Book about Congresswoman who was shot packs emotional wallop

The best memoirs enlighten and inspire, and “Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope” manages to recount a romance with tenderness, to tell a story of politics without wonkiness, to share a tale of tragedy without melodrama.

GabbyI loved this book.

“Gabby” is about Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Congresswoman who was shot in the head by a lunatic two years ago. Six people died, and 12 others were injured. The story is told by Mark Kelly, her astronaut husband. If I have any quibbles about the book at all, it’s that the title should have included his name since the details of his life that have cultivated his courage and tenacity are major themes in the book.

I received this book as a gift from my parents more than a year ago. I finally picked it up to read it because I wanted to understand the woman behind the recent push for more gun safety regulations. I expected a carefully worded account of policy and crime (Hillary Clinton’s “Living History” was disappointingly unrevealing like that). Instead, I got a love story, a detailed chronicle of the ups and downs of recovery from brain injury and the seemingly unguarded perspective of a devoted care giver.

The beginning of the book is about Giffords and Kelly before the shooting and how they fell in love and married. It’s interspersed with small details of her rehab after the shooting which serve to prepare the reader for the second half of the book about the attack (thankfully, only one line is devoted to a description of the shooter) and her recovery.

The extent of my knowledge of Giffords extended primarily to the reports of her shooting in January 2011. I was working at a convention in St. Louis at the time, and I remember checking the CNN twitter feed on my phone at the back of the room between speakers. First there was the news that Giffords was shot in Tuscon, not all that far from Phoenix where my company had hosted the same convention only a year before. I remember feeling stricken; the news wasn’t as grave as a presidential assassination attempt but it was disturbing to think Congressional representatives would be targeted. Then there was the news that Giffords was dead. I remember thinking “how awful” before having to take the stage at the convention again. By afternoon, CNN had retracted its inaccurate reports of her demise; as a former reporter, I found it unconscionable to have made such a mistake. Reading Kelly’s account of that morning and the behind-the-scenes reactions to those reports was compelling.

Some reviewers have taken issue with how much Kelly writes about himself and his career. Besides commanding the final mission of space shuttle Endeavour a few months after Giffords’ shooting, he is a veteran of the Gulf War. I found this information necessary to explaining his commitment to this marriage and to Giffords after she was profoundly changed by her brain injury. He reminded me a little bit of my brother-in-law, a commercial airline pilot, who saw my nephew through a scary battle with leukemia 10 years ago. After seeing how my brother-in-law questioned doctors, vigilantly patrolled my nephew’s bedside for exhausting months and advocated for him in every way, I knew that sort of person is the last one to cover their eyes and hysterically scream “We’re gonna die!” when the plane is going down; instead, people like Mark Kelly and my brother-in-law keep their wits in the midst of disaster; they calmly and assertively look for answers and try every contingency.

I learned Kelly’s marriage to Giffords is his second, which makes her a stepmother to his two girls. As a stepmother myself, I found this chapter about the challenges and rewards of stepmotherhood to be especially poignant. I cried as he told of his teenage daughter’s guilt about not appreciating Giffords more before the shooting when she wanted little to do with her. In fact, I cried several times reading passages from the book. Writer Jeffery Zaslow is given “with” credit in the authorship of “Gabby,” and I’ve got to believe it’s his magic that expertly knits that story together with Kelly’s emotion and the facts of a brain injury that left Giffords nearly mute for months during the writing of this book. The final chapter is written by her. Those 189 halting words manage to say so much as the culmination to the rest of the book.

There’s a lot in this book for readers of all sorts, even ones who don’t like politics or space travel. Its subtitle, “A Story of Courage and Hope” is apt.

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