Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Writing Studies, Class of 2011
Laronnda Thompson was a baby like any other. As an infant, she began to notice her world, responding to stimuli as babies do. Lying on her back at three months old, she tried to put her foot in her mouth – something many parents have seen their babies attempt. But what happened next set her apart from most people.
Thompson’s playful move caused her right femur to break. Alarmed, her parents took her to the hospital, and the family’s nightmare began.
“Under normal circumstances, babies shouldn’t break their bones,” says Thompson. “My parents and grandmother were investigated for child abuse.”
In a cast for six weeks, Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services (DHS) monitored her family and closed the case. Nobody knows how, but immediately after the cast’s removal, her leg broke again, one centimeter above the previous fracture.
DHS reopened the case. This time, the sex crimes unit got involved. “They kept telling my mother that ‘someone in the household is hurting your baby,’” Thompson says. In the midst of these horrors, a hospital resident noticed that the whites of her eyes had a bluish tinge, her chest was barreled, her chin was pointy, and in x-rays, her skull looked translucent, like an ice cube.
Thompson was diagnosed with osteogenisis imperfecta (OI) or brittle bone disease, a genetic disorder affecting the body’s ability to make strong bones. OI has many types with varying degrees of severity, but essentially, a defect in the gene that produces collagen causes bones to break easily.
Her parents received a letter of apology, but with the relief of being exonerated came the knowledge that Thompson faced a lifetime of challenges. By age 12, she had weathered 35 fractures, rounds of genetic testing, numerous hospital stays, countless doctor visits and ongoing occupational and physical therapy.
Thompson’s parents never coddled her. “I wasn’t afforded any luxuries,” she says, laughing, “which was a good thing. I was expected to do chores, and I’ve worked part-time at non-profits for six years. If my mother and father had said ‘poor you,’ I would have achieved nothing.”
Despite her parents’ early concerns, Thompson, who uses a motorized wheelchair, found a way not only to thrive, but also to shine. Throughout childhood, she wrote poems and stories, and at Central High School, her English teacher suggested she enter citywide writing competitions, some of which she won. Introduced to fantasy writers J.K. Rowling and Orson Scott Card, Thompson discovered a genre suited to her rich imagination. She wrote many fantasy stories, but put them away to attend Temple University as a journalism major.
At Temple, Thompson became disenchanted with journalism, but knew writing would figure in her life. After graduating, she entered SJU’s graduate Writing Studies program. “I never took myself seriously as a fiction writer until I came to St. Joe’s,” she says.
In a short story class taught by Tom Coyne, M.F.A., visiting assistant professor of English, Thompson revised a fantasy/science fiction piece that she had started in high school. “When we met to discuss it, I realized that with Laronnda's fertile imagination, the story could go way beyond the short form – quite literally, it could be volumes,” says Coyne, who is her Master of Arts thesis director.
The Story of the Prince: Honora’s Volume, is the epic’s first installment.Honora Reverie, the 17-year-old protagonist, is a member of a new race of people with a genetic mutation giving them the ability to heal from catastrophic injuries and illnesses, causing jealousies and power struggles with Homo sapiens. A prologue explaining how the superhuman “Homo-validus” race evolved constitutes her thesis.
“I’m impressed with Laronnda’s work,” Coyne says. “She’s created new worlds and invented elements of a new language. The story comes from a deeply imagined place, and Laronnda is great with detail, so this ‘fantastic’ story seems real.”
Though OI places her in a statistical minority, she lives in the mainstream, using her natural inclination to observe life to enrich her writing. While some readers see OI reflected in the narrative – actually, its opposite – this wasn’t planned, at least consciously. Thompson says her work is rooted in a desire to explore human nature, especially in the context of how those who are different are treated.
Setting the goal that her novel will be finished by Commencement, she hopes that one day, success will make her a philanthropist. Until then, she wants to teach creative writing, a skill she developed as a teaching assistant at SJU. When this bright young woman with the indomitable spirit and big imagination starts planning, it’s easy to imagine her dreams coming true.