A Feature Review of
Undone: When Coming Apart Puts You Back Together
Laura Sumner Truax
Reviewed by Rachel Marie Stone
Laura Sumner Truax is one the keynote speakers at next week’s CCDA conference in New Orleans!
Don miss her talk!!!
My grandmother had been languishing in her dingy apartment, drinking herself to death, for decades. Despite what was obvious to the rest of us, my grandmother persisted in the delusion that she knew better than any of us, and rebuffed all our attempts at intervention. When some people from Alcoholics Anonymous came to talk to her, she listened politely and later dismissed the encounter with, “the poor dears are so sincere,” as the ice tinkled in its tumbler of pure vodka. My grandmother spoke in a sort of fake Hollywood/French/British accent to disguise her impoverished, Yiddish-speaking upbringing. She was convinced that she knew better than everyone how to live, an illusion she could maintain only by keeping everyone away, including her family. Because it only took one look at her wizened frame and yellowed skin to see that her idea of herself didn’t match up with any reality that others could see. Looking at my grandmother; hearing her voice over the phone, I became convinced that facing reality, however ugly or harsh, was to be valued far above any masks that might prettify the truth.
So it makes perfect sense to me that the worst day of Laura Sumner Truax’s life was, in a way, the best day of her life. On the day that the judge flatly declared her marriage to be dissolved, she bolted not one but two Sara Lee coffee cakes and a “nice big glass of red wine.” By opening the book with this story – an anecdote of binge-eating that most of us would hesitate to share, in which she also makes it clear that she was the party unwilling to seek reconciliation in her marriage – Truax shows that unlike Blanche DuBois, unlike my grandmother, Truax faced the difficult truth about herself while there was still time for her to live her life in an entirely different way. It was the “best worst day” of her life, because it was the day when the outward image of perfection she’d scrupulously maintained came off for good; the day she saw herself for who she really was: “it wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t holy and it wasn’t good,” she writes, “but it was real,” and it made her realize for the first time “all that had been fake and futile.” And “one real thing,” wrote the incomparable Robert Farrar Capon, “is closer to God than all the idols in the world.”
On that “best worst day,” Truax cried because of all the “smug advice, hackneyed words and silent judgment” she’d bestowed on friends who had failed. Truax was a Christian well before her marriage and divorce, but her faith had taken a legalistic form; she had believed that “pious actions would make me more holy, more lovable, more…special to God.” The problem, she explains, is that all these “pious actions” were motivated by fear–fear that she was not good enough, which prompted her to try to earn the approval of God and others by maintaining an outward image of perfection. But, just as my grandmother perished slowly in her apartment, keeping us all at arm’s length, preserving the fiction that she knew better than all of us, artifice and dissimulation bring us slowly but surely to isolation. Religion, Truax suggests, is perhaps no less implicated than Madison Avenue advertisers in perpetuating the promise of perfection that keeps people in isolated, futile pursuit of perfection: “our churches,” she writes, “have been really good at setting up new laws, feeding us with the expectation that if we obey the laws then new life will follow.” She paraphrases Philip Yancey, who once said that God was never looking for perfection, but for people willing to “go toe to toe with him.” In this way, Truax gently offers an invitation to those who may or may not be pursuing God at all, or who may have pursued a spiritual life only to find the pursuit as phony and futile as Truax once did. She invites us to experience the “filling, flooding love of Jesus [that] allows us to change,” while keeping a humble realism that flies in the face of the conversion narratives many of us are familiar with: “there is no life is peachy since I accepted Jesus into my heart.”
One of the most insightful aspects of this book is the way Truax points out how legalism – especially religious legalism – can lurk into our lives through many unexpected avenues. I laughed in recognition when she mentions “laboriously chopping two cups of pecans” by hand instead of using her food processor, because she’d heard Shane Claiborne speak and felt guilty about using her food processor because people at the Simple Way had rigged up a way for their dishwater to flush their toilets. Just because this community was called to live in a certain way didn’t mean that she had to do just as they did:
”The kingdom of God I am so smitten with–the presence of God renewing, recreating, the idea that our lives can reflect the life of Christ isn’t about […] transferring the call some have received and pasting it on to my particular life.”