Some memoirs take me so far into the darkness of human experience, I must struggle through my own moral despair in order to read. And yet despite my revulsion, I forge ahead. Why do I or any of us do this? The answer reveals one of the pillars of the modern memoir movement.
Memoir readers trust that in exchange for our willingness to accompany the author through hell, the story will also show positive forces that elevate our spirits. Such qualities as effort, wisdom, compassion, and spirituality carry us back to hope. After reading 100s of memoirs, I have never been disappointed. Every author has maintained his or her part in this implicit bargain.
Take one of the more horrific ones, for example — Lucky, by Alice Sebold. The cops called her “lucky” because her rapist didn’t kill her. Recently I read another memoir, if possible even more terrible than Sebold’s. Leona Stucky in her memoir Fog of Faith was raped, not by a stranger but by her boyfriend. Then, through a series of deadly threats against her and her family, he coerced her into marrying him. Even after she escaped, he continued to hunt her down.
As if the violence itself wasn’t bad enough, the normal avenues of justice and healing were cut off, adding to the author’s despair. For one thing, the laws of the time were so strongly influenced by patriarchal marriage, the police were unable to intervene. And second, Leona Stucky grew up as a devout Mennonite. Her community’s passivism assured her that God would defend the innocent.
One predatory man stole years of her life. His repeated assaults led to PTSD. In addition, he wrecked her faith in God, forcing her into an absurdist fog, where she vacillated crazily between refusing to believe he existed at all to wanting to blame him for all her problems. In a sense, his behavior destroyed her at a moral level.
Stucky’s experience brought her face to face with evil, and forced her into a personal battle with the age-old theological question “How could a loving God permit evil?” Theologians call this the Theodicy Problem and have spent thousands of years trying to answer it. In the last few decades, psychologists have entered the debate, not so much to try to understand why it would happen but rather to help us recover from its ravages.
Moral injury and the betrayal of beliefs
The American psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, after years of working with Vietnam vets concluded that combat damages sanity in part because it destroys trust in a compassionate, well-ordered universe. Shay explained his proposal in the book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.
Since Shay gave Moral Injury a name, psychologists have been using the concept to learn how to help combat soldiers recover from PTSD. But combat is not the only cause for this disruption in moral order. Violent or sexual child abuse, rape, violent crime, terrorism, betrayal, and unexpected, untimely, or unexplainable loss of a loved one can all destroy one’s trust in a sane, safe universe.
At the time of their rapes, neither Alice Sebold or Leona Stucky had much guidance to help them repair the psychic damage of these horrific events. So each author went on a long journey to heal her own damaged soul. Reading their memoirs lets us join these two incredibly gifted intelligent women in their effort to repair themselves.
How could a loving God let this happen?
During Leona Stucky’s attempt to escape her spiritual wilderness, she fell in love with a divinity student. Their hours of debate about God’s purpose and presence continued for years.
Their discussions, and her own desperate longing for a loving God add a fascinating dimension to the story. In the end, she didn’t exactly solve theodicy problem. After all it has defied theologians for thousands of years. So if she didn’t resolve her theological struggle, how did she fulfill her implied promise to her readers to uplift us by the end?
To understand why her story helped her and me make better sense of evil, I turned to Alice Sebold’s memoir for an important clue.
At the time of her rape, Sebold was a student in a creative writing class at Syracuse University taught by Tobias Wolff. Wolff. His memoir This Boy’s Life became one of a handful of bestsellers that launched the modern Memoir Revolution. After she told him what happened, Wolff told Sebold to “remember everything.” His instruction guided her toward the eventual development of her book.
Perhaps that is the real reason Alice Sebold was lucky. In the thick of her suffering, her writing teacher handed her a tool that could help her process her pain. Sebold’s book helped her contain and share her moral injury and demonstrated that memoirs of horrific experiences offer an important tool for the modern mind.
Leona Stucky determination to write about her experience came after decades of wrestling with psychology and theology. In the end, Stucky came to the same conclusion as Alice Sebold. In order to survive the corrosive effects of her soulful wounds, Stucky felt ccompelled to wrap the whole painful ordeal, including a lifetime of heroic seeking for sanity, into a literary container.
The two authors, narrated their horrific traumas, and their long journey back to wholeness, thus revealing a profound psychological truth known to all cultures throughout history. Stories frame and contain our experiences, including suffering and evil, in a way that our minds (in particular the higher cognitive functions of the Prefrontal Cortex) can comprehend.
The Memoir Revolution has given us the opportunity to translate our experiences including ones that shake the very foundations of our emotional stability, into a sensible story. In this form, we can then share ourselves with compassionate readers.
Memoir readers can’t rescue the author from horrific experiences, but we do the next best thing. We use our social awareness, wisdom and love to help the author understand that her memories have now become incorporated into our shared experience. By converting private hells into sharable, socially accessible stories, we develop a language for collective hope and effort.
Leona Stucky’s story demonstrates the psychological struggle many of us face in midlife. Whereas earlier in our lives, in order to say energized, we did everything we could to dismiss or overlook the past, as we grow older, we find an increasing urgency to make sense of that past. And we can only do that through the development of our stories.
By teasing apart our journeys, especially the dark times, and the ensuing compassion and courage, scene by scene and chapter by chapter, we can deeply understand our own intellectual, psychological, and philosophical evolution.
And as memoir readers, we can accompany any number of sufferers of trauma, through their moral injury and then on their long journey to make peace within themselves. Through Story, we join together to release our shaming wounds into the embrace of social acceptance and appreciation.
Notes and Links
More articles on Memoirs and Moral Injury by Jerry Waxler
Alice Sebold and the moral injury of rape
Response to the moral injury of an untimely death of an infant
Repairing self-concept through memoir writing
Kate Braestrup’s solution to the theodicy problem
The moral injury of war
A website that explains Moral Injury
More resources on moral injury
Recovery from child sexual abuse, Leaving the Saints by Martha Beck
Documentary movie about combat vets and moral injury
Soul Repair at Brite Divinity School
Awesome interview with Leona Stucky about writing her memoir
For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.