The Book that Changed My Life: A Tribute to Toni Morrison

Insider NJ's Jay Lassiter pays tribute to the late Toni Morrison by sharing how her work changed his life.

Toni Morrison, peerless literary icon and Professor Emerita at Princeton, died this week. We join a chorus of tributes to her remarkable, influential life. 

(Cherry Hill, NJ) — I was in rehab, detoxing from a decade-long meth bender when Toni Morrison’s 8th novel Love came out in 2003. There wasn’t much literature going on in those crackhead years, but thanks to a Temple U. professor named Sarah Hill, Toni Morrison’s literary genius was already familiar to me.

Dr. Hill assigned Ms Morrison’s second novel Sula to my undergrad anthropology class (circa 1999) and honestly I didn’t like it. It was too heavy and too unflinching and too unfamiliar. And topics like race and war trauma were waaaaay too heady for me to grasp in any meaningful way.

But I love words and I love language.

And no one in the history of American fiction used words and language as beautifully or as poignantly as Toni Morrison.

28 Days

Detoxing from crystal meth and making amends to everyone I’d fucked over was a daunting proposition. There was rigorous, humbling work to do right out of rehab. But I took comfort knowing that an interesting novel by a beloved writer was waiting for me on the outside.

This meant Barnes & Noble would be my first stop when rehab was finally over. Turns out, the bookstore actually came second. Apparently my number one priority wasn’t literature or even staying off meth.

It was blueberry pancakes.

After 28 days of hospital food, I wanted something special. So I said my goodbyes and hopped on the blue line to Philly’s Reading Terminal Market for the biggest Amish breakfast of my life.

Toni Morrison’s new book would follow, a smart move in retrospect because consuming literary genius on an empty stomach is just rude.

Fate (or a series of extravagantly consequential coincidences.)

It was slightly brisk that October day and the trees in Philly’s Rittenhouse Square were just starting their autumnal ritual. I was off to read Toni Morrison’s new novel Love when I first laid eye on someone special.

“Excuse me!” I hollered to the Most Handsome Man I’d Ever Seen, “Can I bum a smoke??”

I don’t like tobacco but I wanted his undivided attention for 3-5 minutes and if that meant smoking a cigarette then so be it. This was life not on meth for the first time in ages and I needed all the props I could find.

His name was Greg and I caught him on a smoke break between meetings. Fatefully, his office occupied the same building as Barnes & Noble.

He was obviously intrigued but not particularly accustomed to flirting with feral, poorly socialized ex-junkies.

“So what’s your deal?” he asked cautiously.

I took a deep breath.

My relationship with the truth was pretty sketchy at that point and not just because I was a drug addict.

I could always spin the best yarns.

Some people lie to deceive and manipulate. Others do it because they’re high on drugs and literally can’t tell fact from fiction. And then there are those of us who tell tall tales because they don’t think their truth is interesting or compelling or worth sharing.

I did it all.

I was so fluent in deception that honesty was almost a foreign language.

But in that moment, when a beautiful stranger asked what me deal was, I knew exactly what to say.

“I just got out of rehab, I’m HIV+ and I’ve broken the hearts of everyone who loves me. But I’ve got plan and I’m pretty sure I’m gonna land on my feet,” I said, with enough of a smile to not show any of my rotten meth teeth.

He asked me to dinner on Friday and I said yes not even a little bit surprised that life ratified my honestly and my candor so quickly. How profound it was to discover that my honest truth was the most interesting, persuasive story I could ever tell.

I didn’t know it at the time but in that moment, the trajectory of my life changed forever.

No more lies, no more bullshit, no tall tales to better amuse people. From now on it’s raw, unvarnished honesty or nothing, no matter how painful, heavy, or unflinching that story is.

Just like Toni Morrison showed us.

LOVE, a Novel 

In retrospect, it certainly feels prophetic to be reading a book called Love when I actually fell in love. But  this was no love story. Among other things, Love explores the downside of progress.

Everyone knows racial segregation was mean-spirited and immoral and unconstitutional. Forcing black people to use their own water fountain is bad enough. Beating or lynching them for failing to comply is a whole different level of ghastly.

And that’s basically how it all went down in America. Blacks had their own water fountains, their own schools and churches. They even had their own seaside resorts.

Love depicted once such town, a vibrant place that thrived during segregation in part because black people had nowhere else to spend their money. When integration came, the town fell on hard times because more affluent black people – doctors, pro athletes, entertainers – mostly stopped coming. Toni Morrison rendered that decline through the lens of a hotel-owning family, a delicious, dramatic cast of characters brought to life through Morrison’s unmatchable prose.

If you’re not able to read Love or any of Toni Morrison’s other works, you can doff your hat as you pass the American flag, flown half-staff all over New Jersey in Toni Morrison’s honor.

“Toni Morrison was a winner of the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, National Humanities Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” said Acting Governor Sheila Oliver, who signed the executive order.

16 years is mighty long time

When I finish paying tribute to America’s greatest writer Toni Morrison, I’ll go into the kitchen and pack Greg’s lunch.

And I’ll reflect on Toni Morrison’s words which, on a fateful day in the fall of 2003, led me to Rittenhouse Square.

And to my life’s happily ever after.

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