Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Truth is BETTER than Fiction!

My two most recent books have me convinced: real life stories are way better than made up ones. When I read fiction, especially tightly crafted fiction, I always ask myself, "So what?" As in, "So this or that thing happened; what does it mean? How does it change the characters/plot/ themes?" In bad fiction the answer seems to be, "Because the author felt like it," or "I don't know." In well done fiction the answer leads to more questions and more connections and, when I really like the book, makes me feel a little giddy. However, it's still a process--it's work--the story and I are interacting and changing each other and my mind is constantly trying to make meaning out of it all. (Other readers don't have this problem, from what I understand. This is what I get for having a literature degree!) In non-fiction, the process becomes more intuitive less intellectual--especially with memoir. With memoir I am able to explore someone else's experiences and feelings and my own reactions to them in an intimate and safe way. I don't have to question so much. My brain doesn't whir like a hamster on a wheel trying to keep track of things. The words and story just wash over me--and inside me--and change me. (I also feel this way about top notch fiction. All of my favorite books have this effect on me.) Perhaps the process of writing and memoir facilitates these kind of connections. It is, after all, quite therpeutic to spend so much time contemplating your navel.

Anyway, literary digressions aside, the two books I read were: Not In Vain: the inspiring story of Ellis Shipp, pioneer woman doctor by Susan Evans McCloud and I'm Eve: the compelling story of the internationally famous case of multiple personality by Chris Costner Sizemore and Elen Sain Pittillo.

Not In Vain is an out-of-print biography by the Susan Evans McCloud, the woman who penned the hymn "Lord, I Would Follow Thee." While the text is sometimes melodramatic and McCloud is a bit sentimental for my taste, she clearly writes with great admiration for Ellis Shipp and with great charity for the other people in the book. Ellis Reynolds Shipp crossed the plains as a child and was raised in near poverty until she is taken in by Brigham Young and given the opportunity to go to school. She begins school but can't seem to focus because she falls in love with a man ten years older than her. Against the counsel of Brigham Young she eventally marries her sweetheart and subsequently has children. Her husband, Milford Shipp, was a mercurial man who could never quite settle on a vocation. His heart seemed to gravitate towards charity and missionary work, which would have been fine had he been called to take on plural wives. The family, though blessed by the Lord for their faithfulness and diligence, struggled immensely in their early years and many of the children died. (Over the course of her life Ellis lost five of the ten she bore.) Most likely because of these deaths, Ellis felt strongly about becoming educated as a family practice and obstetric doctor. So, leaving two small children behind she left for Philadelphia and, even though she concieved a child during her schooling (Milford came to visit!), eventually graduated. Ellis returned to Utah as the second woman doctor to practice in that state. She was eventually able to support herself and children and the other wives and their children while Milford dabbled in different careers and served missions for the Church.

What struck me most about her story was how modern it was. If you factor out all the train rides and antiquated medical jargon, Ellis Shipp was a woman trying to do it all. She was having babies, raising a family, working, and trying to support her husband. She often had her older children work the reception area and tend the little ones while she worked in the exam room! I guess the habit of Mormon women trying to do it all at once started early in our history.

The second book, I'm Eve, was written by the woman who was the subject of The Three Faces of Eve. Written with her closest friend and cousin, this book gives the "insider view" of multiple personality disorder. It is a straightfoward and careful manner book, gripping in its detail. Without melodrama it takes the readers through all the ups and downs of Christine Costner's life--and the twenty-plus alters who accompany her on that journey. I found it harrowing to be inside her head and ended up feeling fairly overwhelmed by her sadness.

The book ends on a hopeful, though realistic, note. At the end of the book Christine says, "I loosed the tiger. . . I know who I am. But, as [my psychologist] says, we know not what the future holds." I really appreciated that sentiment. Fairly often I feel that I have my depression "figured out." Sometimes I even decide it's not as bad as it really is or that it's over or that it's not real and I won't be depressed anymore. I suppose this is more like wishing than actual rational thought, but either way I end up in denial about my problems. Of course, depression is real and I do end up feeling bad again--sometimes worse than others. I often get overwhelmed and act out by yelling at my kids or husband and/or breaking something (like a mug or my sunglasses). Then the guilt sets in and I realize that I do have a problem and I need to be responsible for it. I need to take my medicine, exercise, pray, read my scriptures, and get plenty of sleep. It's a lot of maitenance, but it's got to be done. So I guess that's why I appreciated Christine's sentiment. It seemed to me like she was being grateful for the peace she was currently experiencing but also being mindful of her past troubles and trying to prepare for the future. Being grateful and wary at the same time is a difficult balance to strike and it was meaningful to see someone who encountered nearly insurmountable obstacles figure that out--at least for a little while. She has another book that was published around ten years later so I guess there's more to her story. But I don't know if I'll read it. . . it just makes me sad for her.

Anyway, 8 books down, 44 to go. Page count: 2,699.

1 comment:

Charlotte said...

I think you should change the name of your blog to Literate Mormon Mommy;) And hey - we were just talking about that difference between (bad) fiction and non-fiction on the phone yesterday!! Too fun. I'm def. going to try and get that I'm Eve book. Thanks for the recommendations! PS> Don't forget to post the links to your other reviews... I still want to read them.