Memoir as Feminist Testimony

Benjamin and I just returned from Grand Rapids, where we attended the Festival of Faith and Writing. It was, as a friend on Twitter remarked, an "embarrassment of riches." Friends to meet, authors to hear, books to read.

I participated on two panels, including Memoir as Feminist Testimony. While the panel did not have the benefit of much diversity, overall it went very well. I am a huge fan of Rachel Marie Stone (our moderator), Amy Julia Becker, Jessica Mesman Griffith, and Alison Hodgson, so the mere fun of being onstage with them was worth the jitters I experienced about being on the big stage. 
Instagram photo by Ellie Roth
I decided to do this one with prepared remarks, which means I can share the manuscript of my responses. Bonus: my phone was bursting with notifications when I checked it later, thanks to Sarah Bessey live-tweeting the session. Such fun.

Katherine, as the clergywoman on the panel, you’ve done some investigation into the root meanings of the term testimony that speak to the gendered nature of testimony and bearing witness. Can you speak a little bit about gender in memoir? How is memoir a feminist act?

I have been interested in testimony for some time now, ever since I attended a preaching conference for young clergy women led by Anna Carter Florence. Florence is a preaching professor and the author of Preaching as Testimony, which might not sound germaine to this conversation, but assuredly is. Florence defines testimony in the classical sense - “we tell what we have seen and heard, and we confess what we believe about it.” She also provides the etymology for the word, testimony, which I find hilarious. “The word witness is derived from the Latin testis (a witness who testifies or swears on his virility, literally his “testes”, as proof of honesty).” That older Latin was “later absorbed into the Greek word for martyr, who swears on his or her life.” Eventually these words come to mean remembering and and telling the truth. She writes, “In the most literal and corporeal sense, testimony is passionate truth-telling.”

If I’m reading this right, I think that what Anna Carter Florence is saying is that we are all ballsy women. Are you allowed to say balls at the Festival of Faith and Writing?

But more seriously, there is great resonance here. As a feminist theologian, Florence is interested in testimony because it is the primary and sometimes only way that women’s voices and stories have been heard throughout church history. “Testimony was and still is a practice of the church open to all believers as a means of deepening faith in themselves and others through the passionate witness of life and expression,” she notes. And, testimony “seems to be most alive among marginalized communities.” Which is to say, for all the centuries women were not authorized to preach, they preached anyway - it was just called testimony.

Now, I know that we’re here to talk about memoir, not preaching, but these are genres that have some overlap in my work, and I think that some of what can be said about the one can be applied to the other. Testimony in the form of memoir is one avenue in which women’s voices are heard. And just as testimony has been afforded less respect, historically, than the proclamation of the Word from the pulpit, memoir has far less gravitas in many Christian circles than works of theology. I haven’t conducted any formal research on this, but I have noted, anecdotally, that men’s voices still tend to be more prevalent in theology, and women’s voices more common in memoir and spiritual life. These are the “soft” genres within the sphere of Christian writing - while there are no doubt many excellent memoirs by men, I suspect many subconsciously think of it as “pink collar” literature.

But why are women so drawn to reading - and writing - memoir? The memoirist does not need to be given permission by the church to tell what she has seen and experienced, nor what she believes about it. She is fully authorized to tell her story because it is just that - her story. Now, the tricky thing about testimony is that there’s no guarantee that those who hear - or read - it will believe it. This is why those bearing testimony have historically had to swear on bible or balls. Women who bear testimony take on the risk that their stories will not be believed. This is nothing new; disbelieving women is a favorite pastime of the patriarchy, right? But the memoirist testifies anyway. The memoirist tells the truth passionately - and, I hope that the Christian memoirist also points to the truth of the gospel passionately, as she contemplates her life in context of faith and discipleship.

Tell us about your upcoming memoir, which has some tricky bits that are leaving you feeling vulnerable. In some ways, we are in a cultural moment that applauds people for vulnerability, which, of course, has given rise to a phenomenon some of us call “faux vulnerability.” Why do you feel it’s important to tell your story, and what are some of the faux vulnerability pitfalls you’ve had to avoid?

My forthcoming book, Very Married: Field Notes on Love & Fidelity isn’t a straight memoir, but a blend of biblical reflection, cultural commentary, and personal narrative. When it comes down to it, I’ve learned as much about marriage from friends telling their stories as I have from how-to books on marriage. This is very much a book for people who prefer to peruse the literature section, than, say, the self-help shelves.

The stories that I include are there for a reason, and I set out to tell them in a way that is honest and forthcoming but also discreet, too. Discretion is a dying art these days, I fear, especially with the valorization of vulnerability in writing. BrenĂ© Brown says in Daring Greatly: “Vulnerability is bankrupt on its own terms when people move from being vulnerable to using vulnerability to deal with unmet needs, get attention, or engage in the shock-and-awe behaviors that are so commonplace in today’s culture.”

I do share some tricky bits that made me feel extraordinarily vulnerable. I experienced firsthand that people really do respond to vaguely scandalous confessions in writing. The Christian Century essay that netted me a book contract was about having experienced a crush on a friend, and it went viral in a way that nothing I’ve written before has. But I hope that the power of that piece was not that I confessed temptation, but that I walked away from it and, at a safe distance, confessed my belief in the glory of covenant and the sacredness of vows. Frankly, I think what people found most surprising in that piece is not that I had the crush, but that I immediately told my husband.

So I guess for me, the question about any given tricky bit is this: is it redemptive? If testimony is sharing what we have witnessed and telling what we believe about it, does the content of my story ultimately direct the reader not to me, but to the movement of God in my life? I sacrifice a portion of my pride and privacy in hopes that my testimony can participate in the work of the Holy Spirit and encourage others to practice fidelity, to honor covenants, to be people of integrity.

So, one more thing. I have witnessed - and at times participated - in a vulnerability script. Writers share something that makes them feel vulnerable, and then they sort of swoon about how DESPERATELY VULNERABLE they feel. Instead of martyrs, we have this weird literary martyrdom complex.

Memoirists, especially female memoirists, often project a sheepishness, faux or otherwise. I am glad that I got that out of my system last year, when the first essay was published. There are certainly other chapters of Very Married that feel vulnerable to me, but I no longer have the energy to play by that script - to be self-deprecating as a means of apologizing for taking up ink and space. The fact of the matter is right now I’m feeling really freaking brave. I’m feeling like I’ve written a damn fine book that is good because I’ve written with honesty, integrity, and a profound sense of purpose.

I am experiencing an unprecedented confidence, and it feels sacred. I have never been a part of a charismatic tradition, so I am speaking a spiritual language that is not native to me. But by engaging in faithful testimony, I feel like I have received an anointing by the Holy Spirit. To make such a claim makes me feel vulnerable all over again - as a mainline Christian, it’s unorthodox. And as a woman - well. It’s ballsy.

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