Picking Cotton

In July of 1984, when Jennifer Thompson was a twenty-three year old college student, a man broke into her apartment while she slept and raped her at knifepoint. She was eventually able to escape from him and later identified her attacker as Ronald Cotton. Though Ronald insisted that he was innocent, he was taken to court and, primarily on the basis of Jennifer’s identification of her assailant, sentenced to a life behind prison bars. Eleven years later, Cotton was allowed to take a DNA test, taking advantage of this new technology. The test proved his innocence. For more than a decade he had been behind bars for a crime he had not committed. Two years later, Donald and Jennifer met face-to-face and began a very unlikely friendship. Picking Cotton is their story.

This book is co-authored by Jennifer and Ronald (with the assistance of Erin Torneo). It follows an interesting and effective pattern with Jennifer narrating events up to the end of the trial, and then Ronald picking up the story, going over the trial from his perspective and describing those eleven long years in prison. In the third part, Jennifer and Ronald write together, alternating chapters as the narrative turns toward Ronald’s life after prison and Jennifer’s life after discovering her tragic error. In this third part we hear about what is really the heart of this story–their reconciliation. Despite what he had been through, Ronald never harbored resentment against Jennifer. When they finally decided to meet, he immediately and unreservedly forgave Jennifer for her mistake.

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I suppose it is bad form to criticize a book for what it is not but in this case I cannot help myself. The one element I found unfortunate is that never do we hear any reflection on this story and its characters from a distinctly Christian perspective. We hear a psychological and medical perspective on why Jennifer chose the wrong man as her assailant; but never do we hear the Bible’s perspective on repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. The authors write a little bit of relationships with God, but only sparingly. This is not in any way a “Christian” book.

Except one, perhaps. We do see a great example of how a man can unreservedly forgive somebody who has wronged him and how he can release any kind of bitterness; we see a woman who has wronged another person seeking his forgiveness; and we see true reconciliation between the offended and the offender–reconciliation that creates a new relationship and a new friendship. In this way we see just a glimpse, a shadow, of the gospel message of the Bible that tells us how God offers free forgiveness and full reconciliation to those who have offended him with their sin.

I must warn that this book is quite graphic. It describes Jennifer’s attack in some detail–detail that was necessary to build a case against her attacker in one way or another, but detail that is difficult to read. The description of the court case brings some new facts to light and is also heart-rending. And Ronald’s time in prison is also covered with frankness, bringing to light the kind of behavior that often happens in prisons. In both cases the authors must have felt such detail was necessary and perhaps they are right; but it does mean at the very least that this book is not one you would want to give to a younger reader. There are also a few occasions where you’ll find some strong language (again, mostly while describing time behind bars).

I first read about Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton in Chris Braun’s excellent book Unpacking Forgiveness where their story is front and center in chapter 1. It is a powerful story and one that deserves to be told. I do wish the authors had been able to tell the story just a little bit less graphically and had they been able to, I would be more comfortable recommending it. As it stands, I can recommend it only in light of the cautions in the paragraph above.


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