Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner
Mark Whitaker ’78, My Long Trip Home: A Family Memoir, Simon and Schuster, 2011.
Mark Whitaker ’78 found that he had first to forgive, and then came understanding. It struck me that each reader of this arresting memoir would react differently to the Whitaker family history, but a common realization would be that for each examined life, there is the potential, almost the promise, of understanding and, given our shared capacities to hurt and be hurt, room for forgiveness.
The author is the first of the two sons of C.S. “Syl” Whitaker ’56 and Swarthmore French Professor Jean Theis ’46. After more than 50 years, Mark takes up the story of his father and mother’s journey toward understanding and forgiveness. On the way, he finds his own path of reconciliation. That path emerged from his gradual grasp of forgiveness as the key to his understanding of the complexities of his parents’ conflict and struggle and eventual peace.
Whitaker’s family memoir offers his readers touchstones of a familiar enough world that they may recognize a shared experience and even a basis for empathy. There are elements of identity that either you share or don’t share—race, religion, class, nationality—and to which you may attach deep meaning, or little meaning. These are among the touchstones carved out in this narrative of several generations of the American Whitaker and French Theis families. And there is the complex union of these cultures—French, American, white, black and the mixture that results from their union in mid-1950s America. Religion—Quaker and Jewish—adds to the mix and plays a particular role in this family whose life unfolds in patterns of pain, anger, and the sickness of alcoholism in contrast to its brilliance, achievement, and good works across the globe.
Swarthmore readers will relish details of how the College played an important role in the lives the Whitakers and their son Mark, the accomplished journalist (now executive vice president and managing editor for CNN Worldwide) and fluid writer who unravels the intricacies of their history. Mark reveals his parents’ poignant moments of forgiveness and understanding, grown in the hard soil of their failed relationship and the burden that failure imposed on their children.
The Swarthmore College connections might tempt the reader to dip into the book for those sections and a chance to savor gossip and perhaps uncover new perspectives on a place we think we know best. I urge the fuller experience—capturing new insights through another’s experience, knowing that to get at the truth we need access to perceptions distinct from our own. We also need a willingness to learn even more by opening ourselves to the vitality and intensity of another’s experience and the writer’s interpretation of that experience.
Syl Whitaker’s experience of President Courtney Smith, for example, won’t match yours, but it will add texture and new features to the smooth, cultivated image we have of President Smith and his much-revered stewardship of our fair College. Take it in, savor it, see it in the larger context of the American experience—the experience of a black man at a white college that took a long time to learn how to be its better self in the way it embraced the black community and ultimately became a far more diverse place than Swarthmore could imagine in the 1950s. Think of the reception the union of a white, female, untenured French teacher with a black, male undergraduate might receive and you will perhaps suddenly find yourself in unfamiliar territory, looking in from the outside on a Swarthmore you didn’t and couldn’t know.
All of the familiar touchstones of our national history, from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the devastation of 9/11 to the election of the first black (multiracial) president, and much else, are woven through this family narrative by this skilled journalist, transformed into a stunning memoirist who brings us to a deeply moving realization of our shared humanity, our capacity to understand and to forgive.
I shed tears when Syl conquered his alcoholism and when Mark, 50 years on, discovered that he and his father loved each other. Mark tells about his personal and courageous confrontation of long unresolved feelings of conflict and anger but is able to do so objectively so that his family’s journey ultimately yields understanding for him and lessons for us, the readers. This is a powerfully moving American story. It is deeply personal, historically insightful, and broadly revealing of our fundamental kinship.
I urge you to take this journey, knowing that your experience will be different from mine but sure that we will still find each other along the way.
-Maurice G. Eldridge ’61
Vice president for college and community relations and executive assistant to the president
Phil Cooper ’57, Thursday’s Child: A Gay Man’s Memoir Told in Sessions of His Psychotherapy, Author House, 2012. This author’s memoir, told via accounts of psychotherapy sessions throughout his life, describes the challenges of coming out—including growing up as a gay man in rural Maryland, telling his family, and his discharge from the U.S. Army in the 1950s.
Courtney Bender ’91 and Ann Taves (editors), What Matters? Ethnographies of Value in a Not So Secular Age, Columbia University Press, 2012. This collection of essays deals with religious and secular categories and their meanings for those seeking valuable, ethical lives, examining the role of ambivalence, attachment, and disaffection in the formation of religious, secular, and spiritual identities, resetting research on secular society and contemporary religious life while illuminating what matters in the lives of ordinary individuals.
Andrew Dannenberg ’74 (co-editor), Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-Being, and Sustainability, Island Press, 2011. This book analyzes relationships and connections between the environments that humans create and the effect they have on public health.
John Satterfield ’72, Saving Big Ben: The USS Franklin and Father Joseph T. O’Callahan, Naval Institute Press, 2011. Carefully researched and beautifully written, this thought-provoking biography tells the story of a gentle, scholarly Jesuit priest and the heroic role he played in a famous episode during the Pacific War.
William Dusinberre ’50, Strategies for Survival: Recollections of Bondage in Antebellum Virginia, University of Virginia Press, 2009. This book recounts interviews, conducted by the WPA in 1937, describing African Americans’ bondage in Virginia and their coping methods. He has also written Slavemaster President and Henry Adams: The Myth of Failure.
Dana Mackenzie ’79, The Universe in Zero Words: The Story of Mathematics as Told Through Equations, Princeton University Press, 2012. By an award-winning science writer, this book describes the histories of the 24 most surprising, concise, consequential, and universal equations. Mackenzie shares the stories behind each equation, who discovered it and how, and how it affects our lives.
David Kennedy ’80, Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America, Bloomsbury USA, 2011. Criminologist Kennedy describes his battle against gang- and drug-related inner-city violence and his engineering of the “Boston Miracle” that decreased youth homicide by two-thirds and pointed a way toward a solution. To see David Kennedy ’80 during a recent campus visit, go to
Linda Barrett Osborne ’71, Miles to Go for Freedom: Segregation and Civil Rights in the Jim Crow Years, Abrams Publishing, 2012. Several African-American families that lived through the Jim Crow years describe their daily difficulties. Interviews with people who were children or teenagers at that time, and other primary sources enliven this book.
Marilyn Maye ’69, They are Men and Not Gods: The Secret of Ancient Egypt’s Influence in the Bible and What it Means to You, Quality Books, Inc., 2012. Through the religious lens of the Old Testament, the relationship between ancient Egyptians and surrounding countries is explored.
Wayne Patterson ’68, In the Service of His Korean Majesty: William Nelson Lovatt, The Pusan Customs, and Sino-Korean Relations, 1876-1888, University of California–Berkeley, 2012. Based on the correspondence of William Nelson Lovatt, Korea’s first commissioner of customs in Pusan, this book looks at the informal imperialism exercised by China over Korea in the 1880s, as China’s increasing interventionism affected Lovatt’s hiring, his experiences in Korea, and his eventual termination.