Guest blogger, Erik Cleven, is vice president of the board of the ISCT. He is an associate professor in the Department of Politics at Saint Anselm College. He has worked with dialogue efforts in the former Yugoslavia and Russia and with Judith Saul has offered training in transformative dialogue in Kenya, Norway, Jordan, the Netherlands and the United States. He lives in Manchester, NH.
When I first heard that Joe Folger was writing a novel about mediation I will admit I was skeptical. I thought it sounded like too narrow a topic to have much appeal, even to mediators. But when I started reading Memoir of a Misfit Mediator I found myself staying up too late at night because I kept wanting to read more. Joe’s book is certainly about mediation and explores several key questions about mediation practice, including the big questions of who we are as mediators in conflict and how we see, and what we believe about, the participants in mediation. But it is also a book about much more. The first person narrator, Kent Foxe, is dealing with a number of situations both professionally and personally that highlight key situations that any of us might find ourselves in. Tensions with family members, relatives with mental health issues that don’t necessarily have the awareness to make constructive choices, professional challenges and questions about where our responsibility lies in these situations.
As the novel unfolds, Foxe is challenged by a mentor he has attended a training with, Adam Maurie, to think more deeply about what it means to be a mediator. Maurie invites Foxe to visit a mediation center in Manhattan where he by chance observes Maurie’s nemesis, Thomas Binder. Binder believes that mediators need to maintain firm control of the mediation process and is so critical of Maurie’s more party-driven approach that he physically threatens him. While Foxe is experiencing this and thinking about who he wants to be as a mediator, we follow Foxe and his husband Gio as they deal with a crisis involving extended family members. Kent and Gio are compassionate and respectful of everyone in the situation, but they are not two-dimensional characters. They struggle through dilemmas and differences as we all do. As the story unfolds we see the importance of dignity and human agency for people in conflict.
I won’t offer any spoilers about the details of the story. The book has a lot to teach us about conflict and human interaction. The book never explicitly mentions transformative practice but those familiar with it will find a book that can open the values we hold as transformative practitioners to wider audiences in a nonacademic way without ever being overtly pedagogical or dogmatic. If you need a way to explain what mediation is to a family member or a friend, this book might be a perfect gift. If you are a member of a book club and you want a book that will spark discussions about human interaction and conflict, then this is a good pick. But this is also a compelling story with characters the reader will care about and which is just generally a good read.