Hope, Interrupted:America Lost and Found in Letters

By Byron McCauley and Jennifer Mooney

Orange Frazer Press (2021, 343 pp.)

"I truly feel like we don't need any more grand gestures," writes an exhausted Black journalist to his equally beleaguered White pen pal. "We just need earnest listeners."

Listening is indeed what they found in each other, revealed through their heartfelt correspondence written over the course of the 2020 pandemic and its bruising election cycle.

A timely, telling chronicle of the last year via letters by a Cincinnati newspaper columnist (McCauley) and a communications executive then based between Cincinnati and Taos (Mooney) explores issues both of national concern -- politics, failed leadership, racism, sexual harassment -- and those more intimate -- families, marital relationships and aging.

Overall, the work offers a distressing, revealing, uplifting snapshot of America in crisis.

The two writers, both in their mid-50s, married, with several children, began their correspondence June 6, 2020, in the deep throes of the pandemic. Mooney, who grew up in a wealthy suburb of Cincinnati, made a marketing presentation at a local university, which caught the eye of journalist McCauley, whose column dealt with issues of community and race, most recently one that garnered national attention titled, "Are you Black first, or are you a journalist first?" The country was convulsed after George Floyd's death, forcing a national reckoning about racism in all facets of American life.

McCauley was besieged by his diverse readers with questions of "What can I do?" He reveals profound disillusionment about his country. Once fashioning himself a Republican, proud of the accomplishments of the 1990s Bush team of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice et al, he recognizes during the Trump administration that he "was oblivious for so long," he writes. "My optimism has waned as I see the scabs ripped off, exposing vile racism and bigotry everywhere! I wonder, like you, has it always been there simmering, or is this something else?"

Mooney is a Jew who has dealt with historical bias against her and her family, as well as her own ignorance of Black trauma. Growing up in her privileged Wyoming, Ohio, home, her family kept a Black housekeeper, and Mooney learns that her school district was the last to integrate in the state. She recognizes that "hiding" the truth was her privilege, and she wonders in an early letter to McCauley: "I am really having trouble determining whether I am a decent White person or not."

The ongoing conversation between them about mask mandates -- and public refusals to wear them -- job losses, election anxiety, funerals, forced remote learning and Zoom meetings ("People schedule these things to prove that they are actually working," laments Mooney) and the futility of planning, segues into more confessional topics such as marital strife, parental dysfunction and job dissatisfaction.

Both reveal their abandonment issues over absent fathers. And both, during these trying months, make bold career changes, Mooney in a move full time to Taos, while McCauley leaves the newspaper after nearly two decades for a marketing communications job.

McCauley rages against the president and his "soulless" tactics to sway votes: "He's playing smoke and mirrors to keep us from noticing he's committing rape against our democratic republic," he despairs.

Mooney describes how she and her husband have lost many friends because the friends continue to support Trump ("It is not OK," she insists). She compares the present Zeitgeist to the Nazi era that blindsided the voting public. And she is even called a Nazi when she challenges a belligerent woman in a crowded Taos grocery store who refuses to put on a mask.

Both try to maintain hope for themselves and their daughters, all the while mourning the loss of the American Dream. Mooney's daughter Nora, a business student living in Germany, gets married over the summer, unattended by her mother, while McCauley embarks on an ambitious weight-reduction program.

Yet the continual bad news, from a spree of shootings in Cincinnati in August to the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September and the ceaseless toll of COVID deaths, depresses them both: "Our generation and our children now live in a country in which our greatest dreams and hopes are broken," Mooney is moved to write.

Both use the time of national transformation and mutual sounding to search deeply inside themselves to question bias and intention -- finding essentially much to be grateful for.

Mooney reminds her pen pal and friend of something someone told her when she was in a dark place: "Jennifer, this is not the last chapter."

For a recording of the Zoom reading, contact Jan Smith, somos@somostaos.org, or call 575-758-0081.

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