Quick disclaimer: I know the author, though I have done my best to be objective in my review.
Unnecessary Sorrow is an examination of the life of Paul Hight, the author’s brother. His journey to becoming a priest is decided from an early age, but with the onset of severe mental illness in his twenties, everything changes. Eventually, Paul leaves the priesthood, and might have even been forced out. His life becomes a series of ups and downs, mental health crises and stable periods. His struggle with the demons in his mind leads to a fatal encounter with several police officers. His brother, Joe, wonders at the factors that contributed to this tragedy, from how the Catholic Church handles members with mental health issues, to how these diseases were and are treated by society, to ways the police force’s training contributes to officer-involved shootings even today.
This book tackles heavy material, but Joe Hight approaches these subjects with an excellent balance of emotion and impartiality. He does not condemn one side in favor of the other, but rather merely questions why several factors came together to create a perfect storm that culminated in his brother’s death. Being a journalist, his ability to remain level-headed and to look at both sides of an issue serve as advantages. This results in a thoughtful, emotional, personal look at a family tragedy with massive ramifications for us all. I was fascinated by the history of mental health treatment in Oklahoma, about which I knew nothing previously. Joe Hight paints a sobering picture of institutions in the late 20th century with standards that seem to better befit a fictional story than reality.
The passages concerning police violence are some the most sensitive, but also perhaps most interesting, of the book. I was not entirely surprised that the statistics seem to hardly have changed since 2000, but this book is not without hope. Joe Hight makes superb observations about a well-meaning but problematic system. However, his forgiveness of the officers who killed his brother was one of the most moving moments in the entire book for me.
In the end, Unnecessary Sorrow is a thoroughly-researched, intense, compelling read. Paul Hight is shown to be a complex man who was far more than his mental illness, and the world in which he lived is shown to be troubling but not without kindness. At its core, this is a book about faith—faith in family, friends, and faith that the mechanisms of this tragedy might be changed. If you’re interested in reading a memoir/true crime/biography, give this a try.