This past summer, I read a book that touched me deeply: Home by Marilynne Robinson. I was surprised how emotional I felt reading it and especially finishing it. I completed the book on a flight home from a summer vacation, and I literally cried for a half an hour. It’s a little hard to explain why this story hit me so hard, since I can’t say I strongly related to any of the main characters. For those who haven’t read the book (and I highly recommend it!), it’s the story of a family in a small Iowa town in the 1950s that is shaken by several events. First, the patriarch of the family, a retired minister, is failing in his health. Because of this and a broken relationship, his youngest daughter, Glory, returns home to help care for him. Soon after, the “prodigal son” of the family, Jack, a son who, despite his checkered past and estrangement from the family, is the most beloved by the father, also returns home and stays with his sister and father. The tale of his life gradually unfolds as his sister (the narrator of the story) observes his attempts to come to terms with himself, his past, and his shaky relationships with his family and close family friends (including another minister, his father’s best friend). Jack also attempts to see if his past would preclude him from returning home to live a new life and whether his home has evolved into a place that would be safe for him and his loved ones. While Jack does receive grace and sometimes forgiveness from others, he remains a profoundly lonely and estranged man stuck between a past that he is unsure he can overcome and a present that may not allow Jack to live the sort of life he feels is right. Themes of family duty, religion, spirituality, race relations, and morality permeate the stories, with forgiveness and people’s ability to change and transform being central.
Home is a retelling of some of the same story told in Robinson’s Gilead (another amazing novel) from a different perspective. One of the reasons both novels, and especially Home, are so poignant to me is Robinson’s mastery of writing. I’ve read few authors who have such a quiet and subtle power. I think that the themes Robinson tackles are the other reason these stories struck a chord: At midlife, the idea of change is more fraught than it was in my younger days. There are seemingly fewer doors open because of the choices I have made; habits I have formed; and the limits of time, money, and energy. Yet, as a therapist, the possibility that people can change is central to my work and my ability to hold hope for my clients and for myself as I live through my own ups and downs. While the doubts and regrets of my life are not the same as those of the prodigal son, Jack, in Home and by most standards are not as troubling, they still cross (and at times haunt) my mind. I found Jack’s question in Home “Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?” rather heartbreaking. It brought to mind all the times I’ve struggled with things about myself that I wish were different and times I’ve tried to help and counsel others who were up against some very difficult circumstances, including their own entrenched patterns that make it hard for them to move forward. Without spoiling the end of Home for those of you who might read it, I’ll just say that for me, it was unclear at the end of the book to what degree individuals and their world were able to change, and some of the characters certainly suffered for the uncertainties of their own transformation, the transformation of others, and that of society.
Surprisingly, some of the same feelings stirred in me by Home and Gilead (which I just read in December) came up when I was recently watching Manhunt: Unabomber, an eight-episode series on the FBI’s search for the Unabomber. Manhunt is entertaining and fairly well done, but it’s no masterpiece of writing or (with the exception of Paul Bettany, who played Kaczynski) acting. Still, I felt a stab of emotion when the series took the point of view of Ted Kaczynski in his tortured struggle to live both in and apart from a world he saw as destroying people’s basic freedom and humanity. Tragically, Kaczynski chose to act on these struggles by killing innocent people. However, in the TV show when Kaczynski plaintively speculated about whether he could stop killing if he wanted to but ultimately could not, it triggered some of the same emotion I felt pondering the souls of the characters in Gilead and Home. Granted, it was hard to feel much empathy for Kaczynski given the terror and destruction he caused, but the writers of the series slyly made it easy for the viewer to identify at least to some degree with Kaczynski’s alienation and used this theme to critique our confusing and dehumanizing world.
So, where does all this pondering and emotion leave me today? It leaves me with a great deal of admiration for Marilynne Robinson’s talent and gratitude that I have the chance to be touched by these and other stories. It also leaves me continuing to ponder the ideas of morality and change. Really, these are themes that will take a lifetime to explore. Some days, I feel OK with where I’m at in my pondering. Other days, not so much. In the end, it’s the journey and the questions that make us human.