22 May 2008

Losses, part two

For years after my sister Ellen was murdered, I dreamed about her. The dreams were always the same: she came back from wherever she had been hiding to tell me that it had all been a big mistake. She hadn't been killed--how could I have thought that!?--she'd simply disappeared to have some time for herself, or, in another variation, she'd been away at camp. Since, in real life, she had run away from home more than ten times, and had also run away from a foster home and a hospital, it was entirely believable, until I woke up again. That last moment between sleeping and waking was always an instant of wild hope.

My life has been full of angels in the form of loving and helpful people. For these awful dreams, a violin-playing therapist named Sigurd Hoppe, a Friend in Northern Yearly Meeting, turned out to be the angel. After listening to my story at a Friends conference, he gently questioned me and found out that we had never had a funeral for her. On his advice, and nearly twenty years after her death, First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, arranged and hosted a complete funeral, just as if there'd been a more normal interval since her death. (First Friends: more angels!) My surviving sister came and read a letter from Ellen. One of our friends told us that she had felt Ellen's presence. The dreams ended with that funeral.

Sometimes the angels that have ministered most deeply to me, however, have been authors--novelists I've never actually met. Maybe this is, at least in part, because in my growing up years I hardly ever told anyone in real life what it was like to live in a hermetically sealed family where violence and alcohol shaped our daily uncertainties, and respectability dictated our public face. Books were a private source of comfort, providing both assurance (others also had crazy families, and survived!) and a rich source of fantasy.

The older I got, the more I allowed real people into my world, but I never abandoned books. After all, books didn't care if you cried your eyes out. How would Anne Tyler even know that, reading The Accidental Tourist, I lost it when I read how her hero's murdered son came back to life in his dreams? But it was as if Tyler was one of those angels who provided a path back to the human community, human solidarity, when all I thought I wanted in my grief was perfect isolation.

More recently, another fictional murder victim touched me deeply through the literary device of an observation post in heaven from which she watched her family and friends coping with their wrenching loss--and her killer covering his tracks. Susie Salmon, in Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, was fourteen when she was murdered, and so was my sister.

There were important differences in our situations--Susie's was a loving family, but Ellen was estranged from our parents and in full revolt from their values. Even so, I cherished the fantasy (is that the right word?) that Ellen was watching us from heaven, and in some heavenly way was encouraging us to live.

I saw precious few signs of hope in the first years after her death. Years later, I had to smile when I heard that the mother of the man, Tyrone King, who killed my sister tried to give my father Gospel tracts in the courtroom where her son was on trial for murder!

All along I'd wanted to stop dreaming about my sister coming back and explaining the "misunderstanding"; it was vital to say goodbye to her on that level. But all my adult life I've also wanted her not to be forgotten. And those tearful hours reading Sebold's novel, and pausing to think about Ellen and where she might now be, were among the times I've felt closest to her since our violent separation.

My most recent experience with a literary angel ministering to this deep grief--and my determination to remember--happened just a few days ago. William P. Young's novel The Shack has raised controversies among some Friends pastors, some of whom defend this book passionately and some of whom charge it with silliness at least and serious heresy at worst. An unstamped note in a mailbox invites grieving father Mack to meet "Papa" (God) in the very place where Mack's daughter had been brutally killed by a serial murderer. Papa turns out to be a black woman. And God loves to cook as well as talk theology. The other members of the Trinity are also given more or less unstereotypical portrayals--but more than that I dare not say for fear of spoiling the book for you.

Having read the comments on the pastors' e-mail list before reading the book, my heresy detector was definitely on a hairtrigger, but, despite Papa's dogma-busting assertions of the primacy of relationship over rules, and expectancy over expectations, I could not find it. What I did find, however, were intimations of grace and immortality and redemption every bit as wrenching/comforting as The Lovely Bones. And not only did they concern the fate of Missy, the victim, but also of family members who blamed themselves for contributing to her death, and particularly for Mack's father, whose abusive ways had distorted Mack's ability to receive grace from God and perceive grace in the church. God also speaks very directly to the murderer's place in God's purposes, but I'm just not going to say more; see for yourself. Just know that I read that part with Tyrone King in my own thoughts, and the image of his mother trying to evangelize my atheist father.

Honestly, I don't understand why some church people are so nervous about the grace-over-law emphasis of this book. It's completely framed within the paramount importance of personal relationship with God. There's no question of God saying "anything goes," but here's the central proposition of William Young's book: within that trust-filled relationship, marked by knowing fully how much God loves you, the fruits of the Spirit will flourish, including self-control. Apart from that relationship, the rules that some find so reassuring come across to me as intellectual bullying dressed up in a pseudo-spiritual black leather binding. And when I think of what some of the heroic defenders of biblical normalcy have been able to swallow in today's American political context--illegal invasion, torture, indefinite detention for years, to name a few--I'm ready for an evangelical bias towards grace. Maybe when we see our country staggering from the awful effects of stressing grace and experiencing the overwhelming love of God, we'll need some stern literary countermeasures. In the meantime, let the debate continue!

(Losses, part one.)

Righteous links:

I'm not the only one who asks, "What is it with tears?"

For one homicide victim--at Abu Ghraib--there were more smiles than tears. But how real were the smiles? Errol Morris takes a second look at a notorious photo.

Bill McKibben, "The defining moment for climate change."

Poetry of Bill Jolliff: two poems that made me want to read more.

The Bible in Linux: So far I've been using GnomeSword as a reader, but most of the available Bible modules are public domain or nonstandard. Two versions, NET and ESV, seem excellent, but I miss NRSV and NIV and the Message. The NET notes are especially helpful.

Pam Ferguson confesses that she peeks into other customers' shopping carts. "It is time for a new diet."

Sue Foley's voice is incredibly matched for the electric blues guitar--sometimes it sounds like she plays her vocal chords with a slide. Judge for yourself on "Queen Bee":


Unknown said...

thank you Johan. are you on Goodreads.com? my profile is: http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/54704

Johan Maurer said...

Likewise, I have a Shelfari account. I enjoyed checking out your list, and Erin's--got plenty of ideas for future reading!