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Surviving The Family, Escaping The Culture       

Memoirs consulted:                                
Educated by Tara Westover; 
Rebel Mother by Peter Andreas;  
Menno Moto: A Journey Across the Americas in Search of My Mennonite Identity by Cameron Dueck; 
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman;
Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter by Carmen Aguirre;
Pivot Point by Bren Simmers

     Despite their deserved reputation for exaggeration and artfully contrived deception, the memoir form has always intrigued me. If the author is sufficiently famous you can always trawl for the lies and obfuscations in later biographies, a rabbit hole I’ve sometimes fallen into over the years. Still, with the modern fashion of confessional memoir running rampant beyond the sober confines of print into the slash and burn of social media one is less inclined to enter the fray between righteous accuser and crew of bruised targets. Sometimes, however, the circus of saintly victimhood cannot be avoided.

     Tara Westhover’s Educated, a searing account of an ultra-conservative, rural Mormon childhood in the Idaho of the 1980s, pulls out all the stops in its depiction of ignorance and abuse. Several reviewers trumpeted their personal outrage as well as utter absorption. Arriving in 2018, just two years after J.D. Vance’s equally shocking Hillbilly Elegy, it set the standard for the phoenix-like rise from the ashes of that brutal dysfunction in which America’s underclass seems to specialize. Westover’s version emphasizes the blinkered ignorance of rigid religiosity coupled with a survivalist paranoia—one that views schools and hospitals as no more than the creeping seductions of Satan’s kingdom. That same outlook advises that God ordained, generally through patriarchs patrolling the perimeter of their cowed families, that a woman’s place is in the home, that herbs alone are God’s pharmacy, and doctors are mere pawns of man’s impudent arrogance, steered by some magical conspiracy of socialism and, wait for it, the Illuminati.

     Memoirs of escape, from family, cult, ideology and religion, have been coming at us for almost as long as I can remember. And yet, Westover’s shocking epistle from the frontlines of blinkered religiosity takes the prize. The litany of woes, often resulting from snap decisions of those who could well be described as brain dead, without any exaggeration for cheap effect, is startling.  Long drives without rest periods in snowstorms, ending in head injuries with the “brains trickling out,” first degree burns where skin is left without treatment to “grow back naturally” over months, merely to prove that herbs beat surgery and hospitalization every time, and that it was all part of God’s plan anyway.

     And oh yes, the survivalist mentality is on full display: canned peaches and tubs of gasoline buried in pits for those End Days or Days of Abomination. They are always lurking on the horizon and ready to spring to life at every perceived crisis. Y2K is dad’s favourite—at least until 12.15 on the appointed day when it gets consigned to the scrapheap of family history. Need I mention skirts well below the knee, and necklines far from plunging yet full of wanton promise? Home schooling amounted to sneaking looks by flashlight at some battered encyclopedia in the attic?

     Ms. Westhover survived the madness and abuse (psycho brother Shawn’s favourite trick was to drag her by the hair to the bathroom and plunge her head into the toilet whenever she dared oppose any of his demands) to enter, without the benefit of high school, a local college. Then, with the help of attentive professors she attended Cambridge and Harvard, and wound up with a doctorate. That is nothing short of a miracle, and not one of the God kind. And for her efforts she was, literally, demonized by her family and cast into that outer darkness of intellectual enlightenment and worldly culture where the righteous never roam. It’s a fate worse than death for some, but not for Tara—or me.

     Escapees from hell deserve our congratulations, and I offer mine with enthusiasm. But there’s no escaping Westhover’s bleak denialism, doubtlessly inherited from her mother, and the enabling of her torturers through endless passive submission and returning for more. As she observes, “What was important to me wasn’t love or friendship, but my ability to lie convincingly to myself, to believe I was strong.”

     It is instructive to compare how others in similar situations conduct their escape from imprisoning pasts. Cameron Dueck, a lapsed Mennonite from Manitoba, after exploring the globe through travel and journalism, returns to his roots by journeying through the many Mennonite colonies of Central and South America. That trek, “Menno Moto”, while challenging in that mythical motorcycle fashion, becomes a pilgrimage to both the inner and outer source of his being.

            Originally from Holland, Anabaptists, whose subculture was threatening to both Protestants and Catholics, shifted over the centuries to Prussia, then Russia, and then North America. In each location, steadfast agricultural labouring and wise investments elevated them above their neighbours, causing the usual frictions and jealousies. These cultural histories are explored mainly through conversations with almost anyone who’ll talk with Dueck, as he acts the part of the roving reporter from Manitoba who is reconnecting with long-lost Mennonite relations.

     There are recurring themes: that Mennonites love to buy cheap acreage, so soggy and swampy no-one else will touch it, then drain and turn it into rich and productive farmland. This brings wealth and all the temptations thereof. Some enjoy the fruits of their labours with fancier housing, equipment, and toys. Others, wary of corruption and worldliness, retreat into humble, bible-guided simplicity, refusing decoration, technology and refinement on principle. Thus the Colonies bifurcate into traditional and modern, with each side pretty much politely ignoring the other. This in turn leads to piety, often excessive, and— guess what—pride in piety and contempt for the less devout. He finds these patterns repeated throughout Mexico, Belize, Bolivia and Paraguay.

     Unlike Westhover, he is not escaping but discovering, and his pace of discovery is mainly untroubled. The one exception is Bolivia, where the well known collapse of community, recently fictionalized by Miriam Toewes, into drug addiction, sexual abuse, jail terms, and counter-accusations of confessions induced through torture, seem all too worldly and sadly familiar.

     When he returns to his adopted culture of Hong Kong, itself under threat from external forces as they fight to maintain their “wonderful and eclectic cultural mix,” he sees a vivid parallel: the existential conundrums facing Hong Kongers are eerily similar to those he uncovered on his quest. Dueck observes: “The  search for our identity has no end; the true reward is in the beautiful discoveries we make along the way.”

     That exciting diversity of limitless choice beyond the confines of determined blinkered religiosity is what a teenage Deborah Feldman discovers while sneaking into Manhattan from the homogenous urban village of Williamsburg. There she discovers bookstores stacked to the hilt with treasures. She settles for Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. She is thrilled to find herself in a world of “such formal language and elegant tone,” where, despite the foreignness of pre-Victorian England, she recognizes the “incessant gossip and conniving.” She knows it’s how “women in her world amuse themselves, [their] chatter instantly replaced with unfailing politeness” when the object of scorn is present. Her future will also depend on the “advantageousness of her marriage.”

            Elizabeth Bennet’s independence of spirit inspires Deborah to some kind of emulation. That emulation is indeed achieved, after many trials of body and psyche, and a divorce within the Hasidic community, made all the more miraculous by her winning child custody. Perhaps having the president of the Woman’s Bar Association agree to represent her had a little something to do with it. Her 2010 memoir, Unorthodox, now a series on Netflix, is a testament to one woman’s determination not to be cowed by repressive religiosity and patriarchy. Of course she paid a price for her courage: one Hasidic editorial compared her to Joseph Goebbles and warned that she could be a catalyst for another Holocaust. Intriguingly enough, as of 2019 she lives in Berlin and is working on her first novel in German.

     Berlin, she points out, is full of “all kinds of refugees and runaways, including a community of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews.” The mini-series was filmed in her native Yiddish on Berlin sets, attracting many folk from similar backgrounds to serve as actors, extras, and technicians. Interestingly, she points out that the trickle of refugees from the ultra-Orthodox community has gone from “an anomaly to a flood of thousands.”

     Peter Andreas’s Rebel Mother, a memoir published in 2017, reveals another unique perspective on escape. Born to conservative Mennonite parents in the 1950s, he is psychically wrenched in half by their split into a steady, cautious bourgeois father, and a wild hippie, social activist mother who, after the courts award custody to the father, snatches him and runs off to that haven of sixties radicalism, a commune in Berkeley. Preaching free love and revolution, and living “authentically” in bug-infested hovels in Peru and Chile, Andreas sees the world after a fashion—a fashion that consists of night-time travel by bus with his step-father, and street theatre performances in town after town, doubtlessly raising consciousness as they go.

     Later they return to the States, a neighbourhood in Denver specifically, where determinedly empathizing with lesbians and fighting the endemic patriarchy in Marxism top the list of must-do activities. Andeas mentions that one of the men there, whom he admired most, a charismatic founder of a group named Men Against Sexism, was secretly a member of the Weather Underground, the armed revolutionary faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He would wind up in jail for life after a robbery where a Brinks guard was killed. This is all too tawdrily familiar to those of us who lived through the era.

     That Andreas survived all this frantic nomadism to become an author of ten books and the John Hay Professor of International Studies at Brown University is perhaps just as pleasantly surprising as his rebel mother’s tenure track job in the sociology department of the University of Northern Colorado, and her publishing of four books herself, the last being Meatpackers and Beef Barons: Company Town In A Global Economy. Also not a shock: her declaration over dinner at an Afghan restaurant that “Bush was more evil than Hitler.” As he observes, “I no longer had the stomach for the kind of over the top hyperbole she had raised me on.” Good for him. His escape from mobile confinement led to an actual life.

     Fighting the good fight against political and economic oppression is the central drama of Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce (2011). A playwright and actress of extensive experience based in Vancouver, she writes of the struggle against the likes of Pinochet and other south American dictators with passion and authenticity. Living the relatively safe life of a Chilean refugee in Vancouver she chooses to return to the battle front quite willingly with her mother and sister. Staffing the underground resistance seemed like the only viable choice.  While the horrors of the coup against Allende during the all-too-long Pinochet regime is a well-known chapter in the bloody history of Central and South America, reading Aguirre’s account refreshes one’s dull recall of what can only be regretted, not altered. When she reports that during an airport inspection—when “[t]error colonized my body in an instant,” and “[m]y spirit fled through the top of my head and landed on the ceiling, where I could hear myself whimper like a small child,” as gloved fingers probed her private parts—one feels the intensity of emotion across the decades. She ends with: “The struggle continues. Until the final victory always.” It seems as though the political tides of left and right will always take turns washing over each other.

     After reading about all the terrors, abuse and discomforts, it is a relief to be reminded that not all of us have to experience that desperate edge of escape from family and culture to uncover what is truly authentic to our inner selves, and that our hearts can thrill to the simpler pleasures of stress abandonment in the bosom of nature. Bren Simmers’s Pivot Point is as elegant and precise a paean to the healing potential of wilderness trips as I’ve seen in some time.  Bren and friends set out in canoes for nine days, blissfully “out of range,” to reconnect beyond urban commitments to the breath of life itself.

A collage of journal entries, pen and ink sketches, poems, reflections on friendship and aging, and the undoubted challenges of portaging through clouds of mosquitoes and black flies, this concise missive from the heart of quality small press publishing (as exemplified by the always reliable Gaspereau Press), reminds the reader that less is often, if not always, more. Bren and her companions, approaching the queasiness of middle age minus the expected accomplishments, learn to dance “through the dark places inside us.” The choreographer Margie Gillis advises, “Don’t get stuck there, just keep dancing.” And they do.

Gordon Phinn has been writing and publishing in a number of genres and formats since 1975, and through a great deal of change and growth in CanLit.  Canada’s literary field has gone from the nationalist birth pangs of ’65 – ’75 to its full blooming of the 80s and 90s, and it is currently coping as well as it can with the immediacy and proliferation of digital exposure and all the financial trials that come with it. Phinn’s own reactions was to open himself to the practices of blogging and videoblogging, and he now considers himself something of an old hand. His Youtube podcast, GordsPoetryShow, has just reached its 78th edition, and his my blog “anotherwordofgord” at WordPress continues to attract subscribers.

Phinn’s book output is split between literary titles, most recently, The Poet Stuart, Bowering and McFadden, and It’s All About Me. His metaphysical expression includes You Are History, The Word of Gord On The Meaning Of Life.

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