JUNE 5, 2016
WHEN I FIRST MET Dr. Mary Rakow in Kate Braverman’s legendary early ’90s writing workshop, I was primarily aware of her as a Manhattan Beach housewife and mom, not the holder of advanced degrees in theology from Harvard and Boston College. It wasn’t until her debut novel, The Memory Room (Counterpoint Press, 2002), that her theologian background really came to the fore. The 500-plus–page prose poem is both beautiful and terrifying as it tells the story of a woman scarred by childhood memories, who must draw on her faith to regain a fragile sense of safety in the world. The book was met with critical acclaim and prestigious authorial honors such as two Lannan Foundation residencies and a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship. Rakow’s second novel, This is Why I Came (Counterpoint Press, 2015), is protagonist Bernadette’s retelling of Bible stories in a handmade book as she waits to give her first confession in 30 years. In Rakow’s translation of the canonical tales, the characters, including God, are painfully, tragically, and sometimes humorously human. The text is eloquent and moving — a seemingly effortless, yet in many ways epic, look into one modern woman’s vivid take on these oft-told tales. Readers both churched high or not at all will find them compelling, even transformative.
I sat down to talk with Dr. Rakow about everything from faith, God, and the New Atheism to Manolo Blahniks, the designer shoes she covets but considers “the bane of my existence.”
NANCY SPILLER: Bernadette’s versions of the Bible stories have a mythic, dreamlike quality. Do you think of the Bible stories as dreams?
MARY RAKOW: I think of Christianity, Judaism, all religions as a dream in the sense of mathematics as a dream, science as a dream. Not dream in the sense that you wake up from it and you realize it’s not reality, but more dream in the sense that we’re trying as individuals and as a human family to articulate our own experience of transcending ourselves every day.
What distinguishes us from other animals, even the higher mammals, is this ability to transcend the limits of our body, the limits of our history, and the limits of this moment, and to dream, to project something larger. And so democracy is a dream, communism is a dream, justice is a dream. Mercy is a dream. It is these things that make us human, and constitute a culture. And we can have horrible dreams — dreams of a purified race that kill millions of people. Most of the dreams that interest me are beautiful to me and usually they demonstrate an inclination toward the good. So I do think of religion in that way.
Your protagonist Bernadette is a woman who can’t believe in God. And you say doubt is an act of faith. Is she telling herself these stories to reestablish her belief in God?
Hmm, I never really explain why Bernadette made this book. I guess I was just mirroring what I did. First of all, she’s going into the things that aren’t explained in those stories, and she’s going into those questions that the stories raise. She gives answers that she makes up so she can bring the stories close to her. The Bible, any sacred text, is not useful unless we bring it close to us and we can go into it. Otherwise we’re just doing an academic study of religious text. But Christians and Jews, and probably Buddhists and Muslims, have always understood faith as a relationship you are in; it’s not ascending to a bunch of doctrines and symbolic actions, but it’s a living thing. It’s a love relationship you are in with something other than yourself that is the source of life. The relationship is a living thing.
What is it you want readers to get from this book?
I hope that wherever each person is at, they will feel they have moved a step closer to whatever is true in their life for them. That they feel movement toward their most authentic selves. I don’t care if it’s an atheist or devout Catholic or secular humanist, but that they feel it moved them toward somewhere they were trying to go.
The book helped me put into form things that were chaotic in my thinking for a long time, and gave me a sense of cohesion and clarity. That’s a nice feeling, [to] move from something inchoate to something more realized. These are incremental steps for us most of the time. Even if they came back to me and said, “Now I know why I hate the Bible.” That would be wonderful for me. I just want each of us to become our most authentic selves, like [how] Thomas Merton says to move from inauthenticity to authenticity. So if someone says, “Now I know better why I am an atheist,” I would like to talk to them about that. That has dignity to me.
In your telling of the stories, the characters come across as very human. They’re not dressed up in morality or created just to teach lessons. Some find their encounter with God more a burden than a blessing. Veronica says, “not everyone wants the supernatural.”
[Laughs.] Veronica is waiting for her fiancé to come home who’s in the army, and she sees Jesus carrying his cross and she offers her cloth to wipe his face. She looks at the cloth and it turns out to be his image. And that image is viewed by the Orthodox, particularly, as the first icon. But I have it that she doesn’t have time for the supernatural.
Same with Jonah, as he didn’t want to deal with God anymore in that way, that notion of God; he just wanted the ordinary life, like of the fishermen whose boat he was in when they threw him overboard. The ordinary life is really all that we have and there’s this sense of something supernatural, or religious, or whatever it is, lying right behind the surface of what we are seeing and tasting. Like in Buddhism, which I’ve never studied seriously: it’s the unchanged behind the changing. So what is that thing that sometimes seems to pierce through? Jorie Graham, the poet, talks about these “openings.” The Bible stories tend to describe a piercing through of the background into the foreground.
And how do people respond to that? It can be a burden and upsetting. It’s kind of like falling in love. If you fall in love with someone with whom your notion of life and what it’s all about radically changes, it’s very uncomfortable. Let’s say you’re a guy who grew up with a single mom and she beat you everyday. And now you’re 20 and you meet a man or a woman who falls in love with you and touches you carefully. That’s both wonderful and horrifying because you don’t know how to deal with it, you don’t know how to experience it, and your primal experience from your parent was one of violation. It’s cognitively and emotionally upsetting, even though it’s a good thing. Those stories, I’m interested in that.
Jonah is one of these people really put off by God.
He comes across as something of a toady, lying to God to please him further, and God is codependent with Jonah.
Yeah, God is like a junky.
Yeah, he’s getting angry all the time and then repenting his anger.
Yeah, he’s addicted to that.
And Jonah feels he’s defiled by this codependency …
And he is!
And Jonah’s being dragged around by God and his increasing need to be loved! And so God is kind of a narcissist, too.
Totally. Totally. Jonah doesn’t want to support this addiction. I have his wife say, “Well, if you’re not going to be a prophet, what are you going to be?” And he says, “Well, I’m going to be God’s atheist.” Which is different than an atheist position. He doesn’t become totally an atheist because he says, “I will be God’s atheist.” He’s not saying God doesn’t exist; he says, “The version of God I have been in a relationship with, obeying and disobeying his orders, is a version that is not truthful. I’m going to abstain from that version.” And I love that about Jonah; he’s one of my favorite characters in the book.
And I see that in the New Atheists, too. I will abstain from worshipping a god that is hideous and motivates people to do hideous things. We need to throw all that in the trash can. That’s not my notion of God. So when you just read the Bible story, the book of Jonah, God, He changes His mind, He likes to be scary, get people to be afraid of Him, and then He forgives Jonah and all that stuff. That’s not a notion of God that I like, and I don’t really believe in that as the highest I can imagine; I can imagine something higher, therefore this isn’t what God is like.
The medieval argument for God’s existence is God defined as that which there is nothing greater than. That was St. Anselm’s argument for the existence of God; I think it’s a cogent argument 700 years later. So the God that Jonah does not want to worship anymore, or be a prophet for, is the notion of God that is crappy. God’s a junky. He had to be ditched.
Then Noah, after the flood, finds God crouching in horror behind his throne at what he’d done, destroyed the world he created, and Noah urges God to learn mercy from humans. So we have the mercy in us; we don’t need to look to God for it.
That’s right. And the New Atheists that I admire, like [the late Christopher] Hitchens and Sam Harris, say basically that we don’t need the supernatural apparatus to be the basis of morality, the basis of ethics. That’s true; you don’t. There have been secular theorists and secular humanists forever. So there’s nothing new in my reading, but it’s new to bring it up now. I can understand the motivation about that and I respect it, but what is interesting to me is that the notion of mercy, for example, it’s an exquisitely beautiful notion and it goes against our individual self-interest. So it’s an example of a dream. The dream of mercy. No other creature has that dream, so I’m very interested in what’s unique to the human species and makes us so incredibly beautiful, and when that is distorted we are distinguished by our ability to be enormously cruel. It’s a distortion of our gifts. So I’m fine with a person saying, “I want to teach my kids about leading a moral life and not taking them to Sunday school to teach them about God,” Sam Harris’s view, but I’m interested in these biblical stories because the Bible speaks to me in a very vivid way, more than any other literature.
And I think [the New Atheism is] really important. The secularism I’m aware of now in the world, or in my culture, is something that I think is really necessary; I don’t see it as the end position at all. It’s like we needed Luther, too; we needed the reform of the Western tradition in the 16th century. So a friend of mine said maybe the reform that’s happening now is secularism. I thought that was an interesting point — especially with the global clerical child abuse issue [in the Catholic Church] — that a new Luther would rise up. This is worse than selling indulgences, which Luther hated. So my friend said maybe secularism is the new Luther. It’s a really interesting idea.
When we met in Kate Braverman’s writing workshop, language was considered sacred; it was all about the words on the page. In reading your book, the thought occurred that religion is language, that God is really language. Because that’s all we have that’s connecting us. I’m not a theologian, and this may be getting out there, but what do you think of that possibility?
Yeah, that’s really a biblical way of understanding it in your question, because we have in the Jewish scriptures, in the beginning the world is created by speech: God says something and then it exists. So, if we value ourselves and the world, and we say that it came from speech, it isn’t “God took clay and …” God said, “Let there be light,” and then he said it was good. God said, “Let the dry land separate from the water,” stuff like that, so it’s an act of speech. You’re just saying it from the other side. Well, could it be that speech is The Divine in a sense?
What’s interesting is that the major Western religions, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, see God as the speaker of reality, through speech, and then for Christians, Jesus is understood as the Word, with a capital W. You know? And so there are four gospels in the New Testament, and the fourth gospel, John’s gospel, which was written last chronologically, but was still very close to Jesus’s life, doesn’t start with the birth of Jesus, or Jesus in the manger, any of that stuff; it never talks about that. The opening line is very beautiful, the prologue: in the beginning was the Word, capital W, and the Word was with God and the Word was God; and the Word, you learn reading through, that was Jesus being born in Nazareth. So he’s not even interested in that biological birth. He’s talking about Jesus as coming into our time and space from existing as part of The Divine, what Christians come to understand as the trinity. So we have that notion of God’s self-understanding, as the biblical understanding that all of reality came from utterance and that when God wanted to enter space and time and be a touchable thing, we call that the Word. So there’s a really strong appreciation for language. That’s about as high as you can elevate language. So, to do it from your side, it’s like any poet or prose writer or singer who cares about language; it’s because it’s more powerful and more beautiful than other things. They don’t necessarily say that it’s divine, but they could say, like you did, [that] this is the pinnacle of how we can connect with each other — through language.
I don’t know that I think that myself. I believe very much in silence. And I believe very much in physical touch and the visual world. I may be more drawn to the visual world than the world of language. But even at that, a Christian understanding of what is a human person is created in God’s image. So the visual world also gets this kind of divine underwriting.
What prompted you to get a doctoral degree in theology, and why then did you not pursue it as an academic or church career?
[Getting advanced theology degrees] was super interesting, and in the process of doing that I became a Catholic; that’s another story, but behind that decision was [that] my father was an atheist and my mother was an evangelical. So my father was a nuclear physicist; religion was never once discussed, but it was the thing that was the bristling reality in our family home, among other things. And as a really young person, I didn’t see, still don’t, any conflict between science and religion. So when I was a 10-year-old, dad would talk to me about the periodic table and Niels Bohr, and my mother would get me to memorize the prologue of John’s gospel. So to me there was no intrinsic contradiction, but what I decided at a fairly young age, and I still think this, is that theology is a larger dream, [that] its ambition is larger; theology’s ambition is to also have a place for science as one of the human activities. I felt as a kid that what I was hearing in the biblical version of what a human being is was larger than the discovery of the neutrino. Science couldn’t carry religion. So religion seemed a bigger dream. I still feel that way.
The reason I didn’t become an academic: I decided in my last two years with my dissertation, and I was pregnant with our third child, my husband was making good money, [that] I didn’t need to physically work. But I was also turned off by academic theology and all of the professors publishing articles to get tenure. I thought at the time I wanted to just write one sentence that was beautiful rather than a bunch of articles. I realize I think about religious questions but not as a theologian.
And I didn’t start writing for like 20 years later. Part of my conversion to Catholicism was that I was exposed to the contemplative, monastic tradition, which I didn’t know anything about as an evangelical, and I was very drawn to it. I felt I wanted to lead a contemplative life, in the context of being married and a young mom. So I did that. I basically recited two of the liturgical hours every day, morning and evening prayer, and that became a hinge to my life. And I’m still deeply drawn to [the monastic tradition].
That’s fascinating. And I’m sure there are young married women with small children who would say good luck with that!
I know. [Laughs.] But it can keep you from going nuts! I mean, I was in my pajamas while I was nursing with the liturgy of the hours. But truthfully, the monastic, they get up, every three hours of the day; it’s not that time-consuming, it’s not the mass, it’s the psalter. There are 150 psalms; you go through the psalter through the year. It gives you a structure and it’s very beautiful. I’ve never really talked about that.
And that’s why you pursued Catholicism, because they offered this possibility?
They have a monastic tradition that goes back to actually the third century with the desert fathers, who were leaving the big cities and going out into the desert to live a life of prayer. They went into wilderness situations to keep their focus on what human life was really about, and the primary relationship in their life was with The Divine. So monasticism happened. I’m very drawn to it.
I encountered a serious crisis that made me question and throw out all religious language, and that was the beginning of this 30-year absence from the church. So I thought I really wanted to cultivate silence, and I thought that would take me about a month, and I started gardening in earnest. And it took me about 10 years to get some degree of interior silence. And it was after that I started to write. So the writer never came to me from wanting to be a writer. I never have. I don’t even read much. And that’s a whole other dark story about how scary that is. But it came from silence, and I think for me the best work I do is when it comes from silence.
Language is your vehicle back into the world from silence?
Yes, that’s a nice parallel. I still prefer the white of the page; it’s like silence in the sense that silence contains in itself every birdcall, every argument between human beings, every sonata, all utterance, and the white of the page contains already all articulation. So what I’m trying to do when I put something onto the white of the page is to make something that aspires to be as good as the white of the page. My kind of career goal if I have one is eventually to become silent. The way I picture my last novel would be a third influenced by [minimal artist] Carl Andre, a long metal strip on the desert floor with no words on it. Then the reader can just put him or herself onto it.
After all, a work is not complete for a writer until a reader has come to it.
Yes, they complete the work. You know what I did? I never told anyone this: on my birthday, which was in October, right before the book came out this [past] year, and [when] I was really, really wanting the book to be in the world, and it wasn’t coming out until December, I just decided, I took the first page of each chapter, like 60 chapters, and I just walked through San Francisco and walked through places; I put a page on a stack of sweaters in Old Navy, I went high and low, I went to Neiman Marcus or Barney’s or something, I left one in the dressing room. I went to a park; I went to the Caltrain Station. It was great; it felt so good! Okay, I can die now. It’s in the world, it didn’t have a title, it didn’t have anything. I just printed copies off my printer; it wasn’t a galley or anything. It made a visceral connection with the physical world, and it gave me great peace.
That’s wonderful! And it’s also a brilliant way to find readers.
[Laughs.] I just felt this urgency, maybe because it was my birthday; I just felt I wanted to do it.
After you sold your first novel, you sold your family home and left your garden behind?
Yes, I started not doing it. I had a huge garden, [and] I liked doing it all myself; it was a form of prayer, very contemplative. But once I started writing seriously, they’re similar, and there wasn’t time for both. I was trimming my 300 feet of ficus hedges manually, which I like, but I was doing it fast, which defeats the whole purpose. It became no longer contemplative but “hurry up and get it done.” Then the marriage was falling apart; we sold that big house and we moved to a townhouse. It just became [that] writing took the place of gardening as a prayerful act.
You now live alone in a high-rise in San Francisco. How do you maintain a contemplative life today?
I have a very quiet, small apartment. All creative people engage in the same thing: we get our work from our solitude. We connect to other people to see if it flies, but it comes from solitude. I’m at a crossroads now: I like where my life has come; I’ve gone through a series of refusals about the physical space I live in, liberating refusals. I found that the smaller my space I live in, the larger my imagination.
What do you mean by refusals?
Disowning property, disowning possessions.
Did that start with selling the family home?
Yes, it started with selling the family house, moving to the townhouse, the marriage falling apart, and aging, and realizing that you either end up in an urn as ashes or in the ground. We’re all going to have this diminishment, so what I found really empowering was to work from that backward. To structure one’s life to be attentive to the central things. And it keeps reinforcing itself. I care a lot about fashion. I had been wanting for years to just have 10 items of clothing, but exquisitely made, and I’m close to that now. I have about 20. And they don’t last forever, so you have to replace them sort of. I don’t want a lot; I want “less, but better,” to quote Dieter Rams, who is a total idol of mine. He has 10 design principles. It’s totally inspiring. Basically, less but better. Apple was inspired by Rams. I wrote an article, never published, about how the 10 principles of Dieter Rams apply to novels.
I need to ask you about your passion for designer shoes. A doctor of theology should wear sensible shoes. You wore the most insensible shoes of anyone I knew — Manolo Blahniks!
[Laughs.] They are the bane of my existence! They’re beautiful. Beautiful heels are beautiful! They’re like a peer, an opening into The Divine. It’s true! [Laughs.] Give me a break, they are!
Oh. Okay. Glad we cleared that up. You’re a once-devoted gardener now living in a high-rise; do you even have a houseplant?
No, I’ve gone to cut flowers. I don’t have any pets. I don’t have any plants. I don’t have anything that actually needs me for maintenance. Nothing. Both my parents are dead. I don’t babysit my grandchildren. It’s very streamlined. I found that to move forward, intellectually, I need to shed constantly; I’ll have less next year than now, and less the next. The demand for maintenance increases with aging, so I want to have fewer things to take care of. It works for me. You’re going to get old and things will be taken from you, so I like to stay ahead of the curve.
Nancy Spiller is the Los Angeles–based author of Entertaining Disasters: A Novel (With Recipes) (Counterpoint, 2009) and Compromise Cake: Lessons Learned From My Mother’s Recipe Box (Counterpoint, 2013).