News & Politics

“How I Got Here”

A Lawyer Looks Back on Her Childhood and Sees Hardship but Also Love and Inspiration

Washington is already home to one lawyer turned inspirational author–Iyanla Vanzant. Now there are two. DC attorney Yolanda Young recently published her first book, On Our Way to Beautiful, a childhood memoir.

Young grew up poor in Shreveport, Louisiana, and moved here in 1986 to attend Howard University. While at Georgetown law school, she received a visit from a younger cousin.

"She was cynical, quiet, and withdrawn," Young says, "and I realized it was because she was ashamed and frustrated with her life: She was living in the projects, and her mom was on welfare. She saw me as this person who couldn't identify with her. So I started writing these stories."

The stories tell of a sometimes-troubled family–Young's father shot and wounded her mother, and an uncle is in prison–but a mostly loving one, thanks to the values imparted by Young's grandmother and great-grandmother.

Young showed her stories to a law-school classmate, who told her, "I'm a Jewish guy from Potomac, and if I can connect with your stories, you should consider a book."

She finished a draft and ran it by another friend, Jonah Edelman, a son of Children's Defense Fund head Marian Wright Edelman.

"He was like, 'This is an incredible story, but it's awful–you can't write,' " Young says. "Between an accounting major and law school, what writing talent I had probably got lost."

Edelman suggested a reading list, and she took writing workshops. In 1998, Young–who worked at Mobil during its merger with Exxon–quit her job to write full-time.

The chapters in On Our Way to Beautiful are introduced by Old Testament quotes and contain subtle lessons. One about gossip concludes: "We treated the lies the way we did roaches, trying to stomp out the ones that got out of hand but always knowing there were more between the floor cracks."

Young writes of her great-grandmother: "Hers was the beauty in the order of life. . . . When the days got shorter and the swelling pears and figs thudded to the ground, she knew, as I came to, that they would all rise again come spring like the next generation."

Young's appearances have drawn crowds. More than 100 people came to a DC reading; another in Jackson, Mississippi, drew nearly 300.

She has a response to skeptics who think a 33-year-old is too young to publish a memoir.

"I agree. I don't feel like I'm writing my story. I'm writing about my family. It's about the question I'm asked frequently: How did I get here?"

Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.