As two friends and I settled in with coffee at an outdoor café on a recent sunny afternoon, our relaxed, “catch up with each other,” conversation unexpectedly became more reflective and philosophical – as one after the other of us shared thoughts about a book we’d read this summer that moved us. The theme that unfolded as we talked about these books and our reaction to them caused us to do some soul-searching of our own. The theme – What is my own “coming of age” story? How strongly does our family and culture into which we are born influence our thinking and action as adults? Are we aware of that influence? How much do we act on unrecognized and unexamined principles we learned as a child? Are we really making conscious choices, or acting on old belief systems by default?
Susan described how eye-opening it had been for her to read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Especially powerful, she said, was the fact that in the author’s chaotic growing-up environment, it had taken only one person – who really believed in this young man, appreciated him, loved him, and was always “there for him,” to be the influence that enabled him to make choices leading to a future for himself – – far different from that in which he’d grown up. Mamaw (his grandmother) was tough, but she was full of love. As a graduate of Ohio State University and Yale Law School, and after much reflection on his own life experiences growing up, Vance challenges his hillbilly kin to look at their responsibility for their own misfortunes. “How much,” we wondered, “are we still thinking and living out the cultural story in which we grew up?”
Amber acknowledged to us how hard it had been for her to read, Educated. Author Tara Westover grew up in a survivalist family, in the hills of Idaho, dominated by her unstable father. The seventh child in the family, she had no birth certificate – because her father believed the government and all other institutions were satanic and would destroy the family. The children were not allowed to go to school, see a doctor or dentist, or have inoculations. When Tara insisted on going to public school, she was shunned by other children, and decided to return to the family system. Thus started the pattern of – reaching out, and running back. Westover taught herself enough to pass the ACT exam and was admitted to BYU where she later graduated, and she ultimately received a Ph.D. from Cambridge. “Wow!” we thought. “when did we intentionally reach out to live differently than our family expected? Are there threads of family loyalty that are still pulling us back? Are we making conscious choices or tapping our ‘default’ key?”
As I shared my experience reading Infidel, I realized how deeply I had engaged with this story. Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali had captured my imagination by her vivid accounts of her years as a child growing up within an inflexible Muslim family –in Somalia where she was born, in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and finally in Kenya. She prompted my appreciation with her ability to step outside her immediate experiences to share her reflections and her own assessment of what was happening and to discern her own beliefs. She tapped my empathy as she- over and over again – refused to be a victim, and took risks in response to her own needs and values. And she stimulated my admiration as she became a Dutch citizen, five years after entering Holland as a refugee, and later was elected to the Dutch Parliament. Her integrity, the desire to be honest with herself and to live her beliefs, was palpable throughout the story. “Could I have done what she did?” we were asking ourselves and one another? What is my own story of becoming? Do I live in integrity with what I really believe? Do I cling to the ‘victim’ role when external events impact me? Or am I willing to risk speaking up or making decisions that are true to myself?”
These three Memoirs are powerful “coming-of-age” stories of young people seeking to find or create their place in the world. The thread that connects them – that surfaced for my friends and for me is a BIG awareness and a BIG question:
The culture and family into which we are born is incredibly powerful!
Is it possible to move beyond the boundaries of these belief systems?