I recently read two smartly-written memoirs that traced their author’s search for spiritual truths. Despite the fact that the two authors grew up in different religions, their paths were remarkably similar to each other. And as it happens, their journeys were remarkably similar to my own.
A Mormon, Mennonite and a Jew. When we reached our teen years, we began to view our parents’ religion more as a bond that connected families than a source of Truth. For answers to the deeper questions of human existence, all three switched allegiance, and viewed school as a place of worship.
But as we attempted to become adults, we ran into problems. While books could feed our intellect, our souls were starving. Eventually we couldn’t tolerate the pain. Something had to give. And so, each one of us was led to love and spirituality. The parallels and differences in our journeys provide three very different examples of how to find a relationship with a loving God, feeling guided by rules without feeling diminished by them.
Martha Beck’s first memoir Expecting Adam leads readers on the author’s escape from Utah, the home of the Mormon church to Harvard grad school, arguably the Vatican of the Enlightenment.
After she becomes pregnant, she learns her fetus has the genetic code for Down’s Syndrome. Her Harvard colleagues assume the only smart choice is to terminate the pregnancy, leading her to a crisis at the intersection of love and science. She chooses love. But even though she is ready to reject Harvard, she is not yet willing to give up on her religion.
Martha Beck’s second memoir, Leaving the Saints takes place in Utah, where she returned to reclaim her faith and community. Over time she comes to believe that inclusion into her religious community demands intellectual dishonesty. After much soul searching she abandons her religion, turning instead to a belief in spirituality.
Martha Beck’s two memoirs synergize, each adding depth and wonder to the other. And yet each is a good read on its own.
In Rhoda Janzen’s first memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, a New York Times bestseller, she moves from her intellectually stimulating life in California to her laid back hometown in Michigan. Instead of hating her Midwestern town, she seems grateful for its simplicity. It turns out that even for a smart PhD, there is plenty of food for thought among the common people. The simple premise of “Returning Home,” (or Nostoi as they call it in Greek) drives this lovely story of self re-discovery.
In her second memoir Mennonite Meets Mr. Right, Janzen falls in love with a religious guy, not a restrained and proper Mennonite but a Pentecostal, the most intelligent but least intellectual guy she ever expected to love. She goes to church with him where she finds parishioners celebrating a joyous personal relationship with God. The book brilliantly teases apart the paradoxes between intellect, spirituality and religion.
Rhoda Janzen’s two memoirs, like Martha Beck’s, are each beautiful in their own right, and even better together. I listened to the audio versions, narrated by the author. With Janzen’s quirky, expressive voice and inventive use of language, she hosted one of my all-time favorite book listening experiences.
The third of this trio is my own memoir Thinking My Way to the End of the World, about my journey to the edge of sanity to find a belief system. In my teens, I lost interest in my Jewish upbringing. Growing into my intellectual birthright as a well-educated citizen of the Enlightenment, I thought that humans were completely crazy to have invented such an annoying unprovable concept as God. As far as I was concerned, calculus and physics were sufficient to solve all my problems.
During that crucial time in my life, when I should have been preparing for adulthood, I felt increasingly empty and confused. Maintaining absolute adherence to scientific thinking, I desperately searched for a belief system. Without one, I thought my mind would implode. When the pain became too great to bear, my intellectual rigidity burst and I discovered that the only way to stay sane was to allow in a spiritual dimension.
Memoirs enable us to describe introspective danger and redemption
In later years, when I looked back at my search for truth, I wondered how I would ever be able to describe my terrifying journey. But without any coherent language to explain my internal struggle, I could barely make sense of it myself.
In the early 21st century, what at first looked like a modest, inconsequential shift in book-buying tastes turned into what I call the Memoir Revolution. In this new wave, writing classes offer instruction and bestseller lists provide social context to help anyone turn disjointed memories into a story. That social permission to repackage my life into a story ushered me into a rewarding creative project, and plugged me into one of the most upbeat cultural movements of our time.
To immerse myself in the “Revolution,” I read hundreds of memoirs. From each one, I learned that it is possible to tell the story of one’s deepest hopes and fears.
Among my growing library of human experience, I began to notice other authors who also struggled to find authentic beliefs. For example, Dani Shapiro searched among wisdom traditions in Devotion. Deborah Feldman broke free from the micromanagement and misogyny of her Hasidic sect in Unorthodox. Nuns escaped the suffocating religiosity of their orders in order to find themselves, in The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong and An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson. And two mothers whose loss of a baby almost drove them crazy until they found spirituality: Lorraine Ash in Life Touches Life and Sukey Forbes in Angel in my Pocket.
These and other hints of spirituality showed me that memoirs are allowing us to expose our inner worlds.
My understanding of the power of this literary medium jumped up a notch when I discovered the two fabulous stories by Martha Beck and Rhoda Janzen. Like me, they devoted their precious life energy to find an authentic faith. I finally accepted I had found a real memoir subgenre, in which the search for a belief system was the central theme.
These three authors, Beck, Janzen, and I, agonized over our connection to family, broke free of those traditions in order to connect with the secular power of rationality, and then when that still wasn’t enough, had to agonize again. For each of us, losing our faith in the sacred truths of rationality was every bit as wrenching as losing a religion. The three memoirs end up in three different versions of the modern system of beliefs known as spirituality in which love provides the foundation for everything.
Historically we’ve expected religious leaders to dictate our relationship to a higher power. But in the great dispersal of autonomy in Western society, we continue to evolve from the authority of institutions to the wisdom of individuals. Each of us wants to know these truths on our own. And to learn those truths, we go on a journey. Memoirs enable us to share those journeys.
In high school literature classes I learned that it is possible for an author to encapsulate a whole world in the written narrative. I inhabited those brilliantly conceived fictitious worlds for a few hours. When I closed each book, I slid back into my own hidden inner world.
The Memoir Revolution is ushering in a new era that will help readers and authors solve some of the most profound problems of our times. Memoirs help us accept people who think and live differently from ourselves. These stories across the lifespan help us understand our own and each other’s stages of life. And they dive into the paradox of knowledge which, from a scientific viewpoint is unprovable and yet from a personal viewpoint is undeniably knowable.
The Memoir Revolution offers us a new instrument through which we can observe our own and each other’s inner worlds and find the common ground that unites us in our individuality. This is far more than just a literary movement. It introduces the potential for a new science of the soul.
What spiritual or “belief system” features of your life are ending up in your published or work-in-progress memoir?
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