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!)

No comments:

Post a Comment