I don’t think I’m entirely alone in the difficult spot of finding myself caught between both a fascination with, and a repulsion from, someone whose story I’m listening to. Have you ever found great value in the story of someone who you wouldn’t actually want to imitate? Or ever wanted to be more like someone in some ways, but only if you didn’t have to make the same choices they made?
That’s the case with the three stories I want to tell you about today. Two are nonfiction accounts; the other, thankfully, is fiction, but contains enough uncomfortable truth that I found the three books lumping themselves together in my head. These are narrators who I can’t honestly say I liked very much after reading their tales, but who stuck with me and whose stories will continue to shape mine.
The first of these books, Unraveled: One woman’s Story of Moving Out, Moving On, and Becoming a Better Mother, by Maria Housden, first came to my attention after I read Housden’s first book, Hannah’s Gift, which tells the story of her three-year-old daughter’s fight with cancer. Having come to view her whole family with a great deal of compassion through the ordeals and small triumphs experienced in that book, I eagerly ordered Unraveled, too. I remember how stunned I was as I read. The young married people who had pulled together to love and support Hannah now seemed entirely different. He became demanding and distant; she sought comfort in perfect appearances and a widening array of spiritual practices.
As their marriage limped along, Housden received the gift of a writing retreat, and left to focus on writing a book about Hannah. Instead, she met fellow writer Roger Housden.
Housden. As in Maria Housden.
Maria returned home to end her marriage, believing that best for everyone. She’d come to believe in herself as never before, seeing her new commitment to truth and freedom as the way forward into a happier life for all of them. Breaking the news of her affair to her husband, they settled on a divorce and a custody arrangement. He would keep the kids; she would see them on holidays and weekends. Maria’s self-awareness and the simpler life she’d envisioned were now hers in her second marriage, and become ours in the retelling. The lessons she learned certainly have value: listening to your own voice; living without depending on the approval of others; loving yourself instead of trying to force yourself into someone else’s mold.
If only I could rejoice along with her. Instead, even while I wanted to celebrate her personal growth, the troubling images of her children, friends, and ex-husband kept breaking through the happy haze. Her four-year-old daughter asks if the divorce is her fault. Her son angrily demands why she didn’t keep her promise. After the legal details get finalized, her ex-husband stops speaking to her. And, in a scene I imagined as excruciating, her friend asks why she’s walking away from everything that once seemed important to her: “We’re all sticking it out,” she begs Maria. “Why can’t you?”
Heartwrenching, tearful questions lie at the heart of the second book, and only novel, in today’s post. Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (made into a movie starring Tilda Swinton in 2011), gives us a desperate mother’s series of letters to her husband, begging him to see the truth about their deeply disturbed son, Kevin. Detailing events of their life from her point of view since Kevin’s birth, Eva recounts to Franklin exactly why she suspected Kevin of something more sinister than just “not fitting in,” and why her warring impulses often left her opposed to her son.
Reading of the brutal truths Eva forced herself to face, and the loneliness she felt when her husband chose unwavering support of their son, I recognized in them the ways that two loving people can find themselves split apart despite their heartiest intentions and most ardent love. The marriage connection, truly meant to be unbreakable, strains and creaks against the weight of their different views of their son. The parent-child connection, more instinctive and powerful for both of them than either Eva or Franklin could have imagined, pulls against their marriage as well.
Could the awful, all-too-real tragedy that ensues have been avoided? Eva anguishes over that very question as she writes to Franklin. I cannot say I admired her as a mother, but I definitely took her story to heart, and this book has stayed fresh in my memory for years. Painful though it is, I have reread it several times, and it has positively affected my depth of interactions with Honey as my husband and friend, not just as the father of the children we raise together.
As of yet, I am not sure how the last, and most currently famous, of today’s three books will affect me. Popular even before Oprah picked it, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail had people, particularly writers whose work I enjoy, raving about the lessons within her story. I approached Wild with several of those recommendations in mind.
And wow. Yes, Cheryl Strayed writes a powerful story. Certainly her journey strengthens her and inspires us. As I lay in bed sick last-week-turning-into-this-week, her fortitude in hiking through the pain of severe blisters, carrying a backpack so weighted down that she couldn’t lift it without a struggle, gave me pause. Surely I could find the gumption to drag myself to a grueling day of… sitting still and speaking Spanish. (I couldn’t, as it turns out.)
But beyond the incredible force of will, the literal and figurative strengthening she walks herself into, the enviable ability she has to meet, see, and accept people she encounters on the trail, Strayed also unflinchingly presents a side of herself that is not as heroic.
To come to the point where she walks this lesser-known cousin of the Appalachian Trail, Strayed takes on guilt over her mother’s death, cheats on her husband, and does a stint as a heroin junkie.
None of these things endeared her to me, yet as I read her words, I found myself sifting past the things I didn’t like about her to glean the lessons I could take from her story: take people at face value; allow them to help you; take time to help others. Learn to enjoy your own company; don’t give in to fear.
And as I did that, as I continued to read these stories, I realized something very important about how I want to interact with each person who crosses my path. I want to learn to sift through the defenses, the insecurities, the false fronts that I encounter. I want to learn to find what is valuable in each life story, find it and celebrate it. That’s not going to come easily, not to me, and not from some of the people that I will come across in life. Certainly the most comfortable way to proceed would be to continue to surround myself with the people I like and who make me feel welcome.
But that’s not what these women were to me as I read their stories. They weren’t comfortable companions, or even, at first, recognizable fellow travelers. They force-fed me some lessons through my discomfort in their presence, lessons that I admit did me good. I hope to see the foreign as more familiar from now on, thanks to them.
Please share with me: have you ever read a book that you didn’t “like,” but which stuck with you anyway? Has a main character ever affected you both positively and negatively? Or have you experienced this in real life? I’d love to hear your stories.