Category Archives: Nonfiction — memoir

Girl at the End of the World, by Elizabeth Esther

the-girl-at-the-end-of-the-worldElizabeth Esther grew up in an extremely conservative, narrow, closed-off fundamentalist Christian group started by her grandfather, a group whose doctrines may not have differed greatly from those of many other Protestant evangelicals, but whose methods involved extremely strict control over everything children thought, said and did. Her upbringing, as she paints it in this memoir, was clearly one of religious abuse from which she and her husband managed to break away only after marrying and starting a family of their own. The claustrophobic, controlling atmosphere of the family/church (there’s little distinction between the two, in this story) in which she was raised makes this a difficult read at times, but it’s refreshing to read such a story from someone who came out of it still holding to a strong — though very different — Christian faith. Many readers will find it surprising or ironic that Elizabeth Esther left a controlling and abusive religious organization to find wholeness and freedom in the Roman Catholic church (since that church has also been a source of spiritual abuse for many). For me, the takeaway lesson here was: most churches have pockets of darkness and negativity — after all, I experienced growing up in the Adventist church as a positive place with a great deal of freedom, but for other Adventists I know, the church and home were just as narrow and controlling as the sect Elizabeth Esther’s family belonged to. Within most faith groups there is space to find a place of peace and affirmation, but if your religious group (or sub-group) is focused on controlling behavior to the exclusion of all other values, you need to find the courage to walk out the door. Elizabeth Esther did find that courage, and her story will surely be inspiring for others who are abused in the name of God, no matter what sub-sect of what religion they belong to.

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Astonished, by Beverly Donofrio

astonishedI’ve read both of Beverly Donofrio’s previous memoirs: Riding in Cars with Boys, her story about her teenage pregnancy and early marriage, and Looking for Mary, which took her life story in a very different direction when in midlife Donofrio converted, if not exactly back to her family’s Roman Catholicism, certainly to an encompassing fascination with and love for the Virgin Mary as the female face of God. Astonished continues the story with two apparently very different experiences: Donofrio is raped in her home in Mexico at the same time as she is exploring the possibility of entering a monastery.

The book follows its author through the aftermath of these two experiences — coping with the aftermath of rape, and trying to decide whether life in a monastic community is the right path for her. Though the two events were initially separate, they become inevitably intertwined: how will hours of meditation and withdrawal from the outside world affect Donofrio’s ability to process this traumatic assault? Like everything Donofrio writes, Astonished feels raw, honest, insightful and often even funny, though the events she’s talking about are far from amusing. Her voice comes through strongly in her story and I was, as always, completely drawn in to her journey.

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Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God, by Frank Schaeffer

schaefferFirst, let’s get the terminology issue out of the way — although the title is a wonderful attention-grabber, Frank Schaeffer is not an atheist by any common definition of the word. I’d say he’s a very liberal Christian who attends an Orthodox church because he likes the liturgy, despite not believing in all the tenets of Orthodoxy. He’s certainly an agnostic in the sense that (I believe) every truly intellectually honest person is an agnostic — admitting that we cannot know for certain whether or not any god or gods exist — but on the whole, his praxis comes down on the side of tentative belief. He prays, even when he’s not sure who’s listening.

It’s worth noting that in the Afterword he thanks Samir Salmanovic, whose book It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian plays with religious descriptors in a similar way. Clearly, the two writers share the same approach: grab the reader’s attention with your title and get them thinking about what words like “atheist,” “Christian” and “belief” really mean.

I think the key to Schaeffer’s ambiguity about belief and unbelief is found in his subtitle: How to Give Love, Create Beauty and Find Peace. The book, which unfolds partly as a memoir, partly as a collection of reflections on life and spirituality, argues — insofar as it makes an argument at all — that belief or unbelief don’t matter that much. If belief in God helps you give love, create beauty, and find peace, then that’s great. If your faith works against those things — as Schaeffer would probably argue that much of the evangelical world in which he grew up did — then it’s better abandoned. Relationships, art, moments of transcendence and joy — those are the things that matter, not what church you go to or whether you go at all.

Schaeffer is by no means a theologian and this book is not a book of either theology or a-theology — it’s a collection of thoughts, stories and impressions rather than a coherent argument for a proposition. This is sometimes frustrating — for example, Schaeffer draws a very clear line between following Jesus, whom he sees as loving, forgiving and accepting, versus following the Bible, a book he condemns as being mainly harsh and vindictive. But of course this entirely elides an important question: how do we know that Jesus is loving, forgiving and accepting — indeed, how do we know anything about Jesus at all — if we reject the Bible? Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God does not exist to tackle those kinds of questions. It exists as, perhaps, a series of postcards from Frank Schaeffer’s spiritual journey. 

If, like me, you read Schaeffer’s autobiography Crazy for God and were curious to know where the author landed spiritually after his turbulent journey from the home of one of the late twentieth century’s most famous evangelical preachers, to the secular life he now lives, then this book will answer your questions. If you are struggling yourself with how to balance your belief and your unbelief, a few thoughts from someone who’s walking along the same path — but who never claims to have any of the answers — may be helpful as well.



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Jesus Feminist, by Sarah Vessey

Jesus-Feminist-Cover-copyI always feel that books with titles like “Jesus Feminist” (subtitle: “An invitation to revisit the Bible’s view of women”) are meant to be more attention-grabbing to people who, unlike me, don’t already believe that being feminist is completely congruent with being a Jesus-follower. To some extent, then, a book like this is “preaching to the choir” in the hands of a Christian feminist like me.

However, it’s great to hear a variety of voices joining the conversation, and Sarah Bessey has a lot to contribute to this discussion. I’ve categorized the book as a memoir, and it is partly that: Bessey tells about her own experience growing up in a conservative evangelical setting, marrying, and encountering various attitudes to women and women’s ministries within the different churches she was part of, all of which helped shape her own adult views of Christianity and feminism. What I particularly enjoyed, apart from her warm and frank voice, is that she writes from the perspective of  having grown up in and moved back to Canada (albeit with several formative young-adult years spent in American evangelical churches). Most of the progressive voices I hear coming from within the evangelical church tend to be American, so it’s good to hear someone from this country taking up some of these issues and sharing her experience.

Bessey goes beyond just sharing her own life story, however, to explore many issues around women’s role in the church, with time spent analyzing Biblical texts in context. One refreshing addition to what was, to me, a familiar survey of the issues, is her insistence that any exploration of the role of women in ministry must be placed firmly in the context of service, and particularly of service with our sisters in the developing world. This is an important point, although in making it Bessey passes over some troubling issues, such as the fact that many of those same developing countries where the Christian faith is growing and vibrant, and Christian women play vital roles in evangelism, are also the countries where Christians are most likely to be implacably opposed to equal recognition of women’s gifts in ministry, particularly if that involves ordaining women to the ministry. This is an uncomfortable reality that all of us Western feminist Christians need to grapple with, and I’d like to have seen it touched on here.

I would be really interested to see how this book resonates with a Christian reader who isn’t already convinced that women and men are equally “one in Christ Jesus” and in Christian ministry. Would Sarah Bessey’s experience and arguments be convincing to such a reader? I don’t know, but I did find this a worthwhile and enjoyable read.

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Time+OutLiane Shaw’s memoir grabbed my attention because it’s about teaching emotionally/behaviorally disturbed children, a job she fell into almost by accident. Before becoming the YA author she is today, Liane Shaw was a special-ed teacher, but Time Out tells the story of how she ended up teaching in a classroom with a handful of elementary-school boys who were such serious behavior problems that they couldn’t fit into any other program in the school system. There was no structured programming in that school system at that time designed to meet these kids’ needs, and Shaw had no training specific to their problems, but she found herself drafted into the job simply because there was no-one else to do it — and because she learned to care about these kids.

This memoir is reminiscent, in some ways, of the Tori Hayden and Mary MacCracken books about teaching severely disturbed kids which I used to read when I was in my late teens and early 20s. However, while this book shares the gritty reality of teaching these types of kids that books like One Child and Lovey,  there’s much more of a sense here of a teacher who is really just figuring it out as she goes along and wondering if she’s making any positive difference at all in these boys’ lives. In other words, there are no heartwarming miracles here. That’s not to say that the book won’t warm your heart — it will. But rather than a single moving story with a hopeful ending there’s a tangled ball of stories with a variety of endings and, in the saddest cases, no ending at all — because teachers sometimes lose touch with students, and never find out how things worked out for them.

I was interested in this story because although I’m not a special-ed teacher, some of the adult learners I work with are the same kids who were the unsolvable behavioral problems in elementary school. By high school, most of those kids have dropped out of the system; those who manage to get things together enough to come back to school eventually often do it through adult-ed programs like the one I teach in. So I was intrigued to get the teacher’s-eye-view of what their early lives might have been like.

A huge piece of my philosophy in working with young people is to remember that I can’t be the magical teacher who fixes everything for them and makes their lives OK. I can be one positive person, who person who helped and encouraged them, along with other helpers — often set against a large pile of people who were negative influences or discouraged them. To bring one good thing into the lives of the people I work with is my goal — and I felt in reading this book that that was what Liane Shaw learned too in working with these very challenging kids. You can’t do everything, and if you try to, you’ll make yourself crazy. But you can do something.

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April 24, 2014 · 11:39 pm

Living With a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich

wildgodThis is an interesting book by acclaimed non-fiction writer Barbara Ehrenreich, who I know best as the author of the insightful Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. This new book is something of a memoir, but it’s more reminiscent to me of David Carr’s Night of the Gun than of most memoirs (though the subject matter is very different). That is to say that instead of telling and reflecting on the story of her life as most writers do in a memoir, Ehrenreich (who seems, throughout, very uncomfortable with the idea of telling any part of her own life story) is examining her own past with the same journalistic eye she has turned on the lives of others, not so much remembering and recreating her past as putting it under the microscope.

And “under the microscope” is an apt place for her past to be, since one recurring theme in the story is young Barbara’s development into the scientist her father wanted her to be. The father-issues, and family issues in general, which are as dysfunctional as anything Jeannette Walls or similar memoirists have to offer, are sidelined here. The focus is not on how Ehrenreich’s admittedly screwed-up family made her the person she became (though inevitably, that’s part of the discussion), but on the search for truth in which she was engaged from a young age.

This “truth” took two forms: the hard scientific truth of the observable world, which Ehrenreich, raised an atheist, early embraced as her lens for understanding the world. But breaking through that worldview were a series of odd experiences she had a hard time understanding or labelling, beginning in her early teens — moments when the observable world of the senses seemed to slip away and she was left observing reality on a different level. She clearly finds it hard, even now, to describe those experiences in language that communicates well to the reader, though she does note that they were probably similar to incidents of “dissociation” as described by some people in the mental health community. Ehrenreich did not experience these as episodes of illness and did not seek help for them, but she did seek to understand them — a quest that she laid aside for many years in adulthood and then returned to in later life as she re-read her old journals and shaped her questions into this book.

The brief dissociative episodes climaxed in her late teens with a single episode that, for a person from a different background, might easily have been described as a vision, or at least a spiritual experience. It changed Ehrenreich and changed how she saw the world, yet she had no language, no framework within which to share or understand this experience. At this point in the story she acknowledges that many people have these kinds of experiences — people from a variety of backgrounds — and that one of the uses of religion is to give people a “container” within which to hold them. So an evangelical Christian might say that the Holy Spirit overcame them; a devout Catholic might come away from such a moment convinced she had been visited by the Virgin Mary; a Hindu or Buddhist might speak of achieving a moment of perfect enlightenment. But what does a smart, convinced and rather troubled young atheist do with such an experience?

Ehrenreich’s answer seemed to be, for a long time, nothing. Put it on the back shelf and get on with life. The intense and overwhelming experience was not repeated, and only much later in life, when going through her own journals, does she return to those early experiences that might be termed “spiritual” and try to puzzle out what they meant.

Believers who note the title and expect this to be a story of an atheist’s “finding God” will be disappointed. The key word in the title is not “God” but “wild.” This is, perhaps, the story of an atheist shifting her perception of reality a little to include the one belief that unites all religions: that there is something else “out there.” Something that can’t be measured using the scientific instruments and knowledge we currently have; something that we are connected to on a deeper level. But she is adamant that she cannot believe this “Other” to be in any way analogous to the God of Christianity or any other mainstream religion. If anything, what she’s reaching for in her conclusion seems to be a kind of paganism, an acknowledgement that animists are not entirely wrong when they imbue the sky and mountains and rivers with “spirit.” There is, in Ehrenreich’s view, something out there, if not someone personified as a god or goddess. Something that is deeply connected to the natural world but not observable by us in the way the natural world is observable — something that occasionally, for some people, breaks through our everyday perceptions, that some will choose to label as God or a god or the gods.

If this review sounds a little vague it’s because the book is too, sometimes, and it may frustrate those who are looking for a more traditional narrative such as you would generally find in a memoir. It’s also, as I said, frustrating for anyone who might have hoped Ehrenreich’s quest would lead her towards traditional religion. But I, reading it from the perspective of a believer listening to a nonbeliever’s narrative, found it fascinating to hear a spiritual experience described from the perspective of a person who didn’t view the world through a spiritual or religious lens. Ehrenreich’s narrative confirms my belief that this sense of “something else out there” underlies all religion — and of course, in my view, points to the reality that there really is something out there. 

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Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman

orangeisthenew When I finally got Netflix one of the first things I wanted to watch was the highly-acclaimed series Orange is the New Black, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir. About three episodes in and really enjoying the series, I decided to read the book. I was afraid reading the book might give me some spoilers for the TV series but really, they are so different that reading/watching one will have no impact on your enjoyment of the other. Orange is the New Black is an excellent and interesting memoir, and Orange is the New Black is a great TV series, but apart from superficial, surface similarities they don’t have a lot of do with each other.

The surface similarity is: both the book and the TV show that it inspired are about a middle-class, well-educated white woman named Piper who is sentenced to 15 years in a medium-security women’s prison for a drug-smuggling crime she committed ten years earlier. Piper, who is bisexual, used to be involved with a woman who ran drugs for a living and briefly got involved in crime through that relationship. Years later, when she is living a fairly typical middle-class New York life and engaged to be married to a man named Larry, Piper’s past catches up with her when her former girlfriend is arrested and charged and names Piper as having been involved in the drug-running operation. Piper pleads guilty and goes to prison for a short but eye-opening stay.

That’s the story of the book, and it’s pretty much the story of the TV series so far (although the series has been so successful I’m worried about that fifteen-month sentence; I wonder if they’re going to have Piper committing crimes in prison to get her stay extended so the series can stay on the air for ten years. I wouldn’t put it past American TV). But there the similarities end. Piper Kerman, the book’s author, shares only a first name and a few biographical details with Piper Chapman, the TV series character played so well by Taylor Schilling. The real Piper Kerman is a lot smarter and a lot more mature, and her stay in prison, while giving her a lot of insight into the lives of people different from her and into the problems inherent in the US prison system, passes fairly quietly and without a lot of drama. The other women she meets in prison are fascinating character sketches, but it’s a short book and their characters are not developed in-depth.

The TV series takes these background characters and fleshes them out wonderfully with a brilliant cast. It also adds all the drama the memoir lacks. I respect the real Piper Kerman greatly and think she’s an admirable person; she doesn’t seem like she would ever have been dumb enough or self-absorbed enough to make some of the bad decisions Piper Chapman makes on TV. But of course, it’s the results of those terrible decisions that make for compelling viewing!

One thing I liked a lot in the book that is missing from the TV series is that Piper Kerman had the opportunity, while in prison, to see the results of heroin addiction in real people’s lives, which led her for the first time to feel genuine remorse about her involvement in smuggling and selling that drug. That was an important revelation: while it’s obvious (and Kerman frequently asserts) that the “War on Drugs” in the US has been badly mismanaged and led to a lot of people serving prison sentences who probably shouldn’t be, it’s important also to have the balancing realization that a lot of these drugs are deadly and the people who help put them on the streets are genuinely hurting others. Even though a character in the TV series dies from a drug overdose, the focus of the story is on the corrupt guard who brought drugs into the prison; TV Piper never has the self-awareness to connect such horrific outcomes to her own crime.

I highly recommend both reading the book and watching the series (though the series, being made for Netflix rather than the networks, is definitely not for those who are uncomfortable with raw language and graphic scenes!!). Just remember that they are two very different works of art, each great in their own way. 

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