Aja James hasn't had it easy. After the loss of their mother at their father’s hand, Aja has kept a close watch over her siblings. The three siblings much find a way to recover from their family’s history, but it’s not clear how. Tired of carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, Aja is finally ready for a change that she hopes could lead her down the path of recovery: find someone to love. Her best friend, Roxie, knows just what to do—she sets Aja up on a date with one of the most sought-after bachelors in town, handsome sportscaster Charles Clayton. Charles is everything Aja has ever dreamed of—sensitive, sexy, and charming. But "happily ever after" isn't that simple.
While Aja has begun to heal from the loss of her parents, her sister and brother have not. Jada is lost in a world of silence with no way for Aja to reach her, and Eric's uncontrollable rage is wreaking havoc on his life. As Aja sees her brother heading down the same violent path that destroyed their family, she makes it her business to stop the cycle—even if it means putting her own life, and her own chance at love, on hold.
My Brother's Keeper is a poignant novel about a resilient family learning that sometimes you have to forgive in order to find the strength to move on.
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Twelve years later
"If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?" Aja read the question in Cosmo magazine out loud as she sat waiting for her sister.
"Well, that's easy," she answered. "I'd take the gun from my daddy and shoot him instead. Maybe my life would've turned out a whole lot different." Aja didn't realize she was talking to herself. The puzzled look from the elderly lady passing by made her snap out of her vengeful thoughts. She managed a slight smile at the woman as she imagined how she looked, sitting there talking to herself. Probably like I belong here.
Aja closed the magazine and glanced around the lobby of Memorial Greens. She hated coming to this place. It was heartbreaking to watch the people wander aimlessly about, some muttering to themselves, some in their own world, and others with no idea who they were or why they were even here.
If only I could get Jada out of here. If only things could be different.
But they couldn't. Aja had come to terms with that fact years ago. It had been six years since her sister was committed, and Aja knew it was for the best.
"Good morning, Miss Ah-jah. Your sister will be out shortly." Aja hated the commanding, bullish tone of Jada's primary nurse, Mrs. Overton. The fifty-nine-year-old, 220-pound woman looked like a prison warden. Her beady eyes seemed buried in her head and her thick, bushy eyebrows met just above the bridge of her nose, forming a V. She wore her long, stringy gray hair tied back in a bun. Her nostrils were permanently flared.
"It's A-ja, like the country, Asia, with a J." Why must they go through this every time? It's like that woman was doing this on purpose. The nurse shot a fake smile before spinning around to go back to her station.
Aja sat near the window that overlooked the large courtyard, where she and Jada had spent many evenings. They both loved the shade the sycamore tree provided from the hot summer sun. With the high humidity, it could get unbearable sometimes. But for the most part, it was always extremely soothing to sit outside.
Even though Jada seemed to be improving, it hurt Aja's heart to see her sister here. After their mother died, their father was sent to prison and Aja and her siblings were shipped off to different relatives. Aja stayed in Houston and finished high school, living with her father's sister. Jada was sent to Alabama to live with another aunt and Eric was sent to Chicago with an uncle. Their mother was an only child, so Aja, Eric, and Jada had to grow up with their father's family, which wasn't easy because all of his relatives thought he should be forgiven. And for Aja, that simply wasn't happening.
At first, everyone thought Jada was simply traumatized. After the shooting, she barely talked for months. At their mother's funeral, she sat emotionless and didn't shed a tear or say a word. It was a silence that had stayed with her, even through her horrible nightmares when the only sounds she made were screams in the middle of the night. She was withdrawn at school, speaking only when absolutely necessary. They even placed her in a special school after she refused to do her work. After a year, relatives started suggesting to Aunt Millicent that Jada get help.
"That child don't need to see no head doctor," Aunt Millicent would always say. "Ain't nothing wrong with her that time can't heal."
But time didn't heal her. In fact, as more time passed, the more Jada withdrew. Eventually, she just stopped talking altogether. When she tried to slit her wrists at the age of twelve, Aunt Millicent knew there was no other choice.
Luckily, Aja managed to convince her aunt to let Jada come back to Houston, where the mental health facilities were among the best in the world not to mention that Aja could be close to her sister. In actuality, Aja thought Aunt Millicent was relieved. She didn't know how to handle Jada. Plus, she had already raised eight children and wasn't too happy about having to take Jada in the first place.
"You have exactly two hours." Nurse Overton's deep voice jolted Aja out of her thoughts. The nurse was gone before Aja could even say thanks.
Aja saw her sister, Jada, standing in the entrance of the hospital lobby. She looked like an angel in the white sundress Aja had recently bought her for her eighteenth birthday. Jada's long, golden brown hair was pulled back and tied with a matching white ribbon. Her caramel complexion was free of the acne that had plagued her early teen years. Had it not been for her eyes, Jada would have looked like a normal, pretty teenager blossoming into a woman. But her eyes revealed the real story they were sunken and dark, like they were being swallowed by her face. The light that was there as a child had burned out long ago.
"Hi there." Aja walked over to hug and kiss her sister on the cheek. "You look great. Let's go to our favorite spot."
Aja took Jada's hand and the two of them walked outside to the bench under the tree. It was the same thing every Saturday afternoon Aja seldom missed a week. Coming here was important to her and she felt to Jada as well. During their visits, Aja would recount her week, all the while trying to remain upbeat and as if nothing was wrong. Today, as usual, Jada said nothing and Aja continued talking. She knew she was rambling but she knew that sooner or later her weekly conversations would get through to her sister, so she never let up.
"...and Mrs. Atkins, you remember her she used to live across the street. She up and got married. Seventy-nine years old and she gets married to a fifty-six-year-old man. I can't buy a date and here she is getting married." Aja laughed. While she tried to joke about being dateless, it did bother her. She wanted a family of her own one day, but at the rate she was going, it would never happen.
Aja continued talking, stroking Jada's thick hair as she made conversation. People always used to tell them they had "good hair" because it was long and wavy something they inherited from their father's Indian ancestors. Her great-grandmother was Cherokee, and although she never met her, Aja was sure that's where her butterscotch color and reddish brown hair came from.
Aja had taken pride in her hair when she was a teenager, until one day her mother got angry because Aja kept telling a friend she had "bad hair" because it was short and kinky. Her mother told her there was no such thing as "good hair" that was just something society used to unfairly label people. Since then, Aja had worn her hair shoulder length and kept it dyed dark brown.
"Jada, did I tell you I got a cat?" Aja stopped rubbing her sister's hair and they were now face-to-face. "This guy at work gave her to me because he moved someplace they can't have pets. I named her Simba. She's a beautiful, gray-colored calico. I never in a million years thought I would own a cat. I'm a dog person myself. Remember that dog we used to have? The Labrador, Cooter?"
Aja looked at her sister to see if there was some sign that she was taking it all in. There was none. Aja continued her stories, telling Jada about her plans for the weekend and the leak in her kitchen sink. Through each anecdote, Jada sat with a blank stare on her face.
It was difficult for Aja to keep up her enthusiasm. As a child, Jada had been very talkative. She'd constantly gotten on Aja's nerves. Jada's response to everything had been "Why?" Aja smiled as she recalled how absolutely crazy it had driven her. Now what she wouldn't give to hear her sister say that one little word.
After another hour of talking, Aja got up to go. "Well, I hate to run, but I've got to stop by the office and check on some clients." Aja reached into her big DKNY tote bag and pulled out a plastic shopping bag. "But you know I brought you something." She pulled a long, light pink silk dress out of the plastic bag and held it up. "I got it on sale at this boutique when I went to New York last week. I'm so glad they let you wear your own clothes here. I know how you like to look pretty."
Jada slowly reached up to touch the dress. She gently ran her hand over the fabric. For a moment, Aja thought she saw a twinkle in her sister's eyes, but it passed so quickly, Aja wasn't sure if she had imagined the whole thing.
"Yeah, see how nice and soft it is. That's what sold me on it. I bet it'll feel good on you. Will you wear it for me next Saturday?"
Please God, let her say something. Jada just kept gently rubbing the dress.
"Okay, then," Aja said, trying not to let her disappointment show. "We'd better go. Nurse Overton will be calling out the dogs in a minute."
Aja put the dress back in the plastic bag and helped her sister up. Together they walked back up the path to Memorial Greens.
As Aja waved good-bye she yelled, "Next time, I'll bring Eric."
She knew that was a long shot. The last time he'd come, Jada had sat in a trance and Eric had left in tears. That was more than a year ago. He hadn't been back, saying he couldn't stand it. Aja had been working to convince him to come again, but he had problems of his own. Problems that were another story entirely.
Copyright © 2003 by ReShonda Tate Billingsley
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Say Amen, Again includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author ReShonda Tate Billingsley. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Rachel Adams is trying to find a way to forgive her husband, Pastor Lester Adams, for having an affair. Her task is made all the more difficult by the reappearance of his former mistress, Mary Richardson, in their family’s church. Now pregnant, Mary claims that Lester is the child’s father and is intent on seducing him away from Rachel. Meanwhile, a tragedy rocks the foundation of the Adams family and everyone involved is confronted with an ultimate decision of forgiveness.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. What does Rachel’s dream in the novel’s opening chapter reveal about her fears? How is she able to overcome these fears by the end of the book?
2. Despite Lester’s continual refusal of her affections, Mary protests that the love she feels for him is real. Do you think this is true?
3. Rachel fears that her anger is interfering with her growth as a Christian. Do you agree with her decision to leave the church until Mary is removed? Likewise, do you think Mary should be removed from the church—or do you agree with Deacon Jacobs’s assessment that “if they kicked one transgressor out, they had to kick them all out” (p. 14)?
4. Mary’s visit from her mother, Margaret, is unwelcome and reinforces why Mary removed Margaret from her life in the first place. How does Mary feel when she sees her mother? How do you think Mary’s relationship with her mother has influenced her as a person?
5. Mary’s dealing ex-boyfriend, Craig, is another unwelcome visitor who brings “nothing but trouble” when he comes around. Is there anything Mary could have done to rid Craig from her life and leave her past behind? Or do you think her past was always destined to follow her?
6. Fed up with Aunt Minnie’s constant judgment of his family, Simon reveals a few of her deepest secrets to prove that she’s not as perfect as she pretends to be. As Simon says, do you think she “had that coming”?
7. Although Bobby never makes an appearance in this novel, Rachel can’t help but think about him from time to time. She wonders if chasing after him in the past influenced Lester’s affair with Mary. Do you feel that Rachel is right to take on part of the blame for Lester’s affair?
8. After Rachel’s interaction with Pastor Terrance Ellis at Lily Grove Church, she felt humiliated for having misunderstood the pastor’s intentions. Did you also think Pastor Ellis was coming on to Rachel? How did you react to her reasoning that having an affair of her own would help her recover from Lester’s affair? Have you ever felt a similar urge to seek some kind of revenge?
9. Did Roderick’s suicide take you by surprise? Teenage bullying due to sexual orientation is a prominent topic in the media today. How does Roderick’s story echo other tragedies you’ve read or heard about?
10. Rachel’s father offers words of advice after Lester is arrested: “Baby girl, God is in the blessing business. He’s not in the punishing business. . . . Just know that God doesn’t give us more than we can bear” (p. 197). Do you agree? Has there ever been a time in your life that you felt you were being tested beyond what you could bear?
11. What did you think of Rachel’s decision to keep Mary’s son, despite him being a constant reminder of Lester’s indiscretion? Would you have made the same decision? Similarly, how would Rachel’s decision have been different if it had turned out that Lester was, in fact, the boy’s father?
12. How did your opinion of Mary change as you read the book? By the end of the novel, did you find yourself sympathizing with her situation? Or did you think she got what she deserved?
13. How does the role of forgiveness impact both the characters and the events in the novel? Is Rachel truly able to forgive Lester for his indiscretion by the end of the book? Do you think Jonathan will ever be able to forgive himself for what happened to Roderick?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Let the Church Say Amen, the first in ReShonda Tate Billingsley’s Say Amen series, is currently being produced as a feature film. If you were in charge of casting, who would you cast as Rachel? Lester? Mary?
2. Roderick’s suicide, like many other teenage suicides committed by those who do not feel accepted by their families and/or communities, came as a saddening shock to those who loved him. If you’d like to help troubled teens in your area, consider taking part in one of the following campaigns:
• The It Gets Better Project, a worldwide movement of hope for LGBT youth: www.itgetsbetter.org
• To Write Love on Her Arms, a movement dedicated to helping those who struggle with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide: www.twloha.com
• The Trevor Project, a campaign for a future where all youth have the same opportunities, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity: www.thetrevorproject.org
3. Say Amen, Again is the third book in ReShonda Tate Billingsley’s series about Rachel and her family. If your book group hasn’t yet read the first two books in the series, consider Let the Church Say Amen or Everybody Say Amen for your next discussion.
4. You can learn more about ReShonda Tate Billingsley and her books on her official website (www.reshondatatebillingsley.com). You can also follow her on Twitter (twitter.com/ReShondaT).
A Conversation with ReShonda Tate Billingsley
Say Amen, Again is the third book in the Say Amen series. Which character do you think has grown the most since Let the Church Say Amen, the first in the series?
It would definitely have to be Rachel. I mean, did you ever imagine the Rachel we first met would be capable of adopting the child of her husband’s mistress?
Do you have any plans to write another book about Rachel and her family? What’s next for the Jacksons and the Adamses?
Rachel is one of those characters that won’t let me tuck her away. I never planned to write the first sequel, and she demanded that her story continue. Next up, she’ll meet up with Jasmine Larson Bush, the main character from author Victoria Christopher Murray’s Jasmine series. The two women are so much alike and so different and they’ll clash as both try to get their husbands elected to a prestigious position in a national organization. That book is called Saints and Sinners and comes out in 2012.
Before you began writing Say Amen, Again, did you know how it would end? Was Rachel always going to accept Mary’s baby into her life?
Oh, I never know how my books are going to end. That’s why it’s so hard for me to write an outline. My characters take over and they tell me the direction in which they want to go. So, I had no idea if the baby was going to even be Lester’s, let alone Rachel’s plan for the child.
Roderick’s suicide is undoubtedly one of the novel’s saddest moments. Why did you feel this was important to include?
I just wanted to show the tragic side of what can happen when our young people feel like they can’t talk to anyone. I don’t even know whether Roderick was gay, but the simple fact that he was conflicted was cause for concern. Yet, for various reasons, he had nowhere to turn.
When it comes to writing, what would you say is your greatest challenge?
Whew, I guess it would be I can’t write fast enough, and I write pretty fast! There are so many unchartered territories I’d like to venture into, but my plate is pretty full. Some people would think that time might be a challenge, but I believe that you find time for your passion and writing is my passion, so time has never been an issue for me.
In its starred review of Let the Church Say Amen, Library Journal raves about your ability to infuse your text with “just the right dose of humor to balance the novel’s serious events.” Do you find it difficult to strike this balance in your writing?
I don’t. At all. People are always telling me how funny I am and I just don’t see it. I guess it’s because I’m not trying to be. It’s just a part of me; so naturally it’s reflected in my writing.
When you write, do you craft your novels with a mostly Christian audience in mind? Or do you aim to reach a wider readership?
Well, I’m a Christian who writes fiction, but that’s about the scope of my target. I mean, of course I want Christians to enjoy my book, but I also want nonbelievers, people of other religions, anyone and everyone to be able to pick up my book and enjoy it. And more than anything, get a message out of the book. In fact, my greatest joy in writing comes from those who found themselves growing closer to God, stronger in their faith, because of something I wrote. But at the end of the day, my message is for the masses. I believe that’s what God has called me to do.
What most inspires you to write?
A pure, simple passion for telling stories.
If one of your readers wanted to write a novel of his or her own, what would be the first piece of advice you would offer?
Don’t just talk about writing, write. And every minute you spend talking about what you don’t have time to do could be spent doing it. So many people don’t get their book finished because they let that get in the way. Something will always get in the way. The road to success is paved with tempting parking spaces. Don’t take a detour in trying to reach your dream. And finally, set small, attainable goals. I started with three pages a day, five days a week. No matter what, I committed to that. Well, before I knew it, three turned to thirty and I was able to finish my book.
What would you say is the most important thing for your readers to take away from Say Amen, Again?
The power of forgiveness and moving past your anger. I also hope that the book helps people reflect on how judging someone is something that should be left up to God.