Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Our Strange Books of Lies
The story? The book entitled The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven. It was the tale that was recently, publicly, and oddly refuted by the young man--critically and nearly mortally injured in a catastrophic car accident as a child--who claimed to have experienced a glimpse of eternity. With God, and Jesus, and angels, and demons. The whole shebang.
"None of this is true. I made it all up," he said, before going off on an awkward fundamentalist tangent.
So of course, I had to read it. It's been pulled from the shelves of bookstores and offline, but...hey...that's what libraries are for.
It wasn't exactly what I was expecting. The author isn't rightly the young man in question. He's a character in the story, but not the primary voice. He was a boy at the time of the crash, only six. The narrator, and the primary voice of the book? That's his dad, who recounts the horrors of the crash, his desperate guilt as a father at having accidentally harmed his son, and the struggle for the life of a child after a massive spinal cord injury.
It's moving, genuine, and human. It's also...well...more than a little bizarre. Here is a family steeped in charismatic fundamentalist Christianity. Their world is populated by demons and angels and powers, every moment part of an endless spiritual struggle. It's a magickal worldview, so fraught with supernatural esoterica that it's essentially Wiccan. Mystic though I am, I don't really share that approach to the world, but...as with the witchy folk I know...I find I can love those souls nonetheless.
Even more odd was the refutation, placed in the context of the story the book told. Here, a vision of heaven that was drawn completely and totally from Biblical literalism. "When I made those claims, I had not read the Bible," the young man said as he recanted. Yet everything about his now-repudiated vision was formed and shaped by fundamentalist Christianity and its interpretation of Scripture. The vision of God. The nature of Jesus. The forms and shapes of angels. The character of heaven and the heavenly city. The devil. All of it, riffs on a familiar theme. Most peculiar.
There's something else, though. There's an interesting twist on it. It's a telling filled with details, spun with precision and pathos, every moment cast out until that instant of trauma, and then you, right there in the thick of life with them as the aftermath unfolds. Conversations go back and forth, told word for word, as if you're there as the story is unfolding. The recounting was surprisingly well done.
But it is also not likely entirely true. Why? Because there's such a profound level of detail. Not of the trauma itself. Trauma sears time into us, burning in memories with a bright fire. But little details before the event? And the precise wording of extended conversations afterwards, paragraph after paragraph, exchanges back and forth? These things we are not good at recalling, not as they really were.
I recently did several interviews for my doctoral research, and in the absence of an adequate recording device, I transcribed sections of them on this very laptop. My fingers were flying at certain points, struggling to keep up as folks dropped wisdoms and knowings that I wanted to capture. Some stuff, I'm pretty sure I got verbatim. But in other places, for large sections, I wasn't able to quote, because I didn't get it precisely enough. If I ever publish it formally, I'll run it by the folks in question to insure it represents them fairly, because...even in my best effort to capture both tone and exact language...I know I might have filled in from my own subjectivity. Not embellished, not intentionally. But spun or misrepresented as my mind interpreted what they were saying. It's a danger.
So here I am, reading a story. It is not, cannot be, exactly true. Not just about the heaven part. But about the earth part.
We make lousy recording devices. But then, that's not really our purpose, now, is it?