Beating the Odds

Lenderman Black photo

By Catherine Hsu

Alexis Lenderman-Black (ΦΒΚ, Western Michigan University) and her husband Justin Black collaboratively published Redefining Normal: How Two Foster Kids Beat The Odds and Discovered Healing, Happiness, and Love, the true story of how they found each other and grew together to break the generational cycle of trauma.

Lenderman and Black had both lived in the foster care system and for years had mentors, family, and friends tell them they should write a book. After about 200 unsuccessful job applications during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, they decided it was the perfect opportunity to finally do so. Their first book was released in November 2020.

Originally, they thought the book would be about healthy relationships, something they had limited examples of in their younger years.          

“It wasn’t until we started writing that we realized that in order to even look at relationships, we had to understand what informed our understanding of ‘normal,’ ‘love,‘ ‘healthy,’’’ Lenderman explained. “We realized that everyone has their own definitions of normal based on their family, community, and society; therefore, it is unique for each individual.”

For Lenderman and Black, “normal” had consisted of many toxic behaviors, and they knew, writing the book, that they had to be intentional about learning healthier habits.

Broken down into four sections, Redefining Normal begins with Lenderman and Black’s alternating perspectives. Lenderman’s chapters tell the story of her mother’s death, her father’s imprisonment, and her experience escaping an abusive relationship; Black’s chapters discuss how he was sent to foster care after growing up in the poorest area of Detroit.

“It brought up a lot of trauma and memories that made it difficult to process,” Lenderman said, adding that they read aloud each other’s first drafts to help with empathy. “To say we cried a lot together when we did this exercise was an understatement.”

Redefining Normal continues by telling the story of how Black and Lenderman met each other in college, with Lenderman as a junior and Black as a freshman, and how the two conquered their obstacles and found solace in each other.

The book, a collaborative effort between the two authors, culminated in their individual stories coming together in the final section.

According to Lenderman, the final section “Agreement” shows how they had to go through individual journeys of healing and self-discovery to come together to form a healthy union. To Lenderman, this was an act of taking individual accountability for their healing and happiness.

With Black’s writing ability and Lenderman’s ability to see the bigger picture and provide creative design guidance, the collaboration was also a way for them to grow closer prior to their marriage. Lenderman added that it was important for them to trust each other’s judgements, validate each other, and be gentle and kind.

Lenderman and Black also have several companion guides to Redefining Normal coming out. The first was published in August 2021, the Redefining Normal Companion Guide.

“We wanted to offer a product that would allow readers to take the lessons and principles, and make them relevant for their own lives and experiences — essentially going through the journey of redefining normal themselves,” Lenderman said.

The couple will also be releasing another workbook later this year, targeted towards individuals of faith and how they can support themselves and others who have experienced trauma.

Redefining Normal has since sold over 7,300 copies and won 11 book awards.

“We are challenging others to continue the conversation on healthy relationships, mental health, and healing,” Lenderman said. “We challenge individuals to reflect on the development of their identity while unraveling their barriers and insecurities . . . This concept is intended to encourage growth and prosperity on the individual and community level, both personally and professionally.”

Now, Lenderman and Black are in the process of releasing a Spanish-translation of Redefining Normal later this March. The pair is also working on several other projects, including a children’s book series and a graphic novel.

Lenderman graduated magna cum laude from Western Michigan University in spring 2019, where she became a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

“I was incredibly humbled and honored to be a part of the ΦBK community as it is the most prestigious honor society in the country,” Lenderman said. “I had the privilege of being inducted at the same time as my university president, which was truly inspirational.”

Catherine Hsu is a recent graduate of the University of California,Berkeley where she majored in political science and art practice. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa there in May 2021. UC Berkeley is home to the Alpha of California chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.