Friday, July 2, 2010

True Conversions No. 8: The Crying Tree by Naseem Rakha

The Crying Tree
By Naseem Rakha
353 pp. $22.95
Broadway Books: New York
ISBN: 978-0-7679-3140-3

For the most part, I’ve been consulting spiritual memoirs—actual auto/biographical references- as a point of departure for an exploration of the phenomenon of spiritual conversion and transformation. But a friend suggested this novel, so I thought: "Why not? What can we learn of this process from the perspective and experience of a work of fiction?"

September 20, 1983. Irene Stanley of Carlton, Illinos, will never forget the date she lost her only son, fifteen year-old Shep to a violent death: For the following nineteen years, she and her family (husband Nate, a police officer; daughter, Bliss) struggle to come to terms with his passing. During this same period, after a steep and prolonged plunge into deep depression and listlessness, she emerges energized and transformed interiorly. She not only makes the decision to forgive Shep’s putative killer, quondam drifter Daniel Robbins, but is willing to move heaven and earth if necessary to achieve her ends. She decides-- and against all odds-- succeeds in completing the process of reconciliation by meeting Robbins face to face on the eve of his execution in Blaine, Oregon: October 28, 2004

In between these two key dates, the reader is moved back and forth over time and across the continent, charting the separate development—character development, if you will—of Irene, Daniel, and prison superintendent Tab Mason (himself a victim of violent crime in his youth at the hands of his own brother). Shirley struggles valiantly: alternately rising, coasting, sinking, floundering, drifting in and out of a woozy despair only to emerge victorious at last— triumphant over her own hatred and desire for revenge.

What is the catalyst for Irene’s spiritual transformation? Novelist Naseem Kakha depicts a scene in which Irene finally hits bottom, deciding and attempting to take her own life. Somehow, in that botched effort, she experiences a spiritual awakening. For the reader (like this one) who is looking for the “God in the details”, the author offers rather slim pickings in terms of a thoroughgoing reflection or explanation. At this critical juncture in the character’s transformation, she becomes curiously vague and imprecise. If Irene is, finally, so certain that the execution of her son’s putative killer represents an act of revenge rather than one of justice, what are the underpinnings of her reasoning? What is the basis of this fundamental, life-changing insight? What is the source of her newfound strength and courage—and how does it sustain her in her subsequent struggles?

While we are left in the dark about the character’s motivation, it becomes quite clear to the reader what Irene does not believe in. The spiritual leader of her small, rural community, Pastor Samuel White is certainly kind enough as a person. With courage, determination and perseverance, he jumps to the ready to assist victims of a freak tornado which has ravaged the area. But despite his courage and display of apparently genuine Christian charity, he is ineffectual as a spiritual mentor. He responds to Irene’s insistent questioning and demands with pat and patronizing responses and a single, stubborn conclusion: a merciful God would certainly forgive someone like Daniel. But by the same token, a just God would not contest or impede the literal execution of this capital punishment. End of story.

Bereft of spiritual consolation, Irene seeks her own counsel. But what exactly constitutes her inner world? Who or what inhabits it? What principles—ethical, moral, philosophical, religious—guide and direct her subsequent decisions and actions? Granted the character has experienced a genuine life-changing transformation—a clear rupture with the habits of her own heart and a willingness to stand apart from the traditional values of family, friends, and community. But what directs and sustains all of this? Midwestern gumption alone does not suffice.

In the Reader’s Guide which follows this engaging narrative, the author poses two crucial questions in this regard: “Do you think it is necessary to have a belief in a God or a higher power to have made the choices Irene made? Do you think the ability to forgive can be learned?” Great questions. I just wish the author had dealt with them more directly in the story. This is a “true conversion” for sure—but what makes it “true”? //

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

True Conversions No. 7: Julia Scheeres

Jesus Land 

By Julia Scheeres 

Counterpoint, $24 
288 pages 

ISBN 1582433380

True conversions? This chilling, “coming of age” memoir by author Julia Scheeres, is more in the nature of True Confessions. Scheeres writes intensely-and graphically- about her adolescent struggles against both an abusive home situation and the strict upbringing she experienced in the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination with its roots in historic Calvinism. This book covers the period of her transition, in the early 1980’s, from the sheltered haven of a private Christian elementary school to the ‘secular’ world of public high school in quasi-redneck Lafayette, Indiana.

This is not an idealized, “Leave it to Beaver” American family. Sheeres’ father, a prominent surgeon, reportedly beats his male children on a regular basis, often on the flimsiest of excuses. Two paddles—one named “Spare the Rod”, and the other, “Spoil the Child” tell the story. Her mother spends most of her time involved in church-related work—support of foreign missionaries is her passion. She appears to be utterly indifferent to the affective needs of her children. When she does give them attention, it is usually to criticize. Her parents have adopted two African-American children to rear alongside their own biological offspring. One of the adopted children, David, is the same age as the author, and becomes her literal soul mate. The other stepbrother, Jerome, exhibits violent and self-destructive tendencies from an early age. In addition to his other behaviors, he has sexually assaulted his sister on multiple occasions.

To fill out this grim portrait of domestic dysfunction, teenagers Julia and David are shipped off to hellhole of a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic where, according to the author, they are subjected to a daily regimen of humiliating mistreatment. Only the mutual love and concern of the brother and sister make their psychic survival possible. Eventually both siblings are liberated from their banishment, but David is killed some years later in an auto accident. The author herself ends up being excommunicated by her church and shunned by her community for her unorthodox views and conduct.

This is not a tale about religious conversion; it’s a story about survival. Survival from a loveless childhood and adolescence; survival from apparently indifferent, and even violent parents. Survival from a religious community which apparently accorded these young people little, if any, acceptance, support, or affirmation.

This grim memoir straddles precariously between necessary truth telling and compulsive self-disclosure. The reader does not really need a lengthy blow by blow description of routine abuse and humiliation to get the picture. It’s pretty clear what’s going on from the get-go. What is less clear is what is happening to the young Julia Scheeres internally, spiritually, if you will. She writes about the beliefs of others, but not about her own. Although the author describes extensively the religious beliefs and attitudes of her family and church community, she reveals very little of her own worldview or spiritual beliefs. We know what she’s ‘a-gin”, but we have no clue about what she’s “fur.” At present, Scheeres half-jokingly describes herself as a “devout hedonist, agnostic, (and) secular humanist.” Not a surprising response from someone who appears to have experienced only a mean, petty, and vengeful God as a child. Exposure of deep and still-raw wounds to the light of day may be the requisite first step in her healing process. “True conversion” may well have to wait.