Maintaining that arch, slangy tone — referring to those who suffer from seriously debilitating psychiatric maladies such as depression and alcoholism as being “nuts” — helped Darst survive. The wisecracking, ultrahip but ultimately tragic voice in “Fiction Ruined My Family” — part stand-up comedy, part “Lie Down in Darkness” — is fetching and fast and fun, and it’s only after you fully understand the trauma at the heart of her family, the neglect that bordered on child abuse, that the sadness kicks in. By then, Darst has moved on to another joke.
Family memoirs are a dime a dozen these days, but Darst’s is different because she organizes it around art and the flamboyant dreams of self-transformation that accompany it, the fortune and immortality that always seem to be just around the corner. We tend to give our creative artists license to be sullen, selfish jerks — if you doubt it, check the biographies of Ernest Hemingway or Pablo Picasso, or “Reading My Father: A Memoir” (2011) by Alexandra Styron, her solemn, anguished account of volcanic daily life with the novelist William Styron — because we believe their work is too important for them to be distracted by the petty strictures that rule the rest of us: honesty, decency, fidelity, temperance.
I first read The Search for Meaning by Thomas Naylor, William H. Willimon, and Magdalena R. Naylor in 1994 when it was originally published. I read it because the topic interested me, having read Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, an important work with a simple message. Further, I had read Willimon before, since in 1989 he had written a compelling book called Resident Aliens along with Stanley Hauerwas, both theologians at Duke University. My memory of the Naylor, Willimon, and Naylor book was that it was an easy read but somewhat superficial considering the topic; perhaps the lack of depth made me search for greater insights, however. So I reread it again in 2007 and wrote this review (with personal commentary).
First of all, this old but updated essay is not about that stupid song, “Feelings.”
When someone asks me how I feel, I usually respond with the always lame, “I feel good,” but without the James Brown inflection. If I were to give an honest answer, I’d have to think about it for ten minutes. Besides, nobody really wants to hear, “I feel full of complex emotions today,” or “My teeth itch,” or “Being here makes me want to take a nap.” Such responses might force me into conversations I really don’t want; either that, or I’d get a blank stare. It is better to stick with convention, however dull. Social interactions are less complicated that way; so I say, “I feel good.”
If the formative years of one’s life have a huge influence on how one turns out, as some experts in childhood development suggest, then a brief examination of my early years may explain a few things about my worldview.
My parents were people of the Great Depression, having started their young life together in 1934, during tough times. They had no car and lived in a small rental house—along with a Mexican tenant—near the railroad tracks in my father’s hometown, close to where my father worked. My mother fed hobos off the back porch until the traffic got too heavy; their house had been “marked.” She recalls these tramps in their big black coats, hungry for food, and remembers seeing the campfires by the tracks at night. These were desperate times for my parents, but their lives were whole. They had decided to be happy. They eventually acquired a Ford, and with my older sister, moved to a highly mortgaged country home in my mother’s hometown, a small Northeastern Ohio farming community of about 200 people—that is, if one were to count the farms within a three or four mile radius. Our town had a general store, a one-room schoolhouse built in 1810, a post office, and a Presbyterian church built in 1851. The schoolhouse, where my older sister attended, was eventually closed and converted to a larger post office during my time there. Both the church and post office still stand, the church being an active part of the local community to this day. I was born in 1942 and spent my first ten years in that little village, built on the old stagecoach route to the West.