Questioning Her Own Questioning: On Leslie Jamison’s ‘Make It Scream, Make It Burn’

“The impulse to escape our lives is universal,” Leslie Jamison writes in her new essay collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, a book—both directly and indirectly—full of methods to escape the doldrums of daily existence: virtual-world games, travel, near-mythic sea creatures, fairy tales, past lives, the unreality of Las Vegas.
Jamison writes, “Inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it—through daydreaming; through storytelling; through the ecstasies of art and music, hard drugs, adultery, a smartphone screen. These forms of ‘leaving’ aren’t the opposite of authentic presence. They are simply one of its symptoms—the way love contains conflict, intimacy contains distance, and faith contains doubt.” These lines capture an attitude that runs through the collection, a particular perspective that adheres together the book’s wide array of subjects and styles: even though the manifestations of our interests and beliefs might look vastly different, the same underlying challenges and desires unite us.
Jamison is known best for The Empathy Exams, an essay collection from 2014 propelled to international attention by way of its opening piece, a memoir-driven, braided essay investigating the idea of empathy. In many ways, the book was an unlikely hit. Sharing little in common with humorous personal essay collections—which often reach wide audiences and hit bestseller lists—The Empathy Exams uses a wild mix of forms and styles. It was research-based and journalistic as often as it was personal and more reminiscent of the work of writers like Baldwin and Didion.
But the magic of The Empathy Exams is simple: Jamison is a stunning writer. She’s an emotionally raw and revealing memoirist; a journalist looking outward with a keen and nuanced eye; a literary critic finding clues to understanding the modern world from the literature of the recent past. In the book, she seems to be Jo Ann Beard, Janet Malcom, and Susan Sontag all wrapped into one. And in the years since its release, The Empathy Exams has become a touchstone; one of those books that other books are frequently compared to.
Last year she published The Recovering, a personal and literary history of alcoholism and recovery. But Make It Scream, Make It Burn is the true follow-up for which fans and interested admirers have been waiting. This level of anticipation rarely bodes well. There are so many ways that a follow-up can disappoint and, as great as it is, Make It Scream, Make It Burn will surely disappoint some.
While The Empathy Exams set its tone by beginning with its most personal essay, Make It Scream begins with one of its least personal: “52 Blue,” the story of a lonely whale, singing its own tune, and the humans who turn the whale into a metaphor. It’s perhaps one of the collection’s best essays, but initially it doesn’t seem like an ideal opener; it’s a slow burn, research-heavy, loaded with exposition. It’s only through the second essay—“We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again,” a piece about past-life claims—that “52 Blue” is put into thematic context and the work it’s done as an opener suddenly becomes obvious.
“I’d grown deeply skeptical of skepticism itself,” Jamison writes in “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again.” “It seemed easier to poke holes in things—people, programs, systems of belief—than to construct them, stand behind them, or at least take them seriously. That ready-made dismissiveness banished too much mystery and wonder.”
It’s the ultimate essayist move: a writer questioning her own questioning; pushing against the act of pushing against. Though she never addresses where the boundaries of open-minded consideration lie, the essay’s bid for mystery and wonder feels exciting, almost ecstatic. It’s here that the book picks up speed and the collection’s larger themes come into focus: the limitations of doubt, how narrative and metaphor operate in our daily lives, and the universal need to believe in self-improvement. She writes, “Reincarnation struck me as an articulation of faith in the self as something that could transform and stay continuous at once—in sobriety, in love, in the body of a stranger.”
Jamison is an expert at restraint. She often holds her opinions back to let her readers come to their own conclusions, and she regularly keeps essays from becoming too personal to ensure the subject at hand isn’t overshadowed. But it’s when she lets the reins out—when she momentarily puts her journalist and literary-critic selves to the side—that her talent becomes more obvious.
In “Layover,” Jamison begins with a simple situation—“This is the story of a layover,” she writes. “Who tells that story? I’m telling it to you now.”—and lets it expand into the universal, like the perfectly impossible textbook definition of a personal essay and what it can do. What begins as a piece about an annoying, overnight layover develops into a piece about the blurry lines between selflessness and selfishness. “Does graciousness mean you want to help—or that you don’t, and do it anyway?” Jamison writes. “The definition of grace is that it’s not deserved. It does not require a good night’s sleep to give it, or a flawless record to receive it. It demands no particular backstory.”
Later in the book, “Rehearsals” opens with a line announcing a certain wildness to come: “Weddings are holiness and booze, sweat under the dress, sweet icing in the mouth.” As unhinged as the best wedding dance party, the essay flips from the second person to first person, bouncing around the country, chronicling the narrator’s experiences as a wedding guest. Beyond its sentence-level play, it manages to also be in conversation with the collection’s ideas about constructing narrative and casting doubt aside. “You feel the lift of wine in you, you feel the lift of wine in everyone, and you’re all in agreement—not to believe in love, but to want to. This, you can do.”
As skeptical as Jamison has become of skepticism, she’s still a skeptic in a certain essayistic sense: she’s always digging deeper, refusing to trust surface appearances, never letting a wedding be just a wedding. “Everyone talks about weddings as beginnings but the truth is they are also endings,” she writes. “They give a horizon to things that have been slowly dissolving for years: flirtations, friendships, shared innocence, shared rootlessness, shared loneliness.”
Despite these gems of forward motion, Make It Scream, Make It Burn doesn’t have the same energy of The Empathy Exams. In large part, it’s simply because the book is so neatly organized. While The Empathy Exams bounced between essay forms, giving it an excitement and unpredictability, this collection is broken up into three sections, with similar essays grouped together. The book is perhaps more coherent because of it, but it also creates spots where the pace slows to a crawl—especially in the middle section, where a series of three art and literary criticism essays bogs the book down, despite each essay working individually.
Still, Make It Scream is easily one of the best essay collections of the year, if not of the past decade. Jamison is a superstar of personal essay for a reason—not only is she a great prose stylist and meticulous researcher, she’s also infinitely curious. It’s this curiosity that makes everything she writes so infectious and makes this collection what it is: a wise and open assortment of essays that, throughout, feels like a gift.
Bonus Links from Our Archive:– Fellow Creatures: Leslie Jamison’s ‘The Empathy Exams’Notes from the Purgatory File: An Interview with Leslie JamisonA Year in Reading: Leslie JamisonBottoming Out: On Leslie Jamison’s ‘The Recovering’The Millions Interview: Leslie Jamison

Confronting Hypocrisy on the Page: On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘We Are the Weather’

The bookseller’s baby was three months old, and when the weather turned colder she realized she owned exactly one pair of pants that fit. We lamented the high cost of ethical clothing and how hard it was to justify when one’s body was in transition. We agreed it was all too easy to give in to the temptation of fast fashion, even though we knew its impacts on the environment and human rights. We bemoaned the hunt for secondhand items—how even though there were so many on sale, there were so few of quality. Neither one of us wanted or needed jeans with bedazzled, leopard-print back pockets.

People I know often bring up the topic clothing because they know I sew and write about slow fashion—sustainable, ethical, and slower approaches to consumption that include handmade garments, buying secondhand, and mending. Recently, I started saying little in return—not because I was at a loss for words, but because everything I could say about the subject of clothing and its impacts on the environment and human rights seemed at once too complicated and eternally insufficient.

It’s all been said.

Which is how I imagine Jonathan Safran Foer felt at the outset of We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. In his latest nonfiction book, the author outlines how the climate crisis can be partially addressed by reexamining, yet again, our consumption of animal products. It’s a natural progression from 2009’s Eating Animals, which combined memoir and investigative reporting to examine factory farming. Yet We Are the Weather is not interested in rehashing the same arguments as much as it is interrogating why we aren’t acting on what we know.

What we know: the four main ways to help save life on the planet are to eat less meat, drive less, fly less, and have one less child. Foer argues most of us rely on cars to get to work, many of us aren’t flying frequently (and giving up one or two flights a year wouldn’t be too difficult or too impactful), and most people aren’t deciding whether or not to have a child (though as a 32- year-old woman, it does seem like everyone is in the midst of that decision).

Out of these four, the one decision we make on a daily basis is what to eat. Another daily decision that isn’t discussed in We Are the Weather but seems worthy of consideration is what to wear.

The food system is a vastly larger animal (pun intended) than the fashion industry when it comes to ecological impact, but the latter’s influence is not insignificant: the UN reports the fashion industry “consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined,” contributes to approximately 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and produces 20 percent of global waste water. Additionally, 85 percent of textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated when most of the materials could be reused. One pair of denim jeans uses 10,000 liters of water, which would take one person a decade to drink.

And yet knowing what we know doesn’t always lead to action.

Foer spent three years researching Eating Animals, followed by two years of readings, lectures, and interviews about the book. Despite this, the author couldn’t bring himself to abstain from eating meat, dairy products, and eggs.

“So it would be far easier for me not to mention that in difficult periods over the past couple of years—while going through some painful personal passages, while traveling the country to promote a novel when I was least suited for self-promotion—I ate meat a number of times,” Foer writes in We Are the Weather. “Usually burgers. Often at airports. Which is to say, meat from precisely the kinds of farms I argued most strongly against.”

He adds, “And my reason for doing so makes my hypocrisy even more pathetic: they brought me comfort.”

Last year, after my mother called to say her flight had been cancelled and she wouldn’t make it for Thanksgiving, I drove to the mall. I gravitated toward rows of shoes. A pair of nude heels called out to me: faux suede, ankle strap sandals with a three-inch block heel and cross toe, marked down to $22, which happens to be my lucky number. I tried them on over socks, took a picture, and texted it to my mother, who was still on the bus home from the airport. Should I buy these? 

I knew I shouldn’t. I knew $22 for a pair of shoes meant somewhere someone had cut corners: not paying workers a living wage, unsafe factory conditions, environmentally unsound practices, or all of the above. I knew the materials were not biodegradable, so the shoes would sit in a landfill for longer than I’d ever wear them. I knew it was impractical to buy high-heeled sandals in Wisconsin in November.

And yet I bought them, wore them exactly twice, and still see them in my closet each day. They brought me comfort when I needed consolation, but the alleviation was short-lived, replaced by the discomforting fact of my complicity and hypocrisy.

In the chapter of We Are the Weather titled “Dispute With the Soul,” Foer laments how one of his friends—“a fellow writer and, what’s more, a passionate environmentalist”—refuses to read Eating Animals. “It upsets me because he is a sensitive thinker who cares and writes about the preservation of nature,” Foer writes. “If he is unwilling even to learn about the connection between eating and the environment, what hope is there for hundreds of millions of people to alter their lifelong habits?”

The chapter is a back-and-forth between the author and an unnamed, unidentified entity, presumably the soul, which asks, “Why won’t he read it?” 

Foer’s reply: “He told me he’s afraid to read the book because he knows that it will require him to make a change he can’t make.”

The author clarifies that he doesn’t intend to make himself out to be better than his friend, but uses “his shortcomings to illustrate my own: if I argue against eating animal products while continuing to eat them myself, then I am a massive hypocrite.” Foer then names this as a problem not because of the impacts of those actions, but because “no one wants to be a hypocrite.”

The author investigates his own hypocrisy by mining history for stories of individuals and collectives, questioning their actions like he interrogates his own. Foer examines whether personal actions matter when the problem is systemic and structural. Everyone I spoke to about the book immediately brought up the same point: our individual habits don’t matter, and focusing on personal responsibility becomes a way of excusing corporations and entire nations whose contributions to the climate crisis are inexcusable.

The title and subtitle seriously oversimplify Foer’s book, and what could be misconstrued as a pedantic and mildly pejorative tome extolling the virtues of veganism is actually an investigation of our daily choices, what they say about us as individuals, and what they could say about humanity. It is not about food so much as it is about life and how to live it, which is fitting as the two are inextricably linked.

Nonfiction is often a presentation of the author’s research tied up with a neat conclusion about what to do with this information. We Are the Weather essentially says: I did the research, I know the conclusion, but I am unable to live into what I know is right and good—not just for me but also for future generations. 

“Confronting my own hypocrisy has reminded me how difficult it is to live—even to try to live—with open eyes,” Foer writes.

Although the environmental impacts of clothing manufacturing are not unpacked in We Are the Weather, Foer collaborated with sustainability-minded designer Stella McCartney on a capsule collection named after the book. It’s not the first time a major label has emblazoned a book’s title on a t-shirt—in 2016, Dior’s first female creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, designed white tees featuring the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists for her inaugural collection. Dior’s feminist shirts will set you back $860, while Foer’s are $530 apiece; their high price tags perpetuate the unfortunate notion that slow fashion or feminism are for those who can afford it, as though they are luxuries.

Reflecting on the collaboration three years later, Adichie told Elle, “A t-shirt is not going to change the world, right? But I think change happens when we spread ideas.”

The building and layering of ideas and stories in the book becomes an implicit reminder that change doesn’t happen overnight. Decisions are daily, and the impacts are revealed over time, many of which are unseen by those who have the privilege of choice, keeping us from implementing any personal, meaningful change. At points, Foer returns to the linguistic roots of words like “crisis,” which “derives from the Greek krisis, meaning ‘decision.’”

“Encoded into our language is the understanding that disasters tend to expose what was previously hidden,” he writes. “As the planetary crisis unfolds as a series of emergencies, our decisions will reveal who we are.”

We’re grappling with who we are as a society and culture—not only to let the climate crisis reach this point, but to continue to hurtle down a terrifying trajectory. We may not know who we are just yet, but we know who we don’t want to be: hypocrites—people who act contradictory to their stated beliefs or feelings.

The word hypocrisy is borrowed from the Greek hypokrisis: playing a part on the stage, pretending to be something one is not. Is it a coincidence that the latter half of hypokrisis is the same root as krisis, a decision?

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
A Year in Reading: Jonathan Safran Foer
Sentimental and Manipulative: On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Here I Am’
Cut and Dry: Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Tree of Codes’
Storytelling: Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Eating Animals’

Modern Feminism’s Big Lie: On ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’

In her debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, New York Times Magazine staff writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner has done something astounding. The astounding thing isn’t that she’s written a book that’s garnered praise in both commercial and literary circles. Although yes, Fleishman Is in Trouble is a true commercial success, a witty New York Times bestseller that’s going to become a limited series on FX. And yes, it’s a literary-world darling, too, making the longlist for the 2019 National Book Award.

The remarkable thing Brodesser-Akner has done is to write a book that offers a sharp critique of the lie fueling modern feminism and is brilliantly disguised as a book about a man.

That man is Toby Fleishman, a 40-something liver doctor going through a divorce from Rachel. Rachel, we learn, is a status-obsessed social climber. Rachel is also the couple’s primary breadwinner (in this echelon of wealth, a medical salary is chump change compared to Rachel’s earnings running a talent agency), and Rachel is the spouse who, at the onset of the novel, drops their two kids off with Toby in the middle of the night before completely disappearing.

So, we follow Toby as he tries to find Rachel and process the end of his marriage and handle his kids and earn a promotion. Then there’s the apps. Newly single Toby has discovered the world of dating apps, a world that is, in the book as in real life, as exciting as it is draining as it is confidence-boosting as it is hilarious as it is deeply depressing.

Brodesser-Akner is equally entertaining and insightful as she judgmentally walks us through Manhattan’s world of the incredibly rich, its uber-alpha, finance-bro husbands and stay-at-home mothers with an endless supply of nannies, yoga pants, and tanks proclaiming “Lipstick & Lunges” and “Nevertheless, She Perspired.” From inside Toby’s mind and world, Brodesser-Akner makes some shrewd, impactful, incredibly funny, and incredibly correct points about class and friendship and marriage and divorce and aging and parenting and love. And there’s a version of this book that could have carried on that way to the end. Fortunately, Brodesser-Akner has written something better.

Which brings me to Libby. Did I mention that Toby’s story—in fact, the whole book—is narrated by Libby, a friend of Toby’s from his college years and a former magazine writer turned Jersey housewife? Libby is easy to overlook for the book’s first half, portrayed mostly as Toby’s omnipresent narrator, rather than an actual character with her own story to tell.

But as the book goes on, Libby becomes a person with her own story—and that story is about a world that stops seeing women as people as they become brides and wives and mothers and, ultimately, personality-less containers we can fill with the familiar, simplified stereotypes we hold about those roles.

Of course, Brodesser-Akner is not the first to tackle how age makes women’s wants and needs and general personhood disappear from the public’s collective mind. Still, there’s something new here. This book is not about women fighting those stereotypes, let alone overcoming them, as such examinations usually become; no one is finding herself here. Instead, Fleishman Is in Trouble is a long-overdue look at women who are disappearing in real time. Women who didn’t realize this would happen to them, too.

Which is to say, from Libby’s story emerges Rachel’s story—which is, of course, more complex and painful than Toby’s version of her story—from which emerges all the stories of the women who once seemed like one-dimensional side characters in a man’s story.

The more the women come into focus, the more compelling the book becomes, to no surprise to anyone who has read Brodesser-Akner’s magazine work. At a time when lots of smart ladies are writing lots of smart things about being a woman, Brodesser-Akner has established herself with a singular ability to write about her gender. A recounting of Rachel’s traumatic delivery of her first child is one of the book’s most haunting and stand-out moments. The fact that afterward Rachel feels most understood by the women she meets in a rape survivor’s group is a damning, but not inaccurate, assessment of all the different ways women’s bodies are violated.

Once the women’s lives are fully realized, readers are left with Rachel, a woman who has thrown her life into her job and winds up unhappy; Libby, who quit her job to become a full-time mother in the suburbs and winds up unhappy; Nahid, a woman Toby meets on a dating app who had no kids and never worked and offered her rich husband lots of sex and winds up unhappy; and Karen Cooper, a hospital patient in a coma because no one was able to diagnose her with a disease that could have been very easy to diagnose by looking her in the eye. And on the list goes until you have to ask: What, exactly, was the path these women were supposed to take to make things turn out differently? How does one escape the pitfalls of being a woman?

And yes, the problem with women is men. Because if you follow any female character’s problems back far enough, you’ll eventually hit a man—a cheating spouse, a sexist boss, etc. But the men are not the enemy. Not exactly. Because the book’s women, on the whole, are just as flawed as the men, and Toby, our leading guy, is never really treated as a villain.

The problem is the lie the women have been fed: that sexism is over and the world is fair and that if a woman plays her cards right, she can avoid disappearing. As narrator Libby explains it, “When Rachel and I were little girls, we had been promised by a liberated society that had almost ratified the Equal Rights Amendment that we could do anything we wanted. We were told that we could be successful, that there was something special about us that we could achieve anything.”

From there comes an absolute evisceration of The Future Is Female t-shirts and other such mantras and commodities that modern feminism feeds us. Really, the whole book is worth reading for this passage alone.

And the problem is the Modern Feminist WomanTM Fleishman’s female characters thought they could become. They thought they could live in a world without the barriers that held back the women who came before them. They thought they had choices and that they could be mothers and workers and do yoga or just wear yoga pants without doing yoga, and they thought that they could Have. It. All. while simultaneously laughing at the idea of having it all. And the women thought this because this was the image of modern feminism they had been sold from their childhood years of Take Your Daughter to Work Day to today’s endless supply of cheap girl-power slogans or even, dare I say it, pussy hats. But for Libby and Rachel, this is part of modern feminism’s big lie. All of it tokens women mistakenly accept in exchange for experiencing the same sorts of barriers that have always held women back. (Of course, if you don’t take the tokens, you’ll hit the barriers anyway.)

At this point, it seems worth stating that Brodesser-Akner has not written an angry book. She has, in fact, written a very funny book, and a compassionate and heartbreaking one, too. Equally apparent, Brodesser-Akner has written a very tired book, which is probably the perfect emotion for any book tackling issues of gender in Trump’s America. Fleishman Is in Trouble is a book that is desperately searching for solutions to the despair of gender disparity that it knows it won’t find —and yet, Brodesser-Akner and her characters helplessly and relentlessly and incredibly charmingly search for them anyway.

Amazing Grace: Reading Kelly J. Beard’s ‘An Imperfect Rapture’

Absolutism is a rhetoric of political convenience, a flashcard deck of judgments with Old Testament swiftness and certainty. Blue collar, white collar, and the billionaire class. Urban and rural. Red state versus blue state. Fact and fable. Each term generates its own litany of forgivable and unforgivable sins. These absolutes efface our desire to understand—a yearning necessary for true intellectual growth and narrative, as Malcolm Heath notes in the introduction to his translation of Aristotle’s Poetics.

Kelly J. Beard’s memoir, An Imperfect Rapture, speaks across the void between those absolutes. The youngest child to a set of parents devoted to each other and the fundamentalist principles of the Foursquare Church, Beard takes the courageous plunge back into the 1960s and ’70s of her youth. As she explores her past, she slowly shines light onto the events that scaffolded her childhood and adolescence: domestic violence, disability, mental illness, addiction, poverty, shame, and the dissonance between the promises of faith and the family’s dire financial straits.

Neither elegy nor ode, neither dirge nor fanfare, Beard’s memoir carefully attunes the harmonic resonances between her memories, her vulnerability, and her own capacity for forgiveness. The first scene presents these elements with a dynamic swell. The opening paragraph is a single sentence—“My mother saw demons.”—a fierce downbeat that pulls the reader into a tangle of fraught intimacies. In this scene, Beard’s mother is confiding in her Bible study group from Palm Spring’s Desert Chapel. As a member of the church’s telephone prayer chain, she received calls to minister to the ill, or to those showing signs of demonic possession: “My mother told the circle of women about a call she received the night before. A boy. A teenager who came home from youth services to find his mother naked, thrashing in the shallow end of the pool, gurgling like a baby.”

Beard’s parents leave their own children at home to minister to her; they “stayed all night, praying with the woman in the pool.” It’s a harrowing story. Yet, through this scene, Beard telegraphs the issues that vexed her early years. Her parents’ dedication to each other and their faith left their children neglected and abandoned—even if the kids were unaware of it at the time. As Beard’s mother recalls the prayer visit to the woman in the pool for her church group, the events of the previous night pulse for Beard with the discomfort of a dull ache:
I thought about Mama waking me the night before, how I’d listened to Daddy peeing in the tiny turquoise and white tiled bathroom across the hall while she told me they were leaving to pray for a lady. I begged to go along. No, she said, we think she’s demon possessed, we can’t let you get that close. The toilet flushed. She disappeared into the dark.

I lay awake the rest of the night, my cotton gown sticky as I listened to my sister’s rhythmic huffs in the bunk below. She slept through everything.
The moment is an otherworldly snapshot of a night in the Beard household, perfectly compressed. The Palm Spring house is claustrophobic—she can hear her father in the bathroom and she is literally bunked snug above her sister. Here, Beard intimates a few truths about her family. Her parents are on a mission, together. They believe in the power of prayer above all else. And for those two things, they’ll leave their children in the dark of night.

Despite this vague awareness, Beard writes, “I knew I was vulnerable. This knowledge kept me pinned to the floor at her feet, week after week, my cheek pressed against the cream-and-black speckled linoleum, the yellow ties of her apron dangling out of reach.”

It’s not hard to imagine Beard as a child reaching for her mother’s apron strings, in the hope of grasping some tether to genuine affection, with true comfort always out of reach.

Vulnerable and hurt, yet patient and forgiving, Beard’s tone throughout the memoir evades the polemical rage of memoirs like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which wield domestic violence, poverty, and substance abuse as an ideological cudgel. As Flannery O’Connor puts it in her essay collection Mystery and Manners, “Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.”

And the Beard family certainly trembles. The children cower if their father wears a certain belt, because they know the slightest accident or indiscretion—something as simple as spilling milk—can provoke him. They endure his physical lashings, alongside the verbal ones doled out by their mother. (While she does not condone the abuse, Beard’s empathy compels her to grapple with her parents’ specters: her father’s impoverished upbringing, her mother’s loneliness.) Beard contends with eyesight bad enough to render her legally blind, but the blessings of modern optometry pale when a prayer meeting seems to heal her sister’s eye: “For my parents, Barb’s experience seemed to dilute the miracle of the half-inch thick glasses that focused my sight.”

But there are perils beyond the household and the church. When Beard’s father loses his job as a salesman for Farmhand equipment, life in Palm Springs becomes untenable. The family uproots for Colorado, then Montana, as her father chases odd jobs (traveling salesman, newspaper routes, ranch hand, and more) to provide a home for the family—not an easy task, for a man well beyond his middle years. Naturally, to resolve this apparent trial of Job, her parents turn to prayer. “And as happened more times than not,” Beard writes, “the answer to their prayers cost more than they expected.” Beard’s mother finds that her credits in a nursing program won’t transfer, and she has to retake classes in Colorado—amplifying her vindictiveness.

To compensate, Beard cycles through a revolving door of friends and experiments with drugs. For another memoirist, it would be easy to resort to a rhetoric of absolutes, of vindictive condemnation. But Beard’s elegant and direct prose teems with complexity and nuance. Moreover, with the benefit of hindsight, the memoir peels back the rind of anger and finds within a morsel of grace.

A pivotal scene demonstrates how the memoir shucks off the visceral, immediate reactions that might occur in real life, in fiction, or in a spur-of-the-moment telling. Beard’s parents had promised that she, then a teenager, could trick-or-treat with her friend Denise; instead, her parents saddle her with humiliating chores and her father beats her. For revenge, she runs off with Denise, and the two bunk away in a dorm room at the University of Colorado. There’s a hint of sexual awakening when, in the dorm room, “Denise and I glanced at each other like newlyweds.” And their time in the dorm lights in her an epiphany that, in the twilight years of her adolescence, will spark a passion for music and creative writing. “[I]t never occurred to me,” Beard writes, “that college could be exciting or anything other than a means to a job like teaching or nursing.” (Here, Beard’s work resembles such kin as Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland or Tara Westover’s Educated: In all of these memoirs, education equips the author with the desire to understand and the capacity to forgive.)

After a few days spent smoking and lingering together in a twin bed, Denise decides to go home, which triggers intense feelings of abandonment and fear: “In my head, I begged please don’t leave me please don’t leave me please don’t leave me.”

The memoir refuses to rage against Denise. Beard ends the scene and the paragraph, stating, “It will take me more than thirty years to see her decision as grace, to understand her mother’s desperate barter.” She glances toward the future, Halloween of 2004, when her own daughter gathers with friends before trick-or-treating. She sees in them a reflection of her young self: “In that moment, an opaque film will dissolve from my inner eye, and I will see in them what I missed in myself: how delicate their limbs, how fragile their lives. I will see the intricate, mostly inarticulate ties binding mother to daughter. I will glimpse an angel.”

What is truly masterful in An Imperfect Rapture, though, is the texture of Beard’s prose and her capacity to inflect each sentence with urgency, insight, and compassion. Like life, narrative involves so many acts of faith, ones that demand us to accept and revel in the fraught and the complex. That Beard transcends righteous anger through an ethic of forgiveness and tolerance—an ethic that demands that readers abandon the easy ideology of absolutes and assumptions—is an added grace of this vital memoir.

Bringing Voices Across Oceans: On Grace Talusan’s ‘The Body Papers’

The term “Asian American” is rooted in 1960s political activism but over the past several years, it has been expanded in use. It is now common to use “Asian American” to describe a literary genre. And although Filipinos are the second largest Asian demographic in the United States, and are the fourth largest immigrant group in the country, the narrative of the Filipino American remains trapped under the broadly stroked term “Asian American.” 

Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers pulls Filipino American memoir to the forefront of Asian American conscience with heartbreaking prose, taking on the impact of immigration, sexual abuse, medical trauma, and the diaspora via the documentation of—and a meditation on—brownness and her body. With conversational lucidity and subtle, direct prose, Talusan unveils an account of suffering—the short-and long-term impacts of unaddressed mental health needs, becoming a citizen, systematic racism, cancer, fertility, and filial piety. Confessional yet unapologetic, The Body Papers shows the lengths to which a writer will go to trace her lineage and find her identity, even if it means crossing oceans to unknown places. She modernizes the Philippine diaspora by peppering Tagalog vernacular in her prose and grounding the essays with medical records, immigration papers, and personal photos. 

With American suburbia and Catholicism as background, Talusan does what many children of immigrants do in adulthood: finally show up for the long awaited reckoning with our childhood memories of acculturation. “Our house was American on the outside, but Filipino on the inside. We left our shoes at the door and wore slippers inside the house. We had a tabo…an electric rice cooker…an altar with statues of the Santo Nino…and we would kneel together as a family…to pray the rosary.” Talusan memorializes the seemingly innocuous details of teenage, pained assimilation: putting hair lightening products in her raven hair, just like her blonde friends, and enduring microaggressions camouflaged as insights from school teachers and counselors who failed to recognize her cultural roots and racialized experience. 

Talusan explores lineage as a survival mechanism. Her documentation status, diaspora, and family dynamics lay groundwork for understanding the egregious sexual abuse she endured from her grandfather who she learns, after telling her family about the abuse, was a “relentless pedophile” whose abuse was protected by generations of silence and secrecy.

“All those years, I thought I was protecting the old man with my silence. I expected my father to beat my grandfather bloody. I thought the old man would be killed. Every day, I thought I’d been saving his life. My parents believed me. They did not seem very surprised to learn of my grandfather’s behavior. And that’s when I realized that he must have done this before. As soon as I told my parents what happened, they warned me to keep it quiet. I can forgive this reaction now—they knew a story could destroy you.”

In a nod to the paradoxes of Filipino American life, The Body Papers oscillates between anecdotes of erasure and hypervisibility—particularly when it comes to racial consciousness. As Talusan ages, she develops a deeper awareness of racial complexity and explores her own complicity and sense of inferiority because of white supremacy. Memories are framed with both leniency and criticism, but Talusan also incriminates herself for not fully grasping how white proximity has padded her anger and has fed her a false illusion of belonging. After she tells her high school counselor she wants her collegiate experience to be a more diverse experience, she uses the term “people of color” for the first time. In response, the white counselor compares his skin to hers, saying his skin, as a white man, is darker. He concludes, “I’m no more a person of color than you are.” 

Talusan investigates her response pattern: first quiet acquiescence that hides her outrage and then, later, self-admonishment for failing to articulate her anger. “I’m still mortified at how I acquiesced. At the time, the development of racial identity was still in the fetal stage. Maybe I wanted him to be right. I also wanted to believe that my life would not be negatively impacted by race. Even now, I wish this were true. As a high school senior, I had no clue how to talk about race to white people. I still have no clue how to navigate that minefield.” And she recognizes the lifelong influence of racial dominance. “Even now, reflexively, I want to protect my relationship with them at the expense of my own feelings. Like them, I’m also steeped in white supremacy.” 

There are multiple forms of trauma and healing processes that take place throughout the memoir. In her mid-30s, Talusan discovers that she has a family history of both breast and ovarian cancers. She opts for a double mastectomy after learning she carries the BRCA1 gene mutation, which marks her as highly vulnerable to a lifetime risk of breast and ovarian cancers. At one point, Talusan’s healing processes overlap: “I felt oddly relieved, I realized, that the part of my body my grandfather had most admired had been severed from me.” And then, after an emotional battle and eventual concession to her husband who does not want children, she decides to have an oophorectomy which ends her dreams of becoming a biological mother.

In this unvarnished, graceful memoir, Grace Talusan delves into the most intimate to tell us unforgettable stories from her body. The Body Papers is a double-ringed narrative where immigration is more than regional displacement, family is both destructive and restorative, and trauma presents and re-presents itself in a number of ways across her lifetime. This astonishingly brave work breathes life into a past that most would hope to forget. Talusan, however, does something different. She offers a meditative tour of immigration, trauma, and family. The Body Papers beats a different drum of triumph and sings a rare song of honesty; the book is an understated marvel that continues to sound even after the story is finished.

László Krasznahorkai Comes Home

This September, Ottilie Mulzet’s superb English translation of László Krasznahorkai’s masterpiece Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming will be published, completing the novel cycle he began with Satantango and continued with The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is the culmination of Krasznahorkai’s labors, a manic Greek chorus that infuses festive Technicolor into his multifaceted, bleak vision. It is Krasznahorkai’s funniest and most profound book and, quite possibly, also his most accessible. Krasznahorkai has hinted that this may be his final novel and, if that’s the case, then it is a tremendous sendoff to one of our most talented writers.

Baron is set in a dead-end Hungarian village riddled with gossips and backstabbers and structured with chapters ominously named after drumbeats. Plastic bags swirl through the air, and a gang of frightening—yet surprisingly human—Neo-Nazi bikers patrol the town. Bitter pomp and fierce one-upmanship reign freely. Everything in this remote village feels strangely universal: everyone blames refugees and “the Gypsies” for all of the country’s ills. Politics are waged in faultfinding and bogus positioning. Then, without explanation, a huge convoy of black luxury cars speeds through town, hypnotizing the residents as they pass. Approximating horsemen of the apocalypse, their procession preludes the village’s downfall.

In a bramble patch just outside town, a world famous professor lives in a hovel fashioned from garbage. The Wittgenstein-like professor has renounced attachment to the world (including, Krasznahorkai points out, his social media apps) and works to purge his thoughts in hopes of attaining his own type of nirvana. The experiment is short lived; he wakes one day to find his long-neglected daughter standing outside his hut, flanked with reporters and accosting him with a bullhorn, demanding he acknowledge her.

Back in town, Baron Béla Wenckheim arrives on the train. Despite his grandiose image, the Baron is befuddled and aloof and is only there because his family paid his horrible gambling debts in South America in exchange for his pledge to disappear and not cause the family further embarrassment. So, in hopes of returning to the place he once knew—and to the woman he once loved—the Baron disembarks only to be greeted with grand fanfare, replete with speeches from both the mayor and the police chief, detailing the ways they will use the funds they mistakenly assume the Baron intends to donate. That the whole thing, like Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, echoes Christ’s Passion is no mistake. The Baron suffers abandonment, accidentally insults the woman he returned to, and, in agony, finds himself wandering in a Gethsemane-like forest, vying for God’s attention. After his exit from the narrative, his clothes are divided and ruined by a homeless mob.

Coinciding with the Baron’s Gethsemane, one of the book’s most striking scenes describes the professor sitting in an empty train station, weighing belief in God. Though he knows he cannot prove—or even necessarily believe—in God, the professor considers the clear repercussions he must accept if the only alternative to our troubled existence is nonexistence. The denial of God is terrifying because the chaos we experience in our individual lives is only a repetition of the blind chaos gripping the universe. Without greater providence, culture is stunted and chaos is the only reality.

Krasznahorkai is an uncommonly generous writer. Even as he teases, maligns, and undermines his characters, he remains empathetic to their plights and blind spots, for he knows that even the most evil deeds are conjured by brokenness. Unable to find solace in the possibility of transcendence, Krasznahorkai’s characters find themselves mired in uneasy limbo, defending themselves from the chaotic world that grips them. And, finally, time runs out. The book’s closing passage is shocking, powerful, hilarious, inevitable, and about the darkest curtain drop one could imagine as the majority of the characters are wiped from existence without much explanation.

Almost every section in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming runs about 70 pages, and these sections flow easily as Krasznahorkai’s meandering prose swaps points of view at each paragraph break, allowing his characters’ opinions to mesh and conflict. Incredible distance is covered in an oddly intimate, if disorienting, way. While this tactic can make a new reader initially seasick, the reader who sticks with it finds the going easier and the rewards many. The emotional and psychological realizations Krasznahorkai can evoke are singular and breathtaking.

In sharp contrast to the perfectly whittled dialogue so prevalent in fiction today, very few direct quotations ever appear in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming. Rather, characters endlessly regurgitate and revise their statements, often describing a single action with two or more verbs in an attempt to either more accurately describe their actions or, more likely, better justify themselves. Perhaps they are being honest in what they report, and perhaps not. We never quite know, for these character’s truest selves—as in real life—remain inscrutable.

This, more than anything else, is what makes Krasznahorkai’s work worth reading. As the world seeks to reduce and streamline communication, and as our attention spans are attenuated by our thirst for digital-world dopamine-hits, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming presents a powerful rebuttal to our infatuation with easy, saccharine anger. We are, all of us, clumsy egomaniacs, and the truth is that things are messy, hard to understand, and almost impossible to pin down. As Krasznahorkai’s ragtag characters struggle forward, he reminds us that the words we speak are mere indicators of our vast, submerged realities.

These days, the general feeling is that the world has moved on from long, difficult novels. They are irrelevant, plodding dinosaurs whose sole purpose is to establish the gravitas of the author behind them. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is the hard reset, capturing our frantic, pessimistic moment with frightening verisimilitude. The style is challenging, yes, but it is not self-serving. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming calls into question our acceptance of the crippling status quo, delivering universal truths in a way that few books can anymore. It is precisely the novel we need in these difficult, foreboding times.

That’s Her in the Spotlight, Losing Her Religion

This Is My Body, Cameron Dezen Hammon’s debut memoir, opens with the author on stage at The Refuge, an evangelical megachurch in a suburb of Houston where she works as worship leader, a role for which she must “look young, but not too young…pretty, but not too pretty.” In front of the stage, a white casket holding an 18-year-old girl sits open, obscured by the colored lights and the fog pouring from a machine backstage. “We’re both objects in this space,” Hammon writes, “the eighteen-year-old girl and me, two different kinds of painted dolls.”

Just before she begins to sing, Hammon’s phone vibrates in her dress pocket as she receives texts from a man she met an arts conference, “a man I might love, who is not the father of my eight-year-old daughter. Not my husband of twelve years.” Meanwhile, beside her on stage, Hammon’s husband, a member of the worship band, strums his guitar and waits for her to begin. “Much of the time these days, I don’t believe what I’m singing,” she writes, “What I believe doesn’t really matter though. I’m here to provide a service, to do a job I’m good at.” The scene culminates in Hammon’s increasing discomfort with both her personal faith and its performance: “I pull my eyebrows together and close my eyes as I sing, an expression of meaningful reflection, an expression I practice often,” she writes. “I close my eyes. I know how to do this. I impersonate someone who believes.”

The opening chapter holds in growing tension the threads we will follow as This Is My Body unfurls with a narrative propulsion that is sustained throughout. As each chapter jumps in place and time—from Houston in 2015 to New York in 2001 to Budapest in 2008—readers are oriented not by chronology or location but by Hammon’s developing sense of her own faith and of herself, as she moves from her “half-Jewish childhood” to a spiritually omnivorous young adulthood; from evangelical megachurches to missionary work abroad; from Bible study groups that promise to “[make] an unhappy marriage work” to group therapy sessions for sex and love addiction.

Wandering through this contemporary wilderness, Hammon displays a knack for memorable scenes and wry observations: in her mid-20s, after contracting HPV from a New York DJ she met “while doing lines of cocaine at a bar on Avenue A,” Hammon converts to Christianity and is baptized by two women in cut-offs and tank tops during a thunderstorm in the glow of Coney Island. “I’m underwater for just one second, maybe two,” she writes, “the briefest instant. Then they pull me to the surface, and I find my feet underneath me again…I’m a Christian now. I am made new…I have a religion now, and a new kind of family. Born again of water and of Spirit, washed by the Spirit and made clean. Clean, finally. It took less than five minutes.”

Her new Christianity requires she leave her old life—”my liberal politics, my shelf of new age books and tarot cards, guiltless sex”—behind. She abandons her years of seeking, giving up Seder, Hanukkah, and Jewish mourning rituals for Bible study and volunteer shifts at a soup kitchen; she swaps her self-help books for a copy of the New Testament. She quits reading her horoscope and throws out her crystals. “I began to walk the paces of what I believed was a religious life, a good life. I supplanted the rhythms of my childhood with the rhythms of the evangelical church. Maybe the person I should have been sitting Shiva for was me.”

In Budapest, where Hammon has travelled with her husband and two-year-old daughter to evangelize through street performances, she feels an increasing discomfort with the prescribed roles and the “subtle and not-so-subtle misogyny of religious men” she finds in the evangelical community. This misogyny—in churches that allow women to “speak” but not “preach”—should not come as a surprise to readers, but the particularities of Hammon’s experience bring the effect of these slights, big and small, to life. Her frustration at being expected to cook and clean for her fellow missionaries sits alongside the condescension of pastors who touch her inappropriately, pay her less than her male counterparts, and advise her on her wardrobe by quoting from the Bible: “Do not cause another to stumble.”

Hammon also struggles with evangelism itself. In one particularly striking scene, while performing music and sharing testimony in a public park, Hammon takes shelter from a storm with a group of Polish travelers who’ve been playing Hacky Sack in the park and listening to her and her husband perform all day. One of the young men succinctly appraises American evangelism, saying, “when you guys, Americans, come here to Europe and get on the microphone to talk about your religion—it sucks, man.”

Running parallel to her spiritual seeking, Hammon explores motherhood, her relationship with her husband, her infidelity, and her growing sense of her own feminism. Hammon’s strikingly contemporary reflections about her treatment in conservative churches—where she was once groped by an older pastor, was offered a lower salary than her male counterparts, and was fired and replaced with a male singer—make her story a particularly salient one for this particular moment, in the wake of the #MeToo Movement, when the white evangelical church has openly aligned itself with a president and a political party that systematically denigrates, criminalizes, and imprisons the “least of these.”

Though This Is My Body is described as a spiritual memoir, the heart of Hammon’s searching often centers around faith’s container—whether it comes in the form of a synagogue, a church, or a group therapy session. As a preacher’s kid, I empathized with Hammon’s sense of being chronically out of place; too God-haunted for secular circles and too skeptical for any church she tries to make her home. But sometimes I wondered whether Hammon might be searching for a perfect fit in inherently—and often deeply—flawed spaces. In the book’s early pages, Hammon recalls a moment a few months before her baptism, when she asks Sabrina, the woman who would soon immerse her in the choppy waters of the Atlantic, “How could God be so good if his people were so awful?” “God is not the church,” Sabrina responds. “The church is made of people and people fail.”

As the child of a father who was Jewish and a mother who was not, Hammon writes that she was never considered “really Jewish.” She recalls swooning over the ornaments of a faith that was not quite fully hers: “the lilting, minor-key prayers…the syrupy-sweet smell of the Manischewitz wine and the delicately embroidered linens that covered golden loaves of challah.” She remembers a rabbi pulling her away from her friends as they prepared to carry the Torah into the service. “He’d figured out that I was not a real Jew,” she writes. That early experience of exclusion sticks with her: “I was hooked, not on Judaism but on religion in general—on something so magical and important that I was forbidden from participating in it.”

It is this longing for participation, for membership that animates Hammon’s search for a faith community that will affirm her call to ministry—not despite her gender, her talents, and her flaws, but because of them.

“Being good, doing good, following the rules, any rules—this is probably the thing I’ve been most consistently addicted to in my life, truth be told,” Hammon writes. But it is only in sex and love addiction meetings—and in the burgeoning friendships with the women she meets there—that Hammon is able to be honest about her desires and her transgressions without being rejected, shamed, or silenced. In the end, Hammon finds her search for faith sustained not by checking boxes or following rules but by keeping her eyes open to God, however God appears: “Fractured bits of experience, memory, beauty that open into something larger.”

From Father Divine to Jim Jones: On the Phenomenon of American Messiahs

“And you can call me an egomaniac, megalomaniac, or whatever you wish, with a messianic complex. I don’t have any complex, honey. I happen to know I’m the messiah.” —Rev. Jim Jones, FBI Tape Q1059-1

“There’s a Starman, waiting in the sky/He’d like to come and meet us/But he thinks he’d blow our minds.” —David Bowie

Philadelphia, once the second-largest city in the British Empire, was now the capital of these newly united states when the French diplomat and marquis François Barbé-Marbois attended a curious event held at the Fourth Street Methodist Church in 1782. Freshly arrived in the capital was a person born to middling stock in Cuthbert, R.I., and christened as Jemima Wilkinson, but who had since becoming possessed with the spirit of Jesus Christ in October of that revolutionary year of 1776 been known as “The Comforter,” “Friend of Sinners, “The All-Friend,” and most commonly as “Public Universal Friend,” subsequently wearing only masculine garments and answering only to male pronouns. Such is the description of the All-Friend as given by Adam Morris in American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation, where the “dark beauty of the Comforter’s androgynous countenance” appeared as a “well-apportioned female body cloaked in black robes along with a white or purple cravat, topped by a wide-brimmed hat made of gray beaver fur.” Reflecting back on the theophany that was responsible for his adoption of the spirit of Christ, the Public Universal Friend wrote about how the “heavens were open’d And She saw too [sic] Archangels descending from the east, with golden crowns upon there heads, clothed in long white Robes, down to their feet.”

Even though the Quakers, with their reliance on revelation imparted from an “Inner Light,” were already a progressive (and suspect) denomination, heresy such as All-Friend’s earned his rebuke and excommunication from the church of his childhood. But that was of no accordance, as the Public Universal Friend would begin a remarkably successful campaign of evangelization across war-torn New England. Preaching a radical gospel that emphasized gender equality and communalism, All-Friend was the leader of an emerging religious movement and a citizen of the new Republic when he arrived at the very heart of Quakerism that was Philadelphia, where he hoped to convert multitudes towards this new messianic faith.  

Barbé-Marbois was excited to see the new transgendered messiah, writing that “Jemima Wilkinson has just arrived here…Some religious denomination awaited her with apprehension, others with extreme impatience. Her story is so odd, her dogmas so new, that she has not failed to attract general attention.” All-Friend was not impressed by rank or pedigree, however, and having been tipped off to the presence of the marquise among the congregation, he preceded to castigate Barbé-Marbois, declaring that “Do these strangers believe that their presence in the house of the Lord flatter me? I disdain their honors, I scorn greatness and good fortune.” For all of the All-Friend’s anger at the presence of this sinner in his temple, Barbé-Marbois was still charmed by the messiah, writing of how All-Friend “has chosen a rather beautiful body for its dwelling…beautiful features, a fine mouth, and animated eyes,” adding that his “travels have tanned her a little.” Though he also notes that they “would have burned her in Spain and Portugal.”

Such is the sort of spectacular story that readers will find in Morris’s deeply research, well-argued, exhaustive, and fascinating new book. A San Francisco-based translator and freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Salon, Morris’s first book provides a counter-history of a shadow America whose importance and influence are none-the-less for its oddity. In a narrative that stretches from the All-Friend and his heterodox preaching as the last embers of the First Great Awakening died out, through case-studies that include the 19th-century Spiritualist messiahs of Thomas Lake Harris and Cyrus Teed (the later known to his followers as “Koresh” after the Persian king in the Hebrew Scriptures); the massive real-estate empire of Harlem-based Father Divine and his racially egalitarian Peace Mission; and finally the dashed promise and horror of Jim Jones and the massacre of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project at Jonestown, Guyana in 1978, which took 900 lives and was the most brutal religiously based murder in American history until 9/11. Morris doesn’t just collect these figures at random, he argues that “a direct lineage connects Anne Lee, the Shaker messiah who arrived to American shores in 1774, to Jim Jones, the holy-rolling Marxist,” making his claim based not just on similar ideological affinities but often times with evidence of direct historical contact as well, a chain of messianic influences starting at the very origin of the nation and functioning as a subversive counter-melody to the twin American idols of the market and evangelicalism.

Often dismissively rejected as “cult leaders,” these disparate figures, Morris argues, are better understood as the founders of new religions, unusual though they may seem to us. In this contention, Morris draws on a generation of religious studies scholars who’ve long chafed at the analytical inexactitude of the claim that some groups are simply “cults” composed of easily brain-washed followers and paranoid charlatan leaders with baroque metaphysical claims; a sentiment that was understandable after the horror of Jonestown, but which neglects the full complexities and diversity of religion as a site for human meaning. America has had no shortage of groups, both malicious and benign, that sought to spiritually transform the world, and denounce the excesses and immoralities of American culture, while sometimes surpassing them and embracing convoluted theological claims.

In new religious movements there is a necessary radical critique of inequity and injustice; as Jonestown survivor Laura Kohl recalls, the utopian impulse that motivated the Peoples’ Temple was originally “at the very cutting edge of the way we wanted society to evolve. So we wanted to be totally integrated and we wanted to have people of every socio-economic level, every racial background, everything, all included under one roof.” When their experiment began, people like Kohl couldn’t anticipate that it would end with mass suicide instigated by an increasingly paranoid amphetamine addict, because in the beginning “we were trying to be role models of a society, of a culture that was totally inclusive and not discriminatory based on education or race or socio-economic level. We all joined with that in mind.”

Such is the inevitable tragedy of messianism—it requires a messiah. Whatever the idealistic import of their motivations, members of such groups turned their hopes, expectations, and faith towards a leader who inevitably would begin to fashion himself or herself as a savior. Whether you slur them as “cults,” or soberly refer to them as “new religions,” such groups stalk the American story, calling to mind not just industrious Shakers making their immaculate wooden furniture in the 19th century, but also Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh looking positively beatified in his follower-funded Mercedes Benz, Marshall Applewhite dead in his Nikes awaiting the Hale Bop Comet to shepherd Heaven’s Gate to astral realms, and David Koresh immolated with 75 of his fellow Branch Davidians after an eight-week standoff with the FBI and the ATF.

While it would be a mistake to obscure the latent (and sometimes not-so-latent) darkness that can lay at the core of some of these groups—the exploitation, megalomania, and extremism—Morris convincingly argues that simply rejecting such groups as cults does no service to understanding them. This sentiment, that some religions are legitimate while others are irretrievably “cults,” is often mouthed by so-called “deprogrammers,” frequently representatives of evangelical Christian denominations or sham psychologists whose charlatanry could compete with that of the founders of these new faiths themselves. Morris claims that part of what’s so threatening about the figures he investigates, and not other equally controlling phenomena from Opus Dei to the Fellowship, is that unlike those groups, leaders like Ann Lee, Father Divine, and even Jones provided a “viable alternative to the alienation of secularized industrial urbanism, and a politico-spiritual antidote to the anodyne mainline Protestantism that increasingly served as a handmaiden to big business.”

For Morris, such figures and groups are genuinely countercultural, and for all of their oftentimes tragic failings, they’ve provided the only genuine resistance to the forward march of capitalism in American history. These groups are seen as dangerous in a way that Opus Dei and the Fellowship aren’t because they so fully interrogate the basic structures of our society in a manner that those more accepted cults don’t, in part because those mainstream groups exist precisely to uphold the ruling class. As Teed wrote, “Christianity… is but the dead carcass of a once vital and active structure. It will rest supine till the birds of prey, the vultures and cormorants of what is falsely called liberalism have picked its bones of its fleshly covering leaving them to dry to bleach and decompose.”

“Far more than their heretical beliefs,” Morris writes, it is the “communistic and anti-family leanings of American messianic movements [that] pose a threat to the prevailing socio-economic order.” Lee may have thought that she was the feminine vessel for the indwelling presence of Christ, but she also rejected the speculation-based industrialization wreaking havoc on the American countryside; Teed believed that the Earth was hollow and that we lived in its interior, but he also penned cognoscente denunciations of Gilded Age capitalism, and modeled ways of organizing cooperative communities that didn’t rely on big business; Father Divine implied that he ascended bodily from heaven, but he also built a communally owned empire that included some of the first integrated businesses and hotels in the United States; and Jones claimed that he was variously the reincarnation of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, the Buddha, Christ, and Vladimir Lenin, but he was also a staunch fighter against segregation and he and his wife were the first Indiana couple to adopt an African-American child. Such inconsistencies don’t invalidate these figures legitimate beliefs, but they make the ultimate conclusion of how many of these movements all the more tragic because of them.

Though not expressly stated this way by Morris, there is a sense in American Messiahs that the titular figures are both the most and least American of us. The least because they embrace a utopian communism anathema to the national character, and the most because what could be more boot-strapping in its rugged individualism than declaring yourself to be a god? Such are the paradoxes inherent in a commune run by a king (or queen). These new religions steadfastly reject the cutthroat avarice that defines American business in favor of a subversive collectivism. At the center of the social theory and economics of every group, from the Universal Friends to the Peoples’ Temple, is a model of communal living, with Morris writing that such organization “represents the ultimate repudiation of the values and institutions that Americans historically hold dear: it rejects not only the sacrosanct individualism on which American culture thrives, but also the nuclear family unit that evolved alongside industrial capitalism.”

In this way, whether in a Shaker commune or one of Father Divine’s Peace Missions, the intentional community offers “an escape from the degrading alienation of capitalist society by returning—once more—to cooperative and associative modes of living modeled by the apostolic church.” But at the same time, there is the inegalitarian contradiction of allowing a woman or man to be preeminent among the rest, to fashion themselves as a messiah, as a type of absolute CEO of the soul. Such is the marriage of the least American of collectivisms combined with a rugged individualism pushed to the breaking point. And so, America is the land of divine contradictions, for as Harris wrote in his manifesto Brotherhood of the New Life “I have sought to fold the genius of Christianity, to fathom its divine import, and to embody its principles in the spirit and body of our own America.”

Despite the antinomian excesses of theses messiahs, Morris is correct in his argument that the social and economic collectivism promoted and explored by such groups are among the most successful instances of socialism in the United States. A vibrant radical left in America has always been under attack by both capital and the government, so that enduring instances of socialism more often find themselves in a religious context than in a secular one, as failed communes from Brook Farm to Fruitland can attest to. Additionally, because it was the reform-minded French sociologist “Charles Fourier, rather than Karl Marx, who set the agenda of socialist reform in antebellum America,” as Morris writes, there was never the opportunity for a working-class, secular communist party to develop in the United States as it did in Europe. Into that void came sects and denominations that drew freely from America’s religious diversity, marrying Great Awakening evangelism to early modern occultism and 19th-century spiritualism so as to develop heterodox new faiths that often cannily and successfully questioned the status quo; what Morris describes as a “nonsectarian, ecumenical Christian church rebuilt around Christian principles of social justice [that] could be an instrument of radical social reform.”

And though their struggles for racial, gender, and class egalitarianism are often forgotten, Morris does the important job of resuscitating an understanding of how groups from the Shakers to Teed’s Koreshan Unity functioned as vanguards for progressive ideals that altered the country for the better. In ways that are both surprising and crucial to remember, such groups were often decades, if not centuries, ahead of their fellow Americans in embracing the axiom that all people are created equal, and in goading the nation to live up to its highest ideals, while demonstrating the efficacy of religious movements to effect social change and to demonstrate that there are alternative ways to structure our communities. After all, it was in the 18th century that Shakers taught a form of nascent feminism and LGBTQ equality, with their founder Mother Ann Lee publicly praying to “God, Our Mother and Father.”

In groups like the Shakers and the Society of Universal Friends there was an “incipient feminism, which continued to develop” and that defined American messianism over the centuries in the attraction of a “predominantly female following often through promises of equal rights among the faithful.” Women were able to find leadership positions that existed nowhere else in American society at the time, and they also would be emancipated from mandated domestic drudgery and abuse, allowing them an almost unparalleled freedom. As Morris notes, “For the tens of thousands of Americans who attended [these revivals], it was likely the first time any had ever seen a woman permitted to stand at a public lectern.” To read the radicalism of such a spectacle as mere performance, or to ignore their subversive language as simple rhetoric, is to deny that which is transgressive, and perhaps even redemptive, in figures otherwise marginalized in our official histories. An 18th-century church acknowledges the evils of misogyny, and made its rectification one of its chief goals. Nineteenth-century new religions denounced institutional racism from the pulpit long before emancipation. There is admittedly something odd in Spiritualist churches holding seances where the spirits of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington would possess mediums and speak to the assembled, but the fact that those founders then “tended to express regret for their participation in the slave economy, and advanced that a more temperate and egalitarian society would ease the heavenward path of American Christians” isn’t just an attempt at rationalization or absolution, but an acknowledgement of deep historical malignancies in our society that people still have trouble understanding today.

Regarding America’s shameful history of racial inequality, many of these so-called messiahs were often far ahead of conventional politics as well. Father Divine’s Peace Missions are an illustrative example. Possibly born to former slaves in Rockville, Md., and christened George Baker Jr., the man who would come to be called Father Divine studied the emerging loose movement known as “New Thought” and developed his own metaphysics grounded in egalitarianism and the same adoptionist heresy that other pseudo-messiahs had embraced, namely that it was possible to be infused with the spirit of Christ in a way that made you equivalent to Christ. Furthermore, as radical as it was to see a woman preaching, it was just as subversive for Americans to imagine Christ as a black man, but Father Divine’s mission was suffused with the belief that “if God first chose to dwell among a people dispossessed of their land and subject to the diktats of a sinful empire, it was logical for him to return as an African American in the twentieth century.”

Morris explains that it was Father Divine’s contention, as well as that of the other messiahs, that “Such a church might rescue the nation from its spiritual stagnation and the corresponding failure to live up to its democratic ideals.” At the height of the Great Depression, Father Divine built a racially integrated fellowship in a series of communally owned Peace Missions that supplied employment and dignity to thousands of followers, composed of “black and white, rich and poor, illiterate and educated.” His political platform, which he agitated for in circles that included New York City Republican (and sometimes Socialist) mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, as well as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, included laws requiring insurance, caps on union dues, the abolition of the death penalty, banning of assault weapons, and the repeal of racially discriminatory laws. Even while Morris’s claim that “Father Divine was the most well-known and influential civil rights leader on the national stage between the deportation of Marcus Garvey and the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr.” might need a bit more exposition to be convincing, he does make his case that this enigmatic and iconoclastic figure deserves far more attention and credit than he’s been given.

At times American Messiahs can suffer a bit from its own enthusiasm. It’s always an engaging read, but Morris’s claims can occasionally be a bit too sweeping. After reading quotations from pseudo-messiahs like Teed’s, when he writes that “The universe, is an alchemico-organic dynamo… Its general form is that of the perfect egg or shell, with its central vitellus at or near the center of the sphere,” such exhaustive litanies become exhausting, because strange cosmologies are, well, strange. When you read about the course of study at Teed’s College of Life, where for $50 participants could learn “analogical biology and analogical physiology, disciplines that taught the ‘laws of universal form,'” you can’t help but wish that just a smidgen more cynicism was expressed on Morris’s part. There is an admirability that Morris takes such figures on their own accord, but it’s hard to not approach them with some skepticism. When it comes to hucksters claiming to be possessed by the indwelling presence of God, it’s difficult not to declare that sometimes a crank is a crank is a crank, and a nutcase by any other name would still smell of bullshit.

Still, Morris’s argument that we have to understand the messiahs as instances of often stunningly successful countercultural critique of American greed and inequity is crucial, and he’s right that we forget those lessons at our own peril. If we only read Teed for his bizarre anti-Copernican cosmology positing that we live within the Earth itself, but we forget that he also said that the “question for the people of to-day to consider is that of bread and butter. It must henceforth be a battle to the death between organized labor and organized capital,” than we forget the crucial left role that such groups have often played in American history. Even more important is the comprehension that such groups supplied a potent vocabulary, a sacred rhetoric that often spoke to people and that conceived of the political problems we face in a manner more astute and moving than simple secular analysis did. It’s not incidental that from the Shakers to the Amish, when it comes to successful counter-cultures, it’s the religious rather than the secular communes that endure. When Father Divine’s follower who went by the name John Lamb said that “The philosophies of men…were inadequate to cope with humanity’s problems,” he’s wisely speaking a truth just as accurate today as during the Great Depression when “clouds of tyranny” were wafting in from Europe. Say what you will about Morris’s messiahs, they were often woman and men who understood the score, and posed a solution to those problems regardless of how heterodox we may have found their methods.

Morris writes that “The American messianic impulse is based on a fundamentally irrefutable truth first observed by the Puritans: the injustices of capitalist culture cannot be reformed from within.” You can bracket out your theories of a hollow Earth and your spirit medium seances, but that above observation is the only one worth remembering. A profound lesson to be learned from the example of the women and men who most steadfastly lived in opposition to those idols of American culture. And yet, we can’t forget where the excesses of such opposition can sometimes lead—it’s hard not to wash the taste of the poisoned Kool-Aid of Jonestown from our mouths. With such a tragic impasse, what are those of us who wish there were utopias supposed to do? The great failure of these egalitarian experiments is that they paradoxically ended up enshrining a figure above the rest, that in rejecting American individualism they strangely embraced it in its purest and most noxious forms. If we can all look into those stark, foreboding mirror sunglasses favored by Jim Jones to conceal his drug-addled and bloodshot eyes, I don’t wonder if what we see isn’t our own reflections staring back at us, for good and ill. Perhaps there is an answer in that, for in that reflection we can see not just one man, but rather a whole multitude. What’s needed, if possible, is a messianism without a messiah.

Memory Can Be a Second Chance: Ocean Vuong’s ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’

“What happened happened–but it isn’t fixed in the ongoing story of our lives,” Jeanette Winterson wrote of regret, recollection, and lost love, “Memories can be tools for change. They don’t have to be weapons used against us or baggage that we drag around.”

Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong stakes his debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, on a similar premise: the hope that, in the writer’s own words, “Memory can be a second chance.”

Thoughtful and tender, this autobiographical novel is framed as a letter from a son, Little Dog, to his illiterate single mother, Rose. Across three expansive parts Little Dog reflects on his turbulent youth spent in Hartford, Connecticut, and hopes that the act of remembering family history through writing might heal longstanding wounds and bring parent and child closer together. Sketching a moving portrait of a fraught bond, Vuong meditates on the powers of storytelling and reckons with the legacy of collective trauma.

“Dear Ma,” Little Dog begins, “I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.” A quick procession of vignettes follows: the narrator’s mother stares in horror at a taxidermy buck, she shops with him at a 50-percent-off sale at Goodwill, she beats him at age 13 for the final time. Lasting at most a few paragraphs, these scenes of affection and abuse detail the nuances of the pair’s bond, and they alternate with Little Dog’s reflections on literature, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the migratory habits of monarch butterflies.

As a mosaic of portraiture, self-representation, and philosophical musing, the opening chapter signals what lies ahead: a fragmented, elliptical text that moves around in time and considers the emotional toll of war and displacement upon Vietnamese Americans. In poetic prose, Little Dog’s letter charts not just his coming-of-age story but also the sorrows and desires of those closest to him.

In the book’s first part, which focuses on his childhood, the narrator brings to life the personalities of his separated grandparents. Across chapters he recalls how his grandmother Lan showered him with warmth and stories about her life in Vietnam, “tales cycling one after another.” He also recounts the long summer days he spent in Virginia gardening with his grandfather Paul, a “white man with watery eyes” and a “shy and sheepish” personality. Paul and, especially, Lan acted as guardians for the lonesome and fatherless child, whose mother ceaselessly worked at the local nail salon. The pair’s acts of kindness and family lore helped the boy navigate a childhood fraught with intergenerational trauma, guiding him toward an understanding of his place in history as a first-generation Vietnamese-American immigrant.

Through the lens of his grandparents’ relationship, Little Dog examines the history of the Vietnam War. At the height of the conflict, the two met by chance in a bar and found common ground, “both having been brought up by the ‘sticks’ of their respective countries.” Little Dog avoids addressing why they separated, mystifying their backstory. He instead records at length the memories they shared with him of the harrowing time; through writing, he lends their stigmatized love a second life, and testifies to the damage the imperialist war wrought upon Vietnamese society.

Roam among other recollections as he might, Little Dog returns again and again to the intense bond between him and his mother. “In Vietnamese, we rarely say I love you,” he notes, “Care and love, for us, are pronounced clearest through acts of service.” While Rose exceled at providing for her son, she rarely verbalized her love, and her fits of rage scarred him. With words, an adult Little Dog drains those memories of their power to wound him, recognizing his mother’s abuse as having been rooted in the trauma of growing up in a war-torn country.

So, too, does Little Dog seek solace in the knowledge that he helped his mother endure life in America. Having immigrated to the States as a toddler, Little Dog found himself playing the role of the “family’s official interpreter,” forced to “fill in our blanks, silences, stutters, whenever I could.” Compelled to code switch and traverse cultures, the boy learned to expertly wield English for his mother’s sake as well as his own: school bullies mocked him as effeminate and foreign, until he started to speak up.

“Memory is a choice,” the narrator asserts as he shifts to the letter’s second part, in which he recounts his first romance. If domestic drama and a fierce attachment to family defined his youth, he opts to frame his adolescence in terms of an attempt to escape a home full of pain and a history soaked with violence.

The summer he turned 14, Little Dog remembers, his sexuality blossomed after he found his first job on a tobacco farm. He quickly fell in love with Trevor, the rough-edged grandson of the farm’s owner, who worked the field to escape his “vodka-soaked old man” and dilapidated mobile home. The narrator constructs his first experience of love and labor as inextricable from each other. Together, work and romance introduced him to a seductive new world, promising independence from his mother’s outbursts and his bigoted classmates’ taunts.

Intoxicated with nostalgia, Little Dog reveals to Rose how he and Trevor trekked about the margins of Hartford for the next two years, connected to each other through their shared status as outsiders as well as their hatred of their absentee fathers. At a mesmerizing pace, Little Dog speeds through memories of late-night strolls, inexhaustible conversations, covert sex, and hits of weed and cocaine. Embedded within the narrative are bittersweet, lush descriptions of Hartford’s countryside. Just as a common rural background facilitated Lan and Paul’s romance in Vietnam, the boys bonded over their exclusion from and anger toward their town’s well-adjusted white suburbs.

The narrator makes clear that oppression and internalized shame still shadowed the relationship. Under the sway of Hartford’s toxic masculinity, Trevor conflated bottoming with femininity, femininity with weakness, weakness with all that wasn’t white and male; he demanded Little Dog always assume the submissive role in sex, insisting, “it’s for you. Right?”  Little Dog’s hope that queer love might prove a shelter from abuse collapsed; his community’s rampant racism, sexism, and homophobia thoroughly shaped his bond with Trevor. “I had thought sex was to breach new ground,” Little Dog regrets, “that as long as the world did not see us, its rules did not apply. But I was wrong.” The pain of the scene is palpable, as it is when Trevor hopes they’ll “be good in a few years,” transformed from melancholic queers into happy heterosexuals.

As Little Dog prepares for college, the fantasy of first love collapses, though the boys part amiably. Only in the book’s final part, when Trevor starts to abuse opioids, does the relationship spin out of control. Mapping out the bond’s complexities through language, Little Dog makes peace with its alternately euphoric and sorrowful prime as well as its tragic end.

Nightmarish memories of abuse endured during childhood punctuate these sections. In an especially brutal passage Little Dog, now referring to himself and his mother in the third person, describes the time he forgot to clean up his plastic toys, for which she “blasted the side of his head.” That distressing interludes such as this occur so frequently gestures toward the long-lasting aftereffects of the narrator’s early trauma.

“And then I told you the truth,” Little Dog notes at the novel’s midpoint. On a rainy day inside a Dunkin’ Donuts, near the end of high school, he confessed his sexuality to his exasperated mother, who responded in turn, “You don’t have to go anywhere. It’s just you and me, Little Dog. I don’t have anyone else.” The coming-out scene is literally centered in the narrative, but it occurs chapters before the climax; resisting the conventions of the go-to queer narrative, the novel refuses to conflate coming of age with coming out. Over the course of the letter’s second half, Little Dog shifts to reflecting on how he and Rose began to repair trust in the revelation’s wake.

Little Dog’s musings are tinged with sadness. The letter is explicitly framed as an attempt to heal wounds between mother and son and bring them closer together, and heartbreakingly, he’s sharing with Rose for the first time the secrets of his relationship with Trevor, one of his most important teenaged bonds.

While rarely citing his sources, Little Dog navigates troubling topics by using as guideposts the works of a diverse mix of writers. In a discussion of beauty, memory, and hope, for instance, he refers to the thesis of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just: “I read that beauty has historically demanded replication. We make more of anything we find aesthetically pleasing.” Through such allusions he frames himself as curious, open minded, and in conversation with a vast body of literature.

As one of this decade’s only works of fiction written by a queer Vietnamese-American author and published by a large press, the novel offers a viewpoint long underrepresented in mainstream American fiction. The work registers frustration with the limitations of white literary standards, pointing out that hegemonic standards of taste prescribe, “to be political is to be merely angry, and therefore artless, depthless, ‘raw,’ and empty.”

As with the autofiction of Qiu Miaojin, epigraphed in the front matter, the epistolary novel blurs the line between art and life. Like Little Dog, the author grew up in Hartford, attended Brooklyn College, and recently reached the end of his 20s. The text invites readers to identify Little Dog as a fictionalized version of Vuong, even as it leaves unanswered the question of how “constructed” the story really is.

“By writing,” the author-narrator posits to his mother, “I change, embellish, and preserve you all at once.” Regardless of the truth-value assigned to On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the work’s an affecting meditation on immigration, violence, family, and love, as well as a thoughtful exploration of the ways in which writing can reshape the self’s relationship to others and the past. With grace and insight, Vuong contemplates how memory can act as a tool for change, and establishes himself as a promising novelist.

Death Liberates in a Danish Master’s New Novel

Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time, beautifully translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, tells the story of “L. Høy, Schoolteacher,” as she’s introduced to the reader on the book’s first page. Her story is told in the form of a diary, recounting events in her life primarily from 1927 through 1934. The story is centered around the death of her husband, the traveling doctor Vigand Bagge, and her response to this loss; we watch as L. Høy, or Fru Bagge as she’s called throughout much of the text, slowly comes out of her grief and into her new life. As the story progresses, the reader gets an increasingly fuller sense of this woman—of the vibrant life of her mind, of the great trials and frustrations of her marriage, and of what it is she’d truly like her life to be.

The text shines as an honest reckoning with the death of a spouse—but one in a deeply companionless marriage—and the life of two people who shared little but space. We see a woman working through her conflicted feelings in real time: the wrestling with who her husband was and the form their marriage took; the remembrance of things she genuinely loved about him; her regrets about their life together; her wishes that things had been different (and imaginings of what would have made things different); and the deep loneliness that still descends upon her in his absence. There are no easy answers, even as our narrator finds a certain measure of freedom and independence that her repressive, distant, self-absorbed husband refused her.

There’s a passage from the October 19 entry of Fru Bagge’s diary, only three days after she received the phone call delivering the news that her husband died in hospital, in which the reader sees her doing this kind of wrestling in real time. She begins by recounting how committed Vigand was to avoiding being a nuisance to people, and how “he could be rudely offensive in order to avoid it.” She then turns inward toward their relationship:
Such an idea is of course in every respect honorable, and yet one may ask whether the right to be a nuisance ought not to be a human right? What if we were to eradicate every nuisance? Who would then be left?

Moreover, I have wished more than anything else that he would make a nuisance of himself to me.
She then backtracks: “Not that he never did. He was a nuisance. Just not in a way I could understand. A man who needed my help, his nuisance I would have understood. But perhaps then it would not have been a nuisance at all. I have never thought of it like that before.” This passage rings true in that it reflects the ebbs and flows of recollection, the processes of working-through. It’s no straight path of self-discovery, but a winding search for understanding and self-knowledge. Through it all, Fru Bagge’s deep, earnest desire for companionship shines through, even as she wrestles with what she wishes her husband, and her marriage, could have been.

As the days and weeks go on, the diary becomes more self-reflective and focused on memory—we hear much more about what brought her to the town, what her life as a schoolteacher was like, and what sort of companionship she found with the people of the town. The diary reads as an honest personal audit at a moment of change in the narrator’s life: Who have I been? To whom have I been a blessing and to whom a curse? These questions are rarely expressed explicitly, which sets this book apart: The personal reckoning is performed by recounting a life, not via vague existential questioning.

Jessen is a tremendously gifted writer, and as the book progresses—with our narrator gaining more distance from the death of her husband—we glimpse what our narrator’s life becomes, and the writing really shines. Jessen, the Danish translator of Marilynne Robinson, among others, proves to have a keen Robinsonian streak of her own. She writes with the same narrative generosity, the same belief in the dignity and voice of characters that might usually be dismissed. Fru Bagge writes of herself in her grief, “I haven’t the inclination to look people in the eye, nor not to. I find myself in a state of shame,” and you can imagine the titular character of Lila expressing a similar sentiment. As Fru Bagge recounts a sermon by the small-town pastor—“Salvation…gives us solace, in that it does not take from us our grief, unlike happiness, which glints and glitters and is disinterested in everything but itself”—you can imagine it coming from the mouth of John Ames in Gilead.

What can occasionally get lost in work in Robinson’s tradition is a certain concreteness; as writers seek to emulate the sort of spiritual musings and fully-realized interiority that Robinson writes so well, they sometimes neglect the physical space their characters inhabit. Never Jessen. This work is firmly grounded, quite literally. The landscape, the heath surrounding Thryegod, the rural town in Western Denmark where our narrator resides, is a character in and of itself. The natural world is not neutral, simply a landscape about which our narrator feels comfortable waxing poetically. Rather, it acts on our narrator. She’s constantly aware of its presence; it dictates her moods, her stories, her movement. The reader has a real sense of the actuality of this place.

Furthermore, Jessen remains measured in her descriptions, often opting for the plainer turn of phrase—the town pastor is simply “a cheerful, ruddy man, [with] a cheerful, ruddy wife;” a companion from her school days, “talked loudly, sang loudly, laughed loudly, and was the most helpful person I have ever known;” her restrained, honest take on widowhood is simply, “We have our dead. Our hope is that we too will be someone’s.” Jessen can be lyrical when she likes, but perhaps more impressive is her restraint when it’s exactly what’s called for.

In the book’s acknowledgements, Jessen writes, “It has not been my intention to write a section of the history of the town in which I grew up, though I freely acknowledge the singular allurement of using the name Thryegod.” And that is how this book reads—before it is a glimpse into the interiority of a widow trying to reckon with her life and move forward, A Change of Time is a reflection of a place in a time that’s imbued with a personal, specific love. Jessen knows this place; she lets her reader know it, too.