Aimee Ross

Author Post: My Scars Are My Veins of Gold

Aimee RossAimee Ross is a nationally award-winning educator who has been a high school English teacher for the past twenty-five years and who published Permanent Marker: A Memoir in 2018. She completed her MFA in Creative Non-Fiction Writing at Ashland University in 2014, and her writing has been published on lifein10minutes.com and SixHens.com, as well as in Beauty around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia, Scars: An Anthology, Today I Made a Difference: A Collection of Inspirational Stories from America’s Top Educators, and Teaching Tolerance magazine.

My Scars Are My Veins of Gold

Scars: marks left on the skin or within body tissue where fibrous connective tissue develops to connect, support, and bind as a wound heals. Scars can fade, be covered up or even be surgically altered, but they can never go away.

They remember.

Scar Tissue

I can count more than ten scars all over my body from that night.

(The ones I can see, I mean.)

Some are short, some are long, and some are ugly. The back of my left arm looks like Dr. Frankenstein stitched it together, my foot has permanent weird lumps and a raised center that makes wearing shoes difficult, and my belly, well, I hated the monstrous, gaping scar that ran its length. Doctors had to put me back together—literally. They told me so.

Strangely, most of the scars are also vertical.

At right angles to a horizontal plane. Perpendicular.

The same angle at which we collided when he ran that stop sign and into my car, T-boning it and me. We were on our way home from dance camp that July evening. The three girls in my car escaped the wreck with minor injuries—thankfully. I barely survived. He died.

Four months later, a highway patrolman visited to share the other driver’s toxicology report and to inform me of my rights as a “victim of a crime.” He came to bring me “some peace of mind.”

It didn’t work.

A young man of only nineteen years got into a car with two different drugs in his body. He caused a tragic wreck and lost his life. He forever changed mine. (Cause for the scars I can’t see.)

And all of my scars, both physical and emotional, tell a story of survival, one in which I found out how truly resilient the human body and spirit can be.

Kintsugi as Metaphor

One day in my classroom, Kaitlyn, a senior a month from graduation, told me to look up Japanese art called “kint”-something. I was amazed.

Permanent MarkerKintsugi: a Japanese word that means “golden joinery.” It originated in the fifteenth century when a Japanese shogun broke his favorite bowl and tried to have it repaired by sending it back to China. Metal staples were used, which displeased the shogun, so he hired Japanese craftsmen to find a better answer. Their solution? Reparation of the breakage with seams of gold—kintsugi. Thus, the piece became more valuable than before it broke.

More beautiful. An art form.

Maybe it was time to embrace my scars. And maybe my breakage could become a part of my history, making me more valuable, rather than causing embarrassment or avoidance or erasure from memory. Maybe, like that broken bowl, I could be better than new. Perhaps an even more beautiful version of who I’d been.

I liked that.

Illumination

It’s been eight years since the accident—enough time to no longer be defined by the experience, though it will forever mark me. Enough time to not notice my scars anymore. They are simply a part of my body’s canvas now, a part of who I am. I might even be proud of them.

“We had to have them do that,” my brother once said, pointing to my abdomen, where the worst, most noticeable scar was, “to be able to have you here now.”

That.

At the time, a way inside. A way to save my life.

My scars—the physical and the emotional—are marks of resilience and endurance. They demonstrate a strength of spirit and a willingness to fight that I never knew I had. I survived. I did it.

And not only am I stronger because of them, someone loves me in spite of them.

My new, loving husband, Jackson, didn’t know me before the accident. He accepted and embraced my flaws, and it’s meant all the difference. This new, fuller life of love and energy post-accident shows in my very being. So many people still tell me how happy I look and that I “glow,” especially around Jackson.

But I think it’s just the veins of gold running through me.

Salvation on Death Row cover

Author Post: How 3 Heart Attacks and 2 ‘Cabbages’ Changed Me

John Thorngren headshotJohn T. Thorngren, author of Salvation on Death Row: The Pamela Perillo Story, has survived three heart attacks and two open-heart surgeries and has a more open, loving heart to show for it. Here’s how those experiences shaped John’s view of life.

How Three MIs and Two ‘Cabbages’ Changed Me

I must assume that anyone who has had heart problems, especially open-heart surgery, becomes a changed person. Poems, literature, and even our speech reflect that the heart is the center of our being, both literally and figuratively. One does not undergo having his heart chopped on without questioning his mortality and the purpose as to why he is still alive. Oh yes, after any life-threatening surgery, especially open-heart, one notices that the sky is “bluer,” the birds sing louder, flowers are gorgeous—all of the above—and yet depression is often a side effect. Mortality is now a striking reality, and one wonders what to do in what little precious time that might remain.

As a survivor of three heart attacks and two open-heart surgeries, I know too well those mixed feelings of gratitude and terror, the sense of wanting to do more with my life but perhaps not being entirely sure where to begin. So like many before and many to come after, I began searching for my Creator and found redemption in Christ.

Life-altering Experiences

I had my first heart attack—or myocardial infarction (MI)—in 1980 at age thirty-nine and married with two children. Shortly after that, I had a coronary artery bypass graft, a CABG, otherwise referred to as a “cabbage.” In my case, it was a Cabbage X3—three grafts. Within ten years, I suffered two more heart attacks and then a Cabbage X4.

A cabbage is a brutal operation. You are cracked open like a crab being prepared for consumption. Veins are removed from your legs and grafted in to replace those pieces clogged with plaque. The life function of your heart and lungs are being performed by a machine. You are officially a dead robot. Has my life changed from those experiences? How could it not?

Every Life Is Precious

Salvation on Death Row coverThe most notable change is a deep understanding that every life is precious and a special gift from God. I found this in my search for God while spinning the dial on my car radio. A televangelist, Dr. D. James Kennedy (deceased), was preaching on abortion, a devastation about which I felt indifferent. I listened. The passages he quoted from Jeremiah about knowing him before he was in the womb tweaked my spirit. A turning point. I knew instantly that life from conception is precious. And later by another divine series of events, I found life on Death Row equally as precious. This is the subject of the book, Salvation on Death Row: The Pamela Perillo Story, about Pamela’s redemption, her scheduled execution and her reprieve, and about the three other women with Pamela on Death Row for twenty-plus years, who also found salvation but were put to death by the State of Texas.

No entity, no state, no government, no kingdom, no person should ever take the life of a prisoner in revenge. Even after the first homicide recorded in Scripture, the killing of Abel by Cain, God did not inflict the ultimate punishment on Cain. Although Scripture gives the state the right to execute, it does not give us (those whom the state represents) a mandate. How can we call ourselves Christians and have no compassion, no mercy, and no realization for the sanctity of life?

‘A Lamp to Those Searching’

Does it take a sickness, a calamity, a fall to the bottom—such as what Pamela and her three fellow Death Row inmates experienced—to realize our purpose on earth, to comprehend the meaning of our life as well as that of others? No. I have seen others come to redemption through a simple curious nature, to find out what will fill that spiritual hole that we all have.

Pamela and I hope this book is a lamp to those searching, to those bound in drugs, and to those who are indifferent about the death penalty.

John Thorngren, a Texas writer and graduate of the University of Texas, has enjoyed a myriad of life experiences, working everywhere from basements to boardrooms. He is a songwriter published in Southern Gospel and an author of several patents, technical articles, and a nonfiction book on probability and statistics, in addition to Salvation on Death Row. John and his wife of more than five decades live in Shady Shores, Texas, on Lake Lewisville, where their livestock freely roam the grounds.

Welcome New Author: Jessica K. Baker

Jessica BakerKiCam Projects is delighted to welcome Jessica K. Baker to our family of authors!

Jessica’s young adult novel, Opiate Jane, will release in November 2019. Based on Jessica’s own experience with loved ones battling addiction, Opiate Jane follows a teen-aged girl forced to move to rural Ohio after being reunited with her mother, who’s gotten clean after years in active addiction. Having been through foster care and let down countless times, Jane is skeptical of her mother, lonely in her new school, and concerned only with caring for her little sister, Lizzie. When Jane unexpectedly finds herself in a relationship with Landon, the rich, good-looking, has-it-all-together boy whose family employs her mom, Jane reluctantly lets down her walls. But no sooner than she does, Jane discovers that Landon is dealing with demons of his own.

Before writing Opiate Jane, Jessica spent five years working in the addiction field, as a counseling assistant and a social work assistant. She has a degree in human and social services and is pursuing a second degree in business administration.

Jessica was inspired by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer and Blue October lead singer Justin Furstenfeld. “They both made me realize that I deserve to be loved,” Jessica says.

Jessica shares her life in Ohio with her daughter, Annie, 14.

“I am a fighter,” Jessica says. “I keep going with a good attitude even after I get knocked back a few steps. I am also a good mother, which is the most important job I have. I am an optimistic, open-minded person.”

Welcome to the KiCam family, Jessica!

Welcome New Author: Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta

Maryanne Christiano-MistrettaKiCam Projects is delighted to welcome Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta to our family of authors!

Maryanne’s self-help book, Be (Extra)Ordinary: Ten Ways to Become Your Own Hero, will publish in October 2019. Maryanne draws on her experiences as a survivor of bullying to empower readers to embrace their uniqueness and achieve their personal and professional dreams. A successful journalist, Maryanne has written for hundreds of publications and also enjoys motivational speaking.

She encourages the people in her audience to be true to themselves and to look at themselves before looking at others when setting goals and making major life decisions. She believes in taking risks and pursuing the things that truly make one’s heart happy.

Maryanne’s interests include animals, music, healthy living, and yoga, and Maryanne names Mark Twain, Victoria Woodhull, and Freddie Mercury as people she admires.

She lives in New Jersey with her husband, Dennis, and two cats, Nicholas and Bennie. She is the sole proprietor of Pear Tree Enterprises.

“I am extremely positive; the glass is always full,” Maryanne says. “I’m fun and always up for something different.”

Welcome to the KiCam family, Maryanne!

Aimee Ross

Author Post: An Open Letter to the Young Man Who Almost Killed Me

Aimee RossAimee Ross published Permanent Marker: A Memoir in 2018, and in the following excerpt, Aimee writes an open letter to the intoxicated young man who crashed into Aimee’s car, nearly killing her and her young passengers.

An Open Letter to the Young Man Who Almost Killed Me and My Daughters

Dear Zachary,

I’m writing this letter to you because I feel like I have to, even though I don’t know you, and I never will. I can only know my version of you, an idea in my head, and to be honest, it’s not a good one.

I know you were the driver of the red Mini Cooper who plowed recklessly into the side of my 2008 gray Saturn Aura, oblivious to the stop sign that warm July night.

I know you were only nineteen, and not one of my former students.

I know you died the next day in a room across from mine in the Trauma Center after doctors declared you “brain dead.” The impact of crunching, crushing metal had launched you through the sunroof of your father’s car and onto the road. After the accident, visitors told me rumors about you. They knew people you partied with. My two teenage daughters knew people you were friends with. They warned me of a Facebook memorial page.

I looked too soon.

You—the party boy with swag—were loved, and by many. They called you Zach. I wish that throwing bangers, getting baked, and blowing smoke at the camera didn’t consume those posted memories and fuzzy photos.

A friend of your mother’s told me you had been in trouble with the law, and I know your driver’s license was suspended at least twice. At only 19, that’s two times in less than three years. Now I wonder if other rumors I heard were true. That you spent time in a detention home. That you and your buddies played a very dangerous game earning points for traffic violations.

And then there’s your family. Good people, I heard. I know you had dinner at home with them that evening. You asked your dad for the car, the one titled to him but given to you, so you could go to a friend’s house. You were on your way when you crashed into us. I wonder if you brushed your mother’s cheek with a goodbye kiss, yelled, “Later, Dad!” and hopped through the front door, your older sister rolling her eyes at you one last time.

I know your family loved you.

My brother told me your father and sister hugged him, moments after finding out you had passed, crying, hoping I would pull through. I imagine that your mother was broken in a corner, lost in her own sea of tears. They had just been asked about donating your organs.

I know your parents—an older, more settled couple—adopted you and your sister from another country far away. Maybe they couldn’t have their own children. Now they can’t even have you.

The most devastating thing I know about you, however, isn’t that you ran a stop sign that night. It isn’t that you were most likely speeding, either. What devastates me is that you were driving under the influence. The highway patrol officer who came to inform me I was the “victim of a crime” told me. They don’t know how fast you were going, but they do know about the marijuana and benzodiazepine in your bloodstream.

Why did you do that, Zach? Why?

Permanent MarkerDid you smoke pot and do drugs so often you drove stoned all the time?

Did you forget you had family and friends who loved you, a whole life ahead of you?

Did you think you were invincible, maybe even above the law?

Three beautiful girls, teenagers on the dance team I advised, were riding with me on the way back from dance camp that evening. I couldn’t protect them from you. You could have killed them. You almost killed me. Four more lives could have been lost. I believed my daughter, also on the team, had left ahead of us, but in fact, she was only moments behind in a different car. You could have killed her that night. The thought makes me sick.

I love her, just like your parents loved you. Our worst fear as parents happened to them: You didn’t come home. They must miss you desperately. I imagine they didn’t know about your regular drug use. I wonder if they were shocked, horrified maybe, to find out. Perhaps they have forgiven you by now. You were their only son.

But I am finding it difficult to do.

We all make mistakes and poor choices. I know this. And if you had lived through the accident, maybe you would have apologized. You probably would have been sorry, too. If you had lived through the accident, maybe you even would have changed. You probably would have stopped being reckless, too.

But maybe your life ended because of how you chose to live it. Maybe change would not have been possible for you even if you had lived. I don’t know.

I changed, but not by choice.

I am a different person today. Body, heart, and spirit.

I wonder what I would be like if it never happened. But that’s silly to consider, because it did.

You crashed into me.

I don’t want to hate you. And I don’t want to be so angry, still.

I even want to try to forgive you.

But I just can’t yet.

Sincerely,

Aimee, the woman whose life you changed

 

Salvation on Death Row cover

Author Post: 5 Reasons I Know God Has a Purpose for Every Life

John Thorngren headshotJohn T. Thorngren, author of Salvation on Death Row: The Pamela Perillo Story, believes firmly that every life is meaningful and worthy, no matter what a person’s background might be. That belief was at the core of his desire to work with Pamela and share the story of her Christian conversion. Here, John writes about what he knows in his heart—and why he knows it.

Five Reasons I Know God Has a Purpose for Every Life

These are five reasons I know God has a purpose for every life. It is a purpose that is not from a deterministic God but one I am convinced occurs from the product of our given free will, one to His glory, that is molded as we move forward from our choices, good or bad. Those listed below are from my observation, but I am certain there are many more.

    1. There are many passages in Scripture that detail God’s value for our life such as Matthew 10:29-31, paraphrased: He knows when every sparrow falls to the ground, and are we not worth many sparrows? If He knows when even a little sparrow passes, then how much more must He care for us? If we have no purpose, what could we be worth? Every person’s purpose is to glorify God.
    2. Jack Thorngren, my 45-year-old disabled son, who passed away at the first of 2017, is an example. Although heavily dependent on others, a fact he openly detested, he nonetheless displayed courage and mirth and was a blessing to all who knew him. All of us here on earth, whatever our limitations or situations, are here for a purpose.
    3. Pamela Perillo, the subject of Salvation on Death Row, is an example. Reprieved two days before her scheduled execution, Pam has been a spiritual help to many inmates. While incarcerated, she has trained over twenty-five service dogs for Patriot PAWS, which provides the animals without cost to disabled American veterans and others with mobile disabilities and PTSD symptoms. Pam plans to continue this vocation when finally paroled as a way of giving back to the world that which she has taken.
    4. Pamela’s life was spared, but three other Death Row inmates incarcerated with Pamela, as noted in my book, were executed. Genesis 50:20 sums up their lives best: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Their deaths were not in vain. Each was given a purpose before leaving. Karla Faye Tucker put a face to the spiritual “Born Again,” and support for the death penalty plummeted. Betty Lou Beets put a face to the disabled and spousal abuse. Frances Elaine Newton put a face to the execution of the innocent. All three women knew where they were going when they died. (And certainly, all those who have donated their lives to glorify God through the prison ministry are examples of divine purpose.)
    5. From an historical perspective, look at those who have been our inspirations, people such as Paul of the New Testament, Helen Keller, Joni Eareckson Tada, etc.—an innumerable list through time of those with afflictions who encouraged others through their sufferings.

But the greatest example of purpose, of course, came in the presence of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

John T. Thorngren, a Texas writer and graduate of the University of Texas, has enjoyed a myriad of life experiences, working everywhere from basements to boardrooms. He is a songwriter published in Southern Gospel and an author of several patents, technical articles, and a nonfiction book on probability and statistics, in addition to Salvation on Death Row. John and his wife of more than five decades live in Shady Shores, Texas, on Lake Lewisville, where their livestock freely roam the grounds.

Aimee Ross

Author Post: On Writing and Nearly Dying Twice

Aimee RossAimee Ross published Permanent Marker: A Memoir in March 2018. She completed her MFA in Creative Non-Fiction Writing at Ashland University in 2014, and her writing has been published on lifein10minutes.com and SixHens.com, as well as in Beauty around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia, Scars: An Anthology, Today I Made a Difference: A Collection of Inspirational Stories from America’s Top Educators, and Teaching Tolerance magazine.

5 Things Writing Helped Me Understand after Nearly Dying (Twice)

“You are the author of your own life story,” promised the skinny strip of green bubble letters outlined in neon pink that used to hang above the chalkboard at the back of my classroom.

Back then, I believed in that language arts message as hallowed inspiration.

Now? Teacher-catalog b.s.

Only recently, I had become a character in my own life, and I didn’t know who was actually authoring the story. The one I was sick of telling. The one that delivered the same embarrassing reaction.

I was almost killed in a car accident. The other driver was under the influence. He died. I had to be resuscitated.

Disbelief: “Wow.”

Yeah, I was recovering from a heart attack that had happened five months earlier.

Surprise: “What?”

A heart attack. Yes, only forty-one years old. I know, crazy. It was stress. I had just told my husband of eighteen years that I wanted a divorce.

Next, pity: “That’s horrible” or “I’m so sorry.”

And then a final shrug or pat on the hand to quickly to end what could possibly turn lengthy if left unchecked, I suppose. “Well, you look great anyway.” 

The Trifecta

I’d had two brushes with death, made it through The Trifecta of Shit, and I “looked great anyway.”

I had recovered physically, yes, but my spirit, crushed between major life-changing moments, had shattered into countless irretrievable pieces, and I couldn’t make any sense of the mess. Guilt from ending my marriage and guilt from a young man’s death (survivor’s guilt?) haunted me. I wondered if I’d had a mid-life crisis. I wondered if God had sent that car into mine to punish me for the divorce. And I worried that it would define the rest of my life.

I needed the randomness of The Trifecta to have meaning. I needed to understand my survival. And I knew I was the only person who could put me back together again.

The Process of Healing through Writing

When I returned to teaching school six months after the accident, I discovered that my classroom was just what I needed. I was back in my comfort zone surrounded by teenagers, once again fueled by their energy. I sat in a chair at the front of the room, relishing being alive and back in my classroom.

When I assigned my students a writing project, I found myself writing alongside them every class period. No matter the prompt I gave, my writing always took me back to the Trifecta in some way, shape, or form, and before I knew it, I had a small collection of writing through which I attempted to process what had happened to me. I had done what I’ve always done when I wanted to organize the thoughts or solve a problem in my head: write.

Permanent MarkerFate and circumstance stepped in when I learned a local university offered a master’s program in creative writing, and I decided to apply immediately. I had always wanted to earn a graduate degree, and to do so in writing sounded like a dream. I could use the two years to write about and process my circumstances for a degree, and hey, maybe I’d have something publishable at the end. It couldn’t hurt to try.

Maybe I’d also find some peace along the way, the answers to the questions that haunted me: What had happened to me? Why was I still alive? And, who was I now?

I felt like I might already know the answers, but they were just outside of reach, tangled up and twisting around one another. So I kept writing.

Soon, through the regular rhythm of working out events on paper—or on a laptop screen— I saw my story unfold. Yes, it was messy, disjointed even, but I finally had an outlet for my grief and anger. Sometimes, random bits of the story came out of me at odd moments on scraps of paper, or a line would form in my mind while I vacuumed. Other times, I could sit down and write a part of the story with such clarity and insight that I shocked myself.

My story finally started to make sense.

What I Learned

Writing became my therapy, the words on the page a clear and thoughtful intervention. Soon I could even see the real-life, true-gold, only-can-be-gotten-from-almost-dying (twice!) wisdom I’d gained along the way. They were hard-earned lessons that must be shared.

  1. Don’t take anything for granted. Not Clifford the Big Red Dog stuffed animals or clean, cotton sheets or walking, one foot in front of the other. Not steamy, hot showers; your raggedy blue baby blankie; or breathing, as deeply as you want, whenever you want. Not hugging your children, playing catch with your pup or sleeping in any position your body likes. All of it matters.
  2. Embrace the power of simple gestures. A get-well card in the mail, a bouquet of flowers from someone who’d survived his own trauma, or an already prepared meal of chicken fettucine and garlic bread can give life meaning. Return the favor when you can. Or better yet, pay it forward.
  3. Let others in to help you heal. My mom, dad, brother, sister, and children were the caretakers and supports who kept me from falling apart, from completely losing myself. And when I wanted to close myself off from the world that seemed just beyond my reach, visitors—whether my writing group or teaching colleagues or former students—kept me grounded and open enough to attempt optimism. Eventually, because I allowed people to surround me, I became well enough to return to school, where my students turned in to my therapists, whether they knew it or not.
  4. Draw strength from nature and all of your moments with it, whether planting herbs, flowers, and vegetables outside in the spring; having someone take you for a drive just as fall leaves are turning colors; or hiking a path to pick black raspberries in the humidity of July. Watch the sunset from the wicker chair on your front porch every single night, even in the frosty cold of winter, and stargaze from your driveway whenever you can. Nature presents its own healing—its own reason for being.
  5. Life can change, or even end, in a moment. It cannot be controlled. That’s just the way it is. You can try to guide it, making choices or even setting a direction, but most of the time, that will be knocked out of your hands unexpectedly. Sometimes you might get the control back, but other times—in fact, a lot of the time—you just have to wait. And either way, you can only control yourself—no one and nothing else. Life, no matter who’s writing the story, just happens. And you can’t get out of the way or hide or run from it. You just live it, one moment at a time, making your way through, one challenge at a time, attempting to live with courage, accepting each moment gracefully. That’s all you can do.

The Big Picture

According to Dr. James Pennebaker, a pioneer in studying the healing nature of writing, expressing what happened to you through words on a page allows you to organize and understand your experiences and yourself. This, in turn, provides a sense of control, something you probably lacked during the traumatic event(s) that led you to need to heal in the first place. When the writer has given the traumatic experience a structure and meaning, not only are the emotions drawn from the experience more manageable, but the story most likely then has a resolution, or ending, which eases the trauma.

Writing your story could provide the therapy necessary to feel whole again.

I know, because I am no longer a character in that old, sad story, defined by trauma. The process worked for me.

Turns out you really can be the author of your own life story. Why not try it?

Barbara Moran

Q&A with Author Barbara Moran

Barbara Moran is a graphic artist from Topeka, Kansas, who was not diagnosed with autism until she was in her early forties. She has spoken at autism conferences, and her artwork has been exhibited by Visionaries + Voices, at Bryn Mawr’s annual Art Ability show, and at the MIND Institute at the University of California-Davis. Barbara’s art often focuses on personified objects such as locomotives, stoplights, and cathedrals. Barbara shares her home with her companion of forty years, Rooney, a 1934 Monitor Top GE refrigerator. Her memoir, Hello, Stranger: My Life on the Autism Spectrum, will be published in March 2019.

Barbara MoranWhat inspired you to work with Karl Williams and share your story with the world?

I always wanted to write my life story but lacked the skills or patience to do it. When I met Karl, he gave me the opportunity to write a story. Without Karl’s help, there’d be no story. Karl offered to do the interviews and make a story out of them. And working with those original transcripts must have been like trying to unscramble an egg.

What do you want readers to understand about you after they’ve read Hello, Stranger?

Hello StrangerI want to be validated. And I’d like to hear from people who have had similar struggles with sensory issues: I want to hear someone say, “Me, too.” I spent most of my life without knowing anyone with sensory issues and I felt a lot of shame because of people’s expectations of me—which I learned were unrealistic. No one even knew that sensory issues existed, and that caused people to want me to just stop complaining. It was my sensory issues that made me withdraw in the first place. And so I personified objects because they wouldn’t overwhelm me like people often did.

What do you hope readers learn about autism and people with autism?

I want them to imagine what autism can be like, to understand the emotions that drive a lot of autistic behavior. Autistic people can be hard to live with, but the autistic person does want help. It needs to start with feeling better; anything that helps sensory processing can help behavior. And relationship-based social skills training, which is give-and-take, can help the autistic person in being able to be functional. A person shouldn’t have to squash her personality to merely be tolerated. The more welcome she can feel with people, the more she’ll care. People need to communicate clearly basic social rules and limits, but the autistic person needs to have enough flexibility so they aren’t constantly afraid of being in trouble.

How did your life change after you first were diagnosed with autism in your forties?

Having an autism diagnosis answered my question finally: Why was my life so out of synch with everyone else’s?

At Menninger’s, I was told that people choose to be mentally ill. After that I felt shame—like it was my fault. I felt shame most of my life. Being diagnosed with autism was like being forgiven. My problems weren’t character faults; they were legitimate complaints. It was like the Ugly Duckling learning he was a swan. At conferences, I was treated like a poster child—a celebrity—and people lined up to buy my pictures. It was amazing to me that someone from Kansas would get to attend so many conferences and feel welcome.

As you look back on your life, how has your view of your childhood experiences evolved?

My view of my childhood changed for the better because knowing “why” meant I no longer needed to blame anyone or accept blame myself. My parents hadn’t harmed me; my problem was physical.

How has drawing helped you throughout your life?

I have always liked colorful pictures regardless of who produced them. And I’ve always enjoyed producing images myself. My drawing has allowed me to see what I wanted to see.

How do you perceive your autism today? Do you see it primarily as a challenge? Can it be interpreted as a gift in some way?

Autism can bring gifts to some people like Temple Grandin: She has a LIFE. But unless something changes drastically, autism has few real advantages. I’m better off than most. Only a handful of autistic people live on their own and are able to work. Something needs to be done to help those with autism become more functional so they can tolerate life. Being autistic is often painful and lonely. I don’t think medication is the answer. There needs to be more emphasis on nutrition and relationships and sensory integration, which has been proven to work—and the person needs a say in the treatment plan.

Autistic people need to communicate and be listened to even if what they say sounds like crazy talk. If somebody knows she counts, other people’s wishes will matter more to her.

Aimee Ross

Author Post: ‘The Holocaust Lady’

Aimee RossAimee Ross is the author of Permanent Marker: A Memoir, an award-winning high school teacher, and a passionate educator about the horrors and history of the Holocaust. Here, Aimee explains how living and working in a small, rural town in Ohio fuels her desire to teach on that dark period of history.

‘The Holocaust Lady’

I remember her words like it was yesterday.

March 2004, San Francisco, California: the Northern California Forum on Holocaust Education.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum had brought me in as a team member to run one of five classroom sessions, accommodating more than 200 attendees, including survivors. We had just finished a few days of sharing resources and strategies for teaching about the Holocaust, which included finding survivor testimony, when she approached.

“Excuse me, Aimee?”

I turned, smiling, still on the post-workshop adrenaline high that accompanied a job well done, to find a middle-aged face, surrounded by frizzy dark curls, pinched in a frown. The room had cleared except for a few people looking at resources on the periphery.

“You know, you or the museum should really research the area you’re going into a little more,” she said. “I teach at a Jewish day school here in the Bay area, and we have no trouble getting Holocaust survivors in the classroom.”

The harsh fluorescent lights overhead glared back at me from her wire-framed, circular glasses.

How should I respond? I didn’t want to speak on behalf of the Museum, because it wasn’t my place. Plus, I was only trying to help those who might not have the access to survivors that she did.

“Also—” she continued.

I tensed.

“You made it very clear that you are from a small, rural town and that you are not Jewish.”

“Yes,” I said. During the course of the workshop, I’d shared my background with participants, including the fact that I was not Jewish, but just to provide context for my pedagogy.

“What right do you think you have to teach about this then?” she accused.

A Journey of Learning

A tight pain crossed my forehead, and my cheeks flared. I didn’t know what to say. She’d caught me completely off guard, which must have been her goal, because she turned and stomped out of the room then.

Hot tears formed behind my eyes, threatening to spill.

That woman didn’t know me or my journey over the past nine years, searching out any and all chances to learn about the Holocaust. She didn’t know I’d gone on a study trip to Poland and Israel, or that I’d developed my own course on the Holocaust, or that I had been receiving hate mail from deniers for the past seven years. She didn’t know I’d won a national contest through the Museum for a lesson I’d created about pre-War Jewish life in Europe, or that I was preparing to take a second field trip with students to Washington, D.C., specifically to visit the Museum and hear a survivor speak. She didn’t know I’d written and won a grant to bring a Holocaust survivor to my hometown for a community presentation in the next month.

And she had no idea that the more I learned about the Holocaust, the more I felt compelled to teach the time period’s most important lesson: that we are all human beings sharing the same world, no better than anyone else.

‘Humanity Is Reason Enough’

Does someone really have to be Jewish to teach about the Holocaust? Does someone have to be a victim to teach about injustice? No.

Humanity is reason enough, and I have every right to teach about it. Even if I am from a small, rural town in Ohio, and even if I’m not Jewish, which is even more of a reason if you ask me. Because if I don’t teach about it, who will?

Today, fourteen years after that moment of negativity and criticism, I’m proud to say I continued educating other teachers and students about the dangers of disrespect and intolerance. I even earned the nickname “The Holocaust Lady”—at least locally.

I refused to let her words stop me.

Yes, they stung. And clearly, they left a permanent mark.

But I’m leaving one, too—one I know will last a heckuva lot longer.

Salvation on Death Row cover

Author Post: Why I Changed My Mind about the Death Penalty

John Thorngren headshotJohn T. Thorngren, author of Salvation on Death Row: The Pamela Perillo Story, writes about the experiences that caused him to change his thinking about capital punishment and undertake the process of telling the true story of life on Death Row in Texas.

Why I Changed My Mind about the Death Penalty

Although we may be merciful and compassionate in our hearts, there are instances to which we are ignorant—and therefore merciless by omission.

As an example, consider the sufferings of the inhabitants in Country X, of which we have no knowledge. We might have an inkling of their existence but no details on their plight nor means to help them. But closer to home, there are instances to which we are merciless by indifference, such as abortion or the death penalty. Indifference, in these cases, refers to those who have little or no concern about taking another’s life under special circumstances. Such special circumstances are ordained by the state and therefore not in their realm of interests.

And End to Indifference

Is omission worse than indifference? Is abortion worse than the death penalty? These are personal questions best answered by one’s direct experience. My indifference to the death penalty changed in a remarkable incident. When we moved to Shady Shores, Texas, I met a young man headed into the woods behind our house. I commented on his cap that had a cross on it and learned he volunteered to help the homeless in Denton, seven miles from us. He and his wife were renting a small mobile home nearby. Some years later they moved, and we kept up through Christmas cards and e-mail.

One day I received an e-mail from his then-ex-wife that “Jerry” was due for execution in another state for multiple homicides. How could this be? How could a professed Christian commit murder? I later learned that it was not Jerry, per se, but Jerry in an altered state under the influence of drugs. Jerry received a stay of execution while his appeals ground through the slow legal process, the limbo between life and death. They are ongoing. Jerry and I agreed to write his painful story in hopes that it might help others, but shortly into this effort, he realized that such information might endanger his appeals, so we placed the project on hold.

Feeling Called to Act

Salvation on Death Row coverStill, I felt I needed to do something on behalf of all of those on Death Row, for we all have a purpose for our lives and the state should not take a life in revenge. Starting with a fictional heroine, condemned to lethal injection, I would create the great American novel about the injustice of the death penalty. But I needed some authentic background on the actual process. By divine chance, I found an old pen-pal request from Pamela Perillo, who had been on Texas Death Row and was still incarcerated at the Lane Murray Unit in Gatesville, Texas.

To that point, Pam had refused authors wanting to write her biography because they seemed transfixed on the sensational aspects of her life. But she and I discovered that we had a Christian match and a mutual purpose for sharing her story: to release but one person from the chains of drug addiction and subsequent imprisonment. Thus began our seven-year effort to create Salvation on Death Row: The Pamela Perillo Story.

And thus began my walk as a Christian—as a human—no longer mercilessly indifferent to the wrongs of the death penalty.

John T. Thorngren, a Texas writer and graduate of the University of Texas, has enjoyed a myriad of life experiences, working everywhere from basements to boardrooms. He is a songwriter published in Southern Gospel and an author of several patents, technical articles, and a nonfiction book on probability and statistics, in addition to Salvation on Death Row. John and his wife of more than five decades live in Shady Shores, Texas, on Lake Lewisville, where their livestock freely roam the grounds.