“The woman in front of me was in no shape to be on television.”
With these words Hattie Kauffman opens her book Falling Into Place: A Memoir of Overcoming (Baker Books, 2013). Though the Nez Perce Tribe member who made history as the first Native American network news broadcaster in U.S. history goes on to focus not so much on her career as an Emmy–award winning storyteller as she does on the life journey that got her there—and beyond.
From the pivotal opening moment as she stares at that not-ready-for-television mirror image in the “richly appointed” Los Angeles home that she shares with her husband, Kauffman weaves a shifting narrative back and forth until the disparate pieces settle like downward-drifting leaves. A woman who feels trapped in her own home, Kauffman takes solace in trips to the spa and getaways to her private log cabin in Montana, all the while longing for her husband’s love and attention—and for any clue as to why he wants a divorce.
After setting that scene she shifts back to the 1960s, the decade in which the young Kauffman grew up in Seattle public housing, and a raw narrative drawn from poverty begins to emerge. Replaying the details of those harrowing days, Kauffman analyzes her current crisis by retracing her past. With gradual curiosity she begins to reexamine her faith—which means she’s suddenly caught between two very different beliefs about God, and uncertain of either. Painfully, her reflection brings back bittersweet memories of her Aunt Teddy, a missionary who seemed to love Kauffman more than any of her six siblings. Desperate for answers, the soon-to-be divorcée delves into scripture and finds herself on the path to becoming born again.
This launches a straightforward, fast-paced memoir that spans five decades as it moves from inner-city Seattle in the 1960s and ’70s to present-day Los Angeles. Kauffman’s story also covers her transformative teenage experiences in Mexico, at the elite Kent School for Girls in Connecticut, and a college trip to Russia. The shifting history of these times is woven into a patchwork of two distinct lives in which moments of her private life and personal pain take the lead.
Born into a family of alcoholic parents, Kauffman is raised by her older siblings John and Lilly and sometimes by the third-born, Annie. Altogether there are seven children in the Kauffman home. Together they learn to improvise when the bills aren’t paid, the cupboards go bare, and in some cases when their parents don’t come home. At one point the sisters try to cure the drunkenness of their mother and father by pouring out their bottles of beer and substituting water.
But when Kauffman meets a boy named Sonny at age 13, all these lessons seemingly disappear. Too young to recognize that she’s acting out the scenes she has grown up with, she spirals into the same tragic patterns of alcohol abuse.
Waywardly, Kauffman treats her life as her mother and father often did theirs, with violent self-destruction. At age 15 she receives her first right hook from Sonny, a Native American boy who lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill district. That’s where the Kauffman family had relocated after leaving the projects in the late 1960s. Kauffman and Sonny’s crazed teenage love leads to young marriage and two children. But after one party turns violent enough to threaten Kauffman’s and her children’s lives, she finds herself facing her first divorce.
Although the overall narrative takes on a darker tone, Kauffman’s account of her siblings provides levity in the form of storied humor. But when later, when Kauffman is 35, admitting she’s an alcoholic and taking on AA’s 12-step program, she is seemingly all alone. Her mother and father have both passed away, as has her older brother John, who also recovered in AA.
It’s at this point that Kauffman begins to share her true awakening to Christ, turning the clock forward to present-day Los Angeles. In 1991 Kauffman is contemplating Step Three: to make a decision to turn one’s life and will over to God.
“I did not know who God was. I knew I was Native American and that we were supposed to believe in the powers of nature,” she writes. And so, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, she wedges an eagle feather between the red rocks and declares, “ ‘I turn my life and my will over to God’ … not understanding at all what I was doing.”
Gradually the pieces of Kauffman’s plot fall into place, apropos to her title. It is everywhere and all things—from the summers she spent on the Nez Perce Reservation with her grandparents, to her first international journey to Mexico, where she is touched by Aunt Teddy’s many acts of kindness.
Many people along the way imbue Kauffman’s story with meaning. There is, for instance, the unknown author who scribbled amid the scriptures of a secondhand bible. Kauffman purchased the book on the eve of her second divorce settlement, not knowing that the marked passages would give her the guidance she needed to officially face the end of her 17-year-long marriage.
“How improbable it was that some person had made these particular notations,” Kauffman wondered. “That I happened to be in on that particular day, in my unique situation.”
Written in economic and engaging style, Falling Into Place is laced with memorable characters, and its delivery of multilayered stories lends depth to Kauffman’s soul-searching depiction of the meaning of family. Here are strong and resilient people struggling to overcome all that life has thrown at them, chronicled by a professional storyteller trained at getting to the guts of the human experience.
"If you think you're falling apart, you're falling into place,” she told KASA-TV in Albuquerque earlier this month.