As a painter, Chris Rush is preoccupied with how his subjects interact with light. Like the air, light is a natural phenomenon, but when manipulated, it can reveal hidden layers and tell complicated stories. As a memoirist, Rush has a similar ability: to wrap us into his world and flip us on our heads.
The Light Years begins when Rush is a wide-eyed, church-going New Jersey boy. He’s not yet discovered who he is, though he knows he likes weird art and wearing flashy capes around the neighborhood.
Eventually, due to tensions with his parents, he is sent to live with his older, hippie sister in San Francisco, where he discovers the counterculture and psychedelics of the 1970s. There, he is introduced to a seductive drug dealer. The story goes from New Jersey to San Francisco to a stash house in the desert of Southern Arizona. The particulars seem too farfetched to be true, but believe me: it’s all true.
Rush and I spoke about how Catholicism shaped our childhoods and influenced our thinking for years to come, as well as how his memoir and the relationships with his family unfolded over the years.
The Millions: Your opening chapters start with your childhood and your relationship to religion. Is there a thread that has followed you from your days as a boy all the way to now that has shaped and informed decisions regardless of your current beliefs?
Chris Rush: One of the advantages of growing up Catholic is that the Catholic church is so old that for a kid like myself, it is a treasure trove of old ideas, new ideas, costumes, dead languages, and candles. The whole thing was a grab bag of possibilities.
Not to be too flip about it, but there was lots to sort out as a kid. One of the things the Catholic church prepared me to do was to believe in things that were invisible and possibly even farfetched and totally impossible. As someone who spent my entire life making art, these are not bad working conditions. My concern with the invisible is a really important part of my life because there are many things that are not what they appear to be. As an artist, my relationship was always one of active imagination; I questioned everything. Yet, I never shook my faith in the unseen.
TM: As a child, I went to Catholic school in Pennsylvania, but when I moved to Arizona, my connection with the church vanished. Now, I would never say I am religious, but I feel for a long time I thought about how my actions would be viewed by bishops, teachers, or whoever. As opposed to my sister who diverged from those beliefs fairly quickly.
CR: She has a more cynical view of the church?
TM: I’d say so. I just find it interesting how something like religion and the church can affect people in different ways.
CR: I think one of the good things about the church is that it very much showed me art being used. The church was filled with stained glass, statues, and golden objects of questionable virtue, certainly. As a child, I was dazzled by it. It made me realize that art wasn’t just something you saw in a museum. It was used in life. It was a very important influence the church had on my curiosity and context of life.
I understand how corrupt the church is and how dastardly the history is, but at the same time, I am not bitter at it at all. I’m a gay man and I have a very strange relationship with the Catholic church. At the same time it was instructive, it was bizarre. I am glad I got to see such a complicated piece of machinery at a very, very young age. Some Catholic people are very nice; including my family.
TM: Your family plays an integral role throughout the memoir. How has your relationship with them shifted throughout the years?
CR: As with any family, it changes season by season and decade by decade. I have six brothers and sisters. We are all old and complicated people as well as different than each other in a surprising amount of ways. We do enjoy each other’s company.
My father died about 20 years ago. My relationship with him continues to evolve. In the writing of this book, I had to negotiate the fact that my father left very little in the way of an emotional record. He confided in no one and was a man of few words. There were a lot of secrets.
Literature is particularly adept at getting at the uncertain. At painting, one struggles to illustrate the invisible. Literature is entirely happy to circle a subject and describe a subject but be able to not come up with a conclusion. It’s all in the question rather than the answer.
In looking at my father, I spent 10 years thinking about who he was, why he did the things he did, and what I needed to know to understand him. I came up with a lot, but at the same time as I learned more about him and deduced more about him, I found him to be much more complicated, more interesting, and kinder than when I started writing.
TM: You mentioned thinking about your father for a decade. When did you first start thinking about what became The Light Years?
CR: The book started to write itself. I knew I was writing something. I knew I was veering into a new kind of territory. I’ve written my whole life, but is a very scattered assortment of notes, love letters, or, say, grant proposals.
When I started writing what became this, there was a momentum that I had never felt before. I began writing around 2007, but it was a while before I understood that it was making demands and it got a hold of me. When I first started to write, I had some idea that I was writing about my teen years. I thought I was writing about a raucous road trip of sorts.
Then a few things happened. I was taking a long, endless train trip in India some years after I started writing this. I started telling my traveling companion, Daniel Mahar, what I had been working on and stories of my childhood. His eyes got very big and he listened for a long time. Finally he said, “My god, you have to write this down. You have to write it all down. Especially your family. It’s all incredible.”
I suppose in some ways, I was so busy living a life and I had not spent a great bit of time reflecting on how odd my story was. My partner, Victor Lodato, told me that a great memoir is not about the author. The great and enduring mystery was my family, particularly my parents.
I did extensive interviews with my family and discovered my mother had saved drawings, photographs, and letters from my childhood. I hadn’t seen them in 40 years. That’s when I started to understand that The Light Years wasn’t just a road trip.
TM: What did you learn about yourself through those found artifacts that you may have forgotten or suppressed?
CR: There’s a line in the book in which I say, “I would rather believe in too much than too little.” What I discovered, particularly in the letters, is that I had a breathless belief in the world. I believed in many crazy things, but they motivated me, they agitated me, they took me into the world in very interesting ways.
It’s easy to look back now to say how I was foolish, but it was also fearless that I wanted to believe in a great and interesting world. I populated my world with my fantasies.
I discovered I was really, really starry eyed. I was troubled and had stuff to work out, but I believed in a lot. I was enthusiastic.
TM: What were you passionate about as a kid? What were you reading? What art inspired you? What influenced you the most?
CR: It really changed year by year. As a child, before the age of 10, everything was school. My parents subscribed to everything. I was reading The New York Times. I studied every page of Life and Look. I went to the museum a little bit in New York and that confounded me.
The most exciting thing was when I was 10 in 1956. That’s when Life started to show the hippies, acid heads, and psychedelic art. I thought it was a message from God. It thrilled me. Up to that point, I was drawing what kids draw, but when I saw psychedelic art, I knew.
I was very influenced by album covers and music my sister was listening to. Around this time, music was changing. Style was changing. I discovered art nouveau. I loved it all. I understood that anything goes.
TM: The memoir tracks a large portion of your life. Is there any more story to tell?
CR: There’s another book. I’ve started it and would like to believe it’s my five year book (as opposed to the decade this one took). I didn’t really write this book imagining a sequel, but it looks like there is one. The book essentially ends when I am 22 and my life got really interesting around then.