By some strange coincidence, I find myself reading three very different memoirs by three very different white men.
I’ve just finished J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, and am making my way through major 20th-century theologian, Jurgen Moltmann’s autobiography, A Broad Place and Eric Fair’s provocative memoir, Consequence which explores his time as an interrogator in Iraq.
I’m not normally much of a memoir reader, but the contrast in styles between these authors—read against the backdrop of the inauguration—has revealed some nuanced differences in how three white males regard themselves and their place in the world and how they tell their story.
Engaging though it is with its tales of dysfunctional family horror in Appalachia, J.D. Vance’s book relies heavily on the notion of self-determination and the myth of grit. I’m all for grit, but there is also something in the telling that I found preening and self-congratulatory. Vance makes good, in spite of his background. He gives generous credit to the unflagging support of his sister and his grand-parents and he cites many studies—giving the book the air of an undergraduate academic paper—in support of the challenges that poor, white Americans face.
But the Yale law degree, the beautiful, supportive wife, the can-do credo all have a whiff of reward about them, as if hard work, broad shoulders and the Protestant work ethic will, in the end, reap just and plenty fruits.
If that is true for J.D. Vance, I’m happy for him. And indeed, I was engaged and in places moved by his story. But something is missing—which is that life tends toward the contradictory and the nuanced.
Certainly that is what I am finding in Jurgen Moltmann’s autobiography, A Broad Place, the title taken from Psalm 31 “Thou hast set my feet in a broad place.”
Born in Germany in the 1920’s and raised in an entirely secular household, Moltmann fought in the war, survived several bombing attacks in which close comrades were killed beside him, was captured by the British in 1945 and sent to a prisoner of war camp on the Ayrshire coast of Scotland.
In the camp, he writes, he and his fellow German prisoners, “heard no reproaches, we were not blamed, we experienced a simple and warm common humanity which made it possible for us to live with the past of our own people.” In was in the camp that he came to have a sense of God and to see in Jesus “the divine brother in need, the companion on the way, who goes with you through this ‘valley of the shadow of death,’ the fellow-sufferer who carries you, with your suffering.”
If Moltmann was the despised victim redeemed by divine hospitality as it was mediated to him through the Scots who both imprisoned and accepted him, Eric Fair’s Consequence: A Memoir is both self-abnegating and searing in its confessional tone and staccato style. Raised in an ardently Presbyterian family in Bethlehem, PA, Fair finds his calling in law enforcement and is advised to prepare for it by entering the armed forces. Extensively trained in Arabic Fair eventually becomes an interrogator at Abu Ghraib and the book includes wrenching self-examination, contrition and guilt as he tries to reconcile his own actions torturing his charges, with his own thwarted life of faith.
Vance, Moltmann and Fair present different perspectives on what it means to be masculine, to be motivated, to be humbled and redeemed. For Moltmann and Fair it is clear that redemption is not wrought from within by sheer dint of will and grit, but bestowed from without, an undeserved and unearned grace.
The humility and the gravitas in Moltmann and Fair’s stories stay with me, manifestations of the kind of masculinity this world needs in order to supplant and correct the rhetoric of coarseness, braggadocio and self-congratulatory conceit that has nothing to do with genuine male self-awareness and power.