>Keeping the Reader Safe

>The day before I drove to Nashville to meet my new “grand Goddaughter” (my Goddaughter’s daughter) Olivia Kate Autrey, my Memphis writers group held its monthly critique session. Hang on—there really is a thread here. Two of us in the critique group are writing memoirs. An issue that continues to surface is one of how much description to give to scenes that involve pain, suffering, and abuse. One of the writers is “ghost-writing” a memoir for a friend who suffered greatly (still does) with cerebral palsy. The childhood scenes, often filled with humiliation and social isolation, on top of physical pain, must be crafted with enough realism to make the reader embrace the person’s suffering. This is true, I might add, whether the character is real or fiction, and whether the suffering is physical, emotional or mental. One member of the group expressed concern that some of the scenes in my book might be too “jarring.” She talked about the concept of making the reader “feel safe,” so that a level of revelation is established in the beginning, and each scene involving pain or abuse doesn’t suddenly feel like a “speed bump,” that interrupts the flow of the story.

So, after meeting Olivia Kate and visiting with Stacy and Jared (that’s them with Olivia Kate, left) for a couple of hours in Nashville Saturday, I drove on down to Murfressboro, where the baptism would be, and checked into a hotel to spend an evening working on the memoir. First I carefully read all my critique group buddies’ comments they had written on the chapter of my memoir they had critiqued the previous day. Really helpful stuff… much of which I incorporated into the chapter as I revised it.

Then I finished the final chapters of Delaune Michel’s latest novel, The Safety of Secrets, to see how she wrote the difficult scene which exposed “the secret” shared by her two main characters—a terrible experience they shared when they were ten years old. I won’t say more, because I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it yet. But I will say this: she didn’t pull any punches in describing the scene, so that the reader was there, feeling the impact and understanding its implication for these girls as they grew up and pursued acting careers in LA.

Next I re-read the section in Mary Karr’s amazing memoir, The Liar’s Club, where she describes, very explicitly, and very slowly, her own loss of innocence to a man she thought she should be able to trust—her babysitter. (This was only one of several different scenes of this nature in Karr’s book.) Like Michel’s book, Karr’s was truthful without being sensational. I cried several times while reading this book, and couldn’t stop turning the pages hoping for some light at the end of the tunnel—for healing.

In both of these books, I felt “safe” as a reader, and I didn’t find the painful scenes “jarring”… they seemed appropriate to the lives of the characters. Closing the books, I sat quietly for a while, imagining other books, other characters who had suffered, and considered how the authors had written their suffering. The characters of Flannery O’Connor and Chekhov came to mind first. Would their writing be as compelling if they didn’t show their characters’ flawed humanity with such candor? Would the redemption, or sometimes the tragic loss without a hopeful ending, be as real?

And then my mind went to hagiography. It’s the written lives of the saints, but not simply a report. As Orthodox Wikipedia says:

Hagiography is unlike other forms of biography in that it does not necessarily attempt to give a full, historical account of the life of an individual saint. Rather, the purpose of hagiography is soteriological—that is, the life of the saint is written so that it might have a salvific effect on those who encounter it.

I think that hagiography was an early form of creative nonfiction, because it doesn’t try to give all the journalistic details that a biography might, but rather the details that are crucial to telling the story. And it uses the techniques of a literary novel to bring that story to life. If the saint lived a life of debauchery, for whatever reason, like the sixth century prostitute, St. Mary of Egypt, telling her story with enough important details for us to identify with her fallen humanness so that we care about her, and see our own brokenness in her life is important. This is her icon (left) on the iconostasis at Saint Elizabeth Church. She’s nearly naked because she had been living in the desert for years. The iconographer could have painted her image fully clothed (a few have) and maybe the viewer would feel “safer,” but…. well, you can read the complete, official story of her life, as recorded by Saint Sophronious, Patriarch of Jerusalem, here .

Notice how, at one point when the priest Zosimos asks Mary to tell him her “story,” she hesitates, but he encourages her to continue:

“I was suddenly filled with a desire to go, Abba, to have more lovers who could satisfy my passion. I told you, Abba Zosima, not to force me to tell you of my disgrace. God is my witness, I am afraid of defiling you and the very air with my words.”

Zosima, weeping, replied to her: “Speak on for God’s sake, mother, speak and do not break the thread of such an edifying tale.”

“Do not break the thread of such an edifying tale.” Why was Father Zosimos wanting Mary to share the details of the darkness of her life? Why wasn’t it enough for her just to say, “I was a prostitute.” Would the reader feel more “safe” with those words? Zosimos doesn’t think so—he asks her not to “break the thread” of the story. Sadly, thousands of women have been prostitutes, but understanding the how and why of their brokenness is what draws you to them as fellow human beings, and makes you care.

Still sitting quietly in my hotel room, I thought about the stories of the martyrs that I’ve read. Again, the hagiographers don’t pull punches, as they describe the unimaginable tortures that they suffered. Does the reader feel “unsafe” in the middle of the life of a saint when suddenly words describing body parts being cut off and other such horrific details appear on the page? Now I’m rethinking this whole concept of keeping the reader safe.

So, on Sunday morning I arrive at Saint Elizabeth the New Martyr Antiochian Orthodox Church for Olivia Kate’s baptism. The priest is Father John Oliver. (That’s Father John, right, with Olivia Kate and her Godparents, Shelley Armstrong and Jon Autrey.) Midway during the baptism, there’s a “break” during which time the newly baptized are changing into dry clothes for the rest of the ceremony. During this time, one of the readers read the lives of the patron saints of those who were being baptized. One was Saint Katherine the Great, who is the patron saint of Olivia Kate. And one was actually Saint Elizabeth the New Martyr, who is also the parish’s saint. (That’s an icon of Saint Elizabeth, left, with Jared, Stacy, Olivia Kate and Jon at the end of the service. Stacy is giving out Jordan almonds.) I listened to these lives, and later to Father John’s homily on the death of Saint Elizabeth, not only for spiritual edification, but as a “reader” might listen. And I asked myself why the hagiographers included the details about how Elizabeth was blindfolded before she was led to the edge of the mine shaft where she would plunge to her death… and why Father John told us about the tear that leaked from behind her blindfold as she asked the guard whether it was a clear night… and how, just before the guard hit her with the butt of his rifle, she said these words of Christ’s on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Did he really need to tell us that the guards then heard the women (there were two of them) singing from the depths of the mine shaft, still alive, undoubtedly in great pain, fear and suffering, but still praising God? Did he need to tell us how they threw grenades down into the shaft on top of the women? Tears filled my eyes during his homily and chills ran up my arms. I was there, at the bottom of that mine shaft. Did I feel safe? Was it important for me to feel safe? Did this tale of horrific human injustice break the thread of the beautiful baptismal ceremony that we were participating in?

A few minutes later, the newly baptized ones (one woman and her two young daughters, and Olivia Kate with her Godparents) came back into the nave and gathered in front of Father John so that the service could continue. They were all dressed in white. As we sang, “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ,” I thought not only about the white garments they had put on, but how they would also, as all of us do, put on Christ’s sufferings, to one degree of another.

And in fact, in Father John’s homily, he talked about how our daily choices to “die to self” are in fact, our martyrdom. Most of us will not suffer the kind of martyrdom that Saint Elizabeth did. Nor will we experience the extreme change that Mary of Egypt went through. But we need their stories, just like we need their icons, as written and visual images of men and women who overcame their brokenness, their abuse, their torture, their isolation, and rose up out of it to be healed and restored to the image that had been lost. For me, the brilliance of the restoration is commensurate with the darkness of the fall. I want to see and read the full story. I don’t want the Readers Digest version, or the G-rated version. Father Zosimos didn’t want either of those versions of the life of Saint Mary of Egypt, and it was because of his insistence that we have the salvific story preserved for us by Saint Sophronious.

As always, I welcome my readers’ comments, either by clicking on “Comments” at the end of the post, or by sending me an email to sjcushman@gmail.com, and please let me know if I have your permission to publish your email comments here.

And now, a few more pictures from the baptism:

First, this is the gown that Stacy made for Olivia Kate….

by cutting the up baptismal dress I had made for Stacy’s baptism six years ago! (That’s us, in 2002, at Stacy’s baptism at St. John here in Memphis.)
She took the dress, cut the bodice for Olivia Kate’s dress from it, and then attacahed this precious bib for the collar. And get this, she saved the extra fabric so if she has a baby boy some day, she can add sleeves to the baptismal gown and use it for him. So, eventually, all of her children could wear the same fabric as she wore at her own baptism. (Did I mention that Stacy is an extremely creative and spiritual woman?)

This is me with Stacy and Olivia Kate and Olivia Kate’s Godmother, Shelley Armstrong, just before the baptism. Two sets of Godmothers and Goddaughters together. (okay, yes, I’m getting mushy now, but I can’t help it!)

And here’s some more of Stacy’s creativity at work… the baptism cake, which she made and Jared (yes) helped decorate.

Some close up shots during the baptism ceremony, of Father John annointing Olivia Kate with Holy Chrism (oil) … it’s a small temple, with no solea (raised area up front) so it’s pretty easy to get up close with the camera.

The tonsuring wasn’t too difficult, since Olivia Kate hasn’t quite lost all her baby hair! Uncle Jon looks on protectively, as Stacy and Jared just smile helplessly in the background.

Here’s one of Olivia Kate, fresh from the font, being dried off. She barely even cried.
I don’t know if she’s used to being fed after her baths at home, but she sure did get hungry shortly after her emersion! You can’t realy see it in this picture, but she was really going after her fist. Hmmmm brings back memories of someone else who was rather attached to those fingers for quite a few years! (sorry, Jared, I couldn’t resist!)

Now here’s the Godfather, doing a great job juggling that baptismal candle and baby Olivia Kate at the same time! (Jon is the perpetual athlete.)

Here’s another one in front of the iconostasis, at the end of the “receiving line,” when Olivia Kate decided she had had enough!
Aunt Alex and Uncle Shane celebrate with Olivia Kate just before lunch.

And then the family gathered for a group shot, back in the nave (below).

Okay, here’s the parting shot, back to Saturday at our first meeting in Nashville:
Aunt Susan loves you, Olivia Kate.
May God grant you many years!
Please share!

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