Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Kicking Ass and Saving Souls by David Matthews - Book Review


The prologue of Kicking Ass and Saving Souls, the new biography by David Mathews, reads so much like a novel and the first chapter presents his protagonist Stefan Templeton as such a multi-faceted, highly skilled intellecually and phyisically adept person that I finally had to go to Wikipedia to look Templeton up in order to prove to myself that this compelling memoir is non-fiction. Having researched Templeton through several web sites, I convinced myself this man was as special, confused, and interesting as he was being portrayed and allowed myself to settle into the book to follow his adventures as a mixed race man whose background takes him from the streets of Baltimore to the castles of Europe and beyond.

Stefan Templeton was born on July 15, 1967 and lived the first couple of years of his life at Great Lakes Naval Air Station where his father, Roye, was stationed before moving to Baltimore with his mother, where she lived with his paternal grandparents while Roye served in Vietnam. Roye's father was Furman Templeton, for twenty-five years the Executive Director of the Baltimore, MD Urban League. He was an important civil rights leader in Baltimore. Stefan's mother, a Norwegian beauty named Ebba Boyeson, was the daughter of Gerda Boyesen, founder of the Boyesen Institute with centers in London, Paris, and rural Macon France. Gerda came from a long-established, wealthy and influential Norwegian family who expected their daughter to marry a millionaire. Instead, she followed her hippy instincts, fell in love with the black man from Baltimore, and soon found herself the mother of Stefan.

Stefan found himself growing up in two contrasting and conflicting worlds. On the one hand, he lived in the midst of the urban mess that was Baltimore in the seventies. On the other hand, he spent extensive periods of time living in a rural castle in France where his mother practiced Reichian/Jungian brand of hands-on psychotherapy. Stefan, a shy and withdrawn boy who loathed the idea of physical conflict, nevertheless grew up partly studying martial arts with his Vietnam-damaged father while living another part of his life in the strange, but compelling, environment where primal screams and caring massages, and were the stuff of therapy, while he learned to ride horses and hunt from the staff. He spent a great real of time alone, reading compulsively and exercising himself to strength, agility and exhaustion. He went to private schools in Europe and inner-city public schools in Baltimore, making few friends, except for the author of this interesting, well-written biographical portrait. From early adolescence, Stefan became the adored object of women from a range of backgrounds, ages, and dispositions. He also developed a searching and restless spirit taking him into many educational and action-oriented settings, most of which led to his not getting a complete education or settling into any single vocation, but serving to momentarily satisfy his addiction to action and adrenaline, while providing him with additional experiences he would marshal into the array he needed to help others in dire straights.

Given a well-trained body as well as the physical and psychological need to train to exhaustion in order to feel himself alive, Templeton sought out opportunities to test his mind and body in the most challenging circumstances. Over the years he was accepted at the diving school run by Jacques Cousteau's organization to train to for deep diving in dangerous and challenging circumstances. On graduation from high school he took a freestyle trip to South America with some friends which led to his heading into the Andes to treat mountain peasants living in the direst poverty. He talked himself into being given medical supplies to help the natives. Along the way he became separated from his friends, ending up on a beach treating the chief of a primitive group of natives. Somewhere along the way, Stefan, struggling with his need to support children from a couple of different relationships, provide himself with sufficient money, and more “opportunities” for adventure dropping into his lap becomes involved in activities that cross the line from mere thrill seeking to criminal activity. At each stop along the way, he rationalizes his decisions based on the behavior and moral weakness of others. His charm, strength, skill set, and urgent need to seek out action and “do something” about what he sees others merely observing often placed him in life-threatening circumstances. He insistently obtains the rush from seeking, and always finding, danger. At the same time, his charm with both women and men, his advanced physical skills, his facility with languages, and, often, his concern for the welfare of others, keeps him finding new opportunities in exotic and dangerous locales as well as frequently gets him out of trouble.

As Stefan grows from being a completely irresolute, hedonistic teenager into an increasingly mature and responsible man, he begins to realize that he truly wishes to be helpful to others. This moves him toward taking his skills to places like revolution torn southern Sudan and Indonesia within days of the tsunami to help provide aide for those affected by war and natural disaster. Still, he cannot muster up the patience to ever wait for an organization to prepare its intervention or to supply the needed materiel. Plans often go awry because Stefan can't wait to be where the action is. He goes and does while others plan and think. This urge to take action nearly always places Stefan in a position to become something of a hero while placing himself, to his apparently great satisfaction, at great risk. He's an adrenaline junky.

David Matthews
Author David Matthews is, himself, of mixed race, the son of a black journalist from Baltimore and a Jewish mother who was out of us life while David was quite young. His previous bood, Ace of Spades, is a memoir of growing up confused in a mixed race situation, making him an empathetic vessel for Stefan Templeton's story.  He and Templeton had been friends for years, but rarely saw each other after junior high school, as Templeton traveled widely and rarely came home to Baltimore.  Ace of Spades was selected as a New York Times Editor's Choice book in 2007. He lives in New York City

Stefan Templeton's life raises at least as many questions as it answers. Are the tales he relates to author Matthews true or the product of a vivid imagination? Is Stefan a good hearted person who finds himself constantly on the edge of disaster or a heedless self-gratifying jerk willing to risk his own life and those of others to fill his need for action? Is he a kind and thoughtful person or an id-driven child? Is he the great man many come to see him as?  David Matthews never ducks these questions about his childhood friend who decides to relate his story. In fact, he raises each question and explores it with a good deal of care, eventually conducting many interviews to corroborate the stories Stefan has related. What emerges is a fascinating, complex, driven, and confusing character worth reading about presented in the form of a story that often seems more like a novel than a biography.

On a whim, I sent a request for a comment to Ebba Boyesen at the psycho-therapeutic institute where she and her mother, Gerda, have practiced for many years and where Stefan spent much of his childhood and youth.  Much to my surprise, she responded, saying, "Every word that David Mathew writes about   my son,according to my knowledge, is accurate." She continues by describing a recent incident in which Stefan saved a woman's life in the surf before her eyes.  Her final comment adds some of her own insight to the story, "Between the getto and the castle in France and his Grandmother in Monaco and my family in Norway,...not so easy always!!"

Ebba Boyesen - Recent

Stefan Templeton - Working in Africa
Stefan Templeton is a founder of SPEAR (Standing Project for Emergency Assessment & Response), an organization based in Washington, D.C. which seems to be the ideal outlet for his energies, concerns, and interests as well as a standing testament to the value of his life's experiences.

Kicking Ass and Saving Souls: A True Story of a Life Over the Line was written by David Matthews, and is published by Penguin Press. The narrative is always lively. The portrait of Stephen Templeton emerges as Matthews carefully draws each segment of his life and the complex relationships therein. As a true-life action tale or an engrossing personal portrait, this book is worth reading.

The book was supplied by the publisher through TLC Book Tours.