A great story is all in the telling

I love against-all-odds stories. The best ones awaken in me a pride in the little guy, the person who didn’t know he had a passion for life until it is nearly stolen from him. They also provide me with something to ponder: What would I have done in the same situation.

The thriller genre is chock full of lowly-but-honest people who take on impossible battles. Those stories are good for what they are, but because they’re fiction I find myself at arms length when deciding whether to care.

ghost boyBut, for me, nothing can beat nonfiction stories about beating unbeatable odds. When reading “Unbroken” I couldn’t help but think, “I’d have given up a long time ago, good on you, Louis Zamperini.” (Though I sometimes pictured myself fighting back against the Japanese guard who tortured him so mercilessly. What’s he going to do, torture me more?) When reading “The Glass Castle” I was shocked by the life retold in the story, but stunned by Jeannette Walls’ ability to look back on that life with humor and compassion.

That’s what prompted me to pick up “Ghost Boy” by Martin Pistorius (who seems to be no relation to Olympian/killer Oscar Pistorius, though they both hail from South Africa). In it, Martin tells his story of a bizarre medical…thing…that nearly robbed him of his life at the age of 12 and changed the lives of his family and many others.

Young Martin comes home from school one day complaining he didn’t feel well and very soon after that was hospitalized, unable to move or communicate in any way. Doctors still can’t explain what happened. He was put in a center for low functioning people (though he went home most nights, thanks to his father who should be an inspiration to us all as to the true meaning of unconditional love). Somehow, though, many years later, Martin’s consciousness returned. He was able to see, understand and process everything that was going on around him, though it was physically impossible for him to let anyone know.

A young worker realized — or had a feeling or somehow knew — that there was more to him than the shell of a body everyone saw. She recommended him for some therapy that would allow him to communicate, though it would be a laborious process, as Martin had also lost his ability to read. Even letters were foreign scribbles to him.

Eventually, thanks to some high-tech gadgets and sheer willpower, Martin is able to interact once again with the world. Eventually he gets a job, becomes an international speaker and advocate for assistance technology, falls in love and gets married. (No spoiler on that last bit; he dedicates the book to his wife.)

It has everything a true against-all-odds story needs. So am I a bad person because I didn’t care? That’s not entirely true. I cared in theory, but the book never got anywhere near my tear ducts or my heartstrings. I think that’s because Martin told his own story (with the help of a ghost writer). Though it’s an amazing story, it isn’t enough.

I wanted to know what the healthcare worker saw that made her realize Martin was fully conscious. I wanted to know more about the effect of his illness on the family. It caused a major rift for a while and in one scene Martin recalls listening to his mother pray for him to die. Understandable, all of it, but I would have loved to hear what the mom had to say, or the sister or brother whose lives became caught up and lost in Martin’s illness. He never explores this issue in any meaningful way, instead glossing over their anger, fear and resentment to say he understands it and to get to the point where things are better.

This incessant self-focus raised more questions for me: What is the doctors’ best guess for what happened? Can it happen to others? (Maybe I don’t want to know; I don’t need anything else to worry about.) Did he ever turn over to the police information about any of the health workers who beat him or raped him and was anyone ever punished? And there are many, many more issues I wanted him to address, but he never does.

Perhaps that’s because Martin wants to focus on the good, not the bad. People can drive themselves crazy looking for reasons why things happened instead of looking for ways to deal with the situation at hand and moving forward.

So while I admire Martin’s unquenchable spirit, and brilliant fight, I wish he’d have left the telling of his tale to a professional.

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