Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review: Finding My Voice

"I am great at promising to do book reviews and really terrible at following through," I told someone recently when I got another request to read and review a book.

I promised Josh Bechtel probably two years ago that I'd review his book "Finding My Voice."

Sorry to make you wait so long, Josh.

But there was more involved here than just procrastinating about finishing a book and writing a review.  Despite pages of notes I'd taken, I found it a complicated assignment.

Finding My Voice is part poetry, part essays, part memoir/autobiography telling Josh's journey from foster care to his adoptive family to adulthood.

Josh is from Oregon and was adopted into a Mennonite family from Estacada, the Bechtels.

And here is where things get sticky for me.  I lived with his oldest sister, Cynthia, when I first came to Oregon as a teenage teacher.  Josh wasn't part of the family then, but I got to know the rest of them when Cynthia and I would visit them on weekends.

So I knew Cynthia very well, and I knew the family back then, both strengths and weaknesses, and this made it impossible to read, and certainly to review, Finding My Voice with any objectivity.

Cynthia and I were a terrible match, suddenly thrown together and living in the same house and teaching at the same school.  I was impulsive, irresponsible, imaginative, emotional.  She was the oldest child, responsible, disciplined, deliberate, controlled.

She believed strongly that there were specific things one did, and many many things one didn't do.  I constantly thought of new and funny and crazy things one could do.  If we had a problem, Cynthia's mind moved in very specific tracks about how to solve it.  Mine did not.

Our landlord's wife had stocked our little kitchen with a few items including hot chocolate packets.  When they ran out, I remembered that there were more, that we were told to use as needed, in the warehouse lunchroom some distance away.

So, at probably 10:00 at night, I dashed out the back door, jogged over to the mostly-deserted warehouse, said hi to the night guy, and grabbed a few packets of hot chocolate mix.

Cynthia was spluttering when I got back.  "You just DO stuff," she said.  "You just WENT.  Like you didn't even THINK about that it was dark and there was a MAN there.  If you get an idea to do something you just DO it."  She wasn't angry, just dumbfounded.

I said something like, "We were out of hot chocolate mix.  I wanted some.  There was some at the lunchroom.  I have legs.  No big deal."

It was a little taste of Josh's life, I guess, living with someone from his family who simply didn't GET me.

Eventually, Cynthia was the one who said, "We need to talk about us," and we did, and with time resolved our many differences in a congenial manner, and started laughing at ourselves, and ended up being friends all the way up to her death from cancer, some years ago.

I think the Bechtel family was much like Cynthia.  Good.  Disciplined.  Proper. You behaved in very prescribed and responsible ways.

And it worked very well for them and they were happy and other people knew they could be counted on.  They were pillars of the church and community.

The church structure was in many ways an extension of the family structure--very prescribed, with specific expectations about behavior.  And it worked as a secure framework for the people in it.  What they did, they did well.

But this is where the family and church methods didn't work: with a troubled, sensitive, deepy wounded, deeply emotional child who landed in their midst, and whose behavior often gave no indication at all of what was going on inside.  And who didn't respond to the expectations and discipline that had worked for all the others.  And who was in many ways totally out of control among people who were very self-controlled and well-behaved and knew what to do.  And who had questions for which no one had answers.

As an adoptive mom, this was the most painful part of Josh's story, how his family expected him to be like them, and wanted so badly to help him, and it wasn't working.  Over and over, I thought, "How could things have been different?"
"How could he have been reached?"
"Wasn't there any help available to them?"
"How could they not sense that this was so much more than rebellion and naughtiness?"  Or did they, but he never got the message?
"Why did nobody sense his shame, desperation, and self-condemnation?"
"What if one person had really understood him and advocated for him?"

I asked these questions with Steven always in the back of my mind.  Yes, the situations were very different, but many of the dynamics of adoption are universal.

Josh chose to be brutally honest about the painful parts of his past.  It resurrects the dilemma of writing about your life and how do you write honestly but graciously about the negative experiences with people close to you?  I wrote here about Rhoda Janzen exploiting her family for laughs.  Josh doesn't cast his family in a positive light, but it isn't for laughs.  It's an attempt at healing.

I know the book has been painful for his family to read.  But in this case, I tend to lean toward what many reviewers said about Rhoda Janzen.  This is Josh's story, his perspective, his take on things.  Obviously, everyone's perspective will vary.  And he doesn't disguise the mental instability and chaos that colored his perceptions.

But it feels like an important story to tell.  I bless him in telling it.  It's understandable if his family might feel aghast or angry, but in reading, I looked at them with sympathy more than condemnation--there was so much they didn't know.

An angry Amazon reviewer named Bob says:
I coud not and will not recommend this book to anyone... I personally know this person an his adoptive family(who are very loving godly people who did there best for this man)plus all the different groups he was involved in...Do your RESEARCH on severe attachment disorder which unfortunately Josh Bechtel has...Most of this book is a lie an completely distorted...

My response to Bob is: we aren't so dumb.  Of course there are many sides to this story.  We get it.  But this was a story I needed to hear.

The book's strongest feature, in my opinion, is the poetry.

The sky is green
the grass is blue
At least it seems
That's what life
Taught you;
And you've started
You got all your
Life colors wrong. . .

The strength of the essays/chapters is their raw and vivid honesty.  At times I wished for more editing and refining, but the core of the story is there for the taking.

Ultimately, this is a story of discovering God in unexpected ways and of feeling and believing in and accepting the Father's love.

If you have children, if you work with troubled kids or young adults, if you're thinking of adoption, if you live in a box where you are convinced that certain behavior works and so of course everyone should do it, you need to read Finding My Voice.  And if you feel stuck in systems that work for others but don't work for you.  And if you feel hounded by shame and accusation and condemnation.  And if you feel misunderstood.

Afraid. . .
Afraid to love,
Afraid of grace,
Afraid to see what's on his face.
Afraid that I'll be sent away. . .
Afraid to hope He'll bid me stay.
Afraid to fling myself on grace
Or to believe there is a place
Within his heart for such as I.
Afraid he'll scold me if I cry.

[20 more lines]

I sense him say to my heart:
Lay back and be still.
Don't even try to speak.
Don't even try to understand
or comprehend my will.
This is all you need to know:
You are my child still.

You can buy the book here.

Josh's blog is here


  1. Oh, my heart! Not an hour ago, a friend walked out my door after telling me the painful struggles of trying to fit into our Mennonite church. Having no clue how to comb her hair or even put on a head covering. Trying to learn to sew and feeling ashamed of how long it takes her. Apologizing for her thrifted clothes. "I'm trying so hard!" It makes me angry. I want this book. I want it for myself and a whole handful of hurting people in a variety of situations. Thanks for the review!

  2. Two of my girls are adopted. Frequently people will say, "Oh, they were so little(26 months each) they won't remember." They may not remember the details but their psyche knows they have experienced the trauma of loss. I hope that reading books like this will help people have a better understanding of how to help traumatized kids. Kids who have experienced the trauma of losing their family will never see life in the same way that others will. I know that I am not doing it perfectly, but I hope that with God's help we can provide healing and help for our girls.

  3. My heart goes out to Josh and his family,the pain on both sides makes me cringe and brings tears.
    I read on Josh's blog that he has FAS. IF that is true, that would explain even more why he and his family struggled so much. Our family struggles in relating to our FAS child. Even though one parent is adopted and the FAS child is part of an adopted sibling group, it is still difficult. FAS is brain damage and with the cognitive distortion, the child not only struggles with adoption issues, just living everyday life is a huge battle! When our child entered the teen years, we finally got an answer to the violent rages, lack of control, difficulty functioning, poor social skills,much difficulty in 'reading people', etc. Our parenting had to change and we did much research on how to help our child succeed. We so badly want to help our child, yet make many mistakes. Why must a child pay such terrible consequences for choices they had nothing to do with??
    Everyone needs to read this book. Understanding what trauma,FAS,RAD etc is and how to help is so badly needed. These children and their families need to have others come alongside and help to carry the heavy burden. The road is rough, the road is rocky....

  4. As a sister of two adopted girls, I will definitely be picking this up.

  5. My two-cents on the subject, not knowing the writer, his family, nor having read this book: Adoptive families have so many more resources and information now that was not available years ago. We know that you often can not parent an adoptive child just like a biological child, that there will be emotional issues, and that things like RAD can be treated but not always healed. I think it is a concern of every adoptive family that their child will grow up and write a "tell-all" book when all they wanted was the best for their child and they did what they could do and knew how to do at that time.