One man’s battle with sexuality changed the world

by Jerry Waxler

As a teenager, Frank Schaeffer was filled with lust for the young women who travelled from all parts of the world to visit the Christian center run by his parents. At the beginning of his memoir “Crazy for God,” I was beginning to wonder why there was so much sexual tension in a book that was supposed to be about religion and politics. Then, a few pages later I realized why this background was important. When he was just 18 years-old, his new girl friend became pregnant. They married and had the baby.

Like many people before him, Schaeffer discovered the shocking fact that sex has consequences, a lesson which faced him every time he changed his daughter’s diaper. As an intense young man, surrounded by preachers, he couldn’t simply leave his personal discovery alone. He had to turn it into a sermon, not against his own sexual exploits but against abortion. In a few years he was working tirelessly, a human dynamo trying to rouse Christians everywhere to stand up for the rights of the unborn.

According to Schaeffer, the evil of abortion should be as self-evident to a Christian as the law of gravity was to a physicist. And so, he thought he was doing the Lord’s work. Unfortunately, down this path rode the hounds of hell.

While the most fanatical believers of his point of view were bombing abortion clinics, a much more widespread result was burrowing into the fabric of society. The pressure of these absolute positions skewed the politics of the United States, turning churches into battlegrounds for the control of government, turning every election into a referendum on abortion.

Of course, abortion opponents make an obvious point. Murder is bad, and murdering babies is enough to wake anyone in the middle of the night, screaming for justice. But when exactly do multiplying cells become a baby? The answer differs depending on who you ask. To know the moment when abortion becomes murder, you must choose the right religious doctrine over the wrong one, a battle that has created war and terror since the beginning of history.

As Frank Schaeffer grew older, he realized how politicians were manipulating his religious ideas for their own ends. He started to notice that his rigid position frightened people. His position softened, and his respect for people with diverse beliefs grew. Most interesting for me, he came to see that the abortion debate sidles up alongside sexuality. With his help, I see that sex injects a complication into what was supposed to be a simple question of stopping murder.

Sex is the act that turns an egg into a baby, and religions have long felt the need to take control. For example, in the Bible there was a woman who took sex too lightly and the punishment was public stoning. His observation raises a fascinating issue. How many of them are fighting to contain sex? And on the other side of the debate, how many who favor abortion rights are trying to take away the consequences of sex? Finally he turned his back on the evangelical movement altogether.

If you tried to understand Frank Schaeffer at any particular era of his life, you would see only one aspect of the man. At one period, he looked like a randy teenager. Then, a confused teenaged father. After that, a zealous preacher. Later still, a hypocrite who continued to speak for large fees about things he no longer believed. Then, he looked like a starving artist, refusing those easy fees while he struggled to earn money as a novelist. Finally, you would see the Frank Schaeffer of today.

When the most recent Frank Schaeffer looks at the mob mentality around abortion, he sees a situation similar to the righteous people in the Bible who wanted to stone the prostitute. In his younger days, he was leading the charge, urging greater passion. The more mature man says, “Let’s think about it more clearly.” He certainly knew the line in the Bible “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone” but he didn’t actually hear it until he grew older.

Writing about the evolution of ideas in his memoir, Schaeffer offers a profound lesson for aspiring memoir writers. When we look back on our own history, we can see ourselves in each period, and discover the set of beliefs we held then. We couldn’t know what those ideas would look like a decade later. It’s only now, as we look back through the years, that we can understand how the ideas changed. It turns out the accumulated wisdom that we earned through the course of these years is not contained in any one snapshot of our life, but in our unfolding story.
Writing Prompt
Looking back across the span of your life, when did you believe in something strongly, even zealously, and then later come to understand that your rigid ideas had consequences? For example, did you drink, assuming it would cause no harm, only to find out later that it was ruining your liver or your family? Did you believe strongly that some group was “bad” only to later discover their depth? How did your religious or spiritual beliefs change?

Write an overview of the beliefs as they moved through time. Describe the key ah-ha moments, events, readings, and discussions that spurred you along. Write about the doubts and certainties. Show how the beliefs influenced your attitudes and choices. Explore the possibility that this evolution can support some or all of the power of your memoir.

Frank Schaeffer’s official website
“Crazy for God: 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” by Frank Schaeffer

His Relationship to Girls Changed in this Scene

By Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

Henry Louis Gates grew up in a small town in West Virginia in the 1950s where he was taught he shouldn’t associate with girls until he married one. Then a fractured hip landed him in a hospital in a university town 60 miles away. During his protracted stay, with his leg suspended in traction, he was befriended by a minister who let him in on the good news that in some forms of Christianity, God and girls can peacefully coexist. By the time his hip healed, his mind had opened to a more liberal set of rules than the ones he had been taught as a child.

After I finished reading Gates’ memoir, “Colored People” I tried to understand why I related so empathetically with his life, and I kept returning to that scene in the hospital, which drew me in so vividly I felt I too had stopped by to encourage him to live as fully as possible. The more I think about the scene, the more power I find in it.

One thing that makes the scene memorable is the hospital’s distance from his home. He traveled far away to find wisdom, a story element that has echoes in many of the great stories of our culture, like Homer’s Odyssey, or the Wizard of Oz. I too left home, traveling a thousand miles away to college in order to find my own deeper meaning. So I feel an intuitive rapport with this notion that leaving town stimulates deeper thought.

Writing Prompt
What part of your memoir took place far from home? What realizations did you have on your journey?

His broken hip hurts, and his body is being stretched by traction. He also worries about falling behind in school, and wishes he was playing with his friends. These physical and emotional discomforts generate compassion, illustrating the lesson writing coaches have been telling me for years; discomfort and tension help readers relate to the protagonist.

When beginning memoir writers first explore memories, we may not know what to do with unsettling moments. Most of our lives we have skated around the regrets, traumas, weaknesses. But good memoir writing is different from the breezy overview you might tell a new acquaintance at a party. Memoir writing digs deeper, searching for the material that will convey an authentic account of your journey, complete with ups and downs.

Writing Prompt
In your own memoir, what scenes of physical or emotional pain can draw the reader in to caring about you?

Mysterious Strangers
Regular visits from kind, supportive adults brings this scene to life. A doctor realized how lonely Gates was, and stayed to play chess. A minister talked to him about religion and growing up. What a lovely gift these strangers offered Gates, not only giving him the comfort of companionship, but also helping him understand some things about life.

Writing Prompt
What advisors have helped you shift your beliefs? It could be a word from a stranger, as it was in Henry Louis Gates’ young life. Or an uncle, mentor, friend, teacher, or book. Write your ideas before you received the advice and after. Describe the scene when your idea-altering experience took place.

My writing example
I was working on a computer project at my first “real” dayjob at United Engineers. Then the project was canceled and I was crestfallen. A grizzled old engineer said to me, with a twinkle in his eye, “Nolo bastardo carborundum.” I looked puzzled. He said, “It’s fake-latin for ‘Don’t let the bastards wear you down.'” I roared with laughter, and discovered that with a little wisdom, a dash of humor, and the supporting hand of a fellow human being, you can get through situations that otherwise could make you miserable.

The impact ideas have on life
Before he went into the hospital, Gates believed that being around girls was the devil’s work. After talking to a visiting minister, he believed that God was fine with girls. This is an exciting example of the power of ideas. With hardly any external action, a change of mind profoundly influenced his goals and choices.

Ideas have always played an important role in my own life. In high school I believed I needed to accumulate knowledge in order to become an adult, so I studied hard. After a year in college, my idea changed. I believed it was up to me to fix the world, so I protested. By the end of those four years, my idea changed again. I believed that my actions didn’t have any influence on the world, and I collapsed into a tangle of despair. When I was 24, I stumbled upon a spiritually-oriented set of ideas that let me steer through the extremes. I believed what I did mattered to the people in my life, and that was enough to get me back on my feet and into the game of life. At each stage, my ideas affected the way I felt and the path I chose.

Yet, despite the crucial role that ideas played in my own life, I rarely hear them mentioned in writing courses. In this age of cinema and television, story writers are taught to focus on action. But that skips over one of the most important things in human experience, the way we think. Storytellers know the importance of the human thought-process, and for eons have been weaving their protagonist’s ideas into the action. Now I have to train myself to do the same.

I sift through piles of anecdotes. Taken one by one, these individual incidents do not add up to a compelling whole, so I look for the sequence that, like DNA encoding, binds isolated events together, maintaining forward motion while revealing inner truth. I believe to find the links between the episodes, we need to pay attention to our mental process.

Ideas told us what choices are available, and which ones are best. Ideas created the expectations of what was “supposed” to happen, and these expectations lead to our disappointment or joy. Ideas defined our judgment of other people. Discover within your ideas the forces that shaped you, and can shape the most compelling story.

Writing Prompt
Identify a few key ideas that drove you. Watch how they changed over time. For example, your religious ideas guide you through ethical choices. Your ideas about psychology helped you overcome barriers between people. Perhaps you decided to trust people instead of hate them, or realized that forgiveness helps the forgiver as much as the ‘forgivee.’ See if you can find specific moments or scenes when these ideas changed.

In a future essay, I’ll experiment with scenes from my own memory, and brainstorm ways that the scenes and the ideas interact.

For more about Henry Louis Gates’ contribution to African American Literature, try this link.

See the classic text on the relationship between beliefs and mental well being, “Existential Psychotherapy” by Irvin D. Yalom

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.