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I Read It So You Don't Have To: Not Afraid of Life-My Journey So Far by Bristol Palin With Nancy French



blog-Bristol.jpgBristol-198x300.jpgWhen I first heard of Bristol Palin after her mother Sarah Palin was tapped to be Senator John McCain’s running mate in 2008, I had some empathy for her. It’s not easy being a teenager. It’s not easy being a pregnant teenager. And to be a pregnant teenager thrust into the glaring spotlight? Wow, I can’t even imagine. I hoped Bristol would keep it together and hold her head high. Sure, I found her mother to be a vindictive idiot, but I wouldn’t judge Bristol by the actions of her mother. And I also thought after the 2008 presidential election Bristol would go back to Alaska and live the life of a single mom, albeit one with access to greater resources than the average single mom.

But Bristol didn’t disappear. She proved to be just addicted to the spotlight as her mother. She became an abstinence advocate earning huge sums of money in speaking fees. She posed in haute couture for Harper’s Bazaar, guest starred on “The Secret Life of a Teenager,†stumbled her way on “Dancing With the Stars†and was even the star of her own reality TV show “Life is a Tripp.†So of course, like any other fame whore Bristol just had to write her memoir, “Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far.â€

In this memoir Bristol tries to portray herself her as just an average girl growing up in a small town. She likes being outdoors, sports and hanging out with her friends. Her family is just another close, hard- working, God-fearing family who love America, Jesus, hunting and fishing, and driving around on snow machines, what those of us in the lower 48 call snowmobiles.

As this book commences, Bristol recalls her simple life in Wasilla, Alaska, where her main focus is on getting good grades, playing basketball, working an after school job and vowing to hold onto her virginity until marriage. She even wears a purity ring. But her life soon takes a turn to the worse when she meets a boy named Levi Johnston, a ne’er do well from a trashy family with a drug addicted mother and a strangely devoted sister.

Despite Bristol’s desire to be a good girl and her so-called ideal upbringing, she finds herself hooking up with Levi. Soon she turns to partying, getting drunk on wine coolers, sneaking out of the house and worrying about Levi cheating on her. Before long Bristol forgets her virginity vow and gives up her flower to Levi during a camping trip. However, she doesn’t quite describe it in sweeping, romantic tones. Instead, she describes waking up in a tent, knowing something happened the night before and her hymen was no longer intact. Did Levi rape her or did she give it up willingly?

Well, I don’t know the truth (if Levi did rape Bristol he is a filthy pig and a criminal), and soon Bristol realizes she is pregnant. How will she tell her family? And what about her hopes and dreams for the future? How will she cope with being a teen mom? Finally, Bristol tells her family and though they are shocked and disappointed but vow to stick by her.

Levi is a different story. When he finds out Bristol is expecting his child, he answers, “Better be a fucking boy,"


But there are other huge changes in store for Bristol that don’t include diaper changes and 2:00am feedings. In the summer of 2008, her mother, then the Governor of Alaska, makes history becoming the first female VP candidate for the GOP. Before you can say, “You betcha†the Palin family is caught up in a whirlwind of the Republican National Convention, presidential campaigning, designer duds, the “liberal†media and intense scrutiny.

Well, as we all know, Obama won the election, Sarah Palin quit her gig as governor and Bristol didn’t disappear into obscurity. Instead she became very rich and successful in spite of being marginally educated and pretty much devoid of any talent. Now this is true of a lot of celebrities today, but somehow they don’t inspire my annoyance the way Bristol and her memoir do.

Throughout “Not Afraid of Life†can’t help but see herself as a victim, totally screwed over by everyone from Levi to the McCain family to her fellow contestants on “Dancing With the Stars.†Sure, Levi is hardly a prize, but he is the father of her child, Tripp. And perhaps Bristol should extend an olive branch to Levi so Tripp can have a somewhat decent relationship with him. Bristol should also keep in mind if it wasn’t for John McCain she wouldn’t be rich and famous. And as for her fellow contestants on “Dancing With the Stars?†Well, maybe some of them were a bit miffed that Bristol outlasted much more talented dancers thanks to her mother’s tea party base.

Throughout this book Bristol proves to be hugely self-absorbed and not at all self-aware. She comes across as a whiny, spoiled child, not a responsible and caring young adult who should set a good example for her little boy. She claims she only took on her well-paying gigs so she could pay for diapers, as if she was truly a struggling mom when we all know she has never really struggled-well, not in the financial sense.

And on a technical level, this book is poorly written. And I can only imagine how worse it had been without Ms. French. The writing style is clunky and commits the sin of telling not showing. I couldn’t help but notice how certain passages lacked a compelling narrative or interesting portrayals. In “Not Afraid of Life†Bristol writes in way that never truly draws you into her experiences. I never got a feel of the majesty of Alaska’s landscape and what is was like to grow up around such beauty. I never felt Bristol’s fear over telling her parents about her impending teen motherhood. I never caught the excitement of being a part of one of the most historical presidential elections in our lifetimes. I’ve written grocery lists that were more riveting.

Usually I’m a huge of memoirs. And I don’t think someone has to be hugely powerful or accomplished to write a memoir. One of my favorite memoirs is "Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line" by Ben Hamper. Ben writes in delicious detail and with subversive humor wrote about working for GM in Flint, Michigan. Sometimes the stories of regular folks can be very compelling. But Bristol is not “regular folks,†and in “Not Afraid of Life†she proves she has nothing to say…and she says it all the time.

Cleansing the Palate

As I mentioned, regular folks can write great memoirs. And off the top of my head I can think of two excellent memoirs written by women were young single moms.

Beverly Donofrio was a girl who got into trouble. She was the girl who got pregnant out-of-wedlock as a teenager. Now this was in the late 1960s and it was a shame. A pregnant girl didn’t have many options. She could only obtain an abortion illegally or by going to another country. She could spend nine months at an “aunt’s house†and then give her newborn up for adoption. Or she could marry the father of her baby to give the child a name and make an honest woman of herself. Beverly chose the last option and she writes about this in her memoir “Riding in Cars With Boys: Confessions of a Bad Girl Who Makes Good.â€

Getting pregnant at 17 was just the beginning of Beverly’s story. She divorced her son Jason’s father not long after she got married. She lived on welfare, got into trouble with the law, had indiscriminate sex and partied with her friends. She also managed to go to college and grad school, become a successful freelance writer, raised Jason to be a contributing member of society, and published her memoir (and other books), which later became a movie starring Drew Barrymore.

In “Atlas of the Human Heart,†Ariel Gore (the founder of the alternative parenting magazine “Hip Mamaâ€) writes about her life before she had her daughter Maya at 19. Where many of her high school peers were concerned about the homecoming game, prom and shopping at the mall, Ariel had the soul of a traveler. So while still a teen Ariel bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong. Instead of fancy hotels and sightseeing, Ariel experienced adventures, adventures that would probably never wind up in a fancy traveling guidebook but are fascinating just the same. And to be honest, Ariel’s memoir is a welcome anti-dote to Elizabeth Gilbert’s obsession with her first world problems (my humble opinion) in her over-rated “Eat, Pray, Love.†And if I can be a bit self-indulgent, I’d like to share a review I wrote about Ariel’s “Atlas of the Human Heart.â€

Both Beverly and Ariel were teen moms like Bristol. But unlike Bristol they are actually talented writers and wrote their memoirs with a self-aware clarity that Bristol will probably always lack.

Today a girl can get pregnant out of wedlock and get a gig on “Teen Mom.†But not so long ago getting pregnant without a ring on one’s left hand was a huge scandal. And these fallen women were often shuttled off during their pregnancies and encouraged to give their babies for adoption.

In Ann Fessler’s “The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade†a voice is given to women who were pressured to give up their children they conceived while not married and the emotional and mental torment many of them experienced. All stories are unique and offer an intimate, heartbreaking and true human stories to women coming of age in a time before comprehensive sex education, access to reliable birth control for single women, acceptance of pre-marital sex and the legalization of abortion.

Ann, incidentally an adoptee who later met her birth mother, also provides essays on the history of post -World War II America and how it shaped what the ideal American family should be. Ann doesn’t try to politicize the thorny issue of out-of-wedlock pregnancy from the 1940s through the early 1970s; she simply allows her subjects and her essays tell it like it was. “The Girls Who Went Away†is not an easy book to read, but it is an important one.

For further discussion please go to Free Jinger.


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