I rarely look to biographies of the rich and famous for my inspiration. Normally this is hagiography of the worst kind, the culture’s version of the lives of the saints. When you read religious lives of the saints, even though the stories are often badly written, you are, in the end, at least dealing with a saint. Most of the time, in spite of all, you are inspired.
That is rarely true for the stories on the bookracks and in People magazine about the rich and famous. Usually, in reading these, you are not inspired but only titillated in your more selfish instincts. There are exceptions, of course, and two recent stories, autobiographies, of the rich and famous are worth noting.
Annie Dillard, who won a Pulitzer prize for “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” has published the story of her early life in, “An American Childhood” (Harper and Row, 1987). Patty Duke, who was the youngest person ever to win an Academy award, has published her autobiography in, “Call Me Anna” (Bantam Books, 1987). I doubt that Dillard and Duke know each other, or even know of each other, they are very different kinds of persons, inhabiting very different kinds of worlds. Their main similarity lies in age: Dillard was born in 1945, Duke in 1946. I was born in 1947. Perhaps that’s why their lives hold an extra fascination for me. They’re my generation, having felt all the shocks of our culture and our world at the same age I did. That makes for some extra affinity. But, extra affinity aside, their stories speak to hearts, irrespective of when they were born. Margaret Atwood once said: What touches you is what you touch. These are great human stories. Touch them and certain things inside you will be touched.
Patty Duke is well-known, but her story isn’t. The child of a poor, Catholic, Irish, immigrant family, she grew up among the rats and fleas of New York’s ghettos, until, at age 7, she was discovered to have an exceptional talent for acting. The next 30 years of her life are a chronicle of professional success and personal tragedy. She is taken from her family, abused, stripped of her name, her religion, her personality, her freedom. After a series of unsuccessful marriages, suicide attempts, and nervous breakdowns, she regains herself, her family, her name, and, to an extent, her God. She båegins the book with a one-line statement of her philosophy: “If you keep living the truth of your life, that, not the mistakes and exaggerations, is what will endure.” (Page 4) She ends the book by commenting that despite nearly going completely under a number of times, that philosophy has worked: “Isn’t it amazing that I survived at all?… I’ve survived, I’ve beaten my own bad system and some days, most days, that feels like a miracle.” (Page 298)
Her story is powerful, with lots of potential for helping heal other lives. It is healing because it is searingly honest. It details in a simple and honest way the anatomy of lost innocence, of lost personality, of the disintegration of a life until there is nothing left save honesty itself. And that honesty is enough. She makes it. Like David in the Scriptures, she’s taken from poverty to the kingship; and, from there, she loses innocence and moves near death. But, like David, ultimately, she ends up writing psalms. It’s a story worth reading.
Annie Dillard’s story is different. She’s the antithesis of the poor, abused child. Rich and loved richly, she grows up both blessed and cursed by a pathological curiosity and an exceptional perceptiveness. Already as a child she takes upon herself as a vocation the task of saving memories for the world: “As a life’s work, I would remember everything – everything, against loss. I would go through life like a plankton net. I would trap and keep every teacher’s funny remark, every face on the street, every microscopic alga’s sway, every conversation, configuration of leaves, every dream, and scrap of overhead cloud. Who would remember Molly’s infancy if not me?
“Some days I felt an urgent responsibility to each change of light outside the sun porch windows. Who would remember any of it, any of this our time, and the wind thrashing the buckeye limbs outside? Somebody had to do it, somebody had to hang on to the days with teeth and fists, or the whole show had been in vain.” (Page 173)
This book, like all of Dillard’s books, is a certain reflection on holiness, earthy holiness. Like Patty Duke, she sees her life, and every life, as a miracle: “You may wonder, that is, as I sometimes wonder privately, but it doesn’t matter. For it is not you or I that is important, neither what sort we might be nor how we came to be each where we are.
“What is important is anyone’s coming awake and discovering a place, finding in full orbit a spinning globe one can lean over, catch, and jump on. What is important is the moment of opening a life and feeling it touch-with an electric hiss and cry-this speckled mineral sphere, our present world.” (Page 248-249)
Two American children, Patty Duke and Annie Dillard, now entering their 40s. In the end, in each of their stories, what emerges from their honesty and struggle is the sheer joy of being alive. Noting this joy is always a compliment to its Creator. Two stories, in a manner of speaking, earthy lives of the saints.