Thursday, June 28, 2012

To Heaven and Back, by Mary Neal

The problem with a book about someone's personal account of a series of very personal events is that there's no way to constructively criticize or verify the author's account.  I have no reason to doubt Dr. Mary C. Neal's stories as told in To Heaven and Back: A Doctor's Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again, A True Story, yet as I read I kept thinking, "Really?"  I finally decided that, having no reason to question her veracity and integrity, I might not question her account, but I might question her interpretation of her experiences.

Dr. Neal, an orthopaedic surgeon, was kayaking when she became trapped underwater and drowned.  While her kayaking buddies searched for her, she drowned.  As her friends recovered her body and administered CPR, Neal says she died, and was escorted to heaven.  Before she could enter in, her heavenly companions informed her that it was not yet her time, so she returned to her body.  Her companions rejoiced and got her to medical care.

Her brief visit to heaven, followed by some angelic encounters during her recovery in Wyoming, convinced her that she was brought back to life purposefully.  From that point forward, she has lived with a heightened awareness of her purpose in life and the impact that her life has on others.  Anyone, especially any believer can appreciate the way these events have shaped her and made her a more faithful Christian.

My concern is that Dr. Neal doesn't seem to filter her experiences through the testimony of scripture.  She gives an honest account of the events and her experience, but does not stop and wonder about her theological interpretations.  I won't get into the whole out-of-body, near death experience question.  There's huge body of literature debating these experiences.  At the root is Christian anthropology.  I tend toward monism, which states that man is of one essence, that you can't separate body and soul.  Dr. Neal is definitely dualistic, the view that the soul leaves the body at death.  She even states that the soul sometimes leaves the body before death, such as when a patient is on life support.

I think both can be defended biblically.  Dr. Neal takes her dualism a bit fat, I think, when she states that our souls exist with God before we're born.  We "make a basic outline for our life" and "review it and discuss it with our 'personal planning' angel."  Children are more aware of angelic visitation and the world of God because they were there recently.  She learned this during one of the angelic visitations.  She doesn't know if it was an angel or Jesus.  In fact, in one passage she says angel and then Jesus, as if they're interchangeable.  I'm not saying she wasn't visited by an angel or Jesus, I'm just saying that this pre-planning she describes is not biblical, and may be anti-biblical.  When we have a vision or dream, we should always test it against scripture.

I wonder about her interpretation of other events.  On several occasions, she attributes natural events to messages from the dead: blossoms on a tree are a gift from her recently deceased stepfather; flowers on her land were a reminder from her dead son; a patient's dead husband told the patient details about Dr. Neal's accident.  She also sees angelic messages in, for instance, the gaze of an owl hanging around her house.  Again, I do not doubt that these things happened to her, but I wonder about the theology of the dead making flowers grown and angels inhabiting animals.  God may cause a tree to bloom as a gift to us, but can dead people do it?  Again, let's be discerning in our interpretations.

So while I was inspired by Dr. Neal's commitment and the way her life was impacted as a result of her accident, I was constantly scratching my head over her interpretation of events and experiences.  She seems to lack biblical, theological discernment, turning what could have been a solid, inspiring story into a questionable, sentimental account.

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah for the complimentary review copy!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Indelible, by Kristen Heitzmann

Kristen Heitzman
I have to start by saying that Indelible is a novel written for women.  That's not to say I didn't like it, and certainly not to say that it's a bad book, but it held much more appeal for my feminine side than for my masculine side.  First, the female characters.  The main character is a sculptor with a gift (or disability) of eidetic memory, which helps her sculpt beautifully by memorizing faces and features, but which occasionally hinders her with images locking into her vision.  She can see again by sculpting the image away.  The sculptor becomes friends with another gifted artist, a blind painter, a single woman.  Another woman pines for her ex-boyfriend, her husband's best friend and business partner.  The male characters: muscular mountain men with jutting chins and chiseled features.  In other words, we have damsels in distress and their knights in shining armor.  This is certainly not a bodice-ripper--the relationships are chaste--but the romance is definitely there.

The story opens with one of the rugged mountain men rescuing the sculptor's nephew from jaws of a mountain lion.  The boy's dad is a pro baseball player, so the rescue gets some press, drawing the attention of a strange stalker.  The stalker dresses like a demon and quotes from Paradise Lost.  It's not as weird as Heitzman makes it sound, but as the romance develops between the sculptor and the mountain man, the stalker gets closer to their peaceful mountain town, disrupting their idyllic lives.

Heitzman spends a lot of time dealing with the hurts of her characters: the sculptor's debilitating gift, the blind woman, the little boy who loses an arm, the mountain man's professional-ski-career-ending injury, his loss of his little brother, the ballplayer's shallow wife, some love triangles in the little town, the painful past of the stalker.  It's melodramatic, to be sure, but she does manage to weave it all together into a pretty decent story.  I would definitely recommend it for female readers; male readers might find that they enjoy it as well!

More about the author at her web site.  Look at the pictures from her writing window.  You'll be jealous.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Existence, by David Brin

It's been long enough since I read one of David Brin's novels that I had forgotten how much fun he is to read! It's been more than 10 years since I read Earth, The Postman, and some of the Uplift novels. Existence exceeds the accomplishments of those. Set a generation or so in the future, Existence follows the impact on society of the discovery of an artifact from another world. An astronaut collecting space junk runs across a crystal orb that turns out to be a communication device with a message for the people of Earth. As it turns out, there are similar objects on Earth and in orbit already, and they all suddenly have something to say.

Brin follows several plot lines, which eventually weave in and out of each other. For most of the book, I was taken in, and just when I started wondering what was happening to another character, the story would shift to another plot line. Brin's scientific and sociological ideas are challenging and always relevant to the story, but he does make the story his priority. I do admit though, that when, about 3/4 of the way in, he shifts 20 years into the future, and then another 20 years or so, the character and momentum of the story changed a bit too much for my taste. I read to the end, and enjoyed it, but that last 1/4 was less compelling than the first 3/4.

One of Brin's strengths in Existence is the near-future use of data and communication. He takes cell phones and social networking down a very believable path, where people have the internet in their glasses or contacts, where information flows like water, and where everyone can know just about everything about everyone. In fact, what he describes in Existence is what he predicts in his non-fiction book The Transparent Society, in which his answer to the problem of too much surveillance by the state is for people to have the ability to surveil the state in return. When cameras are literally everywhere, on everyone, you can't get away with much. He hints at what that does to morality. I'm reminded of the saying, Integrity is who you are when no one's looking. When everyone is potentially looking at you all the time, you have some serious motivation to act with integrity!

One minor thread in Existence that stood out to me was the experience of individuals with autism. A boy with autism explains, "Genes are wise. Our kind--crippled throwbacks--we did badly in tribes of homosap bullies. Even worse in villages, towns, kingdoms . . . cities full of angry cars! Panicked by buzzing lights and snarly machines. Boggled by your mating rituals an' nuanced courtesies an' complicated facial expressions . . . . An' so we died. Throttled in the crib. Stuck in filthy corners to babble and count flies. We died. . . . Til your kind--with aspie help--came up with this!" [referring to technological devices] When asked why more children with autism are being born: "It is not because of pollution . . . or mutation . . . or any kind of 'plague.' The world is finally ready for us. Needy for us." Wow. If you know anything about autism, about the marginalization and institutionalization of people with autism and other disabilities, this is an exciting passage. The ways technology has helped people with disabilities already boggles the mind, and Brin extends it even further, imagining ways technology can help "the portion of humanity that spent ten thousand tragic years awaiting virtual reality and ai [artificial intelligence] to set them free."

A major theme, of course, is first contact and the exploration of Fermi's Paradox, in which Fermi argued that if there were intelligent life in the universe, we would have heard from them by now. In Existence, Brin answers that what if, with a what if of his own: what if no organic life traveled across space, but only machines sent as envoys? Hmmm. . . . With some sci-fi, you just have to check reality at the door. In Existence, Brin not only presents near-future Earth in a believable, compelling way, but gives the reader believable scenarios for contact with life from other planets.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the free electronic review copy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

No Greater Love, by Levi Benkert and Candy Chand

At first, I didn't know whether to admire Levi Benkert or to think he was an idiot.  To be fair to me, I wasn't the only one who thought he was an idiot when he started talking about selling everything he owned, uprooting his family, and moving to Ethiopia.  But like his critics, I was humbled to read about Levi's experiences in No Greater Love: One Man's Radical Journey Through the Heart of Ethiopia.
The lovely Benkerts.  They had adopted one daughter in the US,
then adopted their youngest in Ethiopia.
Benkert, a California real estate developer hit hard by the real estate bust a few years ago, never imagined that he'd live in Ethiopia.  A pastor friend called and asked him to join a team going on a two-week visit to an Ethiopian orphanage.  The orphanage, in Jinka, a small, rural town in southern Ethiopia, two days' drive from the capital, started in response to some of the local clans' practice of mingi.  Tribal superstitions deemed that some children are born cursed, as a result of the parents not being married, of the parents not announcing that they were trying to conceive, or if the child's upper teeth came in before the lower teeth.  In order to keep the evil spirits away, the mingi children must be killed, either directly or by exposure and starvation.  (This story discusses the mingi tradition, and includes quotes from the Benkerts.)

After his two-week stay in Ethiopia, Benkert felt compelled to return and do all he could to save mingi children.  Six weeks after arriving back in California, his family, having sold all their worldly possessions, boarded a plane to Ethiopia.  No Greater Love tells the Benkert's story, and the story of the trials they faced in their work in Ethiopia.  Benkert is honest about the mistakes they made.  This is certainly not a "how to" manual for missionaries; they were naive and uninformed.  However, they learned some great lessons along the way about obedience and trusting God.

So after reading, I had to come down on the side of admiration.  Sure, he seemed like an idiot at times, but God sometimes calls us to do things that don't make sense.  No Greater Love is one of those books that should come with a warning label: "The authors are not responsible if you decide to do something truly crazy after reading this book!"  Surely God has something crazy that he needs me to do. . . .

You can follow the Benkert's ongoing ministry here:  As they tell in the book, they transitioned out of the orphanage they originally worked with, and now, through Bring Love In, coordinate homes in which widows can care for orphans.

Thanks to Tyndale House for the complementary review copy!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Patriots, by David Frum

The best thing about David Frum's new novel, Patriots, is that Frum is such a Washington insider, you know that every story, description, and character in the book is derived from Frum's first-hand experiences in our nation's capital.  The names of the political parties, cable news outlets, think tanks, restaurants and clubs, and, of course, the people have all been changed, but I have a feeling many will recognize themselves and the places they love to go.

The story revolves around Walter Schotzke, who takes a job in a senator's office to appease his controlling mother.  Schotzke is an aimless heir to a sizable fortune (Schotzke's mustard).  Walter's name (and the money behind it, of course) and his father's fame opens a lot of doors for him as he learns the ropes in D.C.  He joins the senator's staff just before a new president's inauguration.  A liberal African-American president has just been defeated after one term (Frum, I hope you are a prophet!).  Schotzke is called on by party leadership to get his senator in line with the party, since the new president is too much of a moderate for their taste.

The story is Walter's crash course in how Washington really works, which, ostensibly, is Frum's message here.  It's a cynical view, but highly entertaining.  The colorful characters and caricatures carry the story, but the story itself didn't do a lot for me.  To me, a good political satire will target people, events, and ideas.  Frum does great with the people, ideas and events not as much.

Thanks to and the publisher for the free electronic copy of this book.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The People Count, by Robert Dias

I really tried to approach this book with an open mind.  I do not hide my political leanings--libertarian, with some conservative mixed in--so I have to be honest and say that I hated the politics in Robert Dias's screed, The People Count.  But if you're going to write a leftist political tract, at least make it readable!  And at least give us some ideas that make sense and might actually work!

I'm not saying Dias is wrong on every count.  He's right about this: Washington is corrupt to the core.  It's not that every person there is bad (although Dias might disagree with that statement), it's that the system makes even good, well-meaning people do back things.  It's all about incentives.  I can say amen to this passage, from a speech by the President Furnell:
Congress takes its orders from corporate America and Wall Street, without regard to the public interest or the needs of the American people.  Members of Congress routinely lie and distort facts to ensure that legislation written and paid for by their benefactors becomes law.  They lie. . . . they lie about the secret agendas of the special interest groups that fund their campaigns.
When Dias starts laying out his political plan, via President executive orders, the wheels really come off.  Constitutionally unsound, logistically impossible, and economically destructive, virtually everything she proposes is horrible.

I also have to give President Furnell credit for her take on Obama, who, in The People Count, didn't run for a second term (please, God).
President Obama sold his base a vision of a better Washington, and then overnight he switched to backroom deals.  They wanted the change.  Instead they got years of inexplicable compromises, and a White House staffed with lobbyists and people loyal to Wall Street and mega-corporations.
I haven't even mentioned the story.  Jake's wife is killed by a drunk driver, the spoiled son of a one percenter, so Jake kills him and his dad.  He goes on the run, and randomly rescues Jilly, killing her abductors.  They go on a killing spree, targeting one percenters who prey on America.  So that's the message?  A company or your employer screws you over, so go kill the CEO?  Sure, they deserve justice, but that doesn't justify murder. The president even privately condones Jake and Jilly's killings as well as several copycat killings that occur.  And the ending, oh, give me a break!

So, in sum: amateurish writing, almost to the point of unreadable, especially during the president's speeches (it didn't help that my Kindle version screwed these sections up); terrible politics, written by a businessman who ought to know better how the economy works, and should at least acknowledge that money doesn't grow on trees and that people are human; and a ridiculous story.  Even if some numbskull out there agrees with the political and economic perspective of The People Count (I know, there are plenty of ignorant people out there), surely they long for a well-written novel to communicate their views.  This one is not it.

Thanks to and the publisher for the free electronic copy of this book.

[more on this--added 7/4/12]
OK, I admit I was a little harsh in this review.  But you might be interested to see the author's response. I posted the above review on, with this paragraph added at the beginning:
Before I begin my review, I have to point out that most of the glowing reviews of this book seem to have been written by the same person or small group of people. I can't fault a person for promoting his own book, but keep this in mind as you read all of these 5-star reviews: with only a couple of exceptions, this review is the only one they have posted on Amazon, and the content of the reviews do not show that the reviewer actually read the book. Good for Dias for getting a bunch of 5-star reviews, but I have a feeling the majority of them are fake. Especially since it's not a very good book.

This prompted the author to respond on the comments section at  Below is his comment, followed by my response.
Amazon has sold ninety-eight copies of The People Count and I, the author, have given away another 170 copies, mostly to college students, that were printed at my expense in Tampa. Of the 27 reviews posted on Amazon, four of them were were from friends and a relative (who gave it a 3). For personal political purposes, Mr. Mastin has committed libel by alleging that the other reviews posted came from the same person. Granted, many of the reader reviews do have a common thread. From my novel they understand that our political leaders no longer serve their interests, that Big Money is calling the shots in Washington and that their futures and the futures of their families are being threatened by corrupt political leaders. It's should be no surprise, than when a message like mine is understood and hammered home there will be a common thread. 
Mr. Mastin says he is a Libertarian with conservative views and calls my book a leftist tract, My novel is a simply based on the truth of what has happened to our country over the last thirty years and how the Citizens United decision has destroyed democracy. It's unfortunate that my political novel conflicts with Mr. Mastin's view of the world and his political views and his political ambition. It is troubling that Mr. Mastin did not disclosed that he once ran as a Libertarian Party candidate for State Representative in Texas. 
I'm a registered Independent voter. I don't lie and spin the facts like the Democratic and Republican Parties do almost every day. Mr. Mastin's smear approach of a book that goes against his ideology, mirrors that of the current Republican leadership, who have paralyzed our govenment.
Fortunately, unlike many authors who write about politics and economics, I have experienced in my 74-years, most of the situations in my novel. Mr. Mastin asserts he's an expert on economics and politics. Based on what, I have to ask? No experience in either areas and a backward looking,conservative Libertarian agenda, that most voters throughout the country have rejected. 
Since Mr. Mastin reviews for NetGalley, I find it inconceivable that another NetGalley reviewer said it was the best political book he ever read and gave it five-stars. Mr. Mastsin is entitled to his opinion of my book, but making false allegations is not one of them. My book is not favorable to his political leanings and the Religious Right, which he favors (see his review of another book on June 17). 
Mr. Mastin also states that businessmen should not right books about the economy. For the record, I spent more time in the public sector that the private sector (see my resume on: Since the economic and political truths in my novel do not mesh with his views, he conveniently forgot that my novel is a work of fiction based primarily on fact, but it is still a novel with all of the freedom that form provides. Since the timeline of my novel extends into 2013, Mr. Mastin's comments about what my fictional woman President can and can't do reflects his malice for things that do not fit his view of things. My Guess, Mr. Mastin does not like woman who hold powerful positions that challenge his. 
As for my writing ability, my various books have sold over a 1,000,00 0copies. I see used copies for sale on Amazon all the time. I'm not Hemingway, but I'm pretty good.
Based on the foregoing, I ask Amazon to remove Mr. Mastin's baseless, contrived and libelous allegations from his review immediately. Bob Dias, author of The People Count.
And my response:

First of all, I want to apologize to Mr. Dias. I don't intend any book review to be taken as a personal attack, but apparently Mr. Dias took my review very personally. Just because I don't like your book doesn't mean I don't like you.
As to whether I have committed "libel by alleging that the other reviews posted came from the same person," I did say "seem" and "I have a feeling." That's all it is, a feeling. Many of the reviews are similar in tone and similarly lacking in content, making me wonder if there were a coordinated effort here, not unlike a letter-writing campaign where people send similar letters to make a point. I am most happy to be wrong about that.
Mr. Dias says it's "troubling" that I did not "disclose" that I have run for office as a Libertarian. There is much about my life I did not disclose in this brief review. His googling might also have uncovered the fact that I ran an embarrassingly slow time in my last 50K race.
I don't think I claimed to be an "expert" on economics or politics. I was just reacting to his book based on my own economic and political perspective, for what it's worth. I find it funny that Dias thinks part of my problem is a misogynistic view of women in politics!
In my mind, Amazon book reviews are a great place for hearing the responses of average readers to books they like or don't like. Based on Mr. Dias's reviews, he has way more fans than deterrents. Good for him. I wish him good luck with future sales and future novels.

As if his comments on weren't enough, I received the following letter via registered mail:

Wow!  I don't write too many negative reviews.  This was probably the most negative review I've ever written, and I've been rewarded by the threat of a lawsuit!  Those of you who know me know my pockets are pretty shallow. . . .

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Coming Apart, by Charles Murray

I know Mr. Murray didn't mean to be a downer with this book, but it sort of depressed me.  I guess his most famous book, Losing Ground, isn't a ray of sunshine either, but man, his take on the state of the U.S. is bleak.  In Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Murray traces the precipitous decline of the cultural values that made America what it is.

Murray doesn't seem to sad about the state of the U.S. . . .
Murray identifies four founding virtues, based on his observations and writings from the first century of life in the U.S.: marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity.  These virtues provide the substance of community life and create an atmosphere in which the American way of life can continue.  He then demonstrates, through a variety of surveys and secondary sources, that over the five decades from 1960 to 2010, these values have all been in decline.  Further, he separates the data into two groups: college-educated, upper-income whites, and working class whites with a high-school education or less.  (He does not include other races in his analysis; I think he wanted to avoid some of the flak he got from The Bell Curve.)

What troubles Murray is this: these two groups are more geographically separated than ever before.  Not only that, but the separation in their exercise of the four virtues has grown tremendously.  While in 1960 there may have been a little difference between the two, in most cases the differences are vast now.  Furthermore, in an observation reminiscent of Theodore Dalrymple's theme in Life at the Bottom, Murray notes that, whereas in the past the lower classes looked to the upper classes for models of lifestyle and behavior, now, more and more, people from the upper classes take on the affectations and behaviors traditionally associated with lower classes.

Is there hope for America?  Murray says, Of course!  This is America, after all!  We do have a major advantage: we are heading down the same road as Europe toward a total social welfare state.  The advantage is that Europe is a at least a generation or two ahead of us, so as we watch their economic and social collapse in the coming decades (or maybe weeks!), we can attempt to avoid their mistakes.  We also have a long tradition of civic involvement, which has never been seen to the same degree elsewhere.  To the extent that we can keep that alive and expand it, we can turn things around.

I keep trying to buy into Murray's optimism, but I'm not so sure.  I pray that my children will embrace the founding virtues.  More specifically, I pray that I will live my life in such a way that they will see those virtues modeled.  More broadly, I pray that our nation will again be a place where those virtues are seen among rich and poor alike.  I mentioned that Losing Ground wasn't a ray of sunshine.  However, it did serve as a spotlight, drawing attention to failed welfare policies, and was instrumental in the development of major, highly successful welfare reforms.  Perhaps Coming Apart will likewise inspire a reformation of our culture.

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah for the free review copy of this book.

Monday, June 11, 2012

One Month to Live, by Kerry & Chris Shook

A couple months ago, I reviewed Kerry and Chris Shook's Love at Last Sight, a book of daily readings designed to help the reader be more intentional about his or her relationships.  Before that, they wrote One Month to Live: Thirty Days to a No Regrets Life.  The premise, as the title suggests, is that we should live with some urgency, as if we only have a limited time on earth, and make every second count.  The resulting book is a decent guide to Christian discipleship, challenging the reader to examine the way he lives and to change his lifestyle to reflect eternal values.
Kerry and Chris Shook pastor Fellowship of the Woodlands.
I have a little trouble with the premise.  If I learned I had 30 days to live, I sure wouldn't want to spend it at a desk for 8 hours a day, answering the phone.  The Shooks challenge the reader to recall the dreams of  youth, and, as long as they align with God's dreams for us, to pursue them.  The reality is that the vast majority of people for the vast majority of history have to toil and labor to live.  Do you think the struggling West Texas farmer and the Chinese assembly line worker and the Andean shepherd are living their dreams?  Maybe, but probably not; they work as a necessity.  The point, I think, is that all labor has value and can be directed to God as service to him.  So it's not your dream?  Still, labor as unto God, but if you only have 30 days to live, by all means, quit!

That quibble aside, the overarching theme of One Month to Live is that we should invest our time in what lasts and what matters.  Not much in this world is eternal, but two things are for sure.  First, God's word.  Time spent reading, studying, and contemplating the Bible is time invested in eternity.  God's word is eternal, and it can shape our character in lasting ways.  Second, people.  The impressions we make on people, time spent serving them, praying for them, is time invested in eternity.  So we should live our lives in way that maximizes investment in these things that last.

If I were told today that I only had 30 days to live, I would probably focus on those 30 days, quitting my job, doing a bunch of fun stuff I've never done, and visiting with friends and family for a last time.  The Shooks want me to have a longer focus.  One Month to Live points the reader in an eternal direction and helps bring eternity into focus.

Thanks to the good people of Fort Worth for the free use of this book from the Fort Worth Library.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Raymond's Room, by Dale Dileo

When activists in the 1960s exposed the horrific conditions of Willowbrook, a New York institution for people with disabilities, progress began to be made on the reform of such conditions.  As he describes in his book Raymond's Room: Ending the Segregation of People with Disabilities, when Dale Dileo started working with people with disabilities in the mid-1970s, he discovered that in spite of a greater awareness by the public, high-profile politicians calling for change, and the publication of books and broadcasts of television shows about conditions in institutions, the conditions still were poor at best, and, in some cases, horrifying.  Dileo gradually came to take the position of Gunnar Dybwad, who wrote that "Four decades of work to improve the living condition of children with disabilities has taught us one major lesson--there is no such thing as a good institution."

While still a college student, Dileo got a first-hand glimpse of one small way institutions dehumanize people with disabilities.  At the residential school for children with autism he was shown that, among the many indignities, one staff member brushed all the residents' teeth--with the same toothbrush!  Then he met Raymond, who, on a nightly basis was locked in a small room which was stifling in the summer, freezing in the winter, and that reeked, due to the use of a portable toilet in the room.  The staff would lock the door from the outside, leaving him there all night.  As a young staff member, Dileo was shocked, but never did anything to change this policy.  As his views changed over the years, he came to reject the whole philosophy of institutionalization, and worked to get the Raymonds of the world out of institutions altogether.

People with disabilities have long been isolated and segregated, primarily by institutionalization, which almost inevitably leads to horrible conditions, as well as, at the very least, "needlessly limiting the quality of life for the residents that live there."  Some of the problem Dileo attributes to what he calls the disability industrial complex (DIC).  Just as President Eisenhower described the military industrial complex, Dileo argues that the DIC is "a mega-system whose primary goal is to perpetuate itself."  The DIC is "vast and complicated, often self-serving. . . . It is a huge industry, aided by government-sponsored grants and often costly technology."  Like any bureaucracy, the DIC has a tendency to centralize and categorize.  It has a preference for segregated institutions, labeling people and placing people with the same label together.  This categorization and segregation hinders social development and the acquisition of skills needed to be a part of society as a whole.

Dileo specifically addresses sheltered workshops as an egregious example of the shortcomings of the DIC.  In these workshops, participants perform simple, sometimes completely pointless tasks, for a very low wage, pennies a week in some cases.  The employer will contract with an agency of the DIC, who will provide supervision and training for the workers who have disabilities.  There are many problems with this system.  The workers themselves get nothing close to minimum wage, but the labor department considers this to be OK.  Rarely do the workers learn skills that can be applied to a job in the open market.  Even though they may be working in a workplace that employs non-disabled people, they often have little interaction with other employees.  Finally, the job they hold is not their job; it's a job to be filled by someone--anyone--the DIC agency provides.  Thus, the worker does not build a sense of job ownership and accountability.

Dileo provides several examples of individuals with disabilities with whom he has worked who work in an open-market job alongside people who do not have disabilities.  The key is to look at the individual with disabilities as someone with unique skills.  Our tendency is to place the disability front and center.  Instead we should look at what someone can do, and find a place where his skills can be useful, where he can be productive.  Sheltered workshops, favored by the DIC, tend to perpetuate segregation and do not typically lead to mainstream employment.

Another DIC favorite is the group home.  While in most cases a step forward from the large institution, group homes tend to be much less like homes than programs.  Residents in group homes have little self-determination or control over the way they live.  Meals, group outings, schedule, even the setting on the thermostat, are determined by staff, limit choice and independence of the residents.  As much as possible, people with disabilities should be able to work toward self-determination, as we all do, by finding independent living and mainstream employment as much as possible.

The central theme that I picked up on in Raymond's Room is the necessity of community.  Dileo did not address this explicitly, but it was implied in every proposal he made.  The success stories he relates frequently include a coworker or neighbor or friend who comes alongside someone with a disability to encourage her or train her or simply give some advice or a kind word.  When someone with a disability is an active, present part of a community, his neighbors and coworkers will be more likely to offer assistance.  By contrast, when someone with a disability only gets out in the community as part of a large group on an outing, there is no opportunity there for relationships and community to develop with those who are not disabled.

Lest his critics jump on Dileo for wanting to push people with disabilities out the doors of institutions, I think Dileo would argue that he does not want them entering society with no safety net.  Dileo wants for his friends and clients and neighbors with disabilities what we all want: a community in which I am valued, to which I make a meaningful contribution, and in which I am sustained by and sustain others with bonds of friendship and community.  That is the greatest challenge of Raymond's Room: many of us tend to remain isolated from community.  We pay a price for that, but not as high as price as someone with a disability who is living on his own.  Is there a disabled neighbor or co-worker or fellow church member who could use my encouragement, guidance, or assistance?  Unless I am will to play a part in the life of someone with a disability (as Dileo certainly has), it would be disingenuous of me to embrace and promote Dileo's thesis.  I am convinced he is right, that the segregation of individuals with disabilities in institutions, group homes, and sheltered workshops must end, but it cannot without a community that will embrace those individuals.

You can follow Dileo's activities and read current comments on his blog.