Kristen Jane Anderson’s suicide attempt came at the culmination of several traumas: death in the family, a friend’s suicide, and a brutal and degrading attack on her body. But she held her despair inside, as our society expects women to do, until it became too much to bear; then she threw herself beneath a train. That’s when the real misery began.
Anderson’s memoir, Life, In Spite of Me, details how she discovered she could not rely on her own strength. Even in trying to kill herself to end the pain, she misfired: the train didn’t kill her, it just severed her legs. Thus she sank into even greater pain, and wondered at her own inability to even commit suicide correctly.
And who can blame her? American society has very strict expectations of women. We expect them to remain cheerful, never complain—especially about men—and beam forth pollyannaish rays of sunshine. When Anderson tried to do that, after suffering demeaning violence, it came to nothing. Her human strength could never overcome the inevitability of failure.
But Anderson’s memoir doesn’t just detail her steady decline. When she reached what she considered her lowest point, she realized her family, friends, and God were there. As long as she relied on human strength, she came to nothing; only when she trusted in something greater than herself did she find meaning.
Unfortunately, such bastions can be hard to find. Like Anderson, Kristen K. Brown lost everything she thought she had in one cruel sitting. In The Best Worst Thing, she describes the torture she felt when her husband, only thirty years old, died in his sleep. Kristen went to bed one night a happy young wife and mother to an infant, and woke a widow and a single mother.
Brown enjoyed constant support from family and friends, and even investigated her faith more deeply (though her insights remain fairly abstract). But if she learned one lesson, it was that loss germinates inside until it seems as large as your universe. Like Anderson, though, Brown finally reached the point where, to keep living, she had to surprise herself and do something profound.
Unlike Anderson, who tells an essentially religious story, Brown’s memoir deals with the secular struggle of loss and recovery. Nevertheless, she learns the importance of turning outside herself. If she wants to survive, she must stop relying on her own resources and join the larger human community. Only then does she become who she was meant to be.
I like Brown’s memoir, but it lacks Anderson’s unity. Now a working minister, Anderson has found a voice to reach an audience, and her story has a clear through-line with an unmistakable take-home message. Brown’s story is more anecdotal, a string of occurrences to create a mood. Only in the final fifty pages does she bring the threads together into a meaty story.
Missy Jenkins combines the best of both worlds in I Choose to Be Happy. As the worst-hit survivor of the 1997 Paducah, Kentucky, school shooting, no one would blame Jenkins for nursing her grievances. After all, she lost every dream that had anything to do with walking. Yet she realized she had a choice, and let self-pity go by the wayside.
On the one hand, Jenkins describes how formerly routine activities, like getting up and getting dressed in the morning, have become excruciating. But where she had previously drifted through life as aimlessly as any teen, Jenkins suddenly found a purpose. Once she regained her autonomy, she found herself an unlikely celebrity and acknowledged expert on youth violence.
Life, for Jenkins, became a constant discovery. She uncovered the dark side of her pristine small town, and how many youth suffer in silence. Then she discovered an unmet need that she was uniquely positioned to address. As a guide and counselor for victims of violence, both through her media life and now in her profession, she has become a source of strength for others.
Like Anderson, Jenkins offers her readers a mainly religious resolution. Though I have occasional problems—I fear she makes forgiveness look too easy, especially for those who struggle to forgive—her story of how she didn’t let someone else write her script is both uplifting and bold. And like both Anderson and Brown, Jenkins proves we cannot trust our strength alone.
These three insights into life lived despite tragedy remind me why life remains worth living. And it gives me three women I can look up to with pride.