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Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope


Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope

In April 2006, a horrific highway accident took the lives of four Taylor University students and a staff member, leaving another student presumed to be Laura Van Ryn comatose and in critical condition. Five weeks later, the family keeping vigil with Laura came to a startling realization --- the daughter they had watched gradually recover from her injuries was not their own. In MISTAKEN IDENTITY, the two families of the misidentified girls tell their heart-wrenching story and talk about how they kept their faith through tragic circumstances.

It’s a poignant narrative. The book opens five weeks after the Cerak family has held a funeral for 18-year-old Whitney when her mother receives a call in the middle of the night telling her that Whitney is alive. The chapters that follow return to the day of the crash, the responses of the friends and families, and the subsequent discovery of the mistake in identification. The narration alternates from the vantage point of the Van Ryn and Cerak families, each describing the events as they unfold.

The actual story itself is relatively short, but padded with various devices to make the narrative longer. Journal entries, recreated conversations, excerpts from a blog kept by the Van Ryn family (and later added to by the Ceraks), favorite Bible verses, and a photo section of the girls, their families and scenes from the Taylor University campus and accident site amplify the text and personalize the tragedy.

The family’s Christian faith intentionally comes through loud and clear, as does their desire that the faith that sustained them through the accident --- and later, the shocking realization of the mix-up --- be an inspiration and comfort to others who read their story.

The prologue, written by both families, notes that: “It is a horrible thing to lose a child. Yet even in the midst of the worst of tragedies, God reveals Himself. These are not just words we use to keep our spirits up during difficult days. We have experienced this revelation for ourselves. Above all things, this is the message we hope to convey. This is a story about God’s grace and His love for us that transcends the worst this world can dish out.”

One of the most moving sections of the book comes toward the closing pages, when Whitney shares her difficulty returning to Taylor University after her initial rehabilitation. There, she is the subject of fascinated attention, while at the same time struggling with a brain injury that has left her with a different personality and temporary limited academic ability.

Writes Whitney: “I used to be a lot more outgoing and I joked about everything, but my brain injury affected my personality. Now I keep a lot more to myself. Before the accident, I could whip out jokes and make quick, funny comments in any situation…. Coming to grips with being a different person was probably the hardest thing I struggled with. I knew my cognitive abilities would improve, and they have…. My personality, however, is still different than it was before the accident, and it’s not going to go back. I know people wondered what had happened to the old Whitney, and I wondered that myself.”

What helps her, Whitney says, is a comment her sister Carly made. When Whitney told her she “missed the old Whitney,” Carly answered, “Yeah, I miss the old Whitney too. But I love the new Whitney.” In this, more than any other place in the book, we get a glimpse of the authentic grieving for what is now gone, but the hope for what can come out of the accident.

If there is anything missing in the narrative, it is an acknowledgment of the authentic place of anger and frustration in these terrible circumstances; these emotions are largely absent in the book. Nonetheless, readers who like a faith-packed, inspirational story based on real-life events should find MISTAKEN IDENTITY a soul-stirring read.

Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on March 25, 2008

Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope
Don Van Ryn, Susie Van Ryn, Newell Cerak, Colleen Cerak and Whitney Cerak, with Mark Tabb

  • Publication Date: March 25, 2008
  • Genres: Christian
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Howard Books
  • ISBN-10: 1416567356
  • ISBN-13: 9781416567356