A Memoir in Essays

Stealing: Life in America (Review) by Michelle Cacho-Negrete Adelaide Books. 203 pages.

Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s personal narratives of a life sprung from a Brooklyn Ghetto explore how she has been challenged, changed, and honed by poverty and discrimination. These oftentimes bleak, but meaningful, experiences shaped Cacho-Negrete into an elegant writer and a magnanimous human being. While the experiences may have been stark, the writing is luminous.

Each essay is an excursion into a different landscape and a different social milieu, and together they add up to a moving and powerful memoir. The first essay, “Stealing,” shows Cacho-Negrete as a child staving off hunger and cold for herself and her brother by shoplifting food and clothing. Later, that skill enables her to feed her own children while she’s between jobs. One comes away with a sense of the resilience her childhood foisted upon her.

The most heartbreaking essay “Heat” shows Cacho-Negrete getting an early understanding of the horrors of sexual abuse when, as a 14-year-old girl, she discovers a disabled woman is being regularly raped by the boss of the factory where she gets her first job. Although she insists that her supervisor protect the disabled woman, Cacho-Negrete is ultimately unable to stop the abuse, and this experience helps form the grown woman who dedicates her life to helping victims reclaim their lives.

There’s not a clunker in the whole collection. The stories are crisply told with just the right attention to the telling detail. While each essay is a gem, the one I loved the most told the story of a dying friend. Cacho-Negrete describes her friend as a woman whose hair grows back after chemo “in the short silver curls of Roman boys in old frescoes.” The tribute overflows with love and introspection, reflecting on how we change over time and what remains the same.

Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s generosity of spirit, her keen eye, and her trenchant observations give us insight into what it means to be a witness to your own life. Some of the essays read like extended poems. When she writes about time passing in a second-person essay about her first husband, she tells us that “the years were a revolving door, the kids one year older, and stronger, and smarter, and more independent each time they came around and the two of you only visitors in each other’s lives…your last act to save all of you from being drowned in fury.”

I met Michelle at a Sun Magazine Writers Conference many years ago when we were both leading workshops. I was struck by her warmth, her intelligence, and her overwhelming generosity. But even knowing her, I was stunned by the quiet beauty in these essays and elated to get to know her on a deeper level through this tour of a life well-lived.

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