This week Mel Webb compares my book BIPOLAR FAITH to Augustine’s Confessions and W.E.B. DuBois’ discussion of “Sorrow Songs.” Webb gets me to talk more about rape and how one rebuilds scripture and faith amid suffering. Check out Syndicate Network‘s ongoing review of BIPOLAR FAITH and my responses to the reviews

Reply to Monica Coleman’s Bipolar Faith

I walked at a natural pace, ignoring the water soaking into my suede boots. The rain dripped onto my hair, my eyelashes, my nose and chin. The rain fell on my shoulders and legs. I didn’t have to rush. I didn’t have to run. This rain was not death. (343)

Monica Coleman’s Bipolar Faith is a reflection on the depths of one’s own humanity in the aftermath of severe trauma. The traumas that she explores are not only contained within her own life, but encompass her family history and the centuries of trauma experienced by African Americans. This essay in response might best be described as a fan letter. It is also a celebration, a lament within it. It is admiration, and a prayer.

I want to take as my starting point the story of another, that is, of Augustine’s Confessions—that cornerstone for all autobiographical writing that followed. Augustine wrote the Confessions in his early forties, when he had been ordained as bishop of Hippo Regius, and as a reflection on his younger years and the route to faith that he followed. Through the psalmic first-person style, the Confessions model for readers how to tell one’s own story to God and before others. Midway through the narrative of his life, offered in prayer to God in the form of his Confessions, Augustine inquires of his soul: “Where are you going along rough paths? What is the goal of your journey?” The questions arise from a paradox at the center of the Confessions: “[God] is very close to the heart; but the heart has wandered from him.” The term confession assumes a dual valence throughout the work: confession of sin and confession of faith. In this way, Augustine’s Confessions demonstrate what his Christian faith looks like in a human life. This accounts, in part, for their enduring appeal.

Monica Coleman’s Bipolar Faith exhibits an Augustinian openness to narrative potential with a different confessional orientation: Coleman has written another kind of theological confession—a confession of faith that does not depend on the Augustinian concept of sin. She has given us a searching account of the experiences of faith from within her own life. The writing demonstrates what process theology looks like in a human life; it can encompass prior modes of one’s life and one’s faith, without requiring repudiation but giving space for growth and development across time, sparked by difficult circumstances.

In Augustine’s narrative, there is never a point at which he has to grapple with what it might mean for him to forgive someone who hurt him so badly; he suffers, yes; he grieves his losses; his suffering, though, is as much the result of his own doing as it is of the society that he critiques. But there is no direct account of how he himself had been harmed and how he experienced that harm. Monica Coleman’s experiences, however, required her to grapple with what it meant to be so severely harmed and then to move through that. Through her writing, then, she manifests one of the most profound theological insights:

I practiced writing in my journal. “The man who raped me.” I wanted to see what he did as something he did, not as the totality of who he was. Someone loved him. He was also someone’s son, someone’s brother, and someone’s friend. He was more than “a rapist.” He was also a man who sang for me and cooked for me. Remembering this didn’t make me love him again. He was still “the man who raped me.” Remembering this made him human. For 95 percent of the time, acknowledging Peter’s humanity and his relationality to other people is my version of forgiveness. It is sufficient to free me from the vitriol I feel when I imagine his face or the sound of his voice. But there is still a 5 percent: after nightmares, around the anniversary, when I edit my own written thoughts because I fear someone will read the words of my journals. In those moments, I hate him. . . . I don’t eschew this 5 percent place. I assume it will always be in me. I don’t see it as a personal or spiritual failing. Rather, it makes me human. (200)

Acknowledging Peter’s humanity and his relationality to other people is my version of forgiveness. Here, Coleman gives voice to what another woman who survived rape also found: that acknowledging another’s humanity might be the most forgiveness one can ever offer. To not dehumanize another who has sought to dehumanize you. Nancy Venable Raine writes:

It has not been easy to grant the status of “human being” to the man who raped me, and yet I must. I find strange the comfort it brings. Perhaps this comfort comes from the thought that it is only by seeing him as a human being that I can hope that the conditions that created him might be otherwise—not for him, and because of him, not for me. But someday. For someone else. I cannot forget the suffering he brought me. Nor does my intimate knowledge of the nature of his suffering, knowledge that causes me to pity him, lessen my longing to see him locked behind bars forever. The only forgiveness I can muster is to call him human.27

Like Coleman, Raine insists that recognizing the humanity of the man who raped her is forgiveness, the only forgiveness she can muster.

What of one’s own humanity?

***

Coleman sets up the narrative of her rape artfully; she gives voice to the distress and unexpected turn that takes place. She preaches on safety, then meets Peter, she emphasizes her commitment to premarital celibacy, and her sense of safety with Peter. She gives a window into date rape, which is also not often the focus of memoirs centered on rape. Most often, such memoirs are of stranger rape, even though, as several discuss in their introductions, intimate partner violence is more prevalent than stranger danger. Coleman is aware of this disparity in representation, in perception. She sets her experience of rape alongside that of her friend’s experience: her friend was gang raped in a park and Coleman was raped by her boyfriend. The juxtaposition demonstrates how these two forms of violation are one and the same. They have distinctive features, but one is not more of a rape than the other. Coleman shows us this, gently, boldly.

Coleman portrays the experience of suffering throughout her narrative, yet—unlike some theologies—her book is refreshingly free of any glorification of suffering. This does not mean that she empties suffering of any meaning; rather, she locates its meaning in her own discovery of herself, her community, and her God. Faith is central in her life—as the title, Bipolar Faith, indicates. Each chapter is subtitled with a time marker, often length of time after a key turning point in Coleman’s life: the first part covers the death of her grandma, her discovery of music and a first love that her father forbids; the second part, her college experience at Harvard and anointing for ministry; the third part, her friend’s and then her experience of rape, the aftermath; and finally, part four covers the dramatic reemergence of mental illness. The rape is a turning point in her faith but she does not center her story—or, thereby herself—on that experience. She traces her own life’s trajectory back to her great-grandfather who, in Fountain Inn, South Carolina, in the mid-1920s, “died of grief,” as her grandmother told her.

Two breaths out of slavery, and my great-grandfather still wasn’t free. He was oppressed by the memories of his wife, his fears, the burdens of what lay ahead. Sadness can own you. You can die of grief. It took me years to learn what generations of African Americans have long understood: there are things worse than death. (xix)

His story is the preface to her own.

Coleman survives “things worse than death.”

***

She anticipates the diagnosis of bipolar 2 early on in her narrative. “What’s the difference between depression, war, being black in the Jim Crow South, and plain old hard living? Who would know to alert children or grandchildren to the slippery slope of despair?” (xviii). Her memoir is one that includes rape but situates it within a much wider frame. She demonstrates how to write a story that is not overtaken by a singular trauma, but in which a singular trauma—reinforced by culture—is experienced by someone whose life is shaped by bipolar, her personal history, and the histories of those who came before her. “But depression plays tricks with your mind. So does fear. It would take years for me to know that my happiness was as honest as my despair, and that the mask was as honest as my soul” (52–53).

Like Augustine’s psalmic first-person narrative sends the reader into her own story, so also does the specificity and openness of Coleman’s style. And as Augustine relies on psalms, so Coleman relies on hymns and spirituals; she uses the language passed down by her mother and her grandmother; she makes a world with these words. The preface and each of the four parts of her book are titled after a hymn, spiritual, or gospel song—Steal Away to Jesus, then Will the Circle Be Unbroken? and Every Time I Feel the Spirit, then Wade in the Water, finally No More Auction Block—making a soundtrack to her story.

Coleman’s writing resonates with W. E. B. Du Bois’s use of Sorrow Songs: “They that walked in darkness sang songs in the old days—Sorrow Songs—for they were weary at heart. And so before each thought that I have written in this book I have set a phrase, a haunting echo of these weird old songs in which the soul of the black slave spoke to men.”28 Coleman lets her soul speak. She writes of music as her middle place:

Music was somewhere between the tears in my bedroom and the activities of my public life. Music was my middle place. It took years for me to realize that I will always search for a middle place. Left to myself, I live in extremes. I need a neutral space for equilibrium, for escape. I need a place where I can forget both the sadness and intermittent happiness. I don’t naturally live in that place. Bipolar cares nothing for balance. I need exercise, creativity, and the arts. I don’t want to perform or compete. My teenage lexicon had no words for how much I needed to find a grounding to bring me back to center. I didn’t know such a grounding was a lifetime need. I didn’t know I’d need this center to survive. (37)

Coleman also recounts how she needed different things at different times; first, she played piano; she started the Dinah Project; she danced; she knitted; she journaled; and, presumably, at some point she decided to write this book. She does not tell us that story in the book itself; I want to know that story. How did this book come about? Was writing it also a “middle place”? “Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things.”29 What is it like to make one’s own scripture, one’s own song?

In a follow-up reflection to her memoir of rape, Susan Brison writes as follows:

I’m bearing witness at this point to show other, perhaps recent and still struggling, victims of such crimes that it really is possible not only to carry on afterward, but also to take so much pleasure in life that at times you almost can’t stand it. I’m bearing witness to what’s happening to others as I speak, or write, so that they might find aid and comfort. . . . But I’m no longer in the story. I’ve walked right out of the picture, and I’m sitting at my piano, with a few good friends, making a joyful noise.30

Coleman knows the importance of words, of music, of sound. Like rain, music is a constant presence in the moments that she uses to mark her story. Rain connects Coleman’s experiences, and also connects Coleman to her experiences. It is the motif through which Coleman builds and transforms the echoes in her story. The reader wonders, was it really raining each of those times? And then the reader realizes, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be raining to hear the rain. The sea comes to her: “In a droplet—say how can this be?–– / the whole ocean of God flows into me.”31

And Coleman walks unhurried; through her grandmother’s death; through her experience of assault and driving away; we leave her in the rain, and she is okay. And in giving herself to her reader as okay, she lets her reader know—it can be okay. She shows it’s not easy; but it can be okay.

Reply

Response to Melanie Webb

Melanie Webb compares Bipolar Faith with Augustine’s Confessions, and situates my work as a spiritual autobiography. There was some intent there. In both private and public ways, I live my life before God. I cannot write about my depression without writing about feeling called by God, giving God the silent treatment, losing faith and finding it over and over again. Yet it is Webb’s familiarity with the stories of rape survivors that gives her a special window into the most challenging parts of writing Bipolar Faith.

I never meant for my experience of sexual violence to become such a central part of the book. It’s a huge part of me. For many years, I measured my life by who I was before I was raped, and who I became after. I was astutely aware of what I lost, and I desperately scrambled to grow into some other person who didn’t completely bungle her life and relationships. Yet as the years passed, I felt differently. In her own narrative of surviving rape, “The Act Behind the Word,” Doris Jean Austin writes that rape is just one of her stories.32 It is one of her angriest stories, but just one. Those words well describe the level of integration I now feel. Rape is no longer the story of my life.

Nevertheless, as I wrote Bipolar Faith, the story of the rape grew longer and longer. Or rather, the aftermath of rape—trauma, faithlessness, hopelessness, suffering, and rediscovery—became more central. I didn’t set out to write a book about rape. But I realized that in the days, weeks, months, and years following the rape, I garnered the tools and experiences to become more human. I learned to lose, to dance, to forgive, and to love in new ways. That was what I wanted to show. And it absolutely warms my heart that Webb notices this. Even when I feared it would overtake the book in exhibitionist style, Webb writes that “the rape is a turning point in [my] faith but [I] do not center” this story. Webb understood that the rape wasn’t a central trauma for me (even though it felt like it at the time), but that learning to heal from it, survive it, thrive after it was a critical lesson for me. Thus I am grateful when Webb goes back to the book’s framing in two notes: the story of my great-grandfather and my invocation of spirituals.

I hoped Bipolar Faith would echo a slave narrative. Because I wanted to tell my family’s story and subtly discuss the trauma that slavery and subsequent sharecropping leaves on generations of African Americans. I wanted to suggest that the recognition of one or another’s humanity is not just a spiritual act (of forgiveness), but a political act. And I wanted to explicate the words of the spiritual I never explicitly cite:

Oh freedom, oh freedom

Oh freedom over me

And before I’d be a slave

I’d be buried in my grave

And go home to my Lord and be free

I wanted to say that African Americans have longed for freedom from slavery, and that depression and mental health challenges and traumas can own us. I wanted to say that freedom—freedom from debilitating sadness, freedom from medical imperialism, freedom from generational addictions—does not come without a fight.

I organized Bipolar Faith with spirituals, that Webb rightly identifies as W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Sorrow Songs.” Spirituals are the songs of my people, an African American psalter, if you will. When I hear spirituals, I am transported to my grandmother’s church, the old deacons on the mourning bench. I hear my Nana in the kitchen humming spirituals while she made biscuits or refrigerator cookies wrapped in wax paper. I sing spirituals to my daughter while I lull her to sleep. These are not just the songs of the “weary at heart,” as Du Bois writes. They are songs of resilience and faith and freedom. Spirituals show us the way out, the way through and the way north. I wanted to frame each chapter with that message and that sound.

I often tell people that there is a reason that no one makes movies about depression. It’s incredibly boring. It would look like someone on a couch, not moving, not doing anything; large swaths of time moving by with nothing happening. No drama. No climax. Boring. It’s just not very interesting. I knew I could not write about what depression looks like. No one would want to read that. In writing Bipolar Faith, I wanted to describe what it felt like. I wanted to describe how ministry, sadness, the aftermath of rape, struggle, and depression feel. I’m never quite sure if my words did that.

Melanie Webb suggests that I may have been more successful in conveying how sadness, depression, and trauma sounds. That if I fail to convey feeling, I succeed in sharing a sound: the plink plink of piano keys, the rhythm and blues of the New Jack swing songs, the moan of the spirituals, the silence of pain, the beat of the drums, the sashay of new school funk music, the pitter pat of the rain. I hoped Bipolar Faith would sound like a black girl’s story.

In response to this attempt, Webb asks, “What is it like to make one’s own scripture, one’s own song?” Is that what I did? As a constructive theologian, I teach an expansive definition of scripture. I work with indigenous African traditions with oral scriptures so I know that the written word is partial. I work with womanist traditions that find Spirit in the work of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Octavia Butler so I know that there is God outside of a religious canon. The Bible, I often tell my students, is a (partial) record of a community’s experience with God. Scripture is that which points us towards what is holy. I think of Bipolar Faith as a tale that says it’s ok to lose one’s grip on what is holy and to search for it and find it in new and unexpected ways. In that sense, Bipolar Faith is a search for scripture and finding it to be less ancient than I expect.

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