“An Interesting Moral Education”
The following is a speech I gave on April 15, 2010, at the Calvin College Festival of Faith & Writing:
My text today is a paragraph from the author bio of my latest novel, Bad Monkeys:
“Matt Ruff was born in New York City in 1965. His father was a hospital chaplain who descended from a line of peaceful Midwestern dairy farmers; his mother was a missionary’s daughter who grew up battling snakes and scorpions in the jungles of Brazil. Between the two of them, he received an interesting moral education.”
Next year will be the twentieth anniversary of my father’s death, and the twenty-fourth of my mother’s. Mom died during my last semester at Cornell, and Dad not long after my first novel was published.
The way I tend to deal with tragic events is by containing them in narrative. If something bad happens to me, I’ll tell it to myself as a story, and keep telling it until I’ve got it in a form I can live with.
In the case of my parents’ deaths, the story I came up with was that they had done their jobs. They had seen me through childhood to the brink of adulthood and set me on my way, and if it was a bit bewildering to suddenly find myself without them, it did not seem unreasonable, or even entirely unexpected. I’d known, going out into the world, things were going to be different.
In the years since, I’ve missed them most often at milestone events: when I got married, at key points in my writing career, and also during certain historical moments. I would love to have gotten my Dad’s commentary on the last presidential campaign season.
There have also been long stretches of time during which I haven’t thought about them at all, at least not consciously. The thing about writing fiction for a living is that you spend most of your life sitting alone in a room, talking to yourself. And time in the outside world passes surprisingly quickly when you’re off in your head. It’s always a little startling to come out and look at a calendar, and do the math.
Lately though I’ve been thinking about my parents a lot more. Part of this is that I’ve had a lot more news I wish I could share with them. In 2003 I published a novel called Set This House in Order, about a friendship between two people with multiple personality disorder. Set This House represented a high-water mark of critical success for me; it got the attention of the National Endowment for the Arts and some other nice folks. And in the wake of that I had to decide whether to try to deliberately build on that critical reception with a carefully chosen follow-up project, or just go on doing what I had always done, and work on whatever story idea struck me as being the most fun.
I opted for fun. My most recent novel, Bad Monkeys, is about a woman named Jane who claims to belong to a secret organization that fights evil. My shorthand description is that Bad Monkeys is my Philip K. Dick novel; if you don’t know who Dick is, you could also think of it a particularly demented Mission: Impossible episode. It’s a short book, the kind of thing where if you get into it, you can read it in a few hours.
And it was a lot of fun to write, but because it was such an odd follow-up to Set This House, I wasn’t really expecting much in the way of a reaction. I figured it’d be this little gem of a story, and I’d get it out of my system—and hopefully some people would like it—but then I’d go on and work on the next big book.
And so it turns out, Bad Monkeys is my most commercially successful novel, by a long shot. Which I guess says something about the value of fun—and of trusting your instincts.
Anyway, between the critical success of Set This House in Order and the commercial success of Bad Monkeys, I’ve spent a lot of time recently talking and writing and thinking about my influences. And this has reminded me just what a debt I owe my mom and dad. I may not always have been thinking of them consciously over the past two decades, but they’ve had an enormous effect on my writing, an effect that has, if anything, deepened with time.
Even the fact that I’m at this Festival is a testament to my parents’ influence. And so in considering what to talk about today, it only seemed right that I talk about them.
* * *
I’m going to start, though, by talking about my maternal grandfather, Albert Lehenbauer, the jungle missionary. My earliest exposure to dramatic storytelling as an art form was listening to my mother talk about her childhood in South America. More recently I got a copy of Grandpa’s memoir, Roughing it for Christ in the Wilds of Brazil, and while his style is more understated than hers, there’s a definite family resemblance, a shared sensibility and sense of humor that descends from him, to my mother, to me.
Grandpa Lehenbauer was born in 1891 in Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s old neighborhood. After graduating from seminary he accepted a call to a place called Guarany in the southernmost state of Brazil. Guarany was a colony of ethnic Germans, wood-workers mostly, who had emigrated to Brazil from other German colonies in Russia. Nominally they were Lutherans, but after a generation or more of exposure to the state-run churches in Russia—churches whose main function was compiling lists of Christian men of military age—they’d fallen away. Some of them became Baptists. Others, descending even farther in my grandfather’s estimation, became what he called “real, hundred percent heathens.”
So his mission was to gather these lost Lutherans back into the fold. When he began his ministry he had seventeen congregations spread out over two hundred square miles of subtropical forest, sparsely threaded by unpaved bridle paths. And he would ride a circuit. Initially he rode horses, but after the first couple of those were destroyed by the terrain, he switched to mules, which were slower and meaner but harder to kill. He’d be in the saddle anywhere from ten to twenty hours at a stretch, which of course meant long periods riding in total darkness, waiting to be knocked to the ground by a low-hanging branch, or just thrown if the mule decided to panic.
His base of operations the first few years was an old mill. Later the Lutheran Synod built him a parsonage, a big, sixteen-room house with loads of French windows. And because World War I had started, there was no glass for most of these windows. So the place was a sieve, and as grandfather wrote: “In Brazil it rains at times. We sometimes have the feeling as if it were always raining there… [and] we were trained, like a ship’s crew, to stow all moveable goods away on the driest side of the house. And when the wind changed, we would re-stow them on the other side. And sometimes we would be sitting on the leeward side and wouldn’t notice the rain coming in on the windward, and would then find some books ruined or a bed wet through and through, or even covered with a layer of clay mortar from the unfinished wall. That, too, was hard on the nerves. But I can say that I always tried to find a funny side. One of the funny sides was this, that the floor was absolutely waterproof. We had to bore holes through it to get the water out. But after I had a wife, and before I got the idea of the holes in the floor, and whenever we would have stowed the goods away on a dry side, before the wind would have had a chance to turn, we would join hands and dance around barefoot in the sea…”
Hard as it may be to believe, Grandpa could not convince any of the women he had known back in Missouri to come join him in this life. He married one of the German-Russian immigrants, Helena Priebe, who appears in his memoir walking 14 miles, barefoot, in the rain, to attend a choir recital. Like her mother before her and like my mother after her, Grandma Helena had a gift for languages. She read Greek, and Hebrew, and of course Luther’s German, and she’d memorized the catechism, the better to argue theology with her husband. Later in the marriage, following a scandal involving another pastor who was keeping some of his confirmation students after hours, Grandma quit the Lutheran church and converted to Mormonism, after which they really had something to argue about.
Despite this, I think they did love each other—at least some of the time—and in between theological debates, they managed to raise eight children. Mom was the youngest of three daughters. Like her father, she had a way of describing a life of considerable hardship that made it seem exciting and even magical, if not always pleasant.
She had a lot of stories about encounters with dangerous animals. In addition to drilling holes in the parsonage floor, they had to set all of the bed posts in cans of bug poison to keep scorpions from crawling up under the covers in the middle of the night. And first thing in the morning, Mom had to carefully check her shoes to make sure there were no scorpions in there. One morning, there was a snake curled up in one of them, and her father had to go get a machete and cut it in half. And then there was this bull that guarded an orchard she used to pass on the way to school, and she would have to outwit it in order to steal oranges.
Even after she’d left the jungle, Mom retained this sense of her life as an adventure, and there were still plenty of times when she needed it. One classic Mom story, which I borrowed to use in one of my novels, was about a near-death experience she had, after she met my father but before I was born.
What happened was, Mom took a bad fall down a flight of stairs and cracked her head hard enough to permanently deafen one ear, and for a while it was touch and go whether she was going to wake up. And while she was lying unconscious in the hospital, she had this dream about going up to heaven on a bicycle. And just so you know, the incline between heaven and earth is very steep, so if you can arrange a gas-powered vehicle, that’s probably the way you want to go. But Mom did it on a bike, and she made it to the pearly gates, and Saint Peter was there, twirling his keys, and he said, “Hey Monica. Are you coming in?” And she was still making up her mind when my dad came pedaling up behind her on his own bicycle. And he said, “Hey, what are you doing? Come back.” And fortunately for me, she decided to come back. That time.
* * *
The Ruffs made ice cream.
Like the Lehenbauers, my father’s family were Lutherans with roots going back to Germany. But the Ruffs tended toward a more reserved temperament, and they were less prone to wanderlust. Their idea of mission outreach was to build new churches close to home. My great-great-grandfather founded the Trinity Lutheran Church in Port Huron, Michigan, and his children and grandchildren helped establish additional congregations in Port Huron and Marysville and Sarnia that were the first in the region to conduct services in English rather than German.
And the family business was dairy. Ruff ice cream was a popular brand for a time in East Michigan, and my great-grandfather even had a patent on the first electric milk condenser, which as a kid I thought was incredibly cool. In general, though, my father’s stories about his childhood were less exciting than my mother’s. There were no poisonous animals, and the windows in the houses all had glass in them. What family drama there was was either not spoken of at all, or spoken of much more calmly.
But what his stories lacked in action-adventure they made up for in historical perspective. My father was a full generation older than most of my friends’ fathers—he was born in 1922, and growing up within shouting distance of Detroit, he had a ringside seat to the way the automobile and other technologies completely transformed America. Dad was my Ken Burns documentary before there were Ken Burns documentaries, and I’m sorry now that I didn’t pay more attention and ask more questions, but you know, it’s hard to compete with the jungle.
Unlike the Breyers and the Dreyers, the Ruffs did not become fantastically rich in the ice-cream business, and the rise of the big conglomerates eventually pushed them out. So when my dad came of age, he went into the other family profession and became a Lutheran minister. He served as a pastor in Illinois for a while, got married, had three children, and after the failure of that first marriage, came east to work as a hospital chaplain in New York City.
By that time—the early ‘60s—my mother had come north along with several of her siblings and was working at the Schroeder Bank in Manhattan. I still have the letter she wrote to her brother describing her first meeting with my dad. She had gone early one morning to her sister-in-law’s apartment, and because she was not expecting to see anyone she didn’t know, she was wearing this scandalously brief pair of shorts. Meanwhile Dad, who also knew the sister-in-law, came over that same morning to pick up some used furniture she’d promised him. So the doorbell rang, and Mom answered it, and there was this pastor standing outside. Fortunately, she wrote to her brother, he was one of those pastors who looked like a good-natured farmer and was not bothered by anything, even a nearly naked woman. He even stayed for a cup of coffee. And this was followed by other cups of coffee, and eventually they got married, and had me.
We lived in Queens, in a house provided by the Synod. It was a long, skinny row house, with two floors and a basement that flooded anytime it rained heavily, which was less often than in Brazil but still pretty often. And this house became Ellis Island for other South American relatives coming up to the U.S. It was a rare occasion when my parents and I were alone without an aunt or an uncle or a cousin staying with us. And then when I was still very young, my grandmother Helena came to live with us. Grandpa Lehenbauer had died before I was born, and Grandma was still pretty sharp but she was getting old, so they convinced her to come up to the States. And Grandma got the basement. Which sounds awful, but she wanted her own domain, and frankly, a little bit of flood water was no big deal to her. She’d done that.
And once Grandma came, it became a sort of ritual for other visiting Lehenbauers that after they came in the door and said hi to the rest of us, they’d grab a Bible and head downstairs to try to save Grandma from her Mormonism. Leading my father to remark, “Whenever two or three are gathered together in His name, there will be an argument.”
So this is the environment in which I began teaching myself how to tell stories. And it’s no real surprise that one of the most persistent themes in my writing is what you might call close-quarters multiculturalism: characters from different backgrounds, different faiths and philosophies, different worldviews, being thrown together in the same space—sometimes even in the same head—and having to figure out how to get along.
It’s a bit more of a stretch, but I suspect this may also have something to do with my interest in exploring and blending together different genres, and my early love of stories with multiple subplots whose connection is not immediately apparent. My first novel, Fool on the Hill, was actually an amalgam of four different story ideas, none of which added up to a novel on their own, but which I thought it would be neat to try and fit together in a single book. Like Grandma dancing on the waters of the flood, it turned out I had a knack for that.
* * *
Growing up, I was closest to my mother. Dad, as I’ve said, was older, and while he was fine with infants and kids who’d reached a certain level of maturity, he was a little less patient when it came to precocious children in the toddler to early teen stages.
Mom could handle precociousness. And she was very good at coping with the wild flights of imagination that precocious children are prone to.
One time my Uncle Tommy, who was an engineer for Ford, had a not-very-serious idea about maybe buying some farmland. And I overheard my mother making an offhand remark about this, and got very excited. I’d recently acquired a set of World Book Encyclopedias and had become fascinated by the subject of species and subspecies. So I heard about this imaginary farm and immediately set about drawing up plans for it, populating it with every variety of livestock, and not just livestock but different dog and cat breeds, and emus, and by the time I was done there was a reptile house, and of course every fruit and vegetable known to man, without regard to climate.
And I think some mothers, witnessing the intensity with which I went about this, might have grown alarmed and tried to put the brakes on. Might have pointed out that, first, there wasn’t really going to be a farm, but also, even if there was going to be a farm, it would be a farm, not an ark.
Mom didn’t do that. Mom brought home some fanfold computer paper from the office where she worked, and gave it to me so I’d have something to draw my blueprints on. And then she stood back and nodded approvingly as I put in the alligator pond.
And I asked her about this once when I was older. “Why didn’t you ever say anything? You knew there wasn’t going to be a farm.” And she said yes, she knew, and she knew that I would eventually figure it out for myself, but in the meantime I was having fun, and as far as she could see there was no rush to be realistic.
She was like that with most of my enthusiasms, including my desire to be a writer. That was a much more serious and long-standing ambition than farm design, and I did show some promise, but I was aware, and I’m sure she was too, that writing is one of those professions where many are called but few are chosen. So however strongly I felt that I was meant to be a writer, there was no reason for any adult to take me seriously. Over the years I encountered a number of adults who didn’t take me seriously, and tried to talk me into choosing a more practical goal.
Mom didn’t do that. Mom got my Aunt Flora to teach me to touch type, and for one of my birthdays she got me an IBM Selectric typewriter, which for those of you old enough to remember was the pinnacle of typewriter design before the age of the word processor. And having given me the tools, she stepped back and nodded approvingly and left it to me to figure out whether this ambition I had was for real or another flight of fancy. No rush.
Her motives for indulging me this way went beyond simple generosity or goodness of heart, though that was certainly a big part of it. Mom was a restless person who felt that she’d never quite found her own true calling in life, and I suspect her attitude was that if I’d found mine, it would be a great sin to discourage me from that. So she helped me where she could, and went on searching for her own niche, which sadly I don’t think she ever found.
One of the ways in which this search manifested itself was through the accumulation of real estate. As my parents’ financial situation improved, Mom began to collect houses. (These were joint purchases, but Mom was pretty clearly the driving force behind them.) She started with a small weekend place in the Poconos, and while the mortgage was still cooling on that, got a second property on Long Island that eventually went to some of my South American cousins. And at the time she died, she and my Dad had just closed on a third house in Georgia, which was supposed to be for their retirement.
She also had the Lehenbauer wanderlust, in spades. She did not like to sit still. Anytime she had a few days off from work, she would toss me in the back of the station wagon and take off, to the Poconos, to Detroit to visit her brother Tom and the Ruffs who lived there, or to Illinois to see my half-brother and sisters. Dad came with us sometimes, but clergy do have to work on the weekends, and often on holidays as well, so a lot of the time it was just Mom and me out on the road together. We must have covered tens of thousands of miles over the years. A lot of those miles were spent in conversation, but there were also long stretches when we didn’t talk, and I’d be in the back with a book or a piece of paper, in my head, pursuing my dream, and she’d be behind the wheel, in her head, pursuing hers.
We didn’t always get along. Mom was the moral enforcer in the family, and like any true Lehenbauer, she loved a good fight, even, in many cases, where it wasn’t really necessary. And while she never questioned my overall goal of becoming a writer, we did get into some pretty heated editorial discussions.
One incident which I will remember until the day I die: I got it into my head one day to write a parody of the Ten Commandments. Not the Charlton Heston film, the actual Ten Commandments. And I was halfway through them when I made the great mistake of telling Mom what I was up to. And we had a conversation about blasphemy. A long conversation.
In his memoir, my grandfather writes at one point about engaging in debate with an enemy—he doesn’t specify whether it’s a Baptist or a full-out heathen, but an enemy—from seven in the morning till seven in the evening, without so much as a pause for a glass of water.
I believe I have some sense of how that enemy felt. Mom and I didn’t argue all day long, but we went at it for a couple of hours at least. And I didn’t give in, because I really felt this was an important principle, that I be able to write about whatever I wanted, but I came close to giving in. And so finally, as a prelude to surrender, I said to her, “Look, here’s what I’ve written so far”—the first five commandments— “why don’t you at least give it a read?” And she did. She took it, and went downstairs, and there was a period of silence, and then I heard this strange sound of laughter. And Mom came back up the stairs, her attitude completely transformed, and said, “OK, now you’ve got to write the other five.”
This was quite an educational experience for me. The most obvious lesson was that the principle I’d been defending was correct: You really can write about anything… if you pull it off. If the joke is funny; if the drama is moving; if the story is sufficiently well-told that you reach past the bounds of taboo and engage a skeptical reader, then no subject is off limits.
You do have to pull it off. But when you do, that, to me, is one of the most satisfying achievements in writing. When somebody says to me, I really didn’t think I was going to like this story, but you won me over—there aren’t many feelings that can compare to that.
Another lesson is that the only way to know whether you can pull it off is to try. Trying to justify the story in advance is most likely a waste of time. Better to put that energy into actually writing it, and then if it works, great, and if it doesn’t, say a quick mea culpa and try again.
And there’s one other lesson, which is less specific to this particular incident but which is hinted at in my mother’s abrupt change in attitude.
For working through complicated moral dilemmas, I actually prefer what I think of as the Ruff style of argument, used by my father and his relatives, which is a low-key, thoughtful examination of evidence, not necessarily dispassionate, but with an honest attempt to distinguish between fact and feeling. Mom was certainly capable of that, but her most potent weapon was not logic, it was force of will, a missionary zeal that allowed her, in the heat of argument, to become utterly convinced not only of the rightness of her position, but also of the need to make the other person see it her way.
Now, there are times when that mindset is called for. When you need to draw a line and say, “Here I stand.” But because she liked arguing for its own sake, and because she liked to win, my mother sometimes abused her missionary power, deploying it in defense not of principle, but of mood. And so it would sometimes happen that we would return to a subject that we had argued fiercely about in the past, and I’d be expecting another fight, only to find that the mood had changed and the zeal had evaporated, and what had seemed like a serious issue, was not.
And it was important to pay attention to this, because of course I did it too. I might prefer to argue like a Ruff, but I could also argue like a Lehenbauer—not as well as my mother could, but I could do it. And as I got older I tried to be more aware, and more selective, about slipping into missionary mode—to limit it to situations where it really was appropriate. And it’s interesting: If you are aware, the ability to deliberately assume this mindset turns out to be very useful, not only in defending truth, but in creating fiction.
Fiction is odd. You’re lying, openly. Telling stories about people who don’t exist and events that never happened. And you know it, and your audience knows it—and yet somehow, you get them to care. Every author has a different approach to suspension of disbelief. Mine has always been to start by suspending my own. And it’s precisely in those moments when I’m trying to push past some boundary or obstacle and pull off a story I can be proud of, that this repurposed missionary mindset—the ability to believe, and project that belief through an act of will—really comes into its own.
* * *
My father didn’t care if you agreed with him.
When I told people that my dad was a Lutheran pastor, they often responded by saying that he must be pretty strict, and I had to explain to them that no, that was a different branch of the ministry. Dad’s job at the hospital wasn’t to make converts or tell people how to live, it was to give comfort. Sometimes that did mean giving advice—if a person’s problems were the kind that could be solved—but a lot of the time it just meant offering sympathy. He was a very good listener.
And because in his chaplaincy he dealt with Christians of all stripes, not just Missouri-Synod Lutherans, he could not afford to be a dogmatist. He did have strong beliefs and opinions, and if you asked him what he thought, he would tell you, and he would tell you why he thought it, but having shared that information, he was content to let you decide what to do with it. He did not automatically interpret of lack of consensus as failure; more often it meant that the individuals exchanging views were human beings rather than angels.
As I’ve said, his preferred style of argument was low-key and non-confrontational. If a debate started to get heated, which occasionally happened at our house, instead of matching fiery rhetoric with fiery rhetoric, Dad would sit back, and pay attention, and wait five or ten or fifteen minutes until the person speaking paused to take a breath. And then he would very calmly, in two or three sentences, point out the flaws in that person’s position, characterizing them not as a flaws, necessarily, but as implications that they had perhaps failed to consider.
Sometimes he would frame his response in the form of a question. In high school one time I was assigned Moby-Dick by an English teacher who was not very good at inspiring enthusiasm about the classics. And I was ranting at the dinner table about what a boring book this was, and how the rest of the reading list was really boring too, and how terrible it was that I had to bother with this stuff. And Dad let me go on until I ran out of gas, and then he asked me, if Moby-Dick was as completely lacking in merit as I said it was, how had it managed to stay in print after more than a century? Why did anyone, even an admittedly poor English teacher, still care about it, or even know about it?
Now, this might seem like a silly question, given that I’d just got done explaining how Moby-Dick was a weapon used to inflict tedium on innocent schoolchildren. But once I’d thought it over, I acknowledged that maybe Dad had a point—which is not to say that I changed my mind about hating the book. Later still—much later—I grasped the larger point, a point that applied to more than just literature: Things that persist even though they appear valueless must have value to somebody, and it’s worth considering what that value might be before writing it off as simple perversity.
It took me a while to get that one. And that was not unusual. When Mom hit you with a parable, you’d generally get the moral of the story right away. With Dad, the epiphany was often longer in coming, and there might be layers to it. More than once I had the experience of making what I thought was an original observation, only to recognize that what I had discovered was not new wisdom but something my father had tried to tell me months or even years earlier.
I didn’t spend as much time alone with him as I did with Mom, but one thing we did do together was watch movies on television. And he would comment on what we were watching. Because he worked in a hospital, he had a pet peeve about unrealistic portrayals of violence. When Indiana Jones stole the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, and in the process got shot in the arm, got his face slammed into a dashboard, and got thrown through a windscreen and dragged from the back of a truck, and then, in the following scene, he was just kind of sore, Dad made sure I understood that anybody who’d really been through all that would not be getting out of bed the next day.
But most of his observations were about psychology. He’d talk about the characters and whether their motives made sense, or whether their actions made sense given their supposed motives. He’d speculate about the message the filmmakers were trying to send, and whether they’d been successful, or whether some other message—sometimes, the exact opposite one—had snuck in uninvited. A lot of this commentary went over my head when I first heard it, but it didn’t all vanish into the ether. Like Dad’s questions, it lodged somewhere in my back brain and slowly worked its way forward as I began formulating my own notions of psychological realism.
I started playing the commenting game on my own, analyzing the books I read. The first time I can remember doing this was with Robert Heinlein. His work had been recommended to me as being just the thing for a 12-year-old science-fiction fan—which is true of his earlier stories. I made the mistake of starting with his later novels—Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough for Love, and The Number of the Beast—in which space exploration took a back seat to the exploration of polyamory and consensual incest.
My mother would have been horrified by this, if I’d been foolish enough to tell her, but my biggest complaint, after I got over the initial culture shock, was that I just didn’t buy the characters. I could accept that somewhere in the known universe there might be people who believed the things about sex that Heinlein’s protagonists claimed to believe. But I didn’t think such people would act the way his protagonists acted—or rather, since most of the “action” took place offstage, that they would talk the way his protagonists talked.
One of Dad’s many observations was that there are certain statements that call their own veracity into question simply by being uttered. An example would be if I were to tell you that I’m not planning to kill your dog. You’d probably wonder, if that’s so, why bring it up? (You’d probably also wonder where your dog had disappeared to.)
Unsolicited claims of virtue often fall into this category. If you ask someone whether they’re prone to sexual jealousy and they say no, it may be true. But if they volunteer the information, it’s less likely, and if they volunteer it repeatedly, you have to wonder who they’re trying to convince.
Heinlein’s characters were trying much too obviously to convince someone of something—though I wasn’t sure whether that someone was me, or Heinlein himself. Anyway, I didn’t think it worked. And as would often become the case when I felt another author had failed to pull off a story, or a character, I found myself wondering if I might have done it better. Of course this was way too early for me to be writing about sexual libertines—even if I left out the incest, my mother would have killed me—but I kept it in mind as a possible future challenge.
Then later, when I was in college, I read a novel called Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, whose ideas about capitalism, freedom, and sex paralleled Heinlein’s in many ways. Like Heinlein’s, her characters suffered from not always acting the way I thought real human beings would act. But Rand was a better polemicist, or at least more to my taste, and while I was not converted to her Objectivist philosophy, I did enjoy the book, enough to start thinking about satirizing it in a novel of my own.
Then as I read more about Rand, I discovered some things. She was a very polarizing figure: people tended to either love her uncritically or hate her with such passion that they could see no virtue in her whatsoever. Meanwhile, a couple of former members of her inner circle published memoirs in which Rand was revealed to be a much more interesting character than any of her fictional creations.
So my notion of poking fun at her evolved into an idea for a more sophisticated satire that would try to play fair with her philosophy, and present not just the bad and the ridiculous, but the good and the thought-provoking, and try to give some sense of where her ideas had come from and why they had such value to some people. And I also decided that I wanted to bring Rand herself into the story, so that she could defend herself, and so that I could give her her due.
And this idea would eventually become my second published novel, Sewer, Gas & Electric, which to me represents the point in my career when my dad’s influence caught up with my mom’s. Many of the elements in that book—the fantastical setting, the flashes of missionary zeal when my protagonist, Joan Fine, engages Rand in debate, the bicycle trip to heaven—these are things that I would associate with my mother. But the decision to treat Rand and her philosophy as more than just the butt of a joke—as a person, not a perversity—that’s Dad. And this marriage, as it were, of the two influences, really made sense to me, and set me on a path to the more mature work—notably, Set This House in Order—that came after, and that hopefully is still to come in the future.
* * *
The ability to put yourself in other people’s heads, while invaluable to psychologists and writers alike, can also be corrosive to certain kinds of religious orthodoxy.
The Lutheran church in the 1970s was more ecumenical than it had been in my grandfather’s day, but the catechism was still clear on the fact that you were saved through faith—and it had to be the right kind of faith. Some religions were in, some were out. I think Baptists might have made it in by then, but Mormons were still definitely out, so even if I’d never left my house, I would have eventually faced some hard questions about what I believed.
Of course I did leave the house, and we were in New York City, which was even more multicultural than my living room. And in the wake of the civil rights movement, and the Holocaust before that, there were some radical ideas of tolerance floating around that the church was still trying to grapple with. And it led to some decidedly mixed messages.
In the parochial school I attended from third to eighth grade, I was taught, of course, that Adolf Hitler was evil, because he took Jewish people and put them into ovens. Then on Wednesday we’d go to chapel and learn how God took the Jews out of the ovens and threw them into a lake of eternal fire as punishment for rejecting Christ.
And when I wasn’t in school and wasn’t in church, I was hanging out with my friends David Weber and Steve Bernstein, who were Jewish for the same reason I was Lutheran—because that was what their parents were. And this really bothered me, that eternal salvation might hinge on a birth lottery. That didn’t seem like a scheme that God would come up with. It seemed like something people would come up with.
It would have been different if members of some faiths had been obviously more wicked or unhappy than members of other faiths. I didn’t see that. Steve Bernstein could be kind of a jerk sometimes, but it wasn’t because he was Jewish, it was because he was a jerk. Likewise, I didn’t see any evidence of the Jesus-shaped hole that I had been taught non-Christians carried around in their hearts. Faith and spirituality were certainly relevant to human happiness, but the connection was a lot more complex than simple orthodoxy would suggest.
So as my horizons expanded, I found it harder and harder to maintain a belief in salvation through Christ as a literal truth. I could still appreciate it as a symbolic truth, but a story, even a very moving and vital story, was not something I felt I needed organized religion for. I felt like I had that covered.
So by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, I had realized I was not going to be a practicing Lutheran when I grew up. And I had to come up with some way of communicating this to Mom and Dad—especially Mom. And this is how I ended up writing my first complete unpublished novel.
From the time I had started writing around the age of five, I’d been drawn to long-form fiction. My earliest attempts were more like soap operas or serials than true novels, and I wrote short stories as well, but the long form was really where my heart lay. And yet, at sixteen, I had not yet successfully completed a novel-length project. But now, with this, I finally had a theme that was compelling enough to carry me through to the end.
It was called The Gospel According to St. Thomas, and it was a blatantly self-referential story about a minister’s son who comes to question his faith. I finished it during my first semester in college, and my plan was to polish it up and present it formally to my mother. And then I figured we would have a long conversation.
Didn’t work out that way. I left a draft of the book in my room when I was home on break, and Mom found it, and during a phone call a few weeks later she mentioned, offhand, “Oh, I read your book. It was pretty good.” That was it; that was all she said.
And I was furious about this at first, because I’d been expecting Armageddon, and I didn’t get it. It was like I’d been cheated of it. Of course once I thought about it some more I was relieved, and then a little later I was puzzled. What was with this non-reaction? Had she not gotten the point?
I still don’t really know the answer to that question. Had there been more time, I’m sure I’d have found out. I can’t imagine we wouldn’t have returned to that subject.
But there wasn’t a whole lot of time left. Back when I was in high school, Mom had been in a bad car accident and had broken her hip. And while she was able to walk again, she had chronic pain, and underwent a number of surgeries to try and relieve that. These surgeries, along with some other health problems, eventually took a toll on her heart. And during my senior year at Cornell, in between the time she dropped me off in September and the time I came home at Christmas, she appeared to age ten years. Then, nine days after I got back to school in January, there was a knock on the door, and it was a pastor from the local Lutheran church, and she said, “Your dad called us. Your mom died.”
She had been out alone on one of her drives, going to the Pocono house. She had just gotten there and was walking up the driveway in the snow when she had a heart attack. And Mom was not the sort of person to call and let you know that she had arrived safely at her destination. Her theory was that it’s when the phone does ring that you’ve got to worry. So at first when he didn’t hear from her, my dad wasn’t concerned. But after about twenty-four hours he began to suspect something was wrong, and he went out there, and he found her.
And that was very hard for him. That was the only time I ever really saw him break down and cry, after Mom died. And it was hard for me too, but it was also strange, because the funeral was closed-casket, so I never saw her dead. For me, it was almost as if she’d just gotten in the car and headed off on an especially long trip—which, as she believed, is exactly what happened.
So I finished school, and having proven I could do it, finished another novel, one that I could actually sell, which was Fool on the Hill. It was published the year after I graduated. And then Carl Hanser Verlag in Munich bought the translation rights, so my first foreign-language publication was in Germany. And the book was actually more popular there than here.
Mom didn’t get to see that, which is a shame. Dad did, but then in 1991 he was diagnosed with leukemia. He survived the cancer but not the chemotherapy. He had gotten married again, to my mother’s best friend, and my stepmother and I were both there at his bedside the night he died. And that was very hard, but there was also a hard beauty to it, to be able to hold his hand and say goodbye.
And now it’s twenty years later, and my parents are still with me, in my work. I don’t really expect to see them again face-to-face, but as in the case of God himself, I am open to being surprised.
If I do see them again, I will fill them in on what I’ve been doing with the tools they gave me. And then at some point, the three of us having gathered together, there will be an argument. But first I’ll say thanks.