The Golden Ticket: A Life in College Admissions Essays

Page-wise, this is a very short book. It took me almost a week to finish it. I kept having to put down this firehose of poignant and funny and bittersweet memories. It is also a brave book. And it’s not just Irena who is brave; her children and husband are at least as courageous.

It takes guts to confront your own past and perceived (I think Irena is often too hard on herself) failings. It also takes guts to allow your story to be told to a world that too often stigmatizes mental and developmental challenges.

And these stories are told in chapters that rather pointedly take college admissions prompts as their starting point. Irena begins with her family story. Her grandmothers fleeing, just ahead of the Nazis; her parents fleeing the former Soviet Union and coming to America. She recounts her own rebellion (she did Gilligan’s Island and Brady Bunch and cigarettes). Trust me, this list totally makes sense. She tells how she met, fell in love with and married her husband and how they achieved success in their respective fields. She doesn’t even really call herself successful, come to think of it; she just mentions (off-handedly) that when the college admission scandal broke, the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Business Times and a local television station asked to interview her. And she contrasts that professional success with her family life. For this book is about how she and her husband and their three children learned to live with one another and with behavioral health and developmental issues.

It’s about a family coming together to face what life has thrown at them. About a sense of who will really understand what they are dealing with? The well-meaning people who keep sending holiday cards? And it gets at what a really good friend told me a long time ago (and what took me a lifetime to understand): character is the great equalizer.

It is also a story about books. Literature permeates this memoir and Irena makes all the books she mentions sound incredibly interesting. I was interested even though I have tried at various times to get into half the books she mentions and have given it up as a bad job. (The other half I love.) I suppose this is why she has a PhD in comparative literature, and I do not.

This is a wonderful book written in supple and compassionate prose. One of those rare books you should read to the very end, by which I mean don’t neglect (just this once) the acknowledgements.

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