“If I only knew then what I know now” goes the old saying. How many times have we said it to ourselves as our life experiences shape and school us about the world and ourselves? And if we could talk to our younger selves, what would we tell them? Would they understand, or even listen?

In Rearrested by Faith (VOG Publishing), Tara S. Merchant casts aside any regrets for the catastrophic mistakes she’s made in the past, gives us a window into how they happened and where they led her, and passes on the wisdom she’s gained along the way. And she does so in a way that not only commands our attention but helps us understand for ourselves what she knows now.

A CYCLE WITH ROOTS IN HER CHILDHOOD

Raised in the projects of Queens, her beloved father having all but abandoned his family, living a private hell of sexual molestation at the hands of her mother’s live-in boyfriend, Tara’s trials begin early in childhood, setting her up for a cycle of men who would use and betray her. Her girlhood experiences are fraught with “so much mixed emotions and loss of love for self. All because of the evil lies your molester tells you.” It is those lies that can take decades to overcome: “Your self-esteem is so low, and you hold onto it as your body grows. And the only real growth is when your mind catches up and slays the dragon.”

Regardless, she soldiers on, falls in love with the wrong men, has children by some of them, eventually marrying and then fleeing that marriage for a new life in North Carolina, only to take her husband back with disastrous results. Every step she takes to raise herself and her children above their circumstances — new jobs, studying for college degrees — is devalued by a controlling, selfish man who feels neglected by other priorities on her time and attention, such as putting food on the table.

THE SLIPPERY SLOPE AND WHERE IT GOES

It’s when she loses her breadwinning job and bills start to pile up that she starts down a slippery slope, trying to compensate by writing bad checks, eventually getting caught. She later divorces her husband and, at her most vulnerable, remarries to a man who turns out to be even worse. Not only is he revealed to be a smooth-talking fraudster, but also a bigamist. And it is through her relationship with him that she is conned into a real estate scheme that leaves her legally exposed to counts of grand larceny, conspiracy, thefts by deception, and more.

Tara enters the prison system, moving from Riker’s Island and Bedford Hills in NY to Salem Correctional Facility in NJ, doing time away from her beloved children. A diagnosis of breast cancer and its subsequent treatment while incarcerated only adds to the stress and misery. It is at this low point that Tara is forced to reckon with the mistakes she has made and the circumstances she has fallen into. She re-affirms her faith in God and looks to Him for guidance, discovering the strength, hope and wisdom to pull through to a new life on the other side of the prison walls.

A WORK OF INSPIRATION AND RAW ELOQUENCE

In reading this slim volume that’s part memoir, part poetry and part life advice, I am struck by Tara’s ability to swing the reader from heart-wrenchingly raw, emotional lines to evocative storytelling and up into clear-eyed insight. The effect is a visceral ride through the mind, heart and soul of a woman who has experienced the worst and the best that life has to offer. Her story serves us, as readers, on a number of levels, including these: we better understand those among us who have fallen on similar obstacles, so we can have more empathy; and we better understand our own obstacles, as small as they may be in comparison, so we more clearly see our own shortcomings and the path ahead to freedom.

The latter isn’t lost on Tara: “Every time I make it just about me, I shrink, but when I make it about being a role model and a vessel, I rise above the point where I would usually stop.” Indeed, the book gives us a new way to think about and experience our troubles, embarking on a deep and powerful discovery of meaning and opportunity for change, or as Tara puts it, reframing them as “the test in our testimony.”

I’ll leave you here with an uplifting mantra Tara quotes early on, based on a verse in Philippians 3:12-14: “We can’t change our past but we can change our future. I choose to let go of past pain and embrace the joy of my tomorrows. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.” Amen to that.

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Tara S. Merchant is a motivational speaker, author, activist, mother, daughter, wife and woman of God who loves life. Raised in South Jamaica, Queens, Merchant holds a Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts from Strayer University and a J.D. from Florida A&M University School of Law. Most of her time is spent working as an advocate for women who are and have been incarcerated, as well as with a non-profit organization that focuses on assisting homeless families with temporary housing, meals and job placement.