Personal Narratives: Judgment

I’ve heard many people describe the Final Judgment as a kind of film festival where they sit with God and watch the movie of their life. But, taking my cue from Revelation 20:12, it seems to me that much of what we will be judged by will come not from a screen, but a book. I’ve always been under the impression that the contents of this book of judgment will be assembled from the notes taken by the angels assigned to watch us, from the Church’s records of our home and visiting teaching statistics, and from our own writings: journals, missionary planners, hard drives, maybe even our Facebook accounts. In other words, we won’t be judged by the video replay of our lives but by a “Collected Writings of . . . ”

If I had my druthers, I’d prefer to be judged by the Phyllis Barber ghost-written biography of my life. Barber first hit my literary radar when I picked up How I Got Cultured: A Nevada Memoir from the Benchmark Books table at a Sunstone Symposium a few years ago. And then, in 2009, she released Raw Edges: A Memoir.

How I Got Cultured is a beautifully written memoir of growing up Mormon in a small Nevada town. Raw Edges, on the other hand, is an unsettlingly frank account of one of the more complicated marriages I’ve read about. Barber’s husband, you see, is the polyamorous type.

Much of the memoir recounts the vicissitudes of Barber’s complex 30-year marriage, where she plays the bewildered Mormon wife: in love with her husband, dedicated to her church, and wondering how things could have gone so wrong. What she ends up with is three decades worth of stories: her marriage, the births of children—and a death, her husband’s sexual explorations and the identity crisis they throw her into. A sad, complex collection.

As I was reading Raw Edges, I realized that with each page the collection of stories in my head about Barber—the collection that defines her to me—were undergoing a significant revision. What would these new stories do to my perception of her? What kind of person would this new collection congeal into?

Barber, it turned out, had anticipated my thoughts. In a recent essay in Sunstone, she asked, “Is the memoir hardening the author into concrete, even though that person is still living and changing? Do readers think they now know who the writer truly is?”

“An additional hazard,” Barber continues, “is that writers can become totally occupied with a particular version of their story, becoming imprisoned in their narrative, and finding themselves unable to escape that obsessive viewpoint.”

Indeed, in Raw Edges, Barber finally admits that she has been one of those writers. Comparing herself to a film editor, she says, “Even though I’ve got tons of footage to choose from, I’ve got this uncanny attraction to the sad shots. . . . I’ve got pictures to prove how short life has fallen—how bad I am, how insufficient [my husband] is, how disappointed we all are.”

Her story of hurt and betrayal, she realizes, has defined her, held her up, and eventually imprisoned her for 30 years. The only way out, she decides, is to throw this lump of her life back onto the potter’s wheel, to re-wet it, to call back its malleability, to thrust in her hands and see what she can bring forth.

It’s a long, difficult journey, but at the end of the book Barber says that she has “written through the labyrinth, emerging with a new understanding that prepared me to shed the weighty, sorrowful narrative I’d carried for years.”

Perhaps when the Day of Judgment comes, we will find that we are our own angel, opening our own book, reading the stories we wrote ourselves.

Perhaps the Final Judgment is a bin of pens and endless sheaves of paper, or a laptop and an everlasting cup of tea; all the time of eternity offered for us to free ourselves from the stories that have imprisoned us, to build a new life from the wreckage of our past, as Virginia Woolf put it: “To look life in the face, and to know it for what it is . . . at last, to love it for what it is, and then to put it away.”

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5 Responses to Personal Narratives: Judgment

  1. Tom Rogers says:

    [a grammatically improved version of the foregoing]

    “Stephen, your citation from Woolf immediately brings to mind as I best recall them the final words from Eliot’s “The Four Quartets”: “…and know it for the first time.” How very apropos for me just now–your and Phyllis Barbar’s sensitive musings about the various, often conflicting impulses and reservations that attend the narrative process. Thanks to their kind encouragement and invaluable editorial support, Jonathan Langford and Linda Adams have been assisting me to select and refine my past essays, published articles and addresses for a forthcoming collection. Just minutes before reading your entry and with likely publishers in mind, I wrote them the following: ” I’ve been asking myself: Who do I most want for a reader? Simply those whose already strong commitment to the gospel, etc. would only be further confirmed by what our establishment organs consider ‘safe’ for their consumption? More ‘preaching to the choir’? “Or those–including most of the same readership when it wears a slightly different hat–who might be all the more persuaded to further accept and be even more deeply, more authentically reconciled to the Church and restored gospel’s great goodness by identifying with another’s struggle to do the same? Would such a book not serve an even more meaningful ‘missionary’ purpose, though perhaps for a more limited number of readers? (Kind of like Jonathan’s ‘No Going Back’!)” –Tom Rogers ”

    [moderator note: I deleted the previous version of this comment]

  2. D. Michael Martindale says:

    It was a book because John had no clue about movie screens. The metaphor has to come from the times.

    It will really be a three dimensional holographic image on the quality level of the holodeck in Star Trek.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Lovely post about a lovely writer or lovely memoirs. I’m a big Barber fan.

    You mention she asks in the Sunstone essay whether or not readers truly feel they know a person after having read essays. I will answer no. At least I don’t. As you know from our recent dinner together, I have read your essays and yet didn’t remember where you served your mission. We tend to forget what we read, the specifics anyway. But we pull insight away. I’ve never picked up a Barber essay in order to get to know her. I read them to better understand myself. This is the beauty of the memoir. It is a reflection not only of the author, but of the reader because it allows us to explore who we are, would be, could be, might become, etc.

  4. It’s much harder for me to write about happiness (in my own life, or in fiction) than to center a story around something sad. After all, a conflict is what feeds a reader and keeps them going. I can’t think of any bestselling stories or memoirs that don’t have something compellingly tragic about them (except for those of famous politicians or general authorities, but even then you have to admit there would always be something more compelling about a prophet or president with a hidden tragedy in their background).

    I agree that writing is about examining self (or portraying self and others through made-up characters) with an unflinching honesty. Possibly being willing to wallow in conflict, especially unresolved conflict. But I also find it somewhat cathartic. Those things in my own life that I haven’t fully examined or mourned, I can do so sometimes through writing. And then, yes, put it away.

  5. Thank you for a most sensitive look at personal narrative and the way it intertwines with our sense of who we are, even if it’s not the whole of who we are. Thank you for the idea of writing books that will serve in our encounter with ourselves along the way and our Maker in the end—these stories that are cold-stone true for us until they melt into something larger.

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