In her heartbreaking, deeply personal accounting, Lucia Greenhouse shines a stark light on the dark corners of Christian Science. Raised in a household where medicine is shunned and secret keeping a part of life, Lucia and her siblings struggle to make sense of their parent’s religion. When, as young adults, they discover that their mother is gravely ill, they are forced to face the devastating reality that they have few options to save her. Compelling and raw, fathermothergod will haunt you long after the last word. I’m so pleased to welcome Lucia Greenhouse to BCB today.
Tabitha Lord: How long did it take before you were ready to share this experience with the world, and were you worried about the way various family members and friends would receive fathermothergod?
Lucia Greenhouse: The short answer is, it took me more than two decades before I was ready to share my story publicly and I worried a lot about how publishing fathermothergod might impact my family. Longer version: I started writing what would become the first of five drafts back in 1987. The writing was rough-hewn, the wounds still raw, and I simply wasn’t ready to do the difficult work of immersing myself in the memories. After that first attempt, the writing was on and off the back burner for years, as I was a busy stay-at-home mom. When my youngest child entered kindergarten, I enrolled in a memoir writing class – which involved writing and sharing my writing – and that was when I began in earnest to write for a broader audience. My brother was the only family member to read the manuscript before I got an agent, and I didn’t share fathermothergod with other family members until it had been bought by Random House and was in galleys. For each family member who read it, it was a painful read, returning them to a very dark time. The only backlash from family and backlash is probably too strong a characterization here, came from my mother’s brother, Uncle Jack, who was initially extremely upset by fathermothergod, marking up the margins of the galley proof with comments and some angry accusations before returning it to me. The book gave him a target for his anger; but he was angry at Christian Science, at his helplessness, and mostly at my father. His sisters (my mom’s sisters), on the other hand, were fully supportive of the book, and of my publishing it. “It was a crazy time, Lucia,” my Aunt Kay said. “It brought out the worst, and the best, in each of us.” I have a good relationship with my Uncle Jack, and indeed, with all of the members of my family. One of Uncle Jack’s favorite sayings has always been “blood is thicker than water.”
TL: Did writing this book provided catharsis, if not healing, for you?
LG: Sometimes I think the act of writing and publishing was cathartic but I don’t think I will ever fully heal from the wounds. I understand intellectually the double bind we were in, but regret has a way of sticking with you. One of the best outcomes of publishing fathermothergod was that, together with social media, I have been able to connect with others who were raised in Christian Science, and who have shared similar and sometimes far more devastating stories, and we have been a source of support and comfort for one another.
TL: Obviously, the experience with your mother’s illness was emotionally devastating, but I found, as I was reading, that there were smaller moments that hit me right in the gut as well. For example, when you had the stomach bug and wanted to come home from school. Your father wouldn’t acknowledge the illness and coerced you into staying there, miserable and sick. As a parent, that act felt incomprehensible. As a parent now yourself how do process the heartache that must accompany these memories?
LG: I’m going to try to answer a slightly different question here before getting to your question. When you ask me how I process the heartache that must accompany the memories of my parents denying the very existence of illnesses, injuries, and the other challenges of growing up, what I have come to wonder about lately is, how growing up in a religion that eschewed medical care has affected my very ability to assess and respond in a normal way both to my family’s health needs over time, and to my own. With respect to my husband and children, I tend to Google every symptom and become an expert diagnostician. I am very quick to run to the doctor for them, to fill prescriptions and heed a doctor’s order religiously. (Interesting word choice, that!) With my own health, it’s weird: I will go to doctors, I will fill prescriptions, but with some puzzling regularity, I won’t actually take the pills. I’m not sure why. Even with something as simple as a headache, I will walk around all day feeling not great, and when I mention it to my husband, and he says, “Did you take some Advil?” I will realize that no, I didn’t. Sometimes I will even say I have when I haven’t, which is pretty stupid. I don’t know…maybe that’s not all that unusual? What I’m saying, I think, is that I really don’t know what normal is when it comes to medicine and health.
About the heartache: I think my answer is: I have processed it, I think I’ve moved on, and then sometimes the heartache just hits me all over again and I’m in a funk for a while, and then I get back to whatever I’m doing. The heartache is still there, but not all the time. Most of the time I’m just a very fortunate mom of four great kids with a wonderful husband, the most adorable dog, and a very happy life. Time does heal.
TL: Among other things, I think secret keeping separates a healthy spiritual practice from a perverse one. Can you talk a little bit about how the secret keeping in your family built over time and set the stage for the biggest secret of all – hiding your mom’s illness from anyone who would have stepped in to intervene?
LG: My family kept secrets about health, finances, travel, work. When I sprained my ankle I stayed home from school until it “was healed” – I put that in quotes because I don’t believe it “was healed” by anything, God or Christian Science, as much as it healed quite naturally on its own, and probably wasn’t all that bad a sprain to begin with. When one day I asked my dad how much money we had in the bank, he answered almost robotically, “We have always been divinely protected by God’s Law of Supply.” But in truth, he had a trust fund. We were cautioned against telling anyone that we would be taking a vacation, or where we were planning to travel, in order to “protect” God’s plan. There was an insidious creep of secrecy until eventually it informed really major decisions like where we would live. I don’t think there was anything random or unintentional about my parents’ decision to leave Minnesota and move to England, and three years later to New Jersey, where their non-Christian Scientist family members couldn’t pry. It was this last move, to Hopewell NJ, that probably changed my family’s fate as much as their religious practices did.
TL: The theme of personal liberty with regard to one’s healthcare, and as it relates to religious freedom, is front and center in your story. While I respect an individual’s choice to receive or refuse care, I think what frustrates me, and not just in this case but as a phenomenon in our culture, is a person’s ability to embrace certain parts of modern science and reject others. The same rigorous science that brought us space travel and the Internet also eradicated polio. I’m not saying we should blindly accept all scientific conclusions. In fact, part of doing good science is to challenge results. But we have definitively proven that the world is not flat, and it baffles me that otherwise sensible people can cling to nonsensical notions. You spend time in this memoir questioning how your parents could have embraced such a radical religion. What is your best conclusion?
LG: I would answer your question with an extension of your question because this blind acceptance of “principals” that fly in the face of scientific fact continues today, and not only in Christian Science, but that’s a discussion for another day. Even today, many Christian Scientists live and work in mainstream society and in some cases have reached the highest levels in their chosen fields. They are not dwelling in compounds in Waco, Texas, so to speak. How is it that Hank Paulson, former CEO of Goldman Sachs and former US Treasury Secretary under George W. Bush, is a Christian Scientist? One difference between Hank Paulson and my parents (and there are many!) is that he was born into the religion whereas both of my parents converted, so Hank Paulson never knew anything but Christian Science until adulthood. I believe my parents embraced Christian Science for complicated reasons, but fundamentally, because they were vulnerable, each for their own reasons, which I am still sorting out. I think my father was a bit of a lost soul, the youngest son of privilege, and a failing marriage; of a mother who would soon be busy with two darling sons by her second husband, a kind step-father, but who couldn’t fill the shoes of my father’s geographically remote father. My mother’s reasons are harder for me to understand, other to say that she was in so many ways a product of the fifties and was going to stand by her man no matter what. Beyond that, it’s possible that her conversion to Christian Science was the ultimate post-adolescent rebellion (her father was a doctor, her mother a nurse, her brother, a surgeon) but to be honest, my mother didn’t really fit the mold of a rebel.
TL: Let’s talk a little about writing craft. Your memoir is character driven and emotionally charged and flows in many ways like good fiction. Where and when did you consider the reader’s experience in writing your story? How did you determine what to include and what to leave out?
LG: For me, one of the hardest aspects of writing this book was deciding on its structure and mechanics. Initially, I played around with using flashbacks a lot more, starting with the scene in the Emergency Room, then going back to some childhood scenes; bouncing around a bit. My memoir teacher asked me why I wanted to do that. It obviously wasn’t working very well! At the time I thought I wanted to start with the feeling of exposure and chaos, so I put the reader at the ambulance entrance to the hospital. My teacher quickly convinced me to keep it simple and to write more or less chronologically. Starting in childhood allowed the reader to learn the fundamentals of Christian Science from a child’s point of view, as taught in Sunday school and practiced daily in a Christian Science household.
As to what I decided to leave in or take out: I had wanted to change the names of all the characters in the memoir, to spare my family members the exposure. Random House insisted that as a work of memoir, the real names and identities had to be kept. That was a pretty stress-inducing realization!
TL: I can only imagine! But it sounds like you and your family are at peace with regard to this. So, are you currently working on another writing project?
LG: I have a few ideas I’m working on, hoping one sticks! All three are fiction.
TL: Thank you for sharing such a personal journey with us, and best of luck with your next project.
Lucia Greenhouse is the author of fathermothergod, a coming-of-age memoir about growing up in a family who shunned medicine in favor of prayer. Lucia is a graduate of Emma Willard School and Brown Univerisity. She currently lives in Westchester County, NY with her husband, children, and dog. In 2012 Oprah chose fathermothergod for her list of “memoirs we love”. Lucia loves to join book clubs via skype when time permits. For more information, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lucia is currently at work on a young adult novel, at her writing pace of eight words per day….