Why do some people make sacrifices for others?

March 17, 1991|By Ann Egerton



Michael Lesy.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

213 pages. $18.95.

It might be a good idea to read the epilogue of "Rescues: ThLives of Heroes" before its prologue. In it, Michael Lesy, author of seven books, including the classic "Wisconsin Death Trip," examines neurological and sociological reasons for empathy and altruism. Most germane to the nine rescues described in this book, he examines the nature of heroism.

"Heroism is a conjunction of opposites," he says. It is both an act of self-sacrifice and an act of self-reclamation. "The hero rescues his own self as he rescues another. . . . Heroism is a dialectic; all the bad the hero knows about himself collides, in his conscience, with all the good he hopes to be." And interwoven with these opposites, says Mr. Lesy, is the compelling force of love.

In this study of nine people who risked their lives for others, Mr. Lesy writes gripping accounts of a wide range of rescues -- some that are supreme efforts of the moment, some that are grueling labors of lifetimes -- and the contradictory reasons that drove them.

Korean war veterans and Congressional Medal of Honor winners Ronald Rosser and Gerry Murphy are two heroes. Mr. Rosser, a radio operator, killed 90 Chinese soldiers over a period of seven months, and magically escaped injury, all to avenge the death of his younger brother who had been killed in combat. Mr. Murphy, a Marine captain, while wounded rescued a number of soldiers, after a battle in which he had refused to volunteer.

While Mr. Rosser seems to recall every detail, Mr. Murphy is oddly reticent and has trouble remembering anything more than the bare bones of his story. His derring-do and the 40-year silence that followed were perhaps propelled by guilt from his initial refusal to volunteer.

Tim Mosher and Tim Chorcoran were two men in their 20s who were going nowhere, and who each saved a person who was being stabbed. Mr. Lesy demonstrates that their heroic acts were acts of recovery and self-affirmation.

The remaining five heroes have embarked on longer campaigns. At 22, Curtis Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels, the safety patrol of racially and ethnically diverse young men who walk the streets and ride the trains, defending people from attack. The Angels, founded in 1981, have grown from 13 members in the Bronx to 5,000 in 67 cities. Always the outsider, Mr. Sliwa finally belongs to something significant and has provided a place for others, regardless of background.

Ed Roberts, a quadriplegic since he was 14 -- 35 years ago -- has become an international spokesman, advocate and political organizer for the disabled. He therefore has transformed his rage into will and his self-loathing into self-love. Hollis Watkins, a black man, left the peace of his sister's home in Los Angeles to return to Mississippi to join the voter registration drives in 1961. He has survived beatings and jail terms and today still pursues his cause. He claims to be "God's Instrument" to escape the trap of racial prejudice and to help others do the same.

Finally, Jane and Carl Smith have devoted their lives to caring for their autistic and retarded son, who in recent years also has been ill with bone cancer. Their love of, and fidelity toward, their son, now 20, have sustained them.

While Mr. Lesy is less successful demonstrating the contradictory components of heroism in the narratives of Mr. Watkins and the Smiths, and while his psychological deductions are sometimes too neat, "Rescues" is lucid and moving. He is a skilled interviewer, a shrewd observer and a vivid writer.

Ms. Egerton is a writer living in Baltimore.

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