Book Review: Nowhere But Up. Pattie Mallette, with A.J. Gregory. Revell. 220 pp. $21.99.
So fixated are the celebrity media on Justin Bieber's ups and downs -- and the recent conspiracy to kill him -- that they may have forgotten or glossed over his own background: the struggles of his mother, Pattie Mallette.
That would be a pity, for Mallette has outlasted wave after wave of horrors. She was molested as a child by a relative, then by older kids in her neighborhood in Stratford, Ontario. She dealt drugs and got hooked on them herself. She was raped by a date at 15 and threw herself in front of a truck at 17 in a suicide attempt. She spent time in the psych ward of a hospital and even conceived her famous son out of wedlock. All before her 25th birthday.
Her tiny, 4-foot-8 frame must hold an amazing amount of strength. Or, as she says in Nowhere But Up, she's the grateful subject of the mercy and providence of God.
"It doesn't matter where you find yourself today -- how broken, hurting, wounded, or ashamed you are," Mallette writes. "If God can help me find my way up, I promise, he can do the same for you."
She speaks from experience, in a delicate blend of devotion, encouragement and brutal honesty. She talks frankly about the alcoholic father who abused his mother, then left the family. She paints her own episodes of sexual abuse not so much in terms of physical actions as manipulative situations and the outflow her desperation for someone to care for her.
She tells of a downward spiral of sex, drugs, rebellion and petty crime climaxing with her 19-day stay in the psych ward. Her salvation, physically and spiritually, starts through the director of a youth center who visits her in the hospital. He's the one who gave the book its title with his advice: "When you hit rock bottom, you have nowhere to go but up."
Yet Mallette doesn't pretend conversion is a cure-all; for one, she volunteers the fact that she conceived Justin out of wedlock, then lived with the father for awhile. Finally she throws him out after realizing his drinking, partying ways won't mix with fatherhood.
Through the peaks and dips of her story, she continually speaks of God as a guiding force, steering events, sometimes even speaking through dreams or vivid insights. She lightly dusts her book with Bible verses she has found meaningful. All of this she does with a refreshing sincerity, without sermonizing.
And Justin? Well, let's just say Mallette is a proud mom. Through her eyes, Justin is the most beautiful baby and the brightest boy. She praises his grades at school, his equal skill at chess and soccer, and especially his ease in singing and playing various instruments. He earns a reputation first by singing and strumming on the street, then entering local contests, then building an audience on YouTube with mom's eager participation.
She gives ample credit to the many who helped her and Justin along the way. There's the computer firm that trained her, then employed her for two years. There's the neighbor who paid for daycare for Justin while she returned to school. And there's Scooter Braun, an Atlanta-based promoter minister who mentored the boy just as he was starting the big time.
Mallette also gives some pages to ministries that are helping troubled people like she once was. One is the Bethesda home for unwed mothers, where she stayed until she bore her son. Another is the Dream Center, a church in Los Angeles that runs nearly 300 social service ministries. Perhaps a future book by Mallette should dwell on such places.
A. J. Gregory, Mallette's writer, turns her story into a smooth narrative, with short words, short paragraphs and little religious jargon. She also adds a lot of telling details -- like Mallette's $700 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme -- obviously the product of many interviews and reviews of the text. Only toward the end of the book does Gregory fall into redundancies and some overwriting.
Bieber fans will like the 16 pages of color family snapshots. They show Mallette cuddling and camping with Justin, plus the two of them flying to his first big break in Atlanta.
Now in her mid-30s, Mallette acknowledges that her life is again in transition. With Justin grown, the nurture and protection that consumed her life is past. Just as her son is developing his own identity, she must recast her own. It's a healthy realization: So many women with famous kids become stage moms, grabbing and holding the reflected fame as long as they can. That virus apparently hasn't affected Mallette.
Her new role may already be shaping up. She has 1.5 million followers on Twitter, many of them asking the kinds of personal questions they might ask a mother. At least a hundred of them waited for hours before a recent book signing in Fort Lauderdale, squealing at her appearance as if they'd seen Justin. And she has been a guest on national news TV shows and at least two conferences by Women of Faith.
Mallette seems to be using her tragic past to help others with their tragic present. "I'm passionate about seeing people healed of pain," she told me in an interview during her South Florida visit. "If I can come to a good place, anybody can."
James D. Davis