>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:
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.
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And now, a few more pictures from the baptism:
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.)