Malcom Gladwell has so impressed the reading world with his analysis of life, that the term “Gladwellian intellectual adventure” has been coined.

But though I confess to not have jumped on his bandwagon before Talking to Strangers, when I saw he had written about Sandra Bland, I had to know his thoughts.

We now go through life with cable news. And then it was July of 2015. I’m white, Black Lives DO Matter, but hearing of a Black woman who had just arrived in Texas for a new job, a new life, had been arrested for a traffic stop, and then hearing just days later, that it was assumed she had hung herself in her jail cell—I was angry, had many questions, that to this day and even beyond this book, have not been answered. Why? Because we are still living in a time when these questions challenge us to give answers we don’t want to face. 


Gladwell starts with Sandra and ends with Sandra. In between, he works to reveal the disconnects in society, by exploring, as only he can, history, psychology and the roots of evil in our society. Oh, he wants to come to some conclusion about Sandra, but before that, he explores how often we just don’t have the big picture. Why? Because we ARE often STRANGERS to each other, and that means there are no exact rules to govern human interactions.

He attacks the problem in sections: some being Default to the Truth where he exams in detail the Sandusky (sex with a child) Case. Another being Transparency which includes the Amanda Knox case and a fraternity party sex case.


But the most interesting section is Coupling,where Gladwell makes the case that often two things that go together are hard to separate. Suicide is often coupled. Suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge; Sylvia Plath and how gas was delivered to  homes before safety measures were introduced; preventive police patrolling in Kansas City, Missouri and the interrogation of Blacks. 

Gladwell concludes the coupling section with this: “There is something about the idea of coupling–of the notion that a stranger’s behavior is tightly connected to place and context–that eludes us. It leads us to misunderstand some of our greatest poets (Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton), to be indifferent to the suicidal, and to send police officers on senseless errands. (Sandra Bland.)

SANDRA BLAND Note: All parenthesis are mine. 

Then Gladwell asks, before the last chapter, when he discusses the Sandra Bland case…

“So what happens when a police officer carries that fundamental misconception– (that people are going to break laws, do wrong, especially if the are Black)–and then you add to that the problems of default to truth and transparency? (That by their very nature, police can make us feel afraid, feel wrong when we are right, liars when we are truth tellers, especially if one is a person of color) YOU GET SANDRA BLAND.”

YES, SADLY. You get that two personalities who view the world differently, should not be thrown together in a tense situation. And, unfortunately, as a reader and a human, we are left with this: “If you are blind to the ideas that underlie our mistakes with strangers—and to the institutions and practices that we construct AROUND those ideas—then all you are left with is the personal…and now Sandra Bland, who—at the end of the lengthy postmortem into that fateful traffic strop…somehow becomes the villain of the story.


Original Sketch  artist not listed

Boomer Highway’s Summer Nonfiction Reading Picks

Nonfiction readers cannot go wrong with the following choices:

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake  by Anna Quindlen 

One of my favorite fiction authors (Every Last One, Black and Blue, One True Thing) Anna Quindlen writes razor sharp nonfiction—her New York Times and Newsweek columns won her a Pulitzer.  And when she takes on aging, readers will continually say, yes, that’s how it is!  Excerpt from Cake: “It’s nothing short of astonishing, all that we learn between the time we are born and the time we die.  Of course most of the learning takes place not in the classroom or a library, but in the laboratory of our own lives.  We can look back and identify moments—the friend’s betrayal, the work advancement or failure, the wrong turn or the romantic misstep, the careless comment.  But it’s all a continuum that is clearly only in hindsight, frequently when some of its lessons may not even be useful anymore.  Maybe that’s why we give advice, when we’re older, mostly to people who don’t want to hear it.”

Unbroken  by Laura Hillenbrand 

Author of Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand continues to amaze readers with her well researched and beautifully written works.  Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini, a bombardier during World War II who pulled himself out of the Pacific Ocean to a life raft, only to begin a harrowing struggle to survive.  Hillenbrand suffers from a very debilitating form of chronic fatigue syndrome, and acknowledges the irony of her situation—writing about larger-than-life heroes while she is mostly confined to her home.  “I’m looking for a way out of here. I can’t have it physically, so I’m going to have it intellectually. It was a beautiful thing to ride Seabiscuit in my imagination. And it’s just fantastic to be there alongside Louie as he’s breaking the NCAA mile record. People at these vigorous moments in their lives – it’s my way of living vicariously.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot 

Henrietta Lacks was a black woman, a Southern tobacco farmer who died in the “colored” ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s.  Without her knowledge, her cells were put in a culture dish and amazingly did not die.  These cells known now to scientists as HeLa cells are considered one of the most important research tools in medicine.  They are still alive today though Lacks has been dead for more than sixty years.  Skloot worked ten years to uncover her story.  Lacks’ children had no idea that their mother’s cells were immortal until scientists began using her husband and children for research without informed consent. “As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell 

This is Gladwell’s newest book that asks the question: what makes high-achievers different?  Working with the premise that where they come from provides the key, Gladwell delves into the culture, family, generation and idiosyncratic experiences of those who have become a success or achieved much in their lives.  Would you like to know the secrets of software billionaires, why Asians and math go hand in hand, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band?  Read Outliers. Or introduce yourself to the gifts of Gladwell by picking up one of his other works:

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference (2000), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (2009), a collection of his journalism. All four books were New York Times Bestsellers.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch 

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, truly gave a last lecture—not because he was retiring, but because he was dying.  He titled the lecture: “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” and with humor, intelligence and inspiration talked about true living!  “Time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think,” Pausch said, going on to encourage overcoming obstacles, helping others fulfill their dreams, and seizing every moment.  Pausch’s words might echo in your head on days when complaints cloud thinking.  He knew that time and life is a gift.