Sara Riesman Staggs
Book Talk typography

Forced to Shift

Uncontrollable by Sara Staggs novel book cover
Photos: Addie Mannan; courtesy of Black Rose Writing
What happens when the life that you plan to live isn’t the life that you can live? Sara Reisman Staggs ’02 has experienced that reality. When she was forced to step away from her successful law practice, she felt lost and uncertain. By channeling her thoughts and fears into her writing, she uncovered a new career path.

Debuting in May 2023, Staggs’ first novel, Uncontrollable, draws upon her journey from civil litigator to published writer — an unexpected transition resulting from her living with epilepsy. She describes the book as being in the “own voices” movement: a term coined to identify when a story’s protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity.

“Epilepsy is so underrepresented in the media and literature and also very dangerously misrepresented whenever it is talked about,” says Staggs. “Yet it’s the fourth most common neurological condition in the United States. This book gives an accurate view, through fiction, and brings epilepsy into the light.”

Staggs has managed the disorder for most of her life. After successfully completing degrees in political science and Spanish at Bucknell, she went to law school and established a law practice in Portland, Ore. But during her second pregnancy in 2014, her seizures became more frequent and concerning. “All my doctors said, ‘You have to stop litigating. It’s too stressful, and it’s not good for the baby,’ ” she says. “Eventually I stopped practicing.”

Staggs delivered a healthy baby, but the seizures worsened. In 2017, she underwent rigorous testing and surgery to remove the area of her brain thought to cause her seizures. In 2020, doctors performed a second surgery to implant a responsive neurostimulation device, which senses and stops neural changes in the brain before a seizure occurs.

Uncontrollable evolved from the journals she kept during that time. “I started writing as a way to get all the trauma out of my head,” she says.

The story follows Casey, a 36-year-old civil litigator and mother of two. Like many working parents her age, Casey is balancing career pressures with the complexities of family life — all of which is further complicated by her epilepsy. As her seizures increase in intensity, Casey is faced with the choice to continue litigating or prioritize her health.

“The characters’ backstories and their personal and professional journeys are fictional,” Staggs says. “But the majority of the medical scenes — pretty much any interaction with a doctor — are based on things I experienced.”

At its core, Uncontrollable is a story about navigating unexpected transitions, the choices that come at those crossroads and the power we both surrender and take back. “Everyone has these visions for what their life will be. But then you find yourself at a T,” she says. “This is a book with a big theme that I hope a lot of people can relate to. It’s a book about transitions in life, especially unexpected ones.”

Uncontrollable: A Novel, Sara Staggs ’02, Black Rose Writing, 2023.

Alumni Books

Donald Green ’61
Jefferson Davis’s New York City: The Romance Between New York and the South (Palmetto Publishing, 2022)
In his new book, Green details connections between New York City and the South — two regions that are considered culturally and politically distinct. “It seems New York City wasn’t the liberal bastion that it is today,” Green says. One example: “The city made so much money from the cotton trade that it voted against Lincoln in the elections of 1860 and 1864.” Green conducted extensive research, tracing back to the pre-Civil War era, to better understand the history of his native New York. While he draws parallels between the two regions, Green says he hopes the book also tells a story of change.

Theodore Burnes ’00
Essential Clinical Care for Sex Workers: A Sex-Positive Handbook for Mental-Health Practitioners (North Atlantic Books, 2023)
Burnes, a psychologist and professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, is a “sex-positive therapist” who aims to break down what mental- health providers need to know to work with sex workers. He and co-author Jamila Dawson wrote the book as a guide to help clinicians uncover their own biases and create safe spaces for clients.

Sydney Johnson Dunlap ’91
It Happened on Saturday (Jolly Fish Press, 2023)
In 2015, Dunlap left her 18-year career as an elementary school teacher to fight human trafficking. She joined Traffick911, a Dallas-based nonprofit, and led a team that took a trafficking awareness and prevention program into juvenile detention centers. Dunlap’s interactions with young victims inspired It Happened on Saturday, which tells the story of a fictionalized 12-year-old girl who is lured after a seemingly innocent online exchange. “After witnessing the devastating impact of trafficking on its young victims, I decided to write a novel to help children learn about the risks so they can make careful decisions and stay safe, especially when they go online,” Dunlap says. The novel, which is written for a middle-school audience, includes a Q&A and discussion guide to facilitate conversations.