A Review of
Even in Our Darkness: A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life
Reviewed by Matthew R. Bardowell
There is a moment in Jack Deere’s memoir that illustrates what is perhaps the book’s main theme. A 10-year-old Jack sits in his living room amidst the family’s Christmas presents. Young Jack unwraps “a sturdy, vinyl blue and yellow model airplane with a small engine” (p. 26), but what he really wanted for Christmas was a larger balsa wood biplane with a big engine. The model plane he received was for beginners, and Jack, with the outsized confidence of the very young, did not consider himself a beginner. Naturally, he is disappointed, and his disappointment soon curdles to resentment. He is sent to his room. Later in the day, as he flew his vinyl plane, young Jack “crashed it after every takeoff” (27). Recollecting this scene, Deere remarks: “I was surrounded by [. . .] gifts, unable to feel anything but anger at what wasn’t there—an object of desire that I would have destroyed” (27). In these moments, Deere’s memoir is nearly Augustinian in its insight into the fallen human condition. The vinyl airplane is his pear tree.
Even in Our Darkness is structured to a large extent like Augustine’s Confessions. It proceeds chronologically from Jack’s life as a young boy with only occasional interludes that break the sequence of events. Like the Confessions, Even in Our Darkness seeks to place these events within some a larger narrative of God’s relationship to Deere and those whose lives touch upon his. Also like the Confessions, Deere’s memoir can be surprisingly candid and raw. The memoir is billed as an “unvarnished story of the Christian Life,” and Deere brings the honesty such a task requires in his unflinching recollections. The story Deere tells is rife with tragedy—his father’s suicide; his mother’s distant rearing; his son Scott’s traumatic experiences, depression, and suicide; and his wife’s grief and struggles with alcoholism. At another level, there is the subtler tragedy of Deere’s less visible but no less disabling desire to project an outward air of competence and the need to control those he loves.
The strength of Deere’s accounts can be found in his ability to reflect productively upon moments that seem to be so violently laden with emotion as they occur. This quality is evident in Deere’s story of the vinyl airplane. At other times, Deere appears to bypass analysis of events in his life that cry out for it. For example, when Deere and a friend are charged with speeding and underage drinking on the way to a Young Life club retreat, the arresting officer confronts them with a passage from Romans 13, which deals with submission to governing authorities. Neither young man knows the passage. Later, after looking it up in the car, a young Deere turns to his friend and asks, “How did we miss that?” A moment later Deere reaches for the remnants of the six-pack and “hand[s] him another beer” (102). This moment lacks the insight with which Deere infuses his story of the vinyl airplane, perhaps because its import should be clear to readers. Whatever the reason, the narrative fluctuates between a fly-on-the-wall reporting of events and deep reflection in a way that makes Deere’s treatment seem uneven.
In terms of style, Deere’s prose is sometimes more redolent of the academic work to which he is accustomed than the memoir—particularly with respect to dialogue. Even when recounting conversations, Deere’s recollections feel just slightly edited to remove the sloppiness of interpersonal discourse. Personalizing features of speech seem to have been leveled off. The effect places an unwanted distance between the reader and those depicted in Deere’s memoir. At his best, Deere finds a deeply moving balance between dispassionate description and insight. Nowhere is this tone more apparent than the final chapter. Previously, Deere suggests, he had spent his youth being overly solicitous of giving powerful answers to deep questions. At one point Deere recounts being praised for giving his “witness,” which includes the trauma of his father’s suicide. A mentor tells him, “Your story is one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever heard. And you told it so well” (p. 74). Here, at the end of the memoir, Deere gives us a window into his process of preparing a Sunday morning sermon. He reads the text, waiting to be dazzled by God’s beauty. After a while, he confesses, “I am left undazzled” (p. 279). Then, Deere is interrupted by an email containing a video of his infant granddaughter:
The video is eighteen seconds long. I watch it over and over. Every time I push Play, I think: This is the last time I will watch the video. I need to get back to God. Then I push Play again.
On the screen, Rachel lies on her back and giggles. Lindsay [is] off camera, saying, “Say gou, Rachel. Say gou.”
Rachel wiggles about and lifts her hands high in the air. She smiles and says, “Gou,” her first syllable at two months old [. . . .]
I keep watching and watching. I laugh at myself. In my laughter is the gentle whisper.
This is how I feel about you, it says.
I shake. I reach for the keyboard. Before I touch the keys, my chest heaves with joy. [God] has taken an angry ten-year-old boy surrounded by presents on Christmas morning and turned him into an old man awash in gratitude for a child’s gibberish.
When at last I can speak, I say, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” (279-280)
This story, by way of its restraint and reflection, illustrates what Deere means by the beauty he mentions in the book’s subtitle. Beauty in Deere’s memoir is not flashy or near the surface of things. It is instead rather like God’s answer to Job—a countervailing experience that does not address his complaints but merely says, “this, also, is true.” From this presentation of beauty and for Deere’s courageous honesty, Christians everywhere will benefit from the challenges, the answers, and the persisting questions Deere’s life story provokes. It is not for the faint of heart, but whose life really is?
Matthew R. Bardowell is Assistant Professor of English at Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis. His research centers on Old Norse and Old English literature as well as the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, and his recent scholarship engages questions concerning emotion and aesthetics. His work appears in Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Mythlore, and The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters.