From Canada's Backwoods to California's Death Row

The Tumultuous Odyssey of a Blind Forensic Psychologist

Non-Fiction - Autobiography
231 Pages
Reviewed on 05/24/2024
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Viga Boland for Readers' Favorite

Something amazing happened when I decided to do a quick scan of From Canada's Backwoods to California's Death Row: The Tumultuous Odyssey of a Blind Forensic Psychologist by Shawn Adair Johnston. As I began scanning this primarily narrative book…far from my favorite style of writing…I couldn’t put it down! How did this nearly blind author manage to earn more degrees than I could count, and write six books on varying subjects before publishing this memoir, and why did he, in his chatty, often colorful voice, in more than one instance call himself a “prick”?  Casting aside the book I had been reading, my “quick scan” became an obsession: I just had to read Johnston’s memoir first. I followed his fascinating journey from a near-blind 8-year-old to becoming a top graduate of UCLA. Here was an incredibly intelligent man with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a passionate interest in people and what makes them who they are. His desire to understand why some people commit unspeakable crimes against others eventually took him from the confines of clinical psychology to the world of forensic psychology. With his expertise, the courts could better determine where perpetrators should live out their terms of confinement. Until his retirement, his last years were spent working with juveniles.

As someone who shares Johnston’s interest in people, especially sex offenders, I learned so much. Some of what Johnston shared was gut-churning and not for the squeamish. His final chapter was so enlightening about why children need to be raised in two-parent families. He pointed out how detrimental it is to young boys whose fathers have abandoned or been lost to them. Johnston even mentioned how devastating the isolation imposed by COVID-19 has been for today’s teens. By the time I got to the end of the book, the almost light-hearted, chatty voice that captivated me in my initial scan had become serious because Shawn Adair Johnston’s message was serious: our children are our future. More care, love, and attention to their needs should be humanity’s priority. Don’t let that long title scare you off reading this book: I cannot recommend it highly enough. I loved it!

K.C. Finn

From Canada's Backwoods to California's Death Row: The Tumultuous Odyssey of a Blind Forensic Psychologist is a work of non-fiction penned by author Shawn Adair Johnston in the autobiographical, psychology, and social issues genres. It is best suited to the general adult reading audience. The author narrates his remarkable journey of overcoming personal adversity to become a trusted forensic psychologist in California. In his early years, Johnston experienced a devastating loss of vision due to a rare genetic disorder, shaping his life's trajectory. Despite these challenges, he pursued a career in forensic psychology, conducting evaluations on thousands of criminal offenders, from petty thieves to serial killers. The book not only chronicles Johnston's rise to prominence but also delves into the emergence of forensic psychology in the public consciousness, discussing intriguing cases and vital research on predicting future violence.

Author Shawn Adair Johnston has crafted a thought-provoking exploration of resilience and the pursuit of justice in the face of adversity. Johnston's personal narrative of overcoming vision loss and his subsequent professional success is both inspiring and enlightening, and he writes with a raw and open style that feels like you’re getting the story directly from a dear friend. His candid discussion of complex legal and psychological issues surrounding criminal behavior offers valuable insights into the intricacies of forensic psychology, and the language used is surprisingly accessible and easy to follow despite these complex topics. While the book tackles dark subject matter, Johnston's objective and clear-eyed approach provides a refreshing perspective that is balanced and fair-minded. His commitment to intellectual honesty and the pursuit of understanding dangerous offenders shines through, making this book not only informative but also deeply impactful. Overall, From Canada's Backwoods to California's Death Row is a compelling blend of personal memoir, professional insight, and societal commentary that resonates long after the final page, and I would certainly recommend it.

Frank Mutuma

Is the law becoming too lenient on offenders, and how does psychology interact with the criminal and legal fields in the pursuit of justice? From Canada's Backwoods to California's Death Row: The Tumultuous Odyssey of a Blind Forensic Psychologist by Shawn Adair Johnston captures his life events and interactions with psychology and the legal field. Shawn was born in Canada, and at a very young age, he lost 90% of his eyesight. This greatly impacted his life. He also didn't have a good relationship with his parents. His family relocated to California, but despite the many challenges caused by his sight and emotional baggage, he is an incredible student. After getting his Ph.D. in psychology and post-doctoral studies, he becomes a reputable forensic psychologist.

From Canada's Backwoods to California's Death Row by Shawn Adair Johnston will get you thinking about various issues affecting society, such as how to deal with sex offenders and how the law can be applied effectively. This thought-provoking work got me thinking about how legislation and the judicial system interact. The fields of psychology, such as social psychology, discussed by the author triggered my curiosity, and I will definitely check out more about the application of this field in solving modern problems. Shawn was very vivid in the descriptions of his experiences, and I believe many readers will appreciate the insights provided by this work. I also found his life to be inspirational and proof that people can overcome their challenges to become whatever they want in life. I look forward to reading something else by this author.

Romuald Dzemo

From Canada's Backwoods to California's Death Row: The Tumultuous Odyssey of a Blind Forensic Psychologist by Shawn Adair Johnston is an extraordinary autobiography that offers a gripping account of the author's journey from childhood adversity to professional prominence in the field of forensic psychology. Johnston's narrative begins with a depiction of his childhood in the backwoods of Canada, where he experienced a drastic loss of vision at a young age. Despite facing social and emotional challenges due to his visual impairment, Johnston's courage shines through as he faces adolescence and embarks on a path of self-discovery. The book explores Johnston's academic pursuits, highlighting his passion for psychology and eventual career as a forensic psychologist. Through vivid storytelling, readers are immersed in Johnston's experiences as he conducts psychological evaluations on thousands of criminal offenders and faces the darkest aspects of human behavior. His arrest as a young man has a powerful impact on his growth and career.

One of the most compelling aspects of the book is Johnston's candid exploration of forensic psychology's emergence into public awareness. He provides insightful commentary on legal and psychological issues relevant to the evaluation and treatment of dangerous criminals, offering a balanced perspective on contentious topics such as predicting future violence and the efficacy of rehabilitation. Throughout the narrative, Johnston's commitment to intellectual honesty is evident as he discusses the complex elements of forensic psychology with clarity and objectivity. His discussion of therapeutic interventions and the controversial topic of surgical castration for sex offenders is particularly thought-provoking. Shawn Adair Johnston’s ability to effortlessly meld personal anecdotes with professional insights is extraordinary. From Canada's Backwoods to California's Death Row is a compelling read that offers a unique perspective on the intersection of blindness, psychology, and criminal justice. Johnston's storytelling is illuminating.

Grant Leishman

From Canada’s Backwoods to California’s Death Row: The Tumultuous Odyssey of a Blind Forensic Psychologist by Shawn Adair Johnston is a riveting memoir of a man who has overcome his difficult physical impediment to become one of the foremost forensic psychologists in California. As a boy, living in a small backwater town in Canada, the author discovered he was losing his sight at a very young age. When doctors in Canada said they could find nothing physically wrong with his eyes, they suggested the problem might be psychological rather than physical. California doctors would later diagnose the true cause of his vision loss but it was a battle for acceptance the author would continually have to fight for the rest of his life. This memoir traces his journey through schools in Canada, where he was mercilessly teased by the other children for his handicap, right through to the success and acclaim he would achieve in his chosen profession and all the difficulties along the way.

From Canada’s Backwoods to California’s Death Row is an inspiring story but it is also an incredibly relatable one. Author Shawn Adair Johnston was by no means the perfect child or the perfect student. Like all of us, he rebelled as a teenager and suffered a fair degree of failure and humiliation, not because of his sight issues but because of his poor decision-making. Yet what is inspiring is that he was able to rise above his failings and his lack of physical vision to become a leader in the world of forensic psychology in his state. I appreciated the detailed explanations of just what a forensic psychologist does and how their findings are so critical in issues such as a judge’s sentencing of criminals and a probation board’s decision on whether to release an inmate back into the community early. The use of actual cases (names changed for privacy) will give the reader a clear insight into the forensic psychologist’s thought processes and decision-making. I particularly appreciated that the author was not afraid to accept that sometimes he and other psychologists did get it wrong and they recommended the release of some who would reoffend back into the community. It is clear from the memoir that this author’s contribution and sometimes new and fresh ideas on old problems have significantly assisted in a change in the way the system and its participants view and deal with criminals. I found this book fascinating in that it educated as well as entertained me. Johnston may have written a lot of reports in his life but he also has a real talent when it comes to storytelling. I highly recommend this book.