Writing a memoir these days is dangerous business: you can be outed on Oprah as the worst liar, along with your publisher (James Frey, A Million Little Pieces), you can become infamous overnight for breaking the hearts of millions who not only trusted you but even gave up their lunch money to fund you (Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea), and most recently, you can face death threats even before your book was released (Mark Owen who is really Matt Bissonnette, No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden, which, incidentally, finally knocked Fifty Shades of Grey off its #1 bestseller perch just yesterday). Certain memoirs (and, of course, other books – Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses must be the most-unread-best-known-title in the world!) have two very distinct paths: there’s the story, and then the story about the story.
So here’s Deborah Rodriguez‘s tale, which I both enjoyed (Rodriguez is a larger-than-life nutter, and I mean that with all respect) and shuddered through (she’s writing about Afghanistan, where women have experienced continuing violence almost all their lives). Thanks to Bernadette Dunne (who also expertly reads Amy Waldman’s The Submission), the audible version provides the perfect combination of bemusement and shock.
Escaping a dangerous second marriage to Michigan preacher, Rodriguez travels to Afghanistan in 2002, initially with a Christian NGO of professional volunteers (doctors, dentists, nurses) among whom she feels less than useful, but finds her hairdressing skills are in even greater demand.
She gets the crazy idea to start a beauty school in Kabul – vanity and beauty are indeed universal, even in the most oppressive societies – and finds initial funding from longtime Afghan supporter Mary MacMakin, founder of the decades-old successful NGO PARSA. Brash, feisty, do-before-you-think Rodriguez makes her beauty dreams come true, not only reclaiming her own independence (although she marries hubby #3 – a former mujahideen who already has a wife and seven children! – after 20 days!), but provides many desperate young Afghan women – who are more property than human – marketable skills, a career, and even the courage to break the cycle of isolated abuse all too common in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
Beyond Rodriguez’s story – which quickly became a bestseller, with film rights sold for a substantial enough sum to merit Sandra Bullock allegedly attached as the star (IMDB lists a 2013 release; not to be confused with the documentary, The Beauty Academy of Kabul) – is, of course, the story about her story. Soon after its April 2007 debut, insider naysayers had convincing evidence as to many inaccuracies and inconsistencies on the school’s founding, funding, and success. While some of that grumbling might be ignored, the more serious consequences of the memoir’s publication – and Rodriguez’s tell-all style – is the life-and-death situation it created for some of her Kabul students and friends. Rodriguez and her son had to flee Afghanistan under threat of violence in 2007; meanwhile, a chilling NPR segment reported “Topekai” was expecting to move to Pakistan, “Baseera” expected her own death. Rodriquez has since published a novel, The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, in March of this year, and is now living in Mexico.
“Afghan women … have been held in the dark for so long, and during the darkest years they suffered more than even I can imagine.” Rodriguez writes at book’s end. “But the darkness has been pulled back a bit. The light is starting to fall on them now. They need the world to look, watch, and make sure nothing puts out that light again.” Here’s hoping, praying, demanding!