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STARTLING BEAUTY: My Journey from Rape to Restoration
Heather Gemmen
Life Journey/Cook Communications
Memoir
ISBN: 0781440289

Living in an inner-city neighborhood, Heather Gemmen and her husband, Steven, faced racial tension and reciprocal prejudice as a white family trying to become integrated into a primarily black community. After a rough beginning, the couple and their two children eventually came to appreciate the area's diversity and continued working toward racial reconciliation, particularly through the nearly all-white church to which they belonged.

And then one night, when Steve was at a church meeting and the rest of the family was asleep, a knife-wielding black man entered their house through an unlocked door, confronted Heather, threatened to kill her and the children if she did not submit to him, and raped her. Though the shame of the attack tempted her to keep silent --- she blamed herself, as many rape victims do --- Heather faced an unimaginably difficult decision, one that forced her to immediately tell a few people close to her about the rape.

A vocal opponent of abortion, she had 72 hours to decide if she should take Ovral, a post-intercourse pill intended to prevent conception. To Heather, the medication at first sounded too much like an abortion pill. With the encouragement of her pastor, her friends, her mother (who later changed her mind), and most of all, Steve, Heather swallowed the pill.

But the Ovral failed. The rape had coincided with the most fertile period in Heather's cycle, and she discovered she was pregnant with what could only be the rapist's child. What's more, she needed regular testing done to determine if the attack had made her HIV-positive.

Gemmen's telling of the story is at once compelling and exasperating. On the compelling side, it's a truly remarkable story of trauma and uncertainty that is eventually overcome by love and restoration. The decisions the couple had to make, in the context of their faith in God, their devotion to their young sons and their commitment to racial reconciliation, were the kind that would threaten to tear apart the fabric of many a family, just as the situation itself threatened to divide their community and their church. In recounting her story, Gemmen reconstructs conversations, which lends a sense of immediacy that enhances the narration.

On the exasperating side, the book's odd prologue is difficult to follow at first, the author's sometimes peculiar word choices are jarring (one woman is described as having a "stylish exterior"), and there are too many mistakes and omissions of the kind that an editor should have caught. Gemmen offhandedly mentions that Steve, whom she met in college, wanted her to remain in the U.S. rather than return to her "native land" after graduation; a later description of her as a Canuck provides the only indication that she's from Canada.

There's also no sense of where these people live until late in the book, when they move to Colorado and are forced to send a foster child back to Michigan. That's the kind of thing that makes readers scratch their heads and wonder if they missed something earlier on.

Exasperation aside, Gemmen's book will undoubtedly minister not only to rape victims but also to victims of any sudden and violent trauma. And its message of the power of redeeming love --- the kind of love that transforms hideousness into beauty --- is likely to impact even those readers who cannot fathom the horror of the Gemmens' ordeal.

   --- Reviewed by Marcia Ford (misfit@marciaford.com)

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