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Let me address the “elephant in the room”. That is, the title of my book: White Man’s Disease. Do a search online for White Man’s Disease and you will get millions of results. For a book titled with such a seemingly common phrase—at least according to search results—it sure generates a lot of “raised eyebrows”, and sometimes worse reactions. Yes, it is a provocative title, but White Man’s Disease is not a provocative book. The book is neither about White men nor is it about a disease. The title is metaphorical.
The phrase is used only twice in the book. On page one I recount the first time I heard it, although it gives no hint as to why the book has that title. The second time it is used is in the middle of the book as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the book’s subject matter.
White Man’s Disease is not about race (although a wise man, my editor—told me a memoir written by a Black man in America is inevitably going to be about race.) White Man’s Disease is a story about resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity.
You’ve heard the maxim: don’t judge a book by its cover. Hopefully prospective readers won’t judge this book by its title. In this highly racialized environment we find ourselves in, I acknowledge that is a risk I incur with that title. That would be too bad; readers of all races, from all over the country have shared some wonderful sentiments about the book with me. Page
Long ago I first heard the phrase White Man’s Disease uttered on national TV by, surprise, a well-known White man. Though I damn near fell out of my chair when I heard it, it was unquestionably used in a clever, amusing way. Little did I know at the time that I would appropriate the phrase for my own use many years later.
Furthermore—and this is not about defending or rationalizing the title, but just for perspective—White Man’s Disease contains several depictions of what I saw as heroic acts. All but one of these heroes are White men—including one I credit with saving my life, and another I credit with single-handedly resurrecting my promising professional career that had been derailed by a traumatic event. (I said all but one: the African-American hero in the book was Muhammad Ali, who touched my life in a small but poignant way.)
In the past couple of years, we have seen a number of books with racially provocative titles become national bestsellers, although they have the power of major publisher marketing campaigns and/or celebrity authors behind them: What’s the Matter with White People; White Trash; and, White Rage, are a few that come to mind. Oh and don’t forget that politically incorrect international hit, Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey. (Just kidding; that is a song by soul/funk icon Sly and the Family Stone released almost 50 years ago. My how times have changed!)
Ironically, though the title of my next book, Mommy What Are We Going to Do, is a lot more innocuous and pleasant sounding, its content touches on the political/cultural environment we find ourselves in. I suspect Mommy What Are We Going to Do will be far more squirm-inducing to readers than What Man’s Disease ever was. Don’t judge a book by its title!
This is an excerpt from a talk I gave 3/8/17 at the Punta Gorda Literary Fair:
…trauma is an unpleasant emotional or physical experience that causes someone to have recurring difficulties for a long time. Let’s imagine you want to write a compelling novel, a thriller, even non-fiction about trauma; what are some ingredients you must make a decision on, or that you might consider including in your book...
…so what’s the purpose of this little exercise? The first advice I want to share regarding writing about trauma is that no matter how dramatic the plight you overcame; your story needs to be part of an interesting narrative if you expect readers to buy it. No, you are not writing a novel, but if your story about trauma is not enveloped by an engaging, captivating story line it will be hard to break through the thousands of other stories that readers are willing to expend their limited time on. Without a compelling story line, you risk your story about trauma being reduced to just a tale of “woe is me”, and readers don’t want to read just that. And that would be too bad because your story is precious, and you have chosen to share it with the world…
…with respect to this workshop—Writing About Trauma—I’m no expert, but I can tell you what worked for me in helping to make White Man’s Disease accessible, informative, relevant, and interesting to readers.
1. Compelling Narrative: as was illustrated with our little exercise. At the beginning of this talk, I passed out some quotes from readers that I have on my website. I’m always flattered, moved and motivated by them and comments like them that I receive. You may pick up a theme. Any idea what I am referring to? Answer: “couldn't put it down” That's what I mean by compelling narrative.
2. Humor: may seem incongruous to use humor and trauma in the same sentence, but it worked for me. Some may wonder about finding humor in a story about brain surgery but there were some laugh out loud anecdotes in the book. And, the book discusses how a conscious effort to maintain a sense of humor once hospitalized went a long way in preventing me from falling into feeling sorry for myself, and helped me maintain a positive outlook up to and after surgery (at least while in the hospital; unfortunately, post-discharge was a very different story!) Humor and trauma can certainly co-exist; I recently joined a writer’s group and one of the members has an award winning book called “Thank God I Got Cancer…I’m Not a Hypochondriac Anymore.”
3. Purpose: have a reason for sharing your plight. Readers don’t just want to read a memoir about someone else’s trauma—after all, if you live long enough eventually everyone will experience their own trauma at some point in their life. Readers want to be inspired, influenced, or informed.
4. Empathy: even though you are writing about your own journey, ironically, it is not just about you. I felt it was important to acknowledge others going through their own challenges—often much more daunting than my own. There is an anecdote in the book about the point at which I began the transition from rock bottom to the climb out of the abyss of despair. It was the influence of another person—I did not know him. In fact, I saw a feature on CNN about him during my convalescence (where I felt like a prisoner in my own home; all I did was watch the only cable news channel, which in the 80’s repeated stories every 40 minutes or so). Cancer had resulted in the loss of essentially the bottom third of his face. The 29 y.o. me before surgery would not have been able to look at him. The 29 y.o. me after surgery—in the frame of mind I was in when I saw the feature—could not take my eyes off him. His positive demeanor had a life changing affect on me.
5. Lasting message: finally, leave readers with some lasting message. No need to hit them over the head with it—it doesn’t have to be direct or express. What would you like readers to walk away with after reading your book? For me, the message was that the key to overcoming a trauma event, was to stop seeing yourself as a victim, start seeing yourself as a survivor, and, that ultimately leads to seeing yourself as a victor.
I am always moved, encouraged, empowered when readers make comments like below. So much so I prominently feature them at book signings and created a slide show http://www.whitemansdisease.com/gallery.html
Concise and eloquent. No, I'm not bragging about anything I wrote. I wish; I am an aspiring writer after all. That describes reflections shared by my colleague, Dr. Russ Sabella. I thought Russ' words perfectly captured the spirit I hoped to convey with White Man's Disease. And alleviates misgivings I have of exposing so much of myself that I had kept "closeted" for 30 years. So along with the pithy reader quotes below, I will read Russ' comments over and over whenever I need to "recharge my batteries" as an aspiring writer:
By Russ on November 27, 2016
Just finished reading this, hard to put down. White Man's Disease, A Memoir by Dr. Paul Thornton. Paul Thornton you did a fantastic job telling this story. I couldn't wait to find out what happened next. I enjoyed the balance between being sad, surprised, inspired, relieved, humbled, and even entertained. Your resilience and attitude has been remarkable. I also feel privileged to get a glimpse into your amazing career and especially beautiful family. Really enjoyed both what you told and how you told it! You covered persistence, personal triumph in the face of adversity, the human spirit, and humility -- all of my favorites. Anyone, especially those struggling with tough challenges, would find your story uplifting, motivational, and encouraging.
From the chapter featuring the climactic event of the book, my daughter Kina's wedding. One of my favorite passages from the book was about my grandson Kalen delivering the best man toast at the wedding:
Kalen, my 10-year old grandson had been chosen by his dad to be the best man at the wedding. Kina asked me if I would help him come up with his toast. I leaped at that opportunity. What a fun task to help him with his toast. I wanted it to be his words, not mine, so I conducted a phone interview with Kalen to get his creative juices flowing. I smile when I remember that; I just knew that Kalen would make me proud and do a fine job of delivering the toast at the reception. Kalen was a bit of a ham, a quality I noticed during a sad occasion two years earlier, when Bunyan died.
At his funeral, with Bunyan lying in repose with his New York Mets cap on, comments were solicited from family and friends. Several got up and stood by the coffin and spoke including me, my sister Sandy, and then, unexpectedly, eight-year old Kalen strode up to the front to speak. He delivered a long soliloquy at once moving, cute, and seriously off topic! So I was confident that with a prepared talk, Kalen would do fine at the wedding—and as expected he knocked it out of the park. This is what he came up with:
My name is Kalen Frazier. Thank you for coming to see my mom and dad get married. First, I want to say that my sister LaKi and I are very happy for my mom and dad on their wedding day. The best man is one of the most important responsibilities in a wedding, and I am very proud that my dad chose me to be his best man. My dad is my sports coach, my barber, my homework tutor, and my friend.
Mom is my cheerleader and my ride to sports practices and school. My dad played football for the Dallas Cowboys and the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. I got to go to games in Toronto, Montreal, and Saskatchewan, where I went to the Grey Cup, which is like the Super Bowl. My dad took me on the field, and in the locker room where the trainer gave me a breakfast sandwich. Recently, we went back to a game in Saskatchewan when they celebrated my dad after he retired. My dad and I rode around the field in a golf cart and waved to the crowd. It was just my dad and me. I felt so proud. Most of all, my dad is my hero.
Please join me in raising your glasses. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to propose a toast to mom and dad, Kina and Lance. May they continue to have many years of joy and happiness with each other and with LaKi and me.
White Man's Disease is neither overtly about race nor a disease. So why that title? You find out midway through the book, but p. 1 details where I first heard the phrase. The 1st chap is called "This is Not About Basketball" (which the book is not about even though it contains chaps called "Dr J" and "Magic")
The point guard quickly pushed the basketball up the court to catch the opposing team on its heels. Fortunately for the defenders,
not everyone was lackadaisical about getting back on defense after the basket. Their star defender, a sinewy, deceptively quick 6-foot-
5 guard with a wide wingspan, demonstrated why he was perennially among the league leaders in steals. Like a cat reaching for a plush toy dangled by its owner, he swiped the basketball from the point guard. In the corner of his eye he spotted his teammate, a seven-foot center who had barely started up the floor to the defensive end following his team’s made shot. In one continuous motion he half-rolled, half-tapped the ball ahead to the center for an easy, undefended shot. The 7-foot 280-pounder caught the ball on the run and without letting it hit the floor took off from just below the free throw line. His leap was awkward—he probably should have been whistled for a traveling violation—and he seemed to take off earlier than he intended. As he floated in the air toward an uncontested dunk, the home crowd murmured in anticipation. Suddenly the murmur turned into a collective groan. The ball clanged off the front of the rim and bounced straight up, coming down in the hands of an opposing player trailing the play. Don Criqui, CBS’ legendary, smart, witty, irreverent sportscaster then delivered a line that I’m sure caused double-takes in millions of homes and sports bars nationwide: “He missed the dunk! He missed the dunk! He must have white man’s disease!”
...The term is suggested in the title of a major motion picture, 1992’s “White Men Can’t Jump,” which stars Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes as two basketball hustlers who exploit the commonly accepted belief about white man’s disease. White man’s disease. A catchphrase that would forever become part of the basketball vernacular, especially on the playground. But for me, it means something else...