Picking Cotton
by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo


St. Martin's Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-61523-456-1.
Reviewed by Susan Schoch
Posted on 12/13/2009

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

My grown daughters and I were telling scary dreams, while my husband listened, looking bemused. Finally he spoke up, "There are a lot of bad men in your dreams..." The oldest girl was quick as ever, "That's because we're women. Men dream about monsters and things. Women have bad dreams about men."

We all get it. Women have to live with men's overwhelming strength and potential for violence, including rape. It's no wonder men are the metaphor for danger in our dreams. We have an on-guard reflex toward them, and a heightened caution. Yet when a woman has been raped, she can find herself questioned by someone who is trying to prove that it was her fault.

Jennifer Thompson was a petite but determined college student when she became that statistical woman. Dutifully at home with the doors locked, she woke from deepest sleep to an awful assault and a knife at her throat. With all her courage, she worked to stay calm, to find a way to survive, while a dark man forced an unbearable intimacy. She willed herself to note the details of his identity even as she looked for a chance to run.

She got away with her life, barely. It was fierce anger and unrelenting fear that made her willing to undergo invasive questioning, the prospect of a trial. There was a police sketch, then some photos, and eleven days after the rape, Jennifer was facing a line-up. She felt a fresh surge of terror. If she didn't choose the right man, right then, her attacker would be released and surely find her, and this time he would kill her. She wrote a number on a piece of paper and slipped it to the detective.

Number 5 was Ronald Cotton. He was only 22 years old, more interested in parties than work, and he had a record. But when he heard that the police were looking for him, he knew his own innocence. He was determined to explain his whereabouts and clear things up quickly, borrowed a car and went right to the station. But it wasn't going to be that simple. A confused misstatement and some glaring prejudice, snowballed the line-up into a conviction. Sentenced to life plus fifty years, Ron began his own struggle to survive.

This is a "memoir of injustice and redemption." White and black, have and have-not, woman and man, they suffered. No justice in it. Then, after eleven years in prison, Ron was completely exonerated. He had nothing, but he was free. Jennifer, living with traumatic memories, was further devastated by guilt, and fear of his revenge. Yet despite the heavy obstacles, astonishing redemption eventually came.

Now they are friends, and fellow activists for issues such as wrongful conviction, racial inequality and sexual violence. But especially, they teach forgiveness. With Erin Torneo's able assistance, as Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino turn their agonizing experience into narrative, they make something powerful and good, rather than simply tragic and lurid. Alternating their voices, they tell us what happened, and we understand how they got here. Together they offer us reason to hope--that freedom is inside us, that truth can save us, that forgiveness can release us from a nightmare.

In "Picking Cotton," both a woman and a man are victims, and both are strong survivors. For me, a little parity of suffering and strength levels the field a bit, and seems more like how things really are. Maybe this book will diminish, though not exorcise, those "bad dreams about men." Maybe...


Jennifer Thompson-Cannino lives with her family in North Carolina. She speaks frequently about the need for judicial reform, is an active member of several groups working to protect the innocent, and has published op-ed pieces in various papers including The New York Times. Ronald Cotton works at an insulation plant and devotes much of his free time to speaking at law schools and conferences, where he promotes tolerance, understanding and justice system reform. He lives with his wife and daughter in North Carolina. Erin Torneo is a professional writer, dividing her time between Los Angeles and Brooklyn. See the book's website for more information.

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