To Walk in My Shoes: Saving Grace On A Less Traveled Road

by Rudolph E. Willis

Published by Lost Coast Press

179 pages, 2000


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The View From Cabrini

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

 

It's easy to imagine a better title for To Walk in My Shoes. The one it has seems inane and is not at all evocative of the story that Rudolph E. Willis tells in his book. What's more difficult to imagine -- at least for this particular lily white writer from the cold blue north -- is the journey that needed to be taken to tell this story. There's nothing inane about either the story or the writing in this telling of Willis' escape from the destiny that fate seemed to have in store for him when he was a child in the Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago.

The Cabrini-Green that Willis describes is a violent, cockroach-infested village of hopeless humanity. Except, of course, that -- for Willis, at any rate -- there was hope. Even if it was nearly impossible to find in his particular neighborhood.

Those of us baptized in the reality of Cabrini learned early that squandering hope on a compassionate life was worse than a fool's game; it guaranteed the real horror of poverty's hold -- the murderous, strangling, grip of defeat.

The defeat that was the gift of Cabrini was like an heirloom, passed down through the generations. Once one of the fathers had it, it became a gift to the sons' sons -- unto the seventh generation, no doubt.

Willis describes his coming of age in the 1960s, a time when civil violence in the United States was perhaps higher than any other. Cabrini-Green saw more than its share of it.

Hopelessness was endemic within the concrete walls of Cabrini. That hopelessness took on added dimension when President Kennedy was assassinated. With his death, a tiny seed of possibility was crushed.

With the single shot that rang out in Memphis, Cabrini erupted. Smoke, fire, the wail of sirens and the incessant echo of bullets rang off the brick walls of the towering buildings of Cabrini.

Willis made an incredible leap from these difficult beginnings to becoming a highly respected oncologist. The book describes Willis' admission into a special Chicago high school for gifted students. This led him to ultimately obtaining his undergrad degree in biology and chemistry at Northwestern. From there, Willis attended the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis where he is now an instructor.

We follow him from medical school through to becoming a Clinical Fellow at the National Cancer Institute at Bethesda, Maryland. Here his work included time in Robert Gallo's lab where the AIDS virus was discovered.

And we learn that, through all of the personal and professional successes in his life, Willis still finds it difficult to escape the shadow of the project known as Cabrini-Green.

Though the first half of To Walk in My Shoes -- the part that deals with Willis' early childhood and challenges -- is nearly perfect, later sections of the book are less tight. It's sometimes difficult to follow the scene changes from the abject poverty of youth through medical school and then into the top levels of the medical profession where Willis would finally land. Having all of this life and all of this living packed into 179 paperback pages is, perhaps, too much to ask.

The book would have benefited from either tightening -- focusing the story told on one aspect of Willis' life -- or expansion -- more detail in the later aspects. I wanted to know, for instance, the names of Willis' daughters and how, if at all, the shadow of Cabrini-Green had affected their lives, one generation removed. After getting to know some of Willis' siblings, I wanted to know what became of all of them: not just scant details, but a little more depth than what was offered. And, after the considerable poverty that Willis experienced in his youth, I wanted to feel some of the warmth -- even luxury -- that Willis' career must afford his family. It would have been a pleasant counterpoint, for instance, to feel the good leather in a car Willis might have indulged himself in, or share his pride at food laden tables and a Christmas tree bursting with presents for his daughters or anything beyond the purely professional that might have offered contrast to the hunger and deprivation Willis experienced growing up.

Despite these flaws, To Walk in My Shoes is a moving read. I generally avoid quoting from late in a book, though will do so here as it doesn't offer a spoiler.

There is no such thing as a racist society. Only the individual who has learned how to be a bigot exists. His or her preconceived notions, based on ignorance, unjustified fears, and misconceptions of superiority allow the lumping of masses of human beings into one category for convenience.

It is apparent that Dr. Willis has intended this book to be a beacon to others who face some of the challenges that he did as a child. It's a good thing to hope that there are some that will see that beacon's light. | January 2000

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.