The national consensus seems to be that more is better. Hamburgers? Make them gargantuan, to the point of parody. Praise songs? Let’s repeat them eight times instead of just four—it will induce a worshipful trance (or something). Baseball on TV? Put three announcers in the booth, plus another down on the field, and have them talking all the time. Crime novels? They’re more than twice as long as their counterparts from a generation ago. And so on, and on, and on.
This trend is particularly evident in what gets called “life writing” these days: biography, memoir, and the like. Some biographies, even the multivolume projects, merit their bulk. But most—even those by very skillful writers—are bloated. The average memoir isn’t nearly as long as the average biography, but a typical one feels interminable: The self-absorbed flow is unrelenting.
Blessedly, there are exceptions. One such is the chapbook Ink: A Memoir, by Kathleen Pfeiffer. If you read it, it will stick in your mind for a good while, precisely because it is not bloated, self-indulgent, loaded with attitudinizing. It has an arc you can hold in your imagination and rotate, thinking about it from different angles.
The book begins in June of 1978: “we were celebrating our eighth grade graduation at St. Catherine of Siena School in Trumbull, Connecticut, with a boy-girl dance in the church basement.” Kathy and her friends “loved to dance,” but for her the mood is broken when the DJ cues up Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.” Only a few weeks earlier, her 11-year-old brother, Gerry, had died, several months after undergoing brain surgery.
We’re rightly aware of the long tradition of memoirs and autobiographies that build to a conversion to Christian faith. But there’s also a counter-tradition, flourishing especially in our time, but stretching back as well (see John Barbour’s Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith). Pfeiffer’s compact memoir belongs to that counter-tradition, insofar as it records the loss of the faith she had as a child, nurtured in “a small-town family parish” and a loving family. The second section of the chapbook takes her through high school and on to college (in Boston) and grad school, where she studies literature (Melville’s Moby Dick in particular) with religious intensity. The third section jumps ahead to 2010 and a hard-won resolution that reaches back to the beginning of her story, concluding with a family reunion in connection with her parents’ fiftieth anniversary.
What isn’t made explicit is the grounding of that resolution. Is it solely in self-understanding, in the circle of love that includes her husband, his daughter by a previous marriage, and the son, Brian, to whom the book is dedicated? Or is there an awareness of grace as well? The latter, I hope—in which case this isn’t a story of “deconversion” after all.
Reading Ink, I was taken back to the churches I attended in Pomona, California in the 1950s with my younger brother and our mom and grandma. These were (mostly) Baptist churches, in which the word “ritual” was always pronounced with scorn, but of course we had our rituals too. One of these was “giving your testimony.” This took place in various settings—most often in the Wednesday night prayer meetings we regularly attended, rather than in the Sunday service, though testimonies were sometimes given there as well.
A man or a woman stood before the congregation and told the old, old story of salvation—“old” but not redundant, because salvation had come in a particular way to this particular person in this particular time and place. Some of these testimonies made for painful listening. The speaker was uncomfortable, and so we were also. Some were off-putting; even as a boy, I writhed in my seat when various stock phrases were repeated with unctuous piety. Just as bad were the testimonies in which the speaker seemed to be trying to sell us something. Some were embarrassing, dwelling too much on particular sins that came before the crucial moment of accepting Christ as Savior.
But some of the testimonies were as powerful as anything I’ve heard in my lifetime. They were often simple. They were rarely long and drawn-out. Children know far more than they can say. I couldn’t then have put into words the impression those testimonies made as I sat listening, but in part it had to do with the difficulty of standing in front of a crowd of people and speaking with such candor. I was awed by the courage and conviction of those who testified with such quiet force.
Years ago, Patricia Caldwell wrote an interesting book called The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression. The subtitle claims too much, of course, but there is a link between those Puritan narratives and the testimonies my brother and I heard in the 1950s, and one vein of “American Expression,” as exemplified by Kathleen Pfeiffer’s Ink. You may say that in our tell-all moment, no particular resolve is required to inspect one’s life and seek to make a public reckoning; the problem, you’ll insist, is to shut people up, lest they continue their testimonies more or less nonstop until they die.
Nevertheless, reading this little book, I was grateful that Pfeiffer had taken the risk, which remains real, and I hope that the way she went about it will inspire others. Sometimes, less is more.
John Wilson was the editor of Books & Culture from its first issue (in 1995) to its last (in 2016).