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Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life Hardcover – March 10, 2005

4.7 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

It's hard to believe that one Charleston, S.C., woman, from the seat of her wheelchair, has faced off President Reagan's Secret Service detail, disrupted a National Democratic convention, joined disability advocates in Cuba and—for 13 years straight—protested the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon. Indeed, folks with a sentimental attachment to "Jerry's kids" should start at chapter one, where Johnson explains how it felt as a youngster to watch a televised "childhood death sentence" every year. Johnson, who was born with a congenital neuromuscular disease, wants kids with disabilities to grow up "prepared to survive," not merely waiting to die. Equally problematic for the spirited lawyer are media heroes like the late Christopher Reeve, who revived "telethon melodrama" by displaying himself as "a disability object, presumably tragic but brave, someone to gawk at." Johnson, whose law practice specializes in disability advocacy, has a personal assistant, a motorized wheelchair and a supportive circle of family and friends that make her active, satisfying life possible. Readers inclined to feel sorry for people with disabilities, to offer them prayers or a pat on the head—Johnson has endured both—should spare them the very real burden of providing "disability awareness training to everyone who happens by," and read Johnson's feisty book instead.
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"Too Late To Die Young is a wonderful mix: a keen mind, exuberance, activist politics, along with a special brand of Southern women's wit."-Adrienne Rich

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition edition (April 8, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805075941
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805075946
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,758,698 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Michael T. Bailey on April 11, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Rarely have I read a book with so many compelling reasons to be read. First, it is a wonderful read, full of fabulous prose, compelling personal stories and humor. Second, it addresses topics that currently transcend just a "disability" story. For people just recovering their sensibilities after the excesses of the Shaivo case, or others of the "better dead than disabled" school the simple "normalcy" of the author's life will entertain, shock and amaze you. This woman is, afterall, just like most everyone else. With the exception that the author does not let you forget that she is a southerner, proud of Charleston, fond of regional cuisine and appaled by such things as confederate flags and pity.

But what makes Johnson's tale stand out is her personal analysis of mainstream culture's preordained attitudes on disability. Whether she is trashing the "telethon-pity-do-gooder' ethos or demonstrating the limits of freedom for a person with a disability in a for-profit economy, Johnson rejects most commonly held views and specifically the "snivelling for nickels" school of so called advocacy that forces people to become more and more dependent on the whims of public policy decisions.

There is nothing tragic here. In fact, Johnson is very, very funny. Disability has been around a long time but rarely has it been portrayed with such honesty, humor and analysis. Do yourself a favor ... read this book!!
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Format: Hardcover
This new book by Harriet McBryde Johnson, a civil rights attorney in Charleston, SC and disability activist, is a must read! Her book, Too Late to Die Young, provides insight into aspects of her life and career, but the author states upfront that "This book doesn't have a tidy message." Ms. Johnson is a gifted writer with a provocatively tilted perspective that is worth hearing. She accurately describes herself as a story teller in the great tradition of southern story tellers. I knew her stories were worth reading when, early on in the book, in describing a German doctor's bedside overnight care, she wrote "Now I remember how he kept vigil at my bedside so my parents could sleep and then fell sleep himself. As I listened to his deep, barrel-chested rumble, I imagined he was snoring in German." Later in the book, Harriet, after having noted that her normal viewpoint of most people is at crotch level (due to her posture), described her first impression of someone she met: "It's love at first sight - at my first sight of his shoes." Wonderful!

This easy to read book (a mere 258 pages) includes the bulk of the text of Unspeakable Conversations, a 2003 New York Times Magazine article she wrote that described her conversations with Princeton Professor Peter Singer about his beliefs that the severely disabled, in some circumstances, can justifiably be killed. Interestingly, she is conflicted about the accommodating and courteous man versus his "evil" ideas. She acknowledges that she stands outside the radical mainstream simply for having engaged Mr. Singer in a conversation.
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Format: Hardcover
In her "Unspeakable Conversations" piece, Johnson distills all the Disability Rights Movements' often academic arguments into "We enjoy pleasures...We have something the world needs."

In so doing, she frees herself (and us) from the depressing statistics about bigotry/discrimination/incarceration/murder and instead makes the importance of this human rights struggle's triumph seem to have a chance of success.

It's a completely different approach than Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" but with any luck could have a similar effect on society.

By telling stories that have been honed through repeated smaller-audience repetitions, she gets the essentially exultant message of our shared humanity across in great style.

If you wondered "why the caged bird sings" (thank you, Maya!), this collection provides lots of answers. From the heights of chutzpah of invoking (with absolutely no basis) a set of bodyguards from the Fruit of Islam through the prima donna encounter with the Times' photographer (and the tasty accreditation of her in the acknowledgements), she lays bare why we hope her rationality/humanity might even sway Prof. Singer from unfortunate sociopath to advocate.

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Format: Hardcover
The chapters in this book are arranged chronologically, but each is a discrete story. The episodes varied enough so that I was never bored: Ms. Johnson protested telethons, resisted a search of her dorm by the Secret Service, ran for office, served as a delegate at the Democratic National Convention, visited Cuba for an international conference on people with disabilities, argued in a jury trial, and more.

Her views on disability as a civil rights issue aren't presented in a didactic way; they become clear to the reader as she confronts her opponents. I liked being privy to the details of her experience, even though she presents herself as nearly always right. While I read I was thinking that she came off as SO sure of herself that I would find her overbearing and a little obnoxious in person. However, she acknowledges the thorniness, and clearly isn't out to be the reader's best friend.

Other than that note, I felt myself in good hands. I have a better understanding of what it's like to need and live with a personal assistant. I was familiar with the basics of disability rights, but the book got into nuances I hadn't considered-- the pressures and trade-offs in Cuba, where genuine intentions for equality butt up against severe economic limits, for example. And it reinforced ideas that non-disabled people glide over: most of us will be disabled sometime. Disabled people aren't necessarily more "terminal" or "suffering" than the rest of us, because frankly everyone suffers and dies. And if that sounds depressing, don't worry: some of the stories in this book were so funny I had to read bits out loud to my spouse.

This is a four- instead of a five-star review because I didn't feel I quite got a fair view of the author's opponents; it was just a little too one-sided, although that enhanced some of the humor. But the book was still well-written and fascinating. Definitely worth reading.
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