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Life with(out) father

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"Flying Over Home" (Wordpress, $18.95) by Durham resident Jeanette Stokes is a memoir about her father and how she spent much of her adult life trying to learn who he really was.

Many years ago Jeanette and I were seminarians together. We've more or less stayed in touch over the years. She's the founder and director of the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South, known throughout the Triangle region and beyond for her commitment to social justice and her outspoken feminist views. It doesn't matter where you go with Jeanette. She's off and talking with yet another group of people, making connections, asking questions, eager to take in ideas and feelings and whatever else is offered by her seemingly endless array of friends and acquaintances. In other words, she's a fairly public person.

As a rule, I don't read or review books written by friends. I accepted a copy of Jeanette's latest book with a promise I'd read it, but nothing more. I learned the hard way: if you don't like the book, and you say so, your friend will be offended. Worse yet, if you do like it, no matter how you write the review, someone will accuse you of favoritism.

If you had asked, I'd have said I know Jeanette pretty well. We attended many of the same meetings and services when we were in seminary, and our attitudes were similar on most issues. When our paths did cross over the years we found we were still in the same camp, though separated by a continent and widely different careers. She has a way of making you feel as though whatever you think and say is important. She's always eager to connect you with someone who might be good company, and she always seems to choose just the right people.

So I was stunned to realize I did not know Jeanette at all. The more I read, the more I realized I had known nothing about this woman with whom I'd spent so much time.

The absolute rawness of her account made me feel as though I'd suddenly stumbled on to something I wasn't meant to see and hear. She rips herself apart in these pages, her sadness and her personal pain alive and vibrating in the pages. How to respond when your friend has suddenly removed the polite exchanges from not only your relationship but also hers with the many people who admire her work?

Her father was a doctor in Tulsa, a charming man who was also fairly self-centered and often absent when needed. He was often not in Jeanette's life when she needed him to be, and was at other times there when she did not want him to be.

Her search for who he was is a literal journey. She travels to his childhood home, to other countries he visited, and back to her mother in Tulsa to learn more about who this man really was. As she does, she faces her own rage and disappointment, in the end learning to love a man she finally accepts as imperfect.

The title is double-edged. Jeanette hates to fly; her father loved it. Planes always took him away. When she flew she got sick. The book mixes the two memories in a kind of unforgettable travelogue.

"Flying Over Home" is not for everyone. It's too personal, too raw, too outspoken to please polite people. Jeanette says she had to write the book to come to peace with her adult life. We aren't used to seeing people flap their dirty laundry as a victory flag, but that's exactly what happens in "Flying Over Home." Only finding and telling the truth helped Jeanette heal. Now that she's healed, she wants others to know it's possible -- in fact, necessary -- to face the truth about childhood myths and memories.

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