Thu. August 8
Sometimes You Want to Go Where Nobody Knows Your Name
You have preserved my life from the pit of destruction, when you cast behind your back all my sins. – Isaiah 38:17
Speaking to reporters on a plane back from World Youth Day in Rio, Pope Francis made headlines with his comment, “If [gay people] accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” But the hoopla around this comment obscured an even more radical statement in a similar vein: “I see that so many times in the Church, apart from this case and also in this case, one looks for the ‘sins of youth,; for example, is it not thus? And then these things are published. These things are not crimes. The crimes are something else: child abuse is a crime. But sins, if a person, or secular priest or a nun, has committed a sin and then that person experienced conversion, the Lord forgives and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is very important for our lives. When we go to confession and we truly say ‘I have sinned in this matter,’ the Lord forgets and we do not have the right to not forget because we run the risk that the Lord will not forget our sins, eh?”
We do not have the right to not forget. I thought of this line more than once as I drew near the close of Marilynne Robinson’s brutal Home, the 2008 companion piece to her earlier novel Gilead, which I reviewed here in a series on books about marriage. Home, the most painful book I’ve read this year and one of the most powerful, retells the events of Gilead from a different perspective. Both books deal with the return of a small Iowa town’s prodigal son: Jack Boughton, a preacher’s kid who always stood apart from his big, loving family, a mistrusted and mistrustful type who went from being the town prankster to the town delinquent to the town thief. He finally skipped out decades ago, breaking his father’s heart, and comes back only as the old man is dying. Is he hoping for reconciliation? Is he trying to make amends? Or does he have—as his father’s best friend, the narrator of Gilead, suspects—much more sinister motives?
Home captures the horror of unforgotten sin. The sin itself is truly awful: Among many, many lesser misdeeds, Jack got a young, poor, unprotected girl pregnant and then abandoned her and the baby. (Neither the girl nor her child are still around when Gilead and Home take place. This can sometimes feel like an unearned reprieve, allowing the reader to focus on Jack’s pain and that of his family rather than on this unsheltered girl; they haunt the books, but they’re also in a certain sense MacGuffins, more interesting for the effects they have on the other characters than as people in their own right. If these devastating, often beautiful books have a flaw, this is it.) Nonetheless, everyone is trying to allow Jack to make amends if he chooses. The thing is, they won’t ever forget that he has to. They won’t ever allow him to be just a person among people; he’s always, inescapably, the public sinner. And so even their painstaking forgiveness deepens his despair.
Home is a book about trying to forgive, trying to make amends, trying to hope. Glory Boughton, Jack’s sister and the main character of Home, is one of the strongest characters I’ve met recently. Her ability to empathize with Jack—even when he tells her, bluntly and almost unconscionably, “You can’t commiserate”—makes her a far better emblem of the prodigal’s welcome than their own father, who loves Jack but thinks he needs a few more reminders of just exactly what he did wrong.
Gilead is often a lovely book, in which natural beauty or an old man’s memories seemed to capture some of life’s most joyful shades, making God’s creative love obvious. Home is something else. It’s about returning—both Glory and Jack have had some bad adventures in the world outside Gilead, IA—to a place where everybody knows your name, where you can never escape your past or your role. Home is about two characters trying to figure out if they are really stuck in the roles they played as children. It’s about whether forgiveness without forgetting can really be enough; it’s about why someone would feel that forgiveness without forgetting isn’t forgiveness at all.
If this series is not only about portrayals of penitence but about the problems inherent in the concept of penitence, it must deal with the nature of forgiveness as well. It’s often hard to know what forgiveness really looks like. Is it just saying, “I forgive you”? Is it pretending that nothing bad ever happened? Is it acting in the other person’s interest—trying to make their life better, even if they badly damaged yours? Home suggests that perhaps forgiveness is allowing the person who hurt you to be someone else: not defining him by what he did, what he used to do.
And Home does not exclude the possibility that this, too, might not be enough.