Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hurricane Katrina: Deaths After the Hurricane

In the year after Hurricane Katrina, people died. Of course, people die all the time, but somehow these post-hurricane deaths became part of the whole trauma of Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane heightened the sadness of these deaths. In fact, these deaths loomed in our minds, certainly in mine. Here, I'd like to write about some of these post-hurricane deaths, plus two deaths that weren't exactly post-Hurricane Katrina but still seem related.

GAVIN MAHLIE. Gavin Mahlie's death affected me deeply. It still does. I didn't know Gavin personally, but he was my favorite New Orleans actor. I miss him. I had seen Gavin in many Shakespeare plays at the summer Shakespeare Festival at Tulane and in "Twelve Angry Men" at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre and in other plays. I LOVED Gavin Mahlie, as did so many New Orleanians. Gavin was a prince of the theater, a down-to-earth, humble guy, dedicated to his craft. Gavin died in April 2006 in his sleep of heart problems at age forty-one. The whole city was shocked at Gavin's death. I write of Gavin's death with tears.

BATTLE BELL. Battle Bell was a well-known Jungian psychotherapist in New Orleans. I heard him speak several times at the New Orleans C. G. Jung Society. Battle also helped one of my friends greatly. My friend was going through a difficult family situation and had a series of vivid related dreams. She turned to Battle for dream interpretation work. Whether or not you believe that dreams have messages for us (I do), what happened with my friend is that she and Battle, using the dreams, worked out healthy ways to understand and respond to the family situation, which helped my friend a great deal. My friend remembers Battle with gratitude. Battle died in June 2006 of a stroke at age sixty-one.

CHEF AUSTIN LESLIE. Chef Austin Leslie was a beloved chef of New Orleans soul food. He was the chef at Pampy's Restaurant at the time of Hurricane Katrina and was especially famous for his fried chicken. My sister Maria loved Chef Leslie and his cooking. She was devastated by his death. Chef Leslie, at age seventy-one, was rescued from his home two days after Hurricane Katrina and died about a month later in Atlanta, Georgia. The very first jazz funeral to be held in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was for Chef Leslie. I think New Orleans is still mourning for Chef Leslie.

JOE CASAMENTO. Joe Casamento was the son of the founder of Casamento's Restaurant on Magazine Street in New Orleans. Joe Casamento's father founded the restaurant in the early 1900s. Joe lived above the restaurant. Joe Casamento died at age eighty, immediately after Hurricane Katrina. In fact, I think he may have died right after or even during his evacuation. I grew up eating at Casamento's--always oyster stew or oyster loaf served on Casamento's special pan bread. Casamento's always closes for the summer, during the months without the letter "R": May, June, July, August. Once my mother, speaking in favor of the idea of having school year-round, said, "Now, really, do you know any other business that closes for the entire summer?" and my sister Janet immediately replied, "Casamento's." All New Orleans misses Joe.

MARY AND ERNEST HANSEN. Mary and Ernest Hansen operated Hansen's Sno-Bliz on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans for over fifty years. Ernest invented the ice shaving machine that makes the most wonderful thin snowball ice, and Mary created the recipes for the many flavored syrups. I certainly ate my share of Hansen's snowballs as a child and teenager. Mary and Ernest Hansen were in their nineties at the time of Hurricane Katrina. Mary died in September 2005 and Ernest in March 2006. Their grand-daughter, Ashley Hansen, now runs Hansen's Sno-Bliz. Generations of New Orleanians grew up on Hansen's snowballs, and we miss Mary and Ernest Hansen.

PAM MURPHY. Pam Murphy was an all-around creative person, brimming with innovative ideas. A major theme of Pam's life was increasing people's self-esteem. She did a weekly local television show on self-esteem, created a board game to build self-esteem, and wrote a series of lively animal tales for children. For several years, I belonged to a small writers' group that met in Pam's home. Before moving to North Carolina in April 2006, I met Pam for lunch. I emailed Pam when I got settled in North Carolina and then sent her a Christmas card in December. Upon receiving the Christmas card, Pam's husband called me to say that Pam had died during the fall of 2006. She just got sick and died, her husband said. Pam's husband attributes Pam's death directly to post-hurricane stress.

BIG CHIEF TOOTIE MONTANA. Well, Big Chief Tootie Montana actually died in June 2005, two months before Hurricane Katrina. This was so close to the hurricane, and it was such a huge loss for New Orleans, that Tootie Montana's death gets connected with Hurricane Katrina in my mind. Big Chief Tootie Montana was the Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian Tribe, and he was also recognized as a kind of Father Chief by all the Mardi Gras Indian tribes. He died quite dramatically, speaking before the New Orleans City Council at a hearing about the way New Orleans police had interfered with and disrespected the Mardi Gras Indians during their St. Joseph's night march. I mean, Big Chief Tootie Montana actually fell to the floor in the middle of his speech. He had died of a heart attack. He was eighty-two. We all miss Big Chief Tootie Montana.

RUTHIE THE DUCK LADY. Okay, Ruthie the Duck Lady died well past Hurricane Katrina, actually at the time of Hurricane Gustav in 2008, but I want to include her anyway. Ruthie lived for years in the French Quarter, roller skating around, followed by her ducks. Everyone in New Orleans who ever went to the French Quarter knew Ruthie, or at least recognized her. At the time of Hurricane Gustav in 2008, Ruthie was living in a nursing home in New Orleans. My brother Michael lived in the same nursing home as Ruthie from 2003 to 2005 because of a stroke, and whenever I visited Michael, I also spoke with Ruthie. She'd be sitting on a couch in the lounge, surrounded by stuffed-animal ducks. Ruthie evacuated to Baton Rouge for Hurricane Gustav with the other residents of her nursing home, but she was ill and the evacuation was hard on her. She died in September 2008 in a Baton Rouge hospital at age seventy-four. I imagine her in heaven, reunited with all the ducks she loved over the years.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hurricane Katrina: Why Didn't They Evacuate?

Why didn't they evacuate? A Category 5 hurricane? Massive? Heading straight for New Orleans? Why didn't they leave?

Many were too poor. They had no money. No credit card. No transportation. Nowhere to go. And they couldn't envision going outside the city. Such a thing was not part of their experience or their mental landscape. For their entire lives, their world was restricted to the neighborhood circumscribed by work, home, church, school. A trip across town was a rare adventure, maybe to see a doctor at Charity Hospital when the need arose. A trip to the state capital, Baton Rouge, seventy-five miles northwest of New Orleans, was unheard of--maybe like traveling to a foreign country.

This is hard to imagine for those of us who think nothing of hopping in a car and driving across the state or hopping on a plane and flying across the country. We are privileged. Many New Orleanians were not and had neither the means to enact nor the vision to imagine an evacuation. These were the ones who crowded into the Superdome and the Convention Center; who spent days in the stifling heat with no electricity and no plumbing, and in the case of the Convention Center, with no food and no water; who saw their infants and their grandparents die of exposure and dehydration right there on the sidewalk; who were finally, finally, after days of waiting, bussed out and taken to Texas or Arkansas or Georgia or Florida--or to Connecticut or Wisconsin or Minnesota or Utah--truly foreign territory with all the accompanying culture shock and disconnection.

But those with means--why didn't they evacuate? Many were elderly. They lived independently and got along well. They could manage their lives easily in their own homes, their own neighborhoods--where they knew all the folks, knew where everything was, had their routines. They knew they had slowed down with age, were no match for the young ones. But at home they didn't have to be. On evacuation, though--that was a different matter. Even if they went with family. Where would they be? How would they get their needs met? How would they know where anything was? Home had a strong sense of psychological safety that evacuation most decidedly did not. Besides, old timers had weathered many a hurricane at home. Home felt safe. These were the ones who died, trapped in their attics--of heat and dehydration--when the waters rose to the eaves.

But those who were younger. Why didn't they evacuate? Many were caring for ill, disabled, or elderly relatives at home. The logistics of evacuating with a person who may be bed-ridden, who may be incontinent, who may have dementia, who may have constant medical and physical needs that can be managed at home--but not on the road, not in bumper-to-bumper traffic inching along the interstate for hours on end, not in a strange motel or evacuation shelter in a distant city or town. No, the logistics of evacuating like that were overwhelming. Better to prepare the house well and stay at home. Among those were some who watched their ill or disabled or elderly relative drown, who simply could not maneuver their loved one up the stairs to the second floor or attic before the waters engulfed the first floor, who were left with a water-logged body to bury when the waters receded.

And others--why didn't they evacuate? Many stayed to care for their animals. One could evacuate with a small dog or a cat. But it's amazing how many people have several animals or large animals or unusual animals--like Jan with her brood of hens in the backyard, or Jim with his huge pig, or Lainey with her three dogs and five cats.

Lainey stayed with her animals, and although she lived in the crescent of land near the Mississippi River that didn't flood, she found in the days after the hurricane that conditions in New Orleans were such that she could not provide for those three dogs and five cats. So she loaded them into her station wagon and drove to her parents' home in Nebraska. She must have had to drive straight through. Where on earth could she stop for the night with three dogs and five cats?

I also think of Mary, rescued by boat from her roof and forced to leave her two elderly but still active dogs behind. Seeing a policeman she knew, Mary begged him to go and shoot her dogs, who would die quickly that way and not miss her and wonder why she didn't come and slowly starve to death in the flooded city. The policeman assured Mary that he would. Mary hopes that he did.

Many didn't evacuate for fear of looters--a very legitimate fear. Many of these actually believed in evacuation. The mother and children evacuated while the father stayed to guard the house, perhaps with a teenage son.

And then there were those who simply didn't believe that the hurricane would hit New Orleans--or if it did, that they could hunker down and be just fine when it passed. They were used to hurricanes headed toward New Orleans that always turned at the last minute and hit somewhere else. They may even have lived through Hurricane Betsy, which did hit New Orleans in 1965--and they stayed in the city then and did just fine. So they weren't going anywhere for Hurricane Katrina. And you know what? They were right. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it was a Category 3 hurricane. Much of New Orleans was actually okay after Hurricane Katrina passed through. It was the breaches in the levees--levees that were supposed to withstand a Category 3 hurricane--that flooded the city, after the hurricane had passed. It was not the hurricane itself.

Hurricane Katrina: Refrigerators

Refrigerators were a huge problem in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. When I evacuated to Chattanooga, I removed the food from my refrigerator, unplugged it, and propped the refrigerator door open. This seemed like common sense to me, but I know of only one other person who did this.

Most folks evacuated and left their refrigerators with all the food inside. What happened, of course, is that the electricity went out and stayed out. Food sat for weeks in stifling heat in the refrigerators of New Orleans--and molded and mildewed and rotted and stank.

Many people--the smart ones--simply didn't open that refrigerator. They sealed it with duct tape and put it on the curb for pick-up. Others did open their refrigerator--and immediately shut it, sealed it with duct tape, and put it on the curb. Then there were those who removed all the moldy stinking mess and scrubbed their refrigerator--and scrubbed it and scrubbed it and scrubbed it and scrubbed it and scrubbed it. And then scrubbed it some more--in vain. It was the rare person who managed to eliminate the stench. Most of those scrubbed refrigerators were completely unusable--the smell would not come out.

As a result, neighborhood streets were lined with refrigerators waiting for pick-up. Decorated refrigerators. New Orleans became a gallery of refrigerator art. Refrigerators with funny faces, monster faces, weepy faces.

Refrigerators with graffiti.

  • Katrina stew
  • Free gumbo
  • Help yourself to gravy

Angry refrigerators.

  • Katrina, I hate you
  • FEMA sucks
  • Go to hell, George W.

Sometimes we drove out of our way to look at particular refrigerators. I'd be driving somewhere with a friend, and one of us would say, "Hey, let's drive by that shark-face refrigerator on Pine Street--with the wide jaws and jagged teeth," or "Let's check out that refrigerator by Audubon Park--the one that's completely covered with political commentary."

My favorite refrigerator said, "Only a fool would open this--I was that fool."

You were supposed to put your refrigerator in front of your own house for pick-up. But some people didn't. Some people put their refrigerators in front of other people's houses or on street corners. These rogue refrigerators attracted others. In fact, it was amazing how refrigerators would congregate on a street corner. One day you'd see an odd refrigerator on the corner, and the next morning there'd be five more. They cropped up like mushrooms after rain.

Eventually--though it took months--all those refrigerators were removed from the neighborhood curbs. They went to Pontchartrain Boulevard--with all the other Hurricane Katrina trash and debris and ruined furniture. Pontchartrain Boulevard has a huge wide neutral ground, or median. The neutral ground is like a park, it's that wide. The Pontchartrain Boulevard neutral ground served as a colossal dumping ground after Hurricane Katrina--a looming pyre, over eight feet high, stretching from Veterans Boulevard to Lake Pontchartrain. Miles of towering trash on a park-wide strip of neutral ground.

But all that trash is gone now. Where? Where did it--and all those refrigerators--go?

Hurricane Katrina: Flooded Homes

The New Orleans to which I returned six weeks after Hurricane Katrina was not the New Orleans I had left.

I was fortunate, though, to live in the unflooded crescent of the city near the Mississippi River (the sliver on the river), so I returned to a relatively unscathed home--my second-floor apartment in an old New Orleans house on Napoleon Avenue. Each of our six apartment units had been broken into by the National Guard, and our front door had been spray-painted in code with their findings. Every house in the city carried these markings, which--if you knew how to decipher the code--indicated the name of the National Guard unit, the date of entry, the number of survivors found, and the number of dead bodies. Some houses carried actual spray-painted words: "1 white Manx cat taken to Winn-Dixie," or even "1 dead body."

Driving was hazardous and circuitous. Traffic lights didn't function and STOP signs were down, so we had to treat intersections as four-way stops. Flat tires were a constant threat because of glass in the streets. We could never count on driving a straight route from here to there, as we'd find the streets blocked by piles of debris or by work crews clearing it away. At night, we drove through a checker-board of lighted and darkened neighborhoods, depending on where electricity had and had not been restored. Twice, in a darkened area at night, I almost drove into a deep pond of stagnant water still sitting in an underpass--and stopped just in time.

Flies and fleas were everywhere--you couldn't get rid of them.

Damaged roofs were covered by blue tarps provided by FEMA. From the air, New Orleans became a sea of blue. But the tarp that covered my apartment behaved more like a sieve than a temporary roof. Until we got our permanent roof in March 2006, whenever it rained, water streamed into my living room, and I had to collect it in five buckets and empty those buckets frequently.

But all this was minor. Beyond the unflooded crescent where I lived, conditions deteriorated quickly. Every home beyond the crescent was encircled with a brown water-ring showing how high the waters had risen. The farther from the Mississippi River, the higher the water-ring. Out near Lake Pontchartrain, those water-rings were above the eaves.

What hurt me most was entering the flooded homes of friends. The home was distorted beyond recognition. Furniture had floated about the house and landed wherever it had floated to when the waters receded. The kitchen table, upside-down in the living room. An armchair, tilted on its side in the bathtub. It was as though a giant had picked up the house, shaken it, and plopped it down with all the contents scattered. The furniture and walls and floor were water-logged, buckled, and moldy. The stench was nauseating.

I learned that my love for my friends extends to their homes. To see a beloved home so horribly distorted shocked me. It was like seeing the mutilated face of a loved one after an injury. My shock, though, was small compared to the shock of the friend whose home it was. Like Yvonne.

I spent hours with Yvonne, a pianist, sorting through wet page after wet page of sheet music--her first pieces from childhood recitals, hand-written pieces she had composed, pieces she had played and loved and carefully annotated. We painstakingly separated the sheets and set them out to dry, salvaging most of the music. But Yvonne's baby grand piano--her musical companion of thirty years--was ruined.

One bright spot in the bleakness of sorting through Yvonne's soaked belongings came from her pantry. Canned food on the higher shelves was in fine condition, but Yvonne would be moving on to Missouri.

"Karen, could you use this food?"

"Sure! I know just how! I'll invite the Party Pals for dinner. We'll call it Yvonne's Pantry Party!"

The Party Pals are ten new Orleanians who celebrate our friendship through parties. And Yvonne's Pantry Party was a success! I prepared a meal with the pantry contents, and we telephoned Yvonne in the midst of the festivities to thank her.

Hurricane Katrina: Where Are My Loved Ones?

Monday, August 29, brings disturbing news. Hurricane Katrina has passed, but New Orleans is filling with water. Marcella and I watch the unfolding nightmare through the lens of the TV news reporters.

  • Desperate people on rooftops awaiting rescue
  • Loyal people refusing rescue if their cat or dog will be left behind
  • Maverick boat people ferrying the stranded from flooded homes to helicopter pick-up
  • Angry people shooting at the rescuers
  • Weary people trudging out of the city
  • Uniformed people forcing the weary back at gunpoint
  • Dedicated people keeping patients alive in sweltering hospital hallways
  • Critically ill people on blankets at the airport awaiting airlift
  • Crowded people on overpasses with no food, water, shelter, or toilets
  • Dead people in flooded beds, in lonely attics, on exposed sidewalks

A searing question burns in every evacuee's mind: What has happened to my loved ones who stayed in the city?

My brother Michael is one of those, though not by choice. In 2001, at age forty-nine, Michael suffered a severe stroke that left him physically and mentally impaired. Before Hurricane Katrina, he lived in a New Orleans nursing home with a prompt evacuation plan. But Michael did not evacuate with his nursing home. He suffered a seizure four days before the hurricane, was rushed to Touro Hospital, and was still hospitalized when Hurricane Katrina struck.

From Chattanooga, I telephone the staff of Michael's nursing home, evacuated to Baton Rouge with their residents. Naturally, they have no idea where Touro Hospital sent Michael. I check Touro Hospital's website and find a list of all the hospitals in the country where Touro patients have been sent. I call every one of them--even those with names like Women's and Children's Hospital. None has Michael. I list Michael as a missing patient and make my peace with the thought that death--should that be the case--will release my brother from his broken mind and body.

Meanwhile, my sister Maria, who has finally reached safety in Atlanta, asks a knowledgeable friend to conduct an Internet search for Michael. Three weeks later, Michael surfaces--at a nursing home in Houston.

The folks in Houston are delighted when I call. Michael arrived with exactly one piece of information--his name. The nursing home staff doesn't know whether his mental difficulties are caused by stroke, head injury, or psychosis. They are grateful for the details I can provide of Michael's medical history.

In October, my brother Danny and I, both newly returned to New Orleans, drive to Houston to see Michael. We have a favorable impression of the nursing home and Michael's adjustment. Until we can make other arrangements, Michael will stay in Houston. (As of August 2009, he's still there.)

P.S. Michael died in Houston on Wednesday, December 9, 2009. May he soar freely and joyfully in the world of spirit.

Hurricane Katrina: Evacuation

Saturday, August 27, 2005. I have been home barely two weeks from an intense and exhausting summer of course work for a Ph.D. in English Composition at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I still feel tired. Today is Saturday, and classes begin on Monday at the Loyola Intensive English Program, where I teach English to speakers of other languages. It's a great teaching position and I enjoy my work, but this year I don't quite feel ready for classes to start.

In any case, I'm enjoying my Saturday afternoon, when the phone rings. It's Valarie, Director of the Loyola Intensive English Program.

"Karen, what are you doing for the hurricane? Are you evacuating?"

"What hurricane?"

"Hurricane Katrina."

"Hurricane Katrina? That was a Category 1 hurricane that hit Florida earlier this week."

"Yes, that's what it was, but now it's in the Gulf of Mexico, it's pushing Category 5, it's huge, and we're directly in its path. They want everyone to evacuate. You'd better turn on the TV."

I thank Valarie, hang up, and turn on the television. I haven't watched the news for the last couple of days, which is a real mistake in New Orleans in August and September, the height of the hurricane season. The TV news more than confirms what Valarie said. The message is unequivocal and frightening: "New Orleans is directly in the path of a massive Category 5 hurricane--GET OUT OF THE CITY NOW!" In my fifty-five years in New Orleans, I have never heard such a direct and urgent call for evacuation.

I telephone friends and family members to consult. Some will evacuate, others will stay. I try to persuade my sister Maria to come with me. "No, no," Maria says, "I'll be fine."

I telephone Marcella in Chattanooga to enact our Hurricane Evacuation Plan, arranged seven years earlier, after Hurricane Georges.

"Come!" Marcella says.

I devote the rest of the day to covering the furniture with plastic, criss-crossing the windows with masking tape, and packing what I'll need for about a week, including books I want to have with me, my journal, and of course my stuffed animals, Amy Karen Rabbit and Robert Bear, and my stuffed doll, Ashley Rainbow.

I wake early the next morning, unplug all the electrical appliances, remove the food from the refrigerator to take with me, prop the refrigerator door open, hop in my car, and drive off.

I need to get to the north side of Lake Pontchartrain, but I have enough sense not to get on the I-10 or on the Causeway, the twenty-four-mile bridge across Lake Pontchartrain. At a time like this, when everyone is driving across Lake Pontchartrain, the thing to do is to go around it. I take Napoleon Avenue to South Broad Street to North Broad Street to Gentilly Boulevard to Chef Menteur Highway, and then I'm on US 90, which takes me around Lake Pontchartrain and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I am one of the last people to see the fishing and crabbing camps and boats along Lake Pontchartrain, and the Gulf Coast homes and beach shacks and casinos before they are blown away.

At about 7 a.m., Donna Glee calls me from North Carolina on my cell phone as I'm entering Mississippi on US 90. Concerned, she asks how I am. I tell her I'm on my way to Marcella's, just entering Mississippi.

"It must be quite a challenge with the traffic," Donna Glee empathizes.

"Actually, no," I reply. "I'm avoiding the interstates. I'm on US 90, and I have the road practically to myself."

"Really?" says Donna Glee. "I'm going to call Lee and Harvey and some other folks to let them know US 90 is clear."

Donna Glee loves to collect helpful information and pass it on to people. It energizes her, and It's very helpful to other folks, too.

I know how to get out of New Orleans on the back roads and into Mississippi, but once on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I don't know the back roads at all. So I consult my Mississippi road map. I choose a route that takes me north and east through Mississippi and Alabama, all on back roads. I enjoy my drive through the country towns, all alone on those back roads. Where is everybody? Aren't people evacuating? Are they all crowded onto the interstates and the Causeway? Why inch along on the interstates and overheat your car, to say nothing of overheating your temper, when there's a whole network of back roads?

Once I get into Alabama, I decide I can probably connect with the interstate at Tuscaloosa. I figure I'm now far enough north and east to avoid the evacuation traffic. I'm right. There's no more traffic on the intestate at Tuscaloosa and beyond, than you would expect on a normal Sunday.

I decide to stop at a Cracker Barrel near Tuscaloosa for lunch. I select one of the entrees--I forget which--and give my order.

"And which sides would you like with that?" asks the friendly server.

I had forgotten about this--at Cracker Barrel the meals come with a choice of two or three sides to be selected from a long list. I look at the list of sides and suddenly feel overwhelmed. Choosing from among all those side dishes just seems exhausting.

"A surprise," I say. "I'd like the sides to be a surprise."

Apparently, this is a surprise to the server, who isn't accustomed to people ordering surprises with their meals.

"Well, uh, do you think you'd like the peas, the carrots, and the mashed potatoes?" the server asks.

Having been told what I'll be getting, it won't be a surprise, but at least I don't have to put forth the effort of choosing.

"Yes," I say, "those sound great." And they are!

Then, back in the car, and straight on through to Chattanooga and Marcella's. I arrive at twilight--warmly welcomed by Marcella and her dogs, Sam and Lucky.

After a short visit with Marcella and a glance at the news, I am ready for bed in Marcella's extra bedroom. But first, I call my sister Maria, still in New Orleans. She's fine, she says--all prepared for the hurricane in her second-floor Mid-City apartment. Her friend Malik is with her, and the people downstairs are staying, too. Maria isn't concerned--everything will be fine.

"Well, that's not what they're saying on the news," I tell her. "You still have time to leave--I think."

"No, I'm fine," Maria insists.

That is the last thing I hear Maria say for a week. In the end, she is fine--but only after a harrowing escape from a flooded and dangerous city.

Back at Marcella's, I fall safely asleep as the first bands of wind and rain begin to batter New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina: Preliminary--The Year Before

September 14, 2004. Hurricane Ivan. A massive hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, headed toward New Orleans. Nash Roberts is no longer there to see us through this hurricane. He has finally retired from coming out of retirement every hurricane season. We no longer have a weatherman who communicates with the soul of the hurricane. We have meteorologist Carl Arredondo and his Super Doppler Radar and his computer models. We'll have to depend on him.

A voluntary evacuation is called for in New Orleans--and this time--for the first time ever--I prepare to evacuate. But they're saying that Hurricane Ivan will be strong and will move north and east once it hits land. They're advising people to go north and west. This time I won't go to Marcella's in Chattanooga.

The Loyola Intensive English Program, where I teach English to speakers of other languages, is in full swing. All of our international students live either in the Loyola dormitories or with relatives in New Orleans--they'll have their own hurricane plans. All, that is, except our Taiwanese student Flora, who lives in an apartment on St. Charles Avenue and has no family in New Orleans. I ask Flora about her hurricane plan--she doesn't have any. I offer to take her with me on my as yet undetermined evacuation route. Flora agrees.

At home I prepare my apartment--books in boxes in the closet, furniture moved away from windows and covered in plastic, large masking tape criss-crosses to strengthen the windows, all electrical appliances unplugged, food removed from refrigerator and refrigerator door propped open. I'm able to secure a reservation at a Best Western motel in northern Arkansas--in the town of Russelville. I pack what I think I'll need in case I'm away for a week, as well as things I consider important--like my stuffed animals Robert Bear and Amy Karen Rabbit and my stuffed doll Ashley Rainbow.

Early the next morning, I pick up Flora and we head north out of the city. It's a long twelve- or thirteen-hour drive to Russelville, Arkansas. I feel exhausted long before we get there and am revived with neck and shoulder massages by Flora. We have to keep going--there is nowhere to stop along the way--all hotels and motels are full. We make it and go straight to bed--sharing a two-bed motel room. I take Robert Bear, Amy Karen Rabbit, and Ashley Rainbow to bed with me--I'm not sure what Flora thinks of that.

I had told Flora that this would be an evacuation, not a vacation, and that she should bring books to read or study, as I am doing. I am working on my Qualifying Portfolio for Ph.D. candidacy in English Composition at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and I plan to use the time in Arkansas to work on this project.

BUT. I open my map the next morning, just to get a better grasp of where we are. And that's when I realize WHERE WE ARE. We are in gorgeous country--the Ozarks. This had not dawned on me when I made the reservation--I had just been trying to put distance between myself and New Orleans.

Russelville? Northern Arkansas? Okay. Sounds good. We'll take it.

Now, however, I am astounded at where we've landed. "Flora," I say, "we're in a gorgeous part of the country! We can't stay inside and study our books! We have to explore!" This sounds great to Flora. So we do.

We drive through miles of beautiful mountain country. We tour a cave--just the guide, Flora, and me. The cave is dimly lit with electric lights, but the guide turns them out so we can experience the utter blackness of the cave. We also stand on a ledge in a wonderful echo chamber and try out shouts and calls and hear them bounce back to us over and over and over and over.

We eat at Lambert's Restaurant, Home of the Throwed Rolls. When hot rolls come out of the oven, Lambert's servers stand in the middle of the restaurant and call out, "Hot rolls!" If you wave, they toss you one. Your meal also comes with unlimited sides. More servers circulate constantly around the tables, each with a tub of a different side dish, ready to scoop you as much as you want as many times as you want--fried okra, stewed tomatoes, green peas, cooked carrots, turnip greens, creamed onions, hash browns.

We visit the College of the Ozarks, where students pay no tuition but work in student-run businesses, such as the campus restaurant, the campus hotel, and the campus craft shop

And we go to the Dolly Parton Dixie Stampede Show in Branson, Missouri. The Dolly Parton Dixie Stampede Show, which takes place in a large arena surrounded by bleachers, depicts the history of the West. Buffalo come out and stampede around the arena, then cowboys riding horses and clowns riding ostriches. A story line accompanies all of this, with a picnic in the center of the arena at the climax, at which time we in the bleachers are also served a dinner of foods that have to be eaten by hand--fried chicken, a small roasted potato, corn on the cob, an apple turn-over--to the accompaniment of this song:

Ain't got no forks, ain't got no spoons.
Just use your hands--like ole raccoons!

Flora is appalled at the idea of eating with her hands--apparently this isn't done in Taiwan, where chopsticks are the norm. But she does it.

After two days, with New Orleans out of danger, we head back home--another long, hot, tiring drive. Flora, normally a quiet student, becomes quite chatty--telling me about her family, her plans for further study in the United States, her resistance to her parents' desire for her to marry.

Once we get to southern Louisiana, I realize that we'll be going through the tiny town of Manchac, home of Middendorf's Restaurant. People drive out by the hundreds from New Orleans to eat at Middendorf's--it's in the middle of nowhere, but there is always a long line waiting to eat there on weekends. Middendorf's is a seafood place, especially famous for their thin fried catfish. How wonderful to stop and have some with a tall glass of iced tea. I propose this to Flora, who readily agrees. My mental picture of those thin fried catfish and that tall cold iced tea is vivid and my anticipation high. But what am I thinking? When we get to Manchac and drive up to Middendorf's Restaurant, we are greeted by a CLOSED sign. Of course they are closed--they, too, have evacuated for Hurricane ivan--which makes sense as they're right on the sore of Lake Maurepas. What a disappointment, though! Nothing to do but continue on to New Orleans.

New Orleans has been spared--again. But not Alabama, which got the worst of the hurricane--and not the states in Hurricane Ivan's path, including North Carolina, as the hurricane blasted well up into the northeast, then barreled back down the Atlantic Ocean, re-entered the Gulf of Mexico, and slammed into western Louisiana before finally blowing itself out over Texas.

But New Orleans was not hit. I have only to unpack and re-shelve my books, uncover and arrange the furniture, plug in the electrical appliances, re-stock the refrigerator, and remove the masking tape criss-crosses from the windows.

I had a marvelous time on my first evacuation. Now it's back to business as usual in New Orleans. We don't know that we are now into the last year that New Orleans will experience business as usual.

Hurricane Katrina: Preliminary--Early Hurricanes

The idea of evacuating for a hurricane never occurred to my family as I was growing up in New Orleans. We rode out hurricanes at home. We stocked up on non-perishables, water, flashlights, and battery-powered radios; strengthened our windows with cross-crosses of masking tape; stashed garbage cans and other potential flying missiles in the garage--and glued our eyes to beloved weatherman Nash Roberts on WWL-TV Channel 4.

Nash Roberts plotted the course of the hurricane with whiteboard and black marker--a heavy black line for the path the storm had already traveled, a broken black line for Nash's predictions of where it would go next. No Super Doppler Radar. No computer models. Nash communicated with the soul of the hurricane. Nash would see us through.


September 9, 1965. Hurricane Betsy. I am fifteen years old--tenth grade at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Night falls. We six kids are tucked in bed, parents keeping watch in a well-prepared house. My eleven-year-old sister, Sandra, is already asleep in the bed next to mine, our black and tan Doberman Pinscher, Little Bits of Rust, asleep under the sheets with her as usual. I doze, off and on, through the night. Howling wind. Heavy rain pounding the windows. In the middle of the night, a prolonged C-R-A-S-H.

We wake in the morning to a house intact and a city in disarray. Downed trees and traffic lights and power lines. No electricity, though we do have water and gas. We are advised to stay indoors, so we do. When we finally emerge to explore, we discover the source of the prolonged midnight crash. The entire steeple of our Catholic parish church, Our Lady of Good Counsel, is strewn in bits and pieces across Louisiana Avenue. The steeple has never been replaced. Our Lady of Good Counsel remains steeple-less to this day.

Gradually, repairs are made, debris cleared, electric power restored, and normal life resumed. Our house is practically untouched--some shingles on the roof need to be replaced, and my father sees to it. We in Uptown New Orleans are up and functioning in no time.

Not so the people of St. Bernard, the low-lying parish bordering New Orleans on the east. St. Bernard has experienced cataclysmic flooding--houses have floated away, people and animals have drowned, families have lost everything. For St. Bernard, Hurricane Betsy is an early Hurricane Katrina. The difference is that after Hurricane Betsy the rest of Greater New Orleans circles round and helps. After Hurricane Katrina, there is no one to do the circling.


September 25, 1998. Hurricane Georges. A dangerous hurricane roiling about the Gulf of Mexico, threatening New Orleans.

I am forty-eight years old, living in a small second-floor apartment on Napoleon Avenue. I turn on the TV news. By this time, Nash Roberts has retired, but well into his eighties, Nash comes out of retirement every hurricane season whenever New Orleans is threatened. I watch Nash on TV, plotting the course of the massive Hurricane Georges. The Mayor calls for a voluntary evacuation, but I pay this no mind. I know what to do--prepare my apartment and listen to Nash--and eveything will be fine. I check my hurricane supplies, criss-cross the windows with masking tape, bring garbage cans and yard furniture inside, sit down to watch Nash--and realize that I'm scared. I don't want to spend the hurricane alone.

So I call the Italian family down the street: Gloria, the family matriarch; her two married daughters and their husbands; her grandchildren; her poodle, Pookie.

"Come on down!" the Italian family says. "We've got food, flashlights, radios, and board games. It'll be a hurricane party!"

And it is! We eat, play Scrabble and checkers, chat, listen to Nash, sleep, and wake up to find that New Orleans has been spared.


On the news that evening, I see what has happened to the states next door. Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida have not been spared. I watch the scenes of flooding and destruction and have a brand new thought: A few miles difference, and that could have been New Orleans. Hurricanes are getting bigger, more frequent, more ferocious. I NEED A HURRICANE EVACUATION PLAN.

I call my friend Marcella in Chattanooga. "Marcella, would you be my Hurricane Evacuation Plan?"

"Sure!" replies Marcella.

Frank Schaeffer: Further Thoughts on Finding Common Ground

In my last post, I wrote about the book
How Free People Move Mountains: A Male Christian Conservative and a Female Jewish Liberal on a Quest for Common Purpose and Meaning by Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer. I expressed my admiration for the way Kathy and Frank provide a lived demonstration of how two very different people find common ground from which to plan and act to solve our country's problems. In this post, I will discuss thoughts and questions that the book raises for me. These thoughts are a bit random and sometimes spring from tangential points in the book.

SELF-EXPRESSION. This term as used by Kathy and Frank puzzled me a lot at first. Kathy and Frank say that our consumer society is based on our perceived right to self-expression. And when they say this, it's clear that they don't consider self-expression to be a good thing. What on earth? I thought. How is self-expression wrong? I thought self-expression was a good thing. And in fact, elsewhere in the book, Kathy and Frank do use this term in a positive sense, as when Kathy tells Frank that he expresses himself well and when Frank talks about the way art so deeply expresses human emotion. So what's up? I wondered. What IS self-expression?

After reading the book three times, I think I understand.

  • Negative sense: To express ourselves through the stuff we choose to consume or own.
  • Positive sense: To express ourselves through the way we choose to act. Our moral choices express who we are. What we choose to create does, too.
VOLUNTEERING. Frank and Kathy say that volunteering is a measure of happiness. People who volunteer feel more fulfilled and happy. The key is serving a purpose larger than oneself. On page 124, Kathy says, "People who are engaged have demonstrably more social skills, which make it possible for them to build and sustain communities and hence the larger society." In Chapter 13, Frank talks about his late father-in-law, Stan, a fulfilled and happy person who contributed much to society through the many stimulating organizations he belonged to.

Here's what I would say. People with good social skills and an extraverted disposition will find fulfillment and happiness in volunteering. An extravert is energized by being around other people. It's a different story for an introvert. Being around people causes an introvert to spend energy. The introvert replenishes energy through solitude. If an introvert is interacting with people all day at work and then volunteers in the evenings and on weekends, this introvert will not feel fulfilled and happy. In fact, the introvert will likely feel worse because the introvert may wonder, What's wrong with me that I'm feeling depleted when I volunteer while everyone else seems to be fulfilled and happy? Even if the introvert volunteers just one evening a week, the introvert may come to dread that evening.

Though Kathy and Frank seem to emphasize extravert types of engagement, they do recognize that there are many ways of volunteering and serving, some of which don't involve so much people interaction. If I have to meet and greet people or go around trying to make people feel comfortable or welcome, I can guarantee you that I won't feel fulfilled and happy--I'll feel uncomfortable and inadequate. But if I can help someone revise or edit a piece of writing or learn the basics of computer use or understand the weirdities of New Orleans, then I do feel fulfilled and happy. So I guess Kathy and Frank are right.

MITZVAH. This is a wonderful Jewish concept described by Kathy on pages 123-125. Mitzvah is a good deed. The good deed is itself a blessing and a connection to God and to any other person it may involve. I do see this. A good deed certainly puts more good into the world, it raises the energy level of the planet and of the local environment in a positive way, and it makes the world a better place. People doing mitzvah will transform their environment, whether a family or a neighborhood or a workplace.

ART. Frank has a wonderful passage on art on pages 110-115. His language soars as he tells of the utter importance of art for all humankind.

EDUCATION. Kathy and Frank talk about the importance of educating our children in ways that develop their moral character, their creativity, and their joy in beauty. Frank says that our consumer society has resulted in an educational emphasis on producing good consumers who simply need the basics of readin', writin', and 'rithmetic. This is why we base our educational system on standardized testing, letting practice time for these very basic standardized tests crowd out the soul nourishment of art, music, dance, and the deeper study of language, history, science, and mathematics. Yes, consumerism taken to its extreme leads to education based on standardized testing.

SWITZERLAND. I'm a little puzzled about what Kathy and Frank say about Switzerland in How Free People Move Mountains. It's very different from what Frank says about Switzerland in his memoir, Crazy For God. In Crazy For God, Frank indicates that people in Europe (and Frank must be including Switzerland here because that's where he lived) have a fatalistic attitude, believing that nothing they do can change the way the governmental bureaucracy operates, while in the United States, people will get together and take action to change laws and policies. But in How Free People Move Mountains, Kathy and Frank say that Switzerland is a model of democratic involvement on the part of the citizens, while people in the United States feel that their government has become too unwieldy for the citizens to affect it. This puzzles me.

WIN-WIN. In speaking of the need for families to stay together and to sacrifice for each other, Frank says on pages 187-188, "Yes, that means we'll miss out on some things. Not everything is win-win. Some things are right, period." Here is what I would say. I think it's very important in families for everything to be win-win. What's the alternative? There are three: win-lose, lose-win, and lose-lose. So here are the four possibilities. I've written them as though between two people.

  • Win-Lose: I win and you lose. I get my way, and you don't get yours. I win at your expense, and you feel it.
  • Lose-Win: I lose and you win. You get your way, and I don't get mine. You win at my expense, and I feel it.
  • Lose-Lose: We both lose. The chosen solution makes neither of us happy. We are both disgruntled.
  • Win-Win: Your happiness is as important to me as is mine, and you feel the same way about me. I am committed to finding a solution that you and I both feel good about, and you are also so committed. I won't feel happy about a solution that favors me at your expense, and you feel this way about me. The key is that I deeply want you to be a winner just as much as I want to be a winner, and you deeply want me to be a winner just as much as you want yourself to be a winner. With that commitment, I believe that two individuals or whole families can always find Win-Win solutions.
OVERALL. I love this book (as I do all Frank's books) because, while enjoying the book, I also receive important insights.

Frank Schaeffer: The Process of Finding Common Ground

I have recently read
How Free People Move Mountains: A Male Christian Conservative and a Female Jewish Liberal on a Quest for Common Purpose and Meaning by Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer. Kathy and Frank look at what we have made of ourselves in the United States--a consumer society where our individual rights to consume and own are paramount and where we isolate ourselves into cliques of like-minded people who shun contact with opposing views. As a result, we have a society for which we fail to take responsibility, one where we let things happen. What is happening is that we are destroying our environment so as to get things to consume and that we find ourselves unable or unwilling to establish common ground from which to address this problem together.

How Free People Move Mountains takes the form of a conversation between Kathy and Frank, two individuals of very different background, religious faith, political persuasion, and world view. The genius of the book is that the conversation between Kathy and Frank constitutes a lived demonstration of how two very different people reach common ground, principles on which they can agree and from which they can plan and take action. Kathy and Frank show us the process of getting to common ground. It involves expressing their thoughts, listening carefully to the other, meeting the other half-way, recognizing areas of difference and searching for areas of agreement.

I read a review of How Free People Move Mountains on Goodreads by Elissa, who says, "Also, it was taking WAY too long to come to the point, which is that we all need to work together, regardless of our opinions, to get this country where it needs to be. While I agree with the point, I dislike the authors' way of getting there." This reviewer thinks she knows the point of the book, but in fact she has entirely missed it. The point is not "that we all need to work together, regardless of our opinions, to get this country where it needs to be." The point is to DEMONSTRATE how this is done. Sure, Kathy and Frank could have told us what we need to do in two or three chapters. But instead they show us HOW to do it by letting us watch them go through the process themselves. In watching them, we see that reaching common ground is not short or quick or linear. It takes time, it takes listening, it takes thought. And the process at times spirals back on itself; in other words, Kathy and Frank find themselves covering the same territory again but at a deeper level.

Thank you, Kathy and Frank, for being willing to put yourselves in a fishbowl and let us hear you disagree, share your thoughts and feelings, sometimes work through hurt feelings, but always hang in there with each other to search for and find common ground.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Frank Schaeffer: Engaging the Mind through the Heart

Frank Schaeffer is a masterful storyteller. His Calvin Becker Trilogy recounts the adventures of Calvin Dort Becker, the son of Evangelical Christian missionaries in Switzerland, between the ages of ten and fifteen. The Calvin Becker Trilogy consists of these novels.

  • Portofino, about the Becker family's annual summer vacation in Portofino, Italy
  • Zermatt, about the Becker family's annual winter vacation in Zermatt, Switzerland
  • Saving Grandma, about the Becker family's experience when the outspoken, profane Grandmother Becker comes to live with them in Switzerland
I believe that Frank's message in the Calvin Becker Trilogy is the same as his message in his memoir, Crazy For God: there is a particular brand of fundamentalist Christianity which, when carried to its extreme, will drive you crazy. We see this craziness unfold through the eyes of the life-loving and adventure-seeking young Calvin Becker. And Frank's wonderful storytelling takes us to such emotional depths that we experience the craziness not only with our minds but also with our hearts. I'll try to explain how this works for me.

HUMOR. The Calvin Becker Trilogy is funny--and I mean laughing-out-loud-for-minutes-and-minutes funny. The stories are constantly funny. What's funny? Calvin's theological misunderstandings are funny. Church splits over miniscule points of doctrine are funny. Grandmother Becker's profane outbursts are funny. Elsa Becker's extensive talks about sex with her children are funny. Puberty and sex are very, very funny. Obviously, my list isn't the least bit funny--but Frank's stories are! Sometimes as I'm going about my day in what I hope is a relatively sane manner, a Calvin Becker story will flash into my mind and I'll start laughing out loud!

BEAUTY. Frank weaves many passages of absolute beauty into the Calvin Becker Trilogy. I think of Frank's wonderful descriptions in Portofino of the town's aromas and of the sensuous meals the Becker family ate there. I also think of Calvin's memories and fantasies in Saving Grandma about his best friend, Jennifer from England, whom he sees only during his family's annual Portofino vacation. While taking care of Grandmother Becker back in Switzerland during the year, Calvin remembers and fantasizes about Jennifer: the time Jennifer's bathing suit strap slipped as she pushed off from the bottom of Portofino Bay, giving Calvin a view of her breasts; Calvin's fantasy of diving with Jennifer into the deep waters of an isolated cove and their struggle to regain footing on land; Calvin's fantasy of having sex with Jennifer for the first time. These are exquisite.

HORROR. Frank includes a few truly horrifying stories. One of the most horrifying is the beating Calvin receives from his father, Ralph Becker, for drinking alcohol at a yacht party. Frank's description of this incident causes me to gasp in horror. (I realize that I keep repeating the word, "horror," but this is truly the most fitting word here.)

THE WHOLE. The whole of the humor, the beauty, and the horror--told so masterfully by Frank and therefore experienced so deeply by me--affects me profoundly. The laughing out loud is enjoyable and opens me to "get" the point of the story. The beauty, too, has an opening effect. Then, somehow, the fact that I've laughed so heartily at Calvin's antics makes the horror all the more horrifying. I believe that I feel the horror more deeply because I've gone so far in the direction of laughing. I experience how funny this extreme version of Christianity can be and how horrifying. And the beauty Frank creates draws me in yet further. I find myself thoroughly enjoying the Calvin Becker Trilogy, experiencing a full emotional range, and receiving insight after insight about life and faith as a result of the way Frank engages my mind through my heart.

Thank you, Frank.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Frank Schaeffer's Memoir: Self-Disclosure

I am sometimes amazed at the level of self-disclosure in memoirs. These authors courageously tell us about things they've done that people are usually reticent if not ashamed to talk about, things they deeply regret, things that could cause readers to judge them harshly. In Crazy For God, for example, Frank Schaeffer tells us about his sexual experiences as an adolescent, about shoplifting porkchops at a low ebb in his life, and about staying in Evangelical Christian work long beyond the point when it had ceased to be meaningful for him simply because it paid the bills. But Frank's most amazing and painful self-disclosure--painful for him to remember as well as painful for us to read--is that as a young father he sometimes yelled at and slapped his daughter and pulled her hair in anger.

How does Frank--how does any author--find the courage to tell the world about his or her regrets, wrongdoings, and shames by publishing these things for the world to read in a memoir?

Frank says that he is able to separate himself as an actual person from himself as a character in the story he's telling, each story chosen for its potential to keep the reader turning the page. But I don't think this is why Frank tells us about his treatment of his daughter in his memoir. Here's why.

  • First, the information about Frank's treatment of his daughter is not needed to make Crazy For God a page-turner. Crazy For God is a fine page-turner without this information. Some readers may even find this information a turn-off.
  • Second, Frank doesn't seem to separate himself very effectively from the Frank character in the memoir when he discusses his treatment of his daughter. Instead, every time Frank mentions this behavior toward his daughter, one feels that Frank is touching a deep well of pain.
  • Third, you can bet that readers of Crazy For God will most definitely not separate Frank the character in the memoir from Frank the actual person. When one reads in Crazy For God, "I did this," or "I did that," one knows that "I" is Frank Schaeffer the actual person who did those things.

Frank also says that in Crazy For God he was following principles of fairness and from-the-front leadership. This I do see, and I believe that these are deeply held principles for Frank. In fairness, Frank turns his sharp lens on himself as well as on others in his memoir. He examines his own faults as closely as he examines anyone else's. And like a Marine Corps Drill Instructor, Frank leads from the front. He goes first. He opens his life to tough examination--very tough. He is tougher on no one than he is on himself.

I believe that this deep honesty is also a quality that Frank observed in his father, Francis Schaeffer, who Frank says was always his own toughest critic. It seems that Francis Schaeffer was open about his faults and struggles within his family, but it's also clear from Crazy For God that Francis Schaeffer's episodes of anger and depression were family secrets, never to be mentioned outside the family. Frank takes the honesty he saw in his father to a very public level, telling the world about his own episodes of anger toward his daughter in Crazy For God.

Finally, I believe that authors find the courage to make difficult self-disclosures because these self-disclosures are intrinsic to the highly important message these authors want to convey. This message often involves bringing to light what has been hidden and giving voice to those who have been silenced.

I think, for example, of Nancy Venable Raine's After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back. Nancy was raped--at age thirty-nine, while standing at her kitchen sink, by a stranger who broke into her home and attacked her from behind. Like many rape survivors, Nancy was silenced:

  • by the shame that attaches to the woman raped, perhaps even more than to the rapist
  • by the fact that people recoil from stories of rape
  • by the distressing and isolating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder
  • by the body's way of isolating traumatic memories in an area of the brain that doesn't deal in language or time sequence, making it hard to talk about the rape and to integrate it into one's languaged and chronological life story
Nancy's healing took years and was greatly facilitated by working with a psychotherapist who specializes in cases of rape. Nancy chose to complete her healing by giving public voice to her own experience, which mirrors that of other silenced rape survivors, in a published memoir. Indeed, After Silence will get you as close to understanding what it's like to survive rape as it's possible to get without the actual lived experience. I believe that Nancy's deeply held purpose of healing and giving voice to rape survivors provided her the courage to talk about "shameful" things regarding her rape as well as about her episodes of displaced anger in the years following.

Frank Schaeffer's overriding purpose in Crazy For God seems to be to give an honest account of his life journey, especially with regard to the aspects of his life mentioned in his memoir's subtitle: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. Having been such an outspoken proponent of the religious right and having moved away from that absolutist stance to a far more nuanced religious and political position, Frank wants to explain his evolution--from his upbringing within the Evangelical Christian ministry of L'Abri, through his years of leadership in the religious right, to his embrace of the Greek Orthodox Church and of his passions for writing and painting.

In Crazy for God, Frank recounts his personal evolution with deep honesty. Honesty requires that he shine light on the hidden and speak that which has been kept silent. Accordingly, he shines light on the unspoken family secrets with which he was raised: his father's anger toward and even physical abuse of his mother, his father's heavy depression, his mother's excessive interest in the sexual development of her children. He courageously turns that same light full upon himself, revealing his own anger and its physical expression toward his daughter. He continues to shine that light on his current doubts and struggles: the times he questions God's existence, his own bouts of depression, his tendency to impatience.

I would say that the best memoirs do deep soul work. In disclosing difficult things about his family and himself, Frank Schaeffer is probably advancing his own healing as well as the soul work of the family soul to which he belongs. Francis Schaeffer, Frank's father, did important soul work in the area of honesty within the privacy of his personal and family life; Frank carries this soul work further, into the public arena, through his memoir.

To summarize, I believe that all these things can provide courage for a memoir writer in disclosing painful things about him- or herself. I list them in order of ascending importance.

  • Desire for good story material
  • Ability to separate oneself as a character in the memoir from oneself as an actual person
  • Principles of fairness and from-the-front leadership--shining the same light of honesty upon oneself as upon anyone else in one's memoir, and going first under the light of examination
  • The deeply held purpose of healing soul work, often connected with shining light on the hidden and giving voice to the silenced
I myself have an unfinished memoir, parts of which cause me great pain. These parts involve sexual shame as well as times when I've been intensely selfish, self-centered, or even cruel. I cannot imagine publishing my memoir as a book for the world to read. I've allowed only one very close friend to read my unfinished memoir, and even that much self-disclosure was difficult. However, it helps me to consider the healing soul work that a memoir can accomplish.

Certainly, even an unshared memoir can be deeply healing for an individual, as mine has been for me--I've had the courage to tell my story to myself. Limited sharing of a memoir with close friends goes a step further--I've let someone beyond myself hear my story. Full-fledged publication says that I'm ready to tell my story to the world. (Which I'm not!)