So I’m publishing another memoir–I’ve got the preview online for curious readers–such is the magic of CreateSpace–and will have the final corrected version up in the now-foreseeable future. I’ve published a number of books now, and I think it’s safe to say that they tend to raise eyebrows, and sometimes hackles. This is funny, because if you met me in person you’d think I was so nice as to be nearly invisible–really. I went to boarding school for two years. At graduation I had classmates tell me, “I didn’t know you were in our class.” In grad school a fellow student informed me that I was “the easiest person on the world to ignore.”
It’s called “protective coloration,” and all the smartest animals understand its value. Protective coloration allows those of us who, for whatever reason, don’t have the tools or stamina to win brutal confrontations to survive by stealth. It allows us to blend, to disappear into the background, to become invisible. Sometimes we manage to evade detection long enough to discover our writers’ voices, and, like explorers returning from unknown lands, tell our stories.
Some of those stories are lulus. That protective coloration works precisely because it allows us to be overlooked, forgotten, dismissed. We become the “fly on the wall.” Because our survival depends on it, we become master observers, and while we don’t remember everything, we remember far more than those whose stories we have shared–however peripherally–like to think. And then we find our voices. It’s not that what we’re saying isn’t true–although that’s a common accusation–so much as that we tell uncomfortable stories. Writing truly can be like that. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” None of which makes our critics any less irate.
All of which brings me to my latest memoir, On Fire for the Lord, and Other Scalding Tales. I almost published it as fiction. But I didn’t. This is my story, and as Anne Lamott says, I “own it.” It’s part of what has made me who I am. To call it fiction is to betray myself, to say that what I remember isn’t true, that those who preferred to dismiss my uncomfortable memories as examples of my “weak grip on reality” and attempts to garner an unfair share of praise and/or sympathy were right. I would have probably been a happier child had I had less of a death grip on reality, and as for praise–well, this book isn’t likely to get me much of that, either. I was not a particularly admirable person. Sometimes I wasn’t even a very nice one. This book isn’t about nice, or admirable, or victimization. It’s about growing up as part of a strict Seventh-day Adventist family, in a home where there were too many secrets.
This was not an easy book to write. The stories reflect my my life as I remember it, though I’ve changed names and identifying characteristics to protect the privacy of others whose lives my story touches. The act of writing anything involves selection and pruning if the writing is to have any meaning. These stories are true–but they are not the whole truth. My siblings have stories they could tell–and I wish they would. I think we’d all understand each other better.
I hope that those who wish to understand Adventism will look further than my story, mostly because it is my story. It’s a personal experience, shaped by a unique set of influences. It doesn’t reflect the reality of every Adventist home–a fact I was recently reminded of when I participated in a group studying the effects of Adventist children’s literature in general, and Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories in general. Though all of us who participated had grown up in “good Adventist homes,” our childhood experiences differed radically. My story is not the whole story. But it’s part of it. And worth telling. And so I did, because while we were perhaps not typical, neither were we unique. And most of all, we were Examples. And we were broken. If for no other reason, that makes understanding our story worthwhile, because the things that broke us were things that we found in our family history, in our church, and in the face of God we were shown.
But I found other things there as well. I found truly lovely moments. I found a love of scholarship. In some of my teachers I found inquiring minds and a willingness to look hard at ideas. Ultimately, I found the tools I needed to make one of the biggest decisions of my life–the decision to be honest about what I believed and what I didn’t, where I found comfort and where I didn’t. The tools Adventist education gave me were the tools I used to break down the prison that Adventism had erected around me. While On Fire for the Lord is a simple book at first glance–it’s just a collection of short stories grouped around a single theme–it explores a complex situation to which there were only complex answers.