Politics, Religion and Sex


Janet Givens published a powerful post about the importance of speaking out and writing about politics today. Janet is always articulate and her PhD studies in political science especially qualifies her in this regard. I urge you to read it, paying attention to her reminder that politics, religion, and sex were three topics most of us were taught to stay quiet about in polite company.

I leave it to Janet to cover the matter of speaking out and posting on Facebook about politics today. Now it’s time to give thought to all three taboo topics and the role they play in memoir and lifestory writing.

In one significant respect, individual lifestories are like Lego blocks in human history. History is built of individual lives. Most formal history is written by victors and shaped to fit their biases. We can do our part by sharing our own.

In my last post, I mentioned my granddaughter who wants to learn about history. She wants me to tell her what life was like “back then.” I’ll do her the greatest favor if I couch my experience in relation to what was going on in the world, at least the part of the world that most affected me.

In my case, growing up in Los Alamos had a profound effect on my world view. I firmly believed Los Alamos would have been one of the first targets if the Evil Russians started lobbing A-bombs at the USA.

I can attest that my understanding of world events in those years was shaky, based at least in part on one radio report I hear in about 1954 that the USSR would overtake the USA within a couple of years. My na├»ve ears heard overtake as overrun. That’s all my young mind could take in. I envisioned brutal combat soldiers running down our street with helmets and bayonets on their rifles. My blood ran cold, and I was too scared to discuss this report with my parents. Many years later I realized that the report was true. The USSR did overtake the USA in the space race within a couple of years. (Score one for perceptual inaccuracy.)

That scare only strengthened my awareness of The Bomb. I lived in the epicenter of Bomb research. I went to school with offspring of the men who developed better bombs. We gathered in the school gym to listen to tests in the Pacific. I was secretly relieved that my dad made sodium pumps for reactors, not bombs. Even so, bomb shelters were everywhere, complete with radiation symbols on doors.

My terror was the result of political decisions and the advance of scientific discovery. My salvation from that fear sprang from religion, watered down though it was. Early in my high school career I spotted a rainbow, a common sight in the Jemez mountains where Los Alamos lay. I recalled the promise, “I will never again destroy the earth.”

I stopped short of the conclusion to that verse, “by water.” I needed the comfort of totality. God will watch out for us! I moved on to fret about other things.

How can I write about my early life without mentioning those political and religious (maybe spiritual is a better word here) events? Or the pride I felt that my grandmother was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in both 1952 and 56? Or how my third grade class squared off into separate lines and chanted I LIKE IKE! rebutted by STEVENSON! STEVENSON! while we waited for the teacher to open the door. I can expand just a bit to give a small sense of the historical links.

Sex? Well, that’s a matter of personal taste. It may be more relevant to some than others. Personally the thought of reading or hearing intimate details of my forebears’ sex lives has creeped me out. But if sexual assault or abuse is part of your past, how can you not mention it? Or, you may recall days of wondering what it was all about. That’s something nearly everyone can relate to. A first kiss? Maybe.

My perspective on privacy is not shared with everyone. Suzanne White’s memoir, Unmitigated Gaul, goes into jaw-dropping detail about her obsession, beginning at an early age, with self-pleasuring. That’s not the central theme, but a continuing thread running through most of the book. To be fair, shocking though it was at first, she does, in my opinion, handle it tastefully, weaving it into an often hilarious account. She’s a great example of how to handle intimate topics with light-handed finesse.

You don’t need to make politics, religion (spirituality if you prefer), or sex a dominant focus, but you’ll give your story more substance if you weave in a few strands of each and place yourself in the greater world.


Anonymous said...

An excellent post, Sharon. We all need to locate ourselves in time, place and beliefs if we want to make what we tell about ourselves mean something. This post is a saver!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for weighing in, Linda, especially from Down Under!

Viv said...

I visited Los Alamos ten years ago and was in awe of the way in which the town grew. I met no young people, only one man who'd worked there until retirement. There were many questions I had about the young people that your post was tantalizing. I want to hear more about growing up around the knowledge that parents were working on hush-hush projects. What little you wrote gave me some idea. Thanks.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Oh Vivian, yes, I could write much more. In fact, I started down that path nearly ten years ago and flamed out, primarily because I realized that my story was not that different from any other coming of age story in nearly any town. And, even within Los Alamos, I realized my experience was not representative of the whole group of my peers.

I've since learned more about some of my peers' experiences, so could probably make it more clear how I was different. Hmm.

These are typical stumbling blocks for memoir writers. Thank you for rekindling my interest. It fits with my granddaughter's questions. I can't die anytime soon. I have way too much to write!