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CRE's 2015-16 Choice, 'Picking Cotton,' Comes With Trigger Warning

By Gail Hairston

(April 27, 2015) — At seeblue. U orientations this summer, new and transferring University of Kentucky students will receive a copy of the 2015 Common Reading Experience (CRE) book, “Picking Cotton” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo.

CRE is a collaborative effort, shared by New Student and Family Programs, Student Affairs, Undergraduate Education and other campus partners, designed to introduce new students to academic life at UK. The goal is two-fold: first, to bring new students together for a common reading experience that introduces them to academic discourse prior to the start of classes; and second, to engage the entire UK community in a common intellectual experience through yearlong programming.

Students will read the CRE book this summer, ready to join a community of scholars during K Week, UK’s fall welcome week, where they will participate in small group discussions about the book with other new and upperclass students. Throughout the school year they will attend events coordinated around the book's themes, topics and issues. Authors of UK’s CRE books have traditionally visited campus, a highlight of the school year.

Visit for UK President Eli Capilouto’s introduction of “Picking Cotton” to the campus community.

The 2015-16 CRE book, a New York Times best seller, comes with a trigger warning: “Picking Cotton” is the account of a sexual assault and the conviction of an innocent man. It may be an emotional trigger for some people.  

College student Jennifer Thompson was raped at knifepoint by a man who broke into her North Carolina apartment while she slept. She was able to escape and eventually positively identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker. Cotton insisted that she was mistaken, but Thompson's positive identification was the compelling evidence that put him behind bars with a life sentence. Eleven years later, Cotton was allowed to take a newly developed DNA test that proved his innocence and identified the true rapist. Cotton was released after serving more than a decade in prison for a crime he never committed.

Two years after his release, Thompson and Cotton met ‒ and eventually forged an unlikely friendship that changed both of their lives. In spite of the fear that permeated their earlier acquaintance, their book’s clearest messages are steeped in hope, forgiveness, courage and determination.

In their own words, Thompson and Cotton unfold the harrowing details of their tragedy in the joint memoir “Picking Cotton,” challenging ideas of memory and judgment while demonstrating the profound nature of human grace and the healing power of forgiveness.

Thompson and Cotton are now advocates for judicial reform, the need to combat sexual violence, abolition of the death penalty, the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, and the healing power of forgiveness.  Together, they have lobbied state legislators to change compensation laws for the wrongly convicted, to abolish the death penalty, to revise police eyewitness line-up procedures, and for many other causes. 

“The Common Reading Experience program wants new students, parents and families, and the UK community to know ‘Picking Cotton’ will be read and utilized on campus with great sensitivity due to the issues it raises, such as sexual assault and racial dynamics,” said Anne Kelly, assistant director of New Student and Parent Programs in the Division of Student Affairs.

“The book was thoughtfully selected as these issues are at the forefront of societal discussion, and although challenging to read about and discuss, the authors also weave in the powerful themes of forgiveness, redemption and resilience.”

Anyone with questions regarding the CRE program or the 2015 book, please contact the Office of New Student and Family Programs at