Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Patricia Pape : Legacy of Resilience

This is the first self-published book I've ever read - and also the first memoir by one of my fellow Americans, instead of the catastrophic lives that people of my generation led in the People's Republic of China.

But you don't need a cultural revolution to have a challenging life - and this life is fascinating because the protagonist is so bright, healthy, upbeat, and main street middle American -- and yet still so challenged.

It's the kind of project that I wish every bright-enough old person would try to do.

First ,you dig up the family pictures.

Then you scout around for information about the ancestors.

Then you pick a theme and start telling your story, organizing it haphazardly around whatever issues may interest you, and letting your memories run wild.

"Survival" is the the most obvious theme for anybody over 50, and this author's choice of "Resilience" seemed to be a good one.


Why did her parents lead lives of such quiet desperation?

That's really what puzzles me the most about this life story which, like everyone else's, is built upon what happens in the first 20 years of life.

Mom and Dad and two children all seem to be bright and healthy, while Dad is working his way up to be President of a local steel fabricator in Aurora, Illinois.

They're not an ethnic minority facing discrimination and nobody is drafted into the army. They're smart, educated, successful Christian folk who go to church, swim at the country club, and live on a nice quiet, tree lined street in an American city that's an hour out of Chicago.

So why do dad and mom become alcoholics, to the point where dad loses his job and mom has to be institutionalized?

This isn't the kind of question that anyone can necessarily answer, and it has to be nearly impossible for their child to see them outside their role as parents.

But it's what seems to underlie the challenges that face their daughter, as she struggles through alcoholism herself, as well as abusive husbands , all while needing to support herself and raise two children.

Somehow she has picked up a need to be perfect -- leading to a profound dissatisfaction with herself and a need to please others.

The good consequence is an unstoppable, resilient, and even creative work ethic,
and as the author tells us over and over: she is a successful entrepreneur - the kind that gets featured on the feel-good pages of local journalism.

The down side is that it has attracted the wrong kind of men - and one wonders about the nature of her career -- i.e. what has she accomplished beyond making a niche for herself in the economy.

All of her job related prose is about business success rather than what her practice has done to help people or improve her profession.

This is a woman who is heroically self-absorbed, but that is only apparent because she is so honest about herself.

(She reminds me of Catherine the Great, who woke up at 6 am every morning to spend some private time reading, and eventually writing memoirs about how she survived court politics to become empress.)

The episodes about faith offer a nice snapshot of one person's experience with contemporary American mainstream Christianity.

She joined an Evangelical Lutheran church to marry her first husband - became a church secretary - and stuck with it through all the changes ever since.

Unconditional acceptance seems to be her primary goal as a parishioner. Sin and repentance are not part of this picture.

Perhaps her survival-success story is a bit too one-dimensional to be of interest by itself. But she'd be a great character in a story set in modern American suburbia, and I hope someone will (or already has?) written such a novel.