Memoirs have a way of flashing at us tiny mirrors in which we can see ourselves reflected. The fascinating thing about them is that even if the writer describes a life different in time, place and circumstance, human nature is such that somewhere we can find that commonality, relatability.
Cheryl Strayed has mastered that art. Despite all the crazy things she’s done and all the flaws she lays out on a blanket before us for our perusal, we just want to wrap her up in a big bear mama hug and adopt her as a sister, best friend, daughter, ever-so-significant other. We project onto her own worries and fears, joys and fantasies, but in doing so perhaps we transform her, as we do other memoirists, into someone she is not.
…as Sugar over and over and over again I have positioned myself as somebody who hasn’t had a perfect life and has made wrong choices and still struggles with all kinds of different things, and then people will say, “Oh Sugar’s a goddess!” Or they’ll be like, “Your marriage is just perfect.”
And I’ll be like, “No I’ve written about it, you can see how it’s not.” So they’re projecting, I know this because I get this quite a lot: “Do you ever mess up?” I’ll say, “Do you ever read the column? I write about messing up.”
(Read more of the interview, here.)
So what happens when the memoirist takes a wrong turn, or transforms into someone who doesn’t fit our script? They betray us, somehow, by making choices in their lives or their narrative that we weren’t prepared for, approving of. How unfair it is of us to assume we have the right to drive another person’s narrative. I have a friend who was enraged by the paths Strayed took in her life as described in her memoir Wild, while I found them perfectly understandable. We all look at the memoirs of others through our own eyes, and we all think we are right.
And of course it was with my very particular eyes that I read Sarah Thebarge’s memoir, The Invisible Girls, which will be published next month. The author takes us through the unbearable trials she bore as a woman in her twenties facing breast cancer, a spiritual crisis, a failed relationship and the solitude of living in a city where one has few friends amidst all this madness, and… well, the list goes on as my heart bleeds out with each page of even greater challenges. Her spare prose disappears into the background as she carries us along on this odyssey of displacement, as she, a pastor’s daughter, questions the God who abandoned her and finds ways to live on despite this.
“An art therapist came the next day. She asked me if I’d like to paint something to express how I was feeling. I told her the only thing I wanted was a room of empty walls and a gallon of black paint. She suggested I paint a kitten playing with a ball of yarn. I said no thanks.
“A hospital chaplain came to see me after that. She had a hard time making eye contact, and wouldn’t sit down in the chair I offered her. Instead, she stood in the doorway, one foot in the room and one foot in the hall, as if ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. She asked me what I needed.
Maybe other patients would have been superficial and polite, and just asked for ice chips or a quick prayer, but I was honest with her. I told her I needed someone to tell me how God could allow someone He loved to suffer so much when I wouldn’t do this to someone I hated.
She fidgeted and took a step back, until both of her feet were in the hall, and her head was poking through the doorway. She said, “I’ll look that up and come back.” But I never saw her again.”
And then, one day, she encounters a small girl on a train who crawls into her lap, and everything changes. She is, we find out, one of the invisible girls as Thebarge later deems them, one of five children who, with their Somali immigrant mother Hadhi, becomes Sarah’s family, her salvation. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” she quotes from Ralph Ellison at the beginning of her memoir, which in the story of her life establishes that she too has been, an invisible girl.
“As I played along with the game this little Somali girl had invented, I started to worry about the family. I thought about how overwhelmed I’d be if I were abandoned in a country ten thousand miles from home, left to care for five children by myself with no language training and no money. How would I even begin to navigate a culture that was so different from anything I’d known?”
But Sarah, unlike most of us, particularly those who live in urban environments where we see so many people who are clearly in need yet humbly walk past them lost in our powerlessness, remembers her preacher father’s teachings, and stops.
“And then I thought about the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ If the situation were reversed and I were a single mom in Somalia and a kind stranger saw me on the train, what would I want her to do? Help me, I decided. I would want her to help me.”
She brings them pizza and books and takes them out to the park. There is Fahari who is nine, Abdallah who is eight, Sadaka six, Lelo four and Chaki, the toddler who crawled into her arms that day and began what will be a lifetime of connections. She buys them groceries and accompanies them to the WIC office, spends time to “teach” Hadhi how to navigate a culture so foreign to her without “americanizing her culture from her.”
She is honest about this conundrum, the struggle to be present and helpful yet not to intrude or impede this family from finding their way without depending on her, to empower them. She recounts one pivotal day when the youngest child defecates on the floor and no one seems to care. While she doesn’t want to overstep the mother’s boundaries, neither does she want to panic, yet finds herself struggling with this moment’s effect on her. This is not the image that had been painted in her mind by the missionaries, who “described life in Africa as an exciting adventure, and recounted every story with a glowing smile.”
She chooses not to act, but flees rather quickly, washing her hands and feeling queasy about the child who normally she would gather up in her arms and never let go. She was, instead, shocked at her own repulsion, something few admit to but which most have experienced at some point or another when veering from the sounds, smells and sights of home.
At first I felt like I was being uncharitable for fleeing at the sight of poop on the floor. After all, wasn’t I supposed to be magnanimous, accepting, understanding? Wasn’t I supposed to be like the Madonna in medieval art, smiling gently on her young charge?
As I turned off the tap water and dried my hands, I thought, Screw it. We’re just going to have to slog through the messiness—’cause those kids are not Baby Jesus. And I already knew from years of paralyzing doubts and crippling mistakes that I sure as hell was not the Virgin Mary.”
Thebarge’s describes what it was like to be one of five children of a ex-Catholic, Baptist preacher in the small towns of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, how she and her brothers learn to put on their church faces as they swim through a world where crockpots overflowing with beans define every potluck table and girls mimic the forbidden makeup with what is at hand (white chalk to conceal their acne, pink to blush their cheeks, cherry chapstick to tint their lips). When at age thirteen she has panic attacks she’s sent to a Christian counselor who prescribes a few bible verses, a few prayers and call me in the morning. Amen. She is irreverent, at times in describing her rejection of many of these tenets.
“Even though I was just a teenager, it seemed unfair to me that fundamentalism could create severe angst that manifested as OCD and panic disorder, and then proceed to decry the tools created to assuage these tormenting conditions. It wasn’t until a few years later that I figured out that the first two letters in fundamentalism are F-U.”
Oh my! How can one not love a woman who was taught to believe that “I was two breasts, two ovaries, one uterus, and one vagina, which equaled one reproducing female. Nothing more,” yet is so determined to prove the opposite, developing her mind so that no one ever again can reduce her to this fundamentalist form of the theorum taught, so that her sum is far, far more than the sum of its parts.
This is a woman who overcame a childhood where she was told she was too pretty, too smart, that rather than the physician-slash-lawyer she dreamed of becoming she should instead strive to be like Julia Child (who in preacher Thebarge’s mind was not the vibrant, fabulous woman we all know, but simply “a cook.”), who made it to Yale and Columbia and beyond purely on her own intelligence and chutzpa. This is a woman who is brutally honest about the devastation of cancer and how it scarred her self and her life. This is a woman to applaud.
So, perhaps that is where I get to the part where I was disappointed.
Fast forward past the delightful descriptions of the mystery that is getting to know others from radically different cultures, to honor and respect them, to help without harming. Skip the wonderful tales of life with the five no-longer-invisible girls and how much they taught one another about life and love and the promise of youth. (I since read that a good portion of the advance and the royalties of this book are going to establish college scholarships for the girls, which is amazing.)
It’s not that I wanted her to reject God and embrace Satan. It’s not that I wanted her to do anything other than speak with the same clear honesty that I’d heard in her voice throughout this book. So when she ended her memoir with a scene straight out of an evangelical brochure, I felt betrayed. She and her friend randomly ask a street-walking prostitute to “hang out.” They go to a bar and the woman tells them her sorry tale, abusive boyfriend, rape—and of “the nights she spent lying in bed, staring into the darkness, calling out to God.” Sarah reaches for her and assures her that “God wants you to know that He didn’t create you to live in a random pile of dirty snow. God made you like that snowflake—individual, unique, precious.” Now maybe this did happen, but…it just doesn’t come off as authentic or even of the same voice as the rest of the book.
There are a few words after that, but I have to say that when I closed the book (or flipped off my ipad, since it was an ebook) I simply went “bleeeeeehhhhh.” The rest of the book was not filled with this sort of language, why did she have to end it that way? Perhaps I’m over-sensitive to the tagging of books or songs as religious, for I know that pigeonholes them and predetermines their audience. This is a book whose crises are universal, whose voices reach all, and I would hate to think that it will limit itself to those who read only Christian books (because there are many out there that do). We should expand, not contract our horizons.
My daughter is an admirable musician, and together we listen to all kinds of music. There is some amazing Christian music (we are neither terribly religious, nor Christian) out there that we enjoy on long rides in the car. She tells me that the reason I like it, besides the beauty of the music itself, is that the lyrics are heartfelt, that they describe the trials and the joys of life with a few “the Lords” peppered in. The former are things experienced by all, the latter is not, which is why I wish Thebarge had not highlighted this aspect at the end of what was a very moving memoir.
It’s an inspiring story, an honest one, and despite my misgivings about how the author chose to end it, one surely worthy of its readers. We project, as Cheryl Strayed said, and perhaps that is, in the end, unfair. Mea culpa. Amen. Long live the invisible girls!