Monday, June 13, 2016

Memoir Writing: The Effects of Self-Disclosure on My Friends by Ronald Wendling

          I have already posted about the self-disclosures I make in my memoir Unsuitable Treasure: An Ex-Jesuit MakesPeace with the Past and about their effects on my family and on me. I’d now like to discuss the reactions of my friends to the book. (Speaking of friends, the photo to the left is of my wife, Mary (extreme left), me (extreme right) and our friends, Miriam and Russ, in Hawaii in January, 2015.)          
          If my experience is at all typical, the closer the memoirist’s friends are, the more hesitant their responses tend to be. One problem in my case is that my memoir concerns religion—Roman Catholicism in particular—and existing opinions on those subjects are often already formed and often partisan. Oddly, one of the most straightforward responses to my book came from a longtime academic colleague who, while he respects my religious faith, does not at all share it. He enthusiastically praised my memoir for its “veracity” by which he meant that I avoid the suspiciously inflated grandeur of some books like mine that take religion seriously. He mentioned specifically the mixture of anger and tenderness in my portrait of my mother, which steers clear of the hushed Mother’s Day reverence that our culture seems to insist on when we come to the delicate subject of our relationship with our mothers.
Many friends who think of religion in a more positive way, or who do share my Catholic faith, seem uncomfortable with the story of someone who abandoned his studies for the ministry. They may begin by assuming that my memoir must be excessively critical of religion, which they care about as much as I do. Once they get past the subtitle, however, I think they come to realize the truth of what the title indicates—that my intellectual and spiritual training by the Jesuits, however “unsuitable” to me, remains a part of my life that I still “treasure.”
      (This photo of me was taken at Montserrat [the serrated mountains] near Barcelona where the Spanish saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, intensified his conversion from soldiering and courting the ladies to a life of Christian service).
One almost embarrassingly kind reaction came from a classmate I hardly knew when we were in high school together. Of course he knew nothing at that time of the alcoholism and abuse in my family, but when he discovered that background in my book, he found himself admiring the man I have since become. Quite a different response came from a friend I made more recently who, when it came to my broken family, could not quite see what all the fuss was about.  “Alcoholism aside,” he remarked, “weren’t all our families up to their ears in dysfunctional messes like those that afflicted yours?”
Condo book party
Finally there was the welcome reaction of the friends and neighbors in the condominium near Philadelphia where my wife and I have been living for the past eight years, and especially from my women readers there. More comfortable with self-disclosure than most men, a surprising number of these women had no hesitation whatever in saying that they had families with troubles amazingly similar to mine, addiction included. There was, however, one highly accomplished gentleman, an early reader of the book, who spoke up immediately about how closely he identified with the alcohol issue I grew up with.
To end these posts on self-disclosure I’d like to comment on the responses of some Jesuits themselves and also of former Jesuits to my memoir. Friends of mine who were once themselves Jesuits seem to me to veer unconvincingly from gratitude that they left a religious order stuck in a pre-modern past to regret that they ever left it at all.  In any event, my effort to combine a fairly tame criticism of my Jesuit past with essential respect for it has met with very little, if any, enthusiasm from other ex-Jesuits.
             Finally there is the delicate question of how those who remained Jesuits have reacted to my book. One longtime Jesuit friend, to whom I gave a signed copy, has never said a word about it, or even indicated that he read it.  But the much more frequent reaction has been genuinely supportive—an attitude typified by the Jesuit who supplied the Roman collar used on my book cover.


Carolyn Niethammer said...

Interesting situation when you give a friend a book and they don't comment. That leaves you full of questions -- did they read it? Did they start reading and stop when it became uncomfortable? Are they so distressed they can't even talk about it? I guess it is generally considered bad form to actually ask them.

Ronald Wendling said...

I'll be meeting this person at a high school reunion this weekend. I might very well ask him, bad form or not. The only thing to dissuade me is my fear of what he might say, but I'm getting too old to worry much about this. Thanks for your comment--made me think more about the situation.