Monday, August 10, 2009

Book Review - Picking Cotton

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton (St. Martins Press: New York, 2009)

This book is disturbing, but compelling. It is the memoir of a woman who was raped back in 1984 in Burlington, North Carolina. The description of the attack is frightening, but it is a very small part of the story. After the rape Jennifer did all the right things; she notified the police, submitted to countless interviews and forensic tests. As most of her family stayed distant, she continued to hang tough, cooperating with police and identifying her attacker. No matter what the system asked her to do, what parts of her life they wanted to expose, Jennifer stayed clear to her purpose: identify the man who did this so he could not do it again.

Ronald Cotton was drifting through life, and had experienced a few run-ins with the law. When told the police were looking for him, he went down to the station himself to straighten out the misunderstanding. Instead, he found himself identified as the rapist. He was eventually convicted, with the primary evidence being Jennifer Thompson’s eyewitness identification of him and began to spend a life sentence in the custody of the North Carolina prisons. But Ronald Cotton always maintained his innocence and eleven years later, that innocence was revealed as DNA evidence exonerated him. It is then that the story in this book gets interesting.

This is not a book about DNA evidence. It is not a book about the criminal trial procedure. It is not a book about a rape victim who becomes a vigilante or a convict who fulfills the expectation of the system that sent him to prison. It is not a book about the injustice of a southern judicial system convicting a black man on the word of a white woman. All of those elements are present, but none of them override.

Astonishingly, this is a book about forgiveness. Because when Jennifer Thompson discovered that her eyewitness identification of Ronald Cotton had put the wrong man in prison for eleven years, she was sure that he could never forgive her. And although she had gotten on with her life, some part of her was imprisoned in the hate and fear that awful night in 1984 had placed in her heart.

The blogger heard about this book during an interview with Jennifer and Ronald on All Things Considered. To hear these two speak is an important part of this story, because the love and forgiveness in their voices is absent from the printed page.

That kind of forgiveness and love comes from a source way beyond what most of us experience every day. It is the kind that we could all use more of in our lives.

Read this book. Love one another. Forgive.


This is the kind of book that the Friends of Reston Regional Library help to provide through our Used Book Sales and other activities that raise money for Reston Regional Library specifically, and Fairfax County Public Libraries in general. The Friends of Reston Regional Library, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit entity. We rely on your donations and thank you for your participation.

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