Human Interest

The adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” is especially fitting when applied, as the metaphor implies, to a person.

The Sedona Public Library hosted 27 human “books” for people to check out and listen to their stories, in honor of the International Day of Peace Thursday, Sept. 21. These 27 people shared their stories of marginalization, as well as their perspectives on misunderstood or little-known topics.

From a mentally ill woman sentenced to 15 years in prison and a former Phoenix police chief sharing his insight on immigration, to a gay man who didn’t come out of the closet until his 60s and a Sikh woman practicing her religion’s ancient traditions, people from all walks of life opened up about the difficulties they and others in their situations have faced.

‘From Pretty to Prisoner’

Natalie Olson, inmate No. 286128 at Arizona State Prison Complex, Perryville in Goodyear, couldn’t be at the library to share her story — for obvious reasons. So Audrey Dorfman, who volunteers at the prison and knew Olson as a teenager, read a handwritten letter Olson wanted to share.

“I have been wondering how mental illness and substance abuse became criminal issues,” Dorfman said.

Olson has struggled with bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and opioid addiction during her life.

“I am also an addict,” Dorfman read from Olson’s letter. “I started abusing prescription pain pills that I was prescribed for a spinal condition. This led to a long downward descent of both my mind and body that led to my incarceration.”

She was sentenced to 15 years in prison for white-collar crime and has two children, the oldest of whom she won’t see graduate high school. The earliest she can get out is in 2021.

“My situation is not unique,” Dorfman read. “I am one of the many mentally ill inmates who suffer from addiction. I am one of the many who are forgotten.”

‘Straight Outside, Gay Inside’

Larry Rosenberg didn’t come out as gay until he was in his 60s. Now 74, he shared how spending much of his life in the closet “with the door locked” was difficult, but ended happily.

He spent much of his life just trying to blend in — going through the motions, he dated and eventually married a woman, though they divorced a few years later once she realized his secret.

He recalled a conversation he had with a group of gay people, where someone posed a question: “If there was a pill that would make you straight, would you take it? And I remember interrupting the moderator and saying, ‘Quick! I have a glass of water here. Where’s the pill?’ Because all that struggle, all that pain, all that pretense — you know, hiding, pretending you’re one thing and being another thing — it does things to your insides.”

He moved to Japan in his 40s, and when he moved back to the U.S. years later, decided it was time. He started coming out slowly, to a few friends here and there, and found that, for the most part, people accepted him.

“It’s a different world,” Rosenberg said. “I accept myself. I love myself.”

‘Mistaken for Muslim’

With roots in India and Pakistan, and traditions involving turbans and facial hair, practicing Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims in Western cultures.

“We are very open, welcoming, peace-loving people,” Reena Kaur Khalsa said.

She shared some of the history and traditions of her Sikh faith and how others perceive her. According to Sikh tradition, hair is symbolic of God’s creation, so Sikhs cover their heads with turbans and do not cut any body hair.

In addition to the turban and uncut hair, Sikhs wear four symbolic items: A small ceremonial knife, an iron bracelet, a wooden comb and cotton underwear. Each item represents and protects them from vices according to their faith.

“We all sit on the floor [during worship services], because that’s how you distinguish that you are equals,” Khalsa said. “So men, women, priests, princes, kings, queens — whoever you are — beggars, or the richest people in the world, all sit on the floor next to each other.”

Despite the peace-loving way of the Sikhs, many face prejudice because of the way they look and dress. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a Sikh shop owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was killed in Tempe when he was mistaken for a Muslim.

“That’s one of the unfortunate things that happens when people don’t understand the differences between religions,” Khalsa said.


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