was agreeing that I was inferior.  And I’m not inferior.”

To find out more about these remarkable women, click the links on their names above, or check out this article.

Being Nice versus Being Kind

The Webster’s Dictionary definition of the word nice is: to be pleasing, agreeable, delightful.

The Risa definition of nice is: being a people pleaser, easily manipulated, saying yes when you want to say no.

The Webster’s Dictionary definition of the word kind is: of a good, or benevolent nature or disposition, as a person; considerate, helpful, humane.

The Risa definition of kind is:  the same as the Webster’s dictionary.

Why am I bringing this up?  Well, I often hear people being described as nice.  I’ve never liked this word.  And it’s because of what I associate it with.  I’ve seen people in my life who have desperately wanted to be a nice person (not a bad goal, amiright?), and in their quest I saw them go out of their way to do things to make people like them, even if it made them feel badly about themselves.  I’ve seen people be manipulated or walked all over in an effort to be “nice.”  I’ve seen people who say yes to many requests even when they want to say no because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

I don’t want to be liked.  I’m not a nice person.

What I want to be is a kind person.  A kind person is generous with their time, resources, and love.  A kind person has a genuine interest in the well-being of those around them.  A kind person is considerate of other people’s time and resources.  I kind person is humane.

I want to be a kind person.  I strive to be a kind person.

A kind person does not sacrifice their own dignity to be liked by someone else.  If you have to sacrifice any part of yourself just to make someone like you, they’re not worth it.  A kind person wants to have friends, but is not willing to change themselves, pretend to be someone they’re not, or debase themselves to get one.

A kind person doesn’t do constantly for others to their own detriment.  You know how on an airplane when the flight attendants are doing their spiel at the beginning of the flight and they tell you if the oxygen mask drops to put it on yourself before helping anyone else?  Well, that’s a great metaphor for life.  You can’t give any water when your own well is dry.  A kind person takes care of themselves first so they can take of others.

I’ve seen people let themselves be used, abused, and walked all over in an effort to be nice and not hurt anyone’s feelings.  This is total crap.  No one should allow themselves to be treated like this.  News flash:  Anyone who would treat you like that doesn’t really care about you no matter what they say!!!!!  A kind person knows when someone is trying to manipulate them, and they don’t let them.  They won’t let them.  A kind person loves themselves and loves themselves too much to let someone use and abuse them.  A kind person doesn’t need to walk all over someone, abuse them, use them, or manipulate them to get what they want or to feel powerful.  A kind person knows that their power is in how much they love and care about others.

These are my definitions of nice versus kind.  I try hard to be a kind person.  My parents taught me at an early age to say please and thank you.  Sometimes I over say them.  My parents taught me through their actions how to treat service workers.  I didn’t even realize that some customers treat service workers like crap until I was 18 and working at a Frozen Yogurt place and I customers treat me like utter crap just because they could.  My sister and I recently had a conversation about this and she said something along the lines of, how you treat people who are serving you is a direct indication of your “class.”

Once I changed my thinking of wanting to be a kind person instead of being a nice person, I’ve been so much happier.  I’m more generous with my time, resources, and love because I have a well built up from which to give.  Now that I don’t worry about doing things to make people like me, I’m free.  I can be kind, generous, giving, humane, and considerate without being nice at all.

I can reach out in compassion to a hurting friend or acquaintance without worrying if they’re going to like me more for it.  I can give generously to charities and not expect anything in return, except the knowledge that I was able to use whatever resources I have at my disposal to help someone. I can treat people better because I’m not worried about being “cool” or losing friends, or seeking the approval of others.

Whenever I find myself wanting to be “nice,” I have to stop and remember what a kind person does.

May we all have more kindness and less niceness in our lives.