“Why do you read books like that?” my husband sometimes asks me. He led an uncomplicated childhood. He reads adventure stories full of sea voyages and swashbuckling. He glances over at the stack on my side of the bed—addiction, abuse, abandonment; all dreadful, all true—and grimaces. He has never known the feeling of living your own horror story, of needing to read your way out.
The first truly horrible tale that gripped me was Angela’s Ashes. This was back when I was just graduating from high school, back when I still believed that I, too, had led a charmed and happy life. But when I ran across Frank McCourt’s 1996 memoir in a stack of spoils my mother brought home from Costco, it tugged at a deep inner scab. As I turned page after page of six people sharing a single mattress with its fleas, baby bottles filled with sugar water, one child dying after another, I was riveted. Certainly, I had not grown up Irish, or Catholic, or damp, or hungry. But something about young Frankie’s plight—the child pinned up against an awful fate by forces utterly outside his control—felt oddly, eerily familiar.
I was a young mother when I found Jeannette Walls’s 2005 memoir The Glass Castle. When I read her eye-popping description of her earliest memory, in which a tutu-clad three-year-old Walls cooks hot dogs over a gas stove and subsequently goes up in flames, I mentally subbed in the face of my own daughter, just then also three years old. As I continued to read Walls’s story, however, I found myself more and more swapping in my own face. Walls and her siblings had such a chaotic childhood that, when trying to figure out how many places they’ve lived, they first have to define “lived”: “if you unpack all your things,” they decide (25). I’d moved a few times, but I’d experienced nothing like that much instability. Why, then, did the young, world-weary Jeannette Walls remind me of myself?
By the time I read Jesmyn Ward’s 2013 book Men We Reaped, my own story had come swimming back. In 2011, weeks after the birth of my fourth child, I suddenly recalled my own previously unremembered history of early childhood sexual abuse. The memory triggered an episode of postpartum psychosis for which I had to be hospitalized. Later, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The entire year was a terrible, disorienting blur.The most basic hopefulness present in every autobiographical disaster tale is its very existence. The name of the author on the front cover, together with their picture on the back flap, proclaims to the reader, “I survived.”
When I read Men We Reaped just a couple of years later, it was the structure that struck me: Ward interlaces the straightforward chronological tale of growing up with a backwards glance at five beloved young men lost to gun violence, from the most recent death all the way back to the first. The work of attempting to understand one’s life both backwards and forwards was exactly what I myself was engaged in at the time. My childhood had not been as idyllic as I’d always told myself, and reconstructing my understanding of my own history was arduous work. Jesmyn Ward needed to understand her life in light of racism and violence; I needed to look back and understand the impact of the abuse I had never before allowed myself to face fully. Reading Men We Reaped, with its clear-eyed ability to work backward, empowered me to do the same.
Even as these books were speaking to me about trauma, helping me to reach back and grab hold of my own story, they spoke to me of hope. The most basic hopefulness present in every autobiographical disaster tale is its very existence. The name of the author on the front cover, together with their picture on the back flap, proclaims to the reader, “I survived.” No matter how bad things get in the midst of the book’s pages, the fact that there are pages at all proves that this, too, has passed. Somehow, the author has found a way to speak the unspeakable.
The Apostle Paul also knew the power of naming our trauma. Indeed, the book of 2 Corinthians reads almost like a first-century disaster memoir. Over and over, Paul lists the harrowing experiences he has endured. “We were under great pressure,” he writes, “far beyond our ability to endure” (2 Cor 1:8). His list of travails includes “troubles, hardships and distresses… beatings, imprisonments and riots… hard work, sleepless nights and hunger” (2 Cor 6:4-5). But Paul writes, always, with the goal of encouraging his readers to endure the same or worse. “We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed,” he says, “perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8-9). If we can live through these things, Paul seems to be saying, so can you.
The young protagonists of Angela’s Ashes, The Glass Castle, and Men We Reaped all initially pin their hopes on unreliable things. Over and over again, Frankie McCourt watches his father head off to work on payday with dreams of the bread and eggs and tea the family might buy with the wages that never actually make it all the way home past the pubs. Jeannette Walls listens to her father describe the elaborate architecture of the Glass Castle, an off-grid house he plans for the family but never builds. Jesmyn Ward and her friends seek easy laughter in beer and cocaine. At first, none of these characters understands that his or her hopes are misplaced. “I knew that I lived in a place where hope and a sense of possibility were as ephemeral as morning fog,” Ward writes, “but I did not see the despair at the heart of our drug use” (34).
The work of the child caught in terrible circumstances is to find their way out of despair and false hopes, into a hope that will not crumble. The arc of the memoir is to chart this path. This is why I read books “like that”—books filled with tragedy and chaos—because I need to follow the fumbling journey from despair to hope. I need to know that people survive.
Perhaps it is unsurprising, given the child’s dependence on home, that McCourt, Walls, and Ward all end up rooting their new hopes, by the ends of their books, in places. Frank McCourt eventually finds a new life in America. “Isn’t this a great country altogether?” asks a member of the crew on the boat that brings McCourt to New York at the end of the book (362). The book ends with McCourt’s answer, a single word that fills an entire chapter: “‘Tis” (363). The present tense ‘tis—together with the grinning picture of the author and the short biography informing us that McCourt lived out the rest of his days in New York—lets us know that finally, McCourt found a place where there was enough. Jeannette Walls also ends her story in New York: first in a spacious apartment on Park Avenue, but later in a smaller apartment on the West Side, where she feels like she finally belongs.
But for Jesmyn Ward, whose entire book is an outpouring of grief for her lost brother, there can be no place on earth to settle in without him. And so the focal point of her hope, as depicted in the last paragraph of her book, is Heaven. She imagines it as “a long, pitted asphalt road flanked on both sides by murmuring pine trees, under a hot, high sun in a blue sky” (251). There, she hopes, her brother will find her the moment after she dies.
The Apostle Paul also places his hope in Heaven. “Therefore we do not lose heart,” he writes. “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor 4:16-17). In this world, Paul knows, we will have trouble. No one is “outwardly wasting away” more than the abused or mistreated child. Yet, by the grace of God, renewal is possible. And the weight of eternal glory that awaits us is still worth hoping for.
I’m in a good place now, myself. Years of psychiatric appointments, medication, and, yes, prayer, have brought me to a place of relative stability. These days, I take seriously Paul’s remarks about the importance of paying it forward: “the God of all comfort… comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor 1:3-4). Sometimes, we extend comfort by sharing how God helped us to overcome our own struggles. And sometimes, we can comfort others just by passing along a good book recommendation. Recently, one of my high school English students wrote eloquently about her own difficult childhood. Here, I thought, is someone who might need to read her way out. In the margins of her essay, I wrote, “Have you ever read The Glass Castle?”