Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life
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Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life

by Harriet McBryde Johnson
     
 

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A Washington Post Book World Rave

Harriet McBryde Johnson's witty and highly unconventional memoir opens with a lyrical meditation on death and ends with a bold and unsentimental sermon on pleasure. Born with a congenital neuromuscular disease, Johnson has never been able to walk, dress, or bathe without assistance. With assistance, she passionately

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Overview

A Washington Post Book World Rave

Harriet McBryde Johnson's witty and highly unconventional memoir opens with a lyrical meditation on death and ends with a bold and unsentimental sermon on pleasure. Born with a congenital neuromuscular disease, Johnson has never been able to walk, dress, or bathe without assistance. With assistance, she passionately celebrates her life's richness and pleasures and pursues a formidable career as an attorney and activist. Whether rolling on the streets of Havana, on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, or in an auditorium at Princeton debating philosopher Peter Singer, Harriet McBryde Johnson defies every preconception about people with disabilities, and shows how a life, be it long or short, is a treasure of infinite value.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“There is a small but discrete literature by writers who have experienced personal or family tragedy: William Styron on his depression, Reynolds Price on his paraplegia, Kenzaburo Oe on his brain-damaged son. . . . To read these stories can deepen everyone's humanity. Too Late to Die Young can proudly take its place among these other important books.” —The Washington Post

“A remarkable portrait of a woman who is proof that the disabled can live lives filled with purpose and pleasure.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Masterfully pace and structured . . . Too Late To Die Young serves as both a memoir and a kind of revolutionary act itself.” —Mary Johnson, Ragged Edge Online

“Readers inclined to feel sorry for people with disabilities . . . [should] read Johnson's feisty book instead.” —Publishers Weekly

“Johnson's rich, descriptive writing, humor, and Southern cadence make the book entertaining, thought-provoking, and meaningful.” —The Post and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina)

“She insists on being her own complicated person, a Southern lady, for instance, as well as a socialist, an atheist, a lawyer, and a born storyteller with a wicked sense of humor. . . . But her writing is so vibrant, so interesting, and so funny that you can't help but feel as if you're in her world, sitting beside her and hearing her story for yourself.” —The Tampa Tribune

“This lady pulls no punches. An entertaining look at an activist who insists on living life her way, disability or no; strongly recommended.” —Library Journal

“A wonderful mix: a keen mind, exuberance, activist politics, along with a special brand of Southern women's wit.” —Adrienne Rich

Library Journal
As a seven-year-old diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease that required her to use a wheelchair, recalls Johnson, she found Jerry Lewis's Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) telethon imbued with such a sense of pity and doom that she felt she must die young. Now a feisty middle-aged attorney and disabilities rights activist still using a wheelchair, she realizes that it is "too late to die young" and continues the advocacy that early exposure to the "pity approach" inspired. Her honest and engrossing memoir is full of lively vignettes that reflect her experiences as she takes on the nondisabled world with bravado, stubbornness, and a bit of Southern charm. From her first demonstration against the MDA telethon to her celebrated debate with Peter Singer of Harvard, who has stated that killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person, this lady pulls no punches. An entertaining look at an activist who insists on living life her way, disability or no; strongly recommended for most collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/04.]-Ann Forister, Roseville, CA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Selected episodes from the life of "a tiny wheelchair woman with a certain amount of mouth," as disability rights activist Johnson describes herself. Johnson not only practices law in Charleston, S.C., specializing in disability issues, but she's a force in the Democratic Party in Charleston and leads an annual protest against the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, which, she argues, stereotypes people with disabilities as hopeless cases. The present memoir grew out of an article ("Unspeakable Conversations") that ran in the New York Times Magazine in 2002 and is reprinted here. In it, Johnson describes her encounter with Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, whose position that euthanasia should be legalized in the case of severely disabled newborns has aroused the ire of proponents of disability rights, among others. Johnson holds her own against Singer, as she does against the forceful photographer sent by the Times to take pictures of her for the article. Other chapters briskly and wittily recount her low-budget campaign for a seat representing Charleston on the county council in 1994 (she lost), her misadventures with the Secret Service as a delegate to the 1996 Democratic convention, her courtroom appearance as co-counsel for the plaintiff in a case under the Americans with Disabilities Act (she won), a visit to Cuba for a disability rights conference, which she covered for New Mobility magazine and a disastrous trip in 2001 to a disability convention in Tucson, where a fall from her wheelchair sent her to the emergency room and required an air-ambulance trip back home. The word "frail" scarcely describes Johnson's physique, for she weighs only 70 pounds, has a spine so twisted by musculardystrophy that it can't support her and relies on others for the most basic aspects of daily care. But blunt, stubborn, proud, resourceful and smart are words that do describe her indeed. A remarkable portrait of a woman who is proof that the disabled can live lives filled with purpose and pleasure.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312425715
Publisher:
Picador
Publication date:
02/21/2006
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
1,119,430
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.61(d)

Read an Excerpt

From Too Late to Die Young:

Susan gets me on gospel radio because she likes the guys at the station. They're jokey and jivey and very Christian. I like their studio. It's all eight-track, 1970s technology. No fancy electronics here; the engineer turns dials and flicks mechanical switches. On one of their cartridges that's been reused and relabeled countless times, I lay down my spot:

I'm Harriet McBryde Johnson. I'm running for Charleston County Council.

You might know me as the wheelchair lawyer who pickets the telethon. People ask me why I do that. The answer is, human dignity is not for sale.

Why am I running for County Council? Because government, too, should treat every citizen with dignity and respect.

When the base closes, what kind of community will we be? If you want a voice in what happens, vote for me, Harriet McBryde Johnson, and the Democratic ticket.

I'll do my best for you.

"'I'll do my best for you,'" one of the radio men repeats. "Is that your slogan?"

It sounds pretty weak I think. "I don't think so. I don't think we have a slogan yet. Maybe we'll run a contest. Got any ideas?"

On departing, I give them the latest edition of the Temporary Campaign Brochure. I don't ask for a copy of my tape. I'd have no way to play it, and eight-tracks are in short supply. Every cartridge is needed in the Lord's service.

Meet the Author

Harriet McBryde Johnson has been a lawyer in Charleston, South Carolina, since 1985. Her solo practice emphasizes benefits and civil rights claims for poor and working people with disabilities. For more than twenty-five years, she has been active in the struggle for social justice, especially disability rights. She holds the world endurance record (fourteen years without interruption) for protesting the Jerry Lewis telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. She served the City of Charleston Democratic Party for eleven years, first as secretary and then as chair. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine and to the disability press.

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