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View from US: Three women worlds apart

October 16, 2011

They say you’re the author of your own life. I met two such authors who live in two different worlds. Of the third I heard when her famous brother died last week. Let’s first begin with Mona Simpson who is the biological sister of Apple giant Steve Jobs, dead at age 56. The brother and sister were raised in different homes and found each other in their twenties. When Steve was born, his parents were college students and unmarried. They gave him up for adoption.

By the time Mona was born, the parents had married only to divorce when she was 10. Mona is a successful novelist whose book’s launch, Anywhere but here, in 1986 was attended by her brother and mother. “We're family. She's one of my best friends in the world. I call her and talk to her every couple of days,” Steve once said in an interview.

His reunion with his biological mother Joanne was equally touching. He forgave her for giving him away; but not his father, a Syrian-Muslim, currently a casino owner in Reno, Nevada. The 80-year-old never reconnected with his iconic son. A Regular Guy was the next book Mona won fame for. It’s about a Silicon Valley entrepreneur resembling Steve Jobs. When asked if Tom Owens, the book’s hero resembled him, Steve said “About 25 per cent of it is totally me, right down to the mannerisms.” But he wouldn’t say which part of the equation.

The brother and sister have always avoided talking about their relationship in public. Wrote the New York Times years ago: “The effect of all this (finding Mona) on Jobs seems to be a certain sense of calming fatalism h less urgency to control his immediate environment and a greater trust that life's outcomes are, to a certain degree, wired in the genes.”

When he found Mona, the guru of Digital Age was amazed by the striking resemblance. The brother and sister reunion is stranger than fiction. It’s sad, heartwarming and soul-stirring, made all the more poignant now with one of them gone forever.

* * *

In the parking lot of our local library, a tired-looking black SUV with Columbia, Harvard and Stanford stickers catches the eye. Two big black bags, the kind doctors carry, sit silently in the rear as a sonorous summer evening winds down. Their owners are Dr Yvonne Thornton and Dr Shearwood McClelland. They are husband and wife, who met at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, fell in love and married 35 years ago.

Dressed in bright red, Dr Thornton is a daunting figure commanding attention from the audience as she starts her journey of life. We are fascinated. Her hero is her father, a ditch digger. He died young from hard work. But not before he had inspired five daughters to stand up and be counted as people worthy of emulation. “We had four strikes against us,” says Thornton. “We were black, fat, poor and females!” But the five made it despite the challenges, heartbreaks, racial discrimination and abject poverty.

“I was my father’s daughter. I was living his dream – and on the path to realising my own,” Thornton reads out aloud from her book Something to Prove. “I wasn’t going to let small, closed minds slam the door against me. I planned to rise as high in my profession as my skills and hard work would allow. I was a black woman but that wasn’t going to stop me from striving to be the best doctor it was possible to be.” The book ends with words: ‘Daddy, If you’re watching from above (and I know you are), I hope you’re proud of us, and of all you’ve accomplished through us. Love, Cookie

During her talk, I detect shades of bitterness from the woman who delivered 12,000 babies with anecdotes of racial discrimination. With the confidence that only comes when you reach the pinnacle of success – first black woman in the US to be board certified in high-risk obstetrics – Thornton is not afraid to open up before her largely white audience. Her bluntness, asperity and snappishness are like a breath of fresh air in the staleness of a society that shuns such discussion. Her patients, she said, preferred talking to white internees or nurses instead of addressing her, “Until I let them know who actually was in charge!”

Her son is a Harvard graduate and a doctor from his parents alma mater while her daughter went to Stanford. Her message: You can win laurels at being a wife, a mother and a doctor at the same time. “But you have to steer your children towards success just as my dad did.”

* * *

At another book launch: Joan Nelson’s debut novel Final Exit is the show stopper. Joan is a two-time cancer survivor and a widow who lives in New Jersey and is an interior and jewellery designer. Her main character Dr Robert, a charismatic, ambitious cardiothoracic surgeon, makes a Faustian deal with the devil that comes at a perilous price. Trapped in a loveless marriage with an emotionally unstable wife and a ruthless and tyrannical father-in-law; with divorce not an option, he defiantly pursues Jennifer, an alluring and vibrant jewellery designer (Joan Nelson?). Their passionate affair intensifies, ensnaring them in a web of danger, deceit and intrigue.

Tracing the currents of desire, Joan has delivered a novel that establishes her as a powerful storyteller. Blending the high drama and lyrical prose of heart-pounding tale of love and betrayal, Joan’s own journey of life is as exciting as her novel. “I’m already working on my second book,” she beams at us.

Final Exit opens with lines from Chekov: “Every person lives his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy, and under the cover of night.” How true!