Untidy stories

Memoirs. When I was younger, I had nothing to do with them. But more recently, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the way people narrate their lives from the inside. When I started reading memoirs several years ago, I was wanting to humanize the sometimes sterile diagnostic descriptions of mental illness: what was it like, for example, to actually live with schizophrenia? Bipolar disorder? To experience not only the symptoms, but how it affects your understanding of yourself and your relationship to others?

Since then, I’ve read (or listened to) dozens of memoirs, including many that I would chunk into a category I like to call You Think Your Family is Complicated? As someone who teaches about family life, I appreciate authors who can tell their stories honestly and well, who are able to acknowledge all the messy complexity of family life without having to neatly tie up all the loose ends. That’s reality. Tara Westover’s Educated comes to mind, as does Adrienne Brodeur’s Wild Game. These are families that would have made some family therapists tear out their hair.

One of my favorite reads is Jeannette Walls’ bestselling The Glass Castle, published in 2005 and made into a movie starring Brie Larson (Captain Marvel) and Woody Harrelson (Cheers) in 2017. At the center of the story is the complicated relationship between Jeannette and her father Rex, a fiercely intelligent but quirky man with an addiction to alcohol. The “glass castle” of the title is the dream home he keeps saying he will build, an engineering marvel of glass walls and solar energy. “Someday,” he promises repeatedly. The children, when young, believe the fantasy. But over time, they become disillusioned with the emptiness of his grandiose plans and promises — particularly when he spends what little money the family has on drink, leaving the children hungry and mired in poverty.

Rex could be a loving, creative, fun, and compassionate father. But his addiction sabotaged the family story. In the end (SPOILER ALERT!), he dies of complications related to a lifetime of hard drinking.

In the film, the adult Jeannette angrily rejects her father and wants nothing more to do with him. She becomes conflicted when she hears from her mother that Rex is dying: should she go to him? She has an epiphany while in a tony restaurant with her fiance, trying to impress one of his clients by playing the ill-fitting role of a socialite. She realizes that she is her father’s daughter after all, and loves him in spite of his bad behavior.

Jeannette leaves the restaurant and runs through the streets of New York (the climax of Sleepless in Seattle comes to mind here) to the dilapidated apartment where Rex lay dying. Rex confesses his failures as a father; he realizes how Jeannette had to be strong to be able to carry him in his weakness and fear. Thus, father and daughter are reconciled before he dies. And in the final scene, the family comes together for Thanksgiving dinner, reminiscing fondly and swapping memories of Rex, while Jeannette comments on how lucky she is. It’s a warm and emotionally satisfying end to the movie.

But that’s not the way she wrote it.

In the book, there’s no restaurant scene, no epiphany. Jeannette doesn’t suddenly realize her loyalty to her father and run to him. Instead, in the book, she receives a call at work from Rex, who says he has something to talk to her about — and would she be so kind as to bring him some vodka? In her own words, she goes to him that night bearing “a half gallon of the cheapest rotgut” she could find at the liquor store.

When she sees him, she does realize that she loves him, despite the “destruction and chaos” he had brought to the family: “As awful as he could be, I always knew he loved me in a way no one else ever had.” And Rex does admit to her that he had regrets. But there’s no emotional confession, no moment in which Rex magically realizes The Error of His Ways. They part on an amicable but ambiguous note, and that is the last conversation they have before he dies.

Though the overall tone of the movie seems right, there are multiple points at which the screenplay departs from the memoir, not least of which is the attempt to create more resolution and closure at the end. The movie not only simplifies the story but also takes the edge off the gritty truth that Rex remains Rex to the bitter end, and Jeannette has to embrace that fact in all its messiness.

. . .

There is a lesson for us here, I think, in terms of how we understand the meaning of hope in the Christian life. The ways in which the screenplay attempts to tidy up the memoir is its own kind of glass castle: a lovely but ultimately grandiose and unrealistic promise. Life is messy. Families are messy. And our stories don’t always come to neat conclusions.

Movies have their own narrative requirements: how do we tell a complicated story in two hours, and do it in such a way that people will be glad they spent their money to see it? That’s understandable. The problem, however, is that the more we consume such stories, the more we may expect life to imitate art. This is even true within the Christian community: we import God into our expectations of how life should go, into stories that have a heroic or romantic arc, where faith and good behavior are rewarded with answered prayer.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting for a moment that God doesn’t answer prayer. But hope goes awry if its horizon is only this life and not the life to come. Our earthly stories may or may not end the way we want. It’s God’s story that dominates Scripture, a story where death and sin, pain and brokenness are finally defeated. And it is by grace that our stories are caught up into that one; it is only in God’s story that we get our happily-ever-after.

So ask God for what you want, for how you want the next chapter of your story to play out. You have the freedom to do that with a loving and gracious God.

But never forget that your hope as a Christian resides in God’s “happy ending” for all of redeemed humanity and not just you alone. Look for the signposts that point toward that future, the evidence that God is at work even now, moving history toward his promised future.

We can be more at peace with the untidy nature of our own stories if we have hope in the grace of God, who by that grace draws us into his story.