June 16, 1997 12:00 PM

by Jeanne White with Susan Dworkin

The old saw that suffering ennobles rarely does much to comfort the sufferer. But there is something comforting, as well as painful, about the experience of reading Jeanne White’s account of the much publicized illness and death from AIDS of her son Ryan—and of the strength and sense of purpose that she has gained as a legacy of Ryan’s brief life.

The book begins with an account of Jeanne’s early years as a “straight arrow” in a close-knit Indiana family; of her work on an assembly line in an electronics factory; her troubled marriage to Wayne White; the birth of her two children Ryan and Andrea; the difficult—but manageable—struggle to cope with Ryan’s hemophilia. These troubles pale in comparison to the moment when Ryan is diagnosed with AIDS, contracted from the blood products used to control his bleeding.

Much is familiar here: the media blitz, Ryan’s legal battle for the right to attend school, the bigotry and rampant homophobia to which the family was exposed. But what’s interesting is the story of how tragedy thrust an ordinary family into the maelstrom of celebrity culture (among the stars who befriended Ryan were Michael Jackson and Elton John) and emboldened a woman convinced that she wasn’t “smart enough to go to college” to address congressional committees and travel the world for the Ryan White Foundation. The woman we meet in these pages is quite unlike the girl who wanted only to “get married and have the happy homemaker life.” Her dramatic transformation might make readers believe, as Jeanne White does, that her suffering may indeed have served a higher purpose. (Avon, $22)

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