My Long Trip Home:
A Family Memoir
by Mark Whitaker
Simon & Schuster
368 pages, Illustrated
Book Review by Kam Williams
“His father, Syl Whitaker, was the charismatic grandson of slaves… His mother, Jeanne Theis, was a shy, World War II refugee from France…They met in the mid-Fifties, when he was a college student and she was his professor, and they carried on a secret romance for more than a year before marrying and having two boys…-Excerpted from the Inside Cover Page
My Long Trip Home is a reporter’s search for the factual and emotional truth about a complicated and compelling family, a son’s haunting meditation on the nature of love, loss, identity and forgiveness.”
As Managing Editor of CNN Worldwide, Mark Whitaker is currently in charge of content and reporting for the world’s largest, global television network. Previously, he made history as Newsweek’s first African-American Editor-in-Chief.
To his credit, Whitaker has achieved his phenomenal, professional success in spite of being raised in a very dysfunctional family by parents as different as night and day, literally and figuratively. His mother, Jeanne, was in her fourth year as a French professor at Swarthmore College when she found herself being pursued by one of her students, Syl.
Since this was America in the 1950s, perhaps of more significance than their age difference was the fact that she was white, conventional and the daughter of devout Christian missionaries while he was black, immature, and a relatively-bohemian free-love advocate. Nonetheless, the unlikely couple secretly embarked on a torrid affair and wed just a couple of months after his graduation.
Unfortunately, although their union soon produced two precious sons, it would only last about a half-dozen years. For Syl had a weakness for both broads and booze. Worse, he turned into an ill-tempered lush to boot, when liquored up on the sauce.
In no uncertain terms, the abusive husband repeatedly made it clear to his wife that he considered theirs an open marriage, whether she was prepared to join him in participating in the Sexual Revolution or not. And he proceeded to imbibe and sleep around with such abandon that he torpedoed his own promising career in the process.
For instance, after being hired to head Princeton University’s newly-created Black Studies Department, he developed a reputation for propositioning colleagues’ wives and for staggering around the campus drunk, until he was finally given a severance package and shipped off to rehab. On the home front, not only was Syl a deadbeat dad after the divorce, but he was too busy making whoopee with fellow swingers even to call his sons, let alone share some quality time with them.
This makes Mark’s subsequent ascension up the corporate ladder something of a major miracle, especially given his mother’s simultaneous battle with depression as she struggled to keep a roof over her kids’ heads. Meanwhile, Mark was compensating for his anger at being abandoned by his father by acting out and overeating to the point of obesity.
Reflecting both a reporter’s painstaking attention to detail and a Prodigal’s Son’s sincere search for closure and redemption, My Long Trip Home is a riveting, revealing, and heartbreaking memoir affirming the potential of even the messiest of lives to blossom belatedly into something satisfying and beautiful.