By Ray Sawhill
Despite its title, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s new book, “Respect: An Exploration” (Perseus), isn’t an exploration of the meaning of the word “respect,” and it isn’t a William Bennett-like piece of virtue-advocacy either. Instead, it’s a collection of profiles of people who are trying in their professional lives to do some good in the world.
The book is held together less by the occasional passage about the role respect has played in her subjects’ work than by the social-science earnestness of Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s tone. Johnye Ballenger is a pediatrician who gives an afternoon a week to caring for poor clients. Jennifer Dohrn runs a “birthing center” (when did women stop giving birth and start “birthing” instead?) in the South Bronx. David Wilkins is a Harvard law professor who tries to avoid “Paper Chase”-style authoritarianism while still helping students learn the skill of “thinking like a lawyer.” We also meet a “hospice caregiver,” a photographer, and a teacher at a suburban school.
Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and a MacArthur Prize winner, has developed a distinctive way of writing what she calls a “portrait”—a sensitive, even credulous take on a person, delivered partly through that person’s eyes. It’s a therapist’s view of a client, basically.
The profiles whose subjects have the orneriness to cut through Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s overeager empathy are reasonably compelling. But it’s a mind-foggingly solemn work that seems to live in terror of sharp edges and clear distinctions—and not a book for readers convinced that there ought to be a lifetime cap on the number of times an author can use the words “empower” and “healing.”
- Buy a copy of the book.
- Here’s Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s website.
- Read a Bill Moyers interview with her.
©1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The New York Times Book Review.