Bonnie Raitt's Transplant Song
“Just Like That” Beats with CompassionThanks to Henrico educator and writer Bill Pike for sharing this moving song, “Just Like That,” by the great Bonnie Raitt. As she explained in American Songwriter, Raitt was inspired by a 2018 news account about a woman who donated her late child’s heart and was about to meet the recipient for the first time.
“The man sat with her and asked if she would like to put her head on his chest so she could hear her son’s heart,” Raitt recalled. “I just lost it.” Her song was named the Grammys 2023 Song of the Year.
I also appreciated Bill’s commentary on my recent appearance at Trinity United Methodist Church in Henrico County. He reflects on another song – “Love Has Come for You” – which he ties to another story about the human heart: “The Organ Thieves.”
The Fablemans: Fable for Our Times
When Stephen Spielberg started filming “The Fabelmans” — an aptly named tale of family, marriage, art and suffering — he couldn’t have known how relevant it might be.
Or maybe he did.
After all, the creator of “Schindler’s List,” the 1993 Academy Award-winning drama about saving Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, already had plumbed the depths of the persistent historical evil of antisemitism.
But “The Fabelmans” — now playing in Richmond-area theaters — unpacks the experience of intolerance from a more personal point of view.
Sitting in a near-empty theater, it occurred to me that this film should be seen by everyone on the big screen. In its very human and often humorous portrayal of the power of art in a boy’s life, it’s a timely antidote to recent toxic headlines about an ex-president hanging out with delusional fans of Hitler and other forms of hate-mongering.
As Burt and Mitzi Fabelman return home after taking their son to his first film, it was moving to see the world from the boy's back-seat viewpoint: While his street was festooned with Christmas lights, his own home shone with menorah candles to celebrate Hanukkah.
“The Fablemans” explores the challenges Spielberg faced moving around the U.S. because of his father’s job. This reminded me of my own experience as my military father did the same.
I smiled thinking of my grade school friends in the suburbs south of Alexandria in the early 1960s. Many were Jewish and shared parts of their heritage that were news to me — from bagels to menorahs to the humor and warmth of their homes. I don’t recall anyone talking about the Holocaust, but I do remember our crossing guard was said to have survived some awful place. Later, in high school, I had classmates and teammates who grew up in Gum Springs near Mount Vernon. From them I learned about the rich history of their African American community, whose origins could be traced to descendants of people enslaved by George Washington.
Little did I know that even then, in the late 1960s, there were parts of the country where Black and white kids weren’t going to school together. Some Virginia parents had chosen to pull their kids out of public schools or sought other ways to avoid integration, such as private schools and all-white “academies.”
As I watched Sammy Fabelman face antisemitic taunts, threats and humiliations I’d never known, the film made me wonder how the lack of exposure to “others” around America continues today to leave people more susceptible to lies, stereotypes and prejudices — especially when they’re only a click away on a phone or laptop.
“The Fabelmans” also brought to mind another movie with a Richmond connection. “Kristallnacht and Beyond” tells the painful, yet uplifting story of Alexander Lebenstein, who fled to America after losing his parents and others to the Nazi genocide. He settled in Richmond, never thinking he’d return to the nation that had taken so many of his loved ones. He was often angry and bitter.
His life took a dramatic turn, though, when two students wrote him a letter in the 1990s inviting him back to his hometown, Haltern am See. After studying the Holocaust, they asked Alex — their town’s lone Jewish survivor — to come and teach them about it.
After rejecting the offer, according Alex’s Wikipedia entry, “He was convinced by his family to come to his German hometown. This visit completely changed the life of Alexander Lebenstein and soon after he started publicly speaking — in churches, schools, libraries and at the Virginia Holocaust Museum about his life and his terrible experiences.”
I had the honor of meeting Alex during the making of the museum’s 2009 documentary about him. The producer, Lindsay Stone, invited my wife, Deborah Jones, to write its theme song. Its refrain drew upon Alex’s own words during a Richmond-area school appearance.
“Remember my call to reconcile,” he told the students, “or hate will turn around to hate you.”
Similarly, Spielberg struggles with his own hurts, humiliations and self-doubts. By doing so, he discovers the power of art to help with his own healing. Like so many great artists, he holds up a mirror that allows us to reflect on our own wounds from life’s inevitable trials and tribulations.
In doing so, Spielberg reminds us that when it comes to our shared experience as Americans, we’re all in this together — even when it hurts.
Memory As Metaphor
Happy Holidays! With so many families & friends traveling this week, I thought I’d share this column, “Moving as Metaphor.” I wrote it for “In House Warrior,” a wonderful (and free!) blog/podcast by Washington, D.C. crisis management expert Richard Levick.
The people you meet here – my Mom and Dad and sister and brothers – weren’t necessarily in crisis mode (at least not all the time). But they endured many losses, which they often kept to themselves. Thankfully, we had each other to lean on – especially crammed together in the back seat of our 1956 Buick Special.
Hope you enjoy – and in this season of light may you discover your own metaphors & illuminations!
An Uncommly good Night
It was a fine day & night on campus at VCU Oct. 12, conversing with bright students and instructors as part of the university’s Common Book events. If you click here, you can find lots of free resources (films, books, etc.) available to all! And click here for VCU news coverage of my keynote speech. Thanks to all of you – whether or not you came or viewed online. I'll be sure to keep you posted on any future developments!
Common Book & Related Stuff
Thanks to everyone coming to VCU this Wednesday at 6 p.m. for my Keynote talk for the university’s Common Book program at the Singleton Center for the Arts. Click here for the address and more information about the event. There's parking along Harrison Street (near the arts center), plus VCU’s parking decks on nearby Main and Cary streets.
After my talk and some questions from the audience, I’ll stick around to sign books (there will be some available to buy).
If you can’t make it, click here to watch via livestream.
Here are a couple of more links to recent news stories: VCU’s student newspaper, The Commonwealth Times, coverage of the recent apology from VCU with comments from me; and the university’s news service's account of former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder’s scathing attack on VCU for its apology about for the treatment of Bruce Tucker.
VCU Apologizes for Tucker Tragedy
It's been more than two years since the publication of The Organ Thieves, but Virginia Commonwealth University -- home of the former Medical College of Virginia -- has finally apologized for the tragic treatment of Bruce Tucker and his family. In this recent post -- today’s news from Virginia Commonwealth University -- VCU announced a “Resolution regarding the late organ donor Mr. Bruce Tucker and the East Marshall Street Well.”
The VCU Board of Visitors, along with the Board of Directors of the VCU Health System, issued a lengthy resolution admitting the university (as MCV) “engaged in medical experimentation and research that resulted in dehumanizing practices for handling the remains of primarily Black and enslaved people.” These despicable practices are well-documented in my book.
Regarding the 1968 heart transplant – long heralded as a great moment in Virginia medical history – the resolution states: “VCU acknowledges and sincerely apologizes to the late Mr. Bruce Tucker, and to his family, for the Medical College’s transplant of his heart 54 years ago.”
They also authorized the “commissioning of a plaque… to honor Mr. Tucker’s important role in the early history of heart transplantation and to place it in a location of honor at VCU Medical Center.” Here's VCU's news release about its plans.
I’m looking forward to seeing many of you at VCU on Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 6.pm. Click here to learn more about this free lecture open to the public, so c’mon down! Whether or not you can make it, thanks for your interest in setting the historical record straight and – however late or inadequate it may be – in honoring Bruce Tucker and his family.
Governor Wilder to Speak on Book
Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the first elected African-American governor in the United States, will speak on "The Organ Thieves" at his annual symposium, "Racism, Health, and Accountability." The free event is open to the public on Monday, September 19 from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Singleton Center for the Performing Arts at 922 Park Ave. Click here to learn more (if you can't attend, VCU's planning a live stream).
VCU notes that Wilder served as the legal counsel for the family of Bruce Tucker, "a Black man, [who] had his heart transplanted -- without his family's consent -- into a white businessman..." in 1968. "The case exemplified a journey to fight racism and demand accountability for a gross violation of human rights. As the signature speaker, [Wilder] will discuss the complex ethical issues exposed during the case, as well as examine its lasting historic impact today."
Gov. Wilder's address is part of series of educational events tied to "The Organ Thieves" as VCU's 2022 "Common Book" for first-year students. I'll speak at the Singleton Center on Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 6 p.m. Looking forward to seeing you!
sAVE THE DATE for VCU Talk
Hi everyone! Please save the date for my fall talk at VCU that's free and open to the public. It's set for Wednesday, Oct. 12 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Singleton Center for the Performing Arts at 922 Park Ave., RVA 23220.
I actually learned this from the recent Times-Dispatch article about the university's choice of The Organ Thieves for its first-year reading program. As reported by Colleen Curran, "The book will be read by roughly 4,500 students in the first year program and be discussed through a series of events by the VCU Health community."
In the 16-year-long history of the Common Book program, "This is the first VCU Common Book selected by a Richmond author and which takes place in Virginia."
She quotes Dr. Art Kellerman, CEO of VCU Health System, who noted the importance of "understanding how the university's complex history affects our patients." While VCU has "come a long way," he said, "We will not rest until we achieve health equity for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, income or geography."
Please consider this my personal invitation to YOU as I complete more than two years of public discussion of The Organ Thieves! I hope to offer fresh perspectives gleaned from hundreds of discussions since the book's publication in August, 2020.
Talking History With Kristen
Looking forward to joining best-selling author Kristen Green this Saturday, May 14th, from 1-3 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble store at Libbie Place in RVA. I'll sign "The Organ Thieves"and Kristen will sign her new blockbuster, "The Devil's Half Acre." We expect to start our conversation @2 p.m. So bring yourselves and your questions!
I'll make another local appearance next Tuesday, May 17th from 6:30-8 p.m. at the Richmond Public Library with Michael Paul Williams, winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. We'll discuss "What Makes a Fact True: Local Journalism and American Democracy." Click here to register and here to watch Livestream.
Facing the "Facts" re: Democracy
Whether it's Putin's deadly lies about Russia's bloody, tragic invasion of Ukraine, or America's own pathetically partisan patter about our shared history, the critical role of a free and skeptical press has never been clearer. So I invite you to join me at the Richmond Public Library for an upcoming panel discussion with my esteemed former colleague at the Richmond Times-Dispatch -- Michael Paul Williams, winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary. On Friday, May 17 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., Mike and I will be part of the library's speaking series, "Democracy and the Informed Citizen." Our topic will be "What Makes a Fact True: Local Journalism and American Democracy." Click here to register. The library's address is 101 E. Franklin St., RVA 23219. The event should be livestreamed as well, so for those of you who'd rather tune in, I'll send that link along when it becomes available.
And click here for C-SPAN's BookTV coverage of my recent panel discussion at the Virginia Festival of the Book.
Chip Jones is an award-winning author, journalist and former communications director of the Richmond Academy of Medicine. The Organ Thieves is his fourth book.