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Kelly J. Beard

Kelly J. Beard is the award-winning author of the memoir An Imperfect Rapture. She has been a lawyer, an activist, a teacher, and a musician. Her essays and other work appear in Creative Nonfiction, Five Points, the Bacopa Literary Review, the Santa Ana River Review, and other literary journals. In June, Kelly received the Georgia Author of the Year Award for Memoir, and was also honored to be a Finalist for a CLMP Firecracker Award.

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"Written with the spare, sensual, and deeply evocative prose of a master, this brave and ultimately transcendent memoir is an absolute gem. What Kelly J. Beard accomplishes here is stunning: by stepping nakedly back into her youth as the daughter of Christian fundamentalists, a life-long couple whose love for one another never seemed to wane, she also steps back into violence and neglect, poverty and the shame of the poor, the striving for one's very selfhood when few seem to be able to help or pay much attention. And Beard renders all of this, and more, with a poet's clear-eyed search for the truth. AN IMPERFECT RAPTURE is a plaintive hymn of forgiveness, and it moved me to tears many times over. This is, quite simply, a beautiful book."

– Andre Dubus III

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An Imperfect Rapture

A Conversation Between Kelly J. Beard and Adrian Koesters: Part Two

08/20/19

Kelly J. Beard and Adrian Koesters continue their conversation about the writing life, their experiences of faith, and the legacies of poverty and violence in this conclusion. Click Here for Part One of this conversation.

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AEK: And of course, as you so movingly and astonishingly describe in your book, you take all the rules you learned as a child with you into adulthood, and continue to play by them, consciously or unconsciously. The main reason I created Carmen as a mixed race person, other than to represent the real mix of black and white in that neighborhood, was because, first, I needed a renegade who was a woman; and I needed a woman who would have very good reasons not to care about anything. Carmen turns not-caring into an art form from a very early age, and part of that for her is passing “as white,” though in fact her mother is White. In Carmen’s mind, race is something that, at least consciously, she doesn’t think about as applying to her. But again, I think in that location, this is something that would be possible where it would not someplace else.

The rage and inability to navigate the world you identify I also understand well, even though, like you, it took a lifetime to recognize and understand how directly these came from being poor. It is a very long time since I have not had enough to eat or enough money to buy shoes, and beyond that, I have a Master’s degree and a doctorate, though both were achieved pretty late in my life. For that reason alone, I will never not be a privileged person again, no matter what my material resources. But as author Ruby Payne would say, I have those resources but still lack understanding of social rules. Among my so-called “peers,” I still never really know what the rules are, and see how I still break them all the time. I have lost friends and relationships this way, and experienced a great deal of social isolation. In that respect, I would say that most places at most times of my life, I have been passing as a middle-class person.

For the story of Union Square itself, I also chose to use the Rashomon technique for the first four days of the narrative to replicate the fracturing and isolation I wanted to convey, that as far as I can see is not a part of middle class culture as a rule, while exploring this place and the kind of people who lived in it. Young Emerson represents both the neighborhood and the social isolation that comes with not having been taught how to take on an adult set of rules. Catherine likely represents the more healthy, though immature side of myself, or as I say, who I wished I had been. Petie is the solid guy who is provoked to violence as nearly his default response to every situation—he’s the kind of hot-head who populates such places, though he’s a good person. He’s also the one who really belongs to and understands the environment as such. And Paddy and Carmen, of course, represent the sum of what it means to be broken by such experiences, and how they break everyone else in their turn.

KJB: One of the most compelling and risky aspects of your nonfiction work, I think, is how you directly embrace your faith. Your novel does so as well, albeit more obliquely. I wonder if you get asked about this when you’re reading or talking with folks about your work. How (or why) does one retain her faith despite having witnessed or experienced deeply wounding betrayals by the human representatives of that faith?

AEK: Yes, that is definitely one of the hardest parts of all of this. Mostly, people don’t ask that question directly. I get the feeling they sort of put up with that part of me because they respect me as an artist, for which I’m grateful, but I do find it amusing and yet often frustrating.

The early days of my childhood in the Catholic Church were mixed of fear, awe, and love, and there’s no other way to say that. I have very hazy memories of incidents that seem to have involved clergy members. I can’t say more than that, because I don’t really remember, but the feelings about it are both strong and often debilitating. But I have always had a feeling of “knowing” the presence of God, even in my nominally atheist teen years—and in fact, they were not atheist years, but anti-religion years. I had a hatred of fundamentalist Christians that would have burned your eyebrows off—but that was the embedded rage against all things religious.

The change for me came when I (against all expectation) decided to go to Creighton University here in Omaha for my undergraduate degree. At the time you had to take what now would be considered a dual minor in theology and philosophy, and I ultimately majored in theology. We thought we had discovered the Holy Grail of Catholic truth, Vatican II, and we were taught by lay professors and Jesuits, many of whom I owe a great debt of gratitude to, for their intellectual honesty as well as their care and kindness for me as a young person. In those years, I had a conversion experience, came to understand Jesus as a person, and I’ve never deviated from that since. I went on after graduation to work as a volunteer for a year, and taught high school religion for three years after that. Our family, my husband and daughter and myself, are not what I would call deeply religious, but thoroughly religious. This is simply a matter of fact, not of any kind of superior stance or any assumption.

But having faith and hope in the reforms of Vatican II have obviously been no sinecures for the terrible abuses that came to light over the past four or more decades. As an adult, college and beyond, I have known some truly horrible clergy members. A handful tried to seduce me, or I knew of them seducing or attempting to seduce other young men or women. A priest I held in the highest esteem turned out to be a child molester, maybe a child rapist, I don’t know. Any number of them had adult relationships which, had they been married, would have made them adulterers, and as I understand it, that’s actually one of the commandments you’re not supposed to break. The scope of the revelations of 2002 that were followed by the film Spotlight were shattering, and at one point I was not sure I would survive them.

So, it’s a complicated situation to say the least. Like A. Richard Sipe, I consider myself Catholic, and though I try to be part of a faith community, that is not always possible. Many of the poems I have written are essentially “problem of evil” questions, as Union Square is in many ways a problem of evil novel. No one can get to the bottom of such matter—I certainly don’t pretend to. On the other hand, I also believe that no one has the right to rob you of how you express your truth and belief. So much of the Church right now is bad, but I still think that its core is the revelation of God that I am meant to follow. Though I have tried, I’ve never been able to completely deviate from that stance.

I wonder how your answer will differ from mine, as clearly you were equally part and parcel of your faith and that world as a child. Have you had to reconcile how that influenced you, and have you made a new choice or a different one?

KJB: I have so much trouble with that question. In part because I can’t say I’m Catholic or I’m Jewish, or otherwise claim some presumably concrete theology. When people ask (as they do) “What do you believe now?”) I’m stumped. I spent years dragging my husband and daughter to every church within a ten-mile radius of our home, trying to find a church I felt comfortable in, but after weeks or months, or sometimes years, I’d walk away feeling disillusioned, and often angry. It was usually a tithing sermon that sent me over the edge. I grew up in a church that prioritized tithing over everything – including buying decent food or clothes – and I can’t stand to hear sermons on tithing. In any event, every church experience was ultimately a let-down. I stopped attended services three or four years ago.

And yet, I have never lost my faith. When I try to answer that question about faith – what and why I believe – I am reminded of Jung’s late-in-life answer to that question. He declined to reveal or write about his own faith until he was in his 80s, fearing that to do so would marginalize his work. But in his posthumously published Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he writes that he never lost his faith. His faith came to him experientially, he wrote, and thus he could never lose it. It’s precisely what you said earlier. You can’t lose faith you gain through experience, that is, you can’t un-know the experience of knowing.

And, like you, in the midst of all the pain and craziness, there were moments of knowing and transcendence. I include a few of those moments in the memoir. The times when, inexplicably, I experienced moments of grace – miracles, if you will – that I can’t discount. I suppose that’s the best explanation I can give for why, despite everything, I have never lost my own faith. Sometimes I’ve felt the door closing between me and that knowing, and I work at faith then, because I don’t want to lose it, I don’t want to bear the darkness alone.

AEK: “You can’t un-know the experience of knowing”—wow, that is exactly how I was wanting to say that, thank you.

I guess I would end with the question of culpability and forgiveness, which in a novel is really not the same kind of issue, as long as you don’t condescend to any of your characters by making them holier than everybody else, or more evil than they are. Paddy was the best exercise in this for me, and my aim was to get as close inside the head of such a person as I could, so as to (at least for a while) deliver him as a person and not a cipher or a cartoon. But in memoir, you also have the choice about whom to picture as the enemy and whom the beloved, and you have the duty to take responsibility for your own sins. I believe the accuser and the accused can be unjustly conflated far too easily, that we can put ourselves to blame and shame far more readily than those who hurt us. And I suppose you have already gotten comments from readers who wonder how you could forgive especially your father, and how you could write about that. But that is where I would really appreciate hearing your thoughts, as you must have wrestled with them greatly.

KJB: I have had a few readers ask some iteration of “I hate your dad, why don’t you?”  That just makes me think I didn’t do what I set out to do, which was to work against stereotypes and caricatures with intentionality – to write difficult characters with enough of their experiences and contradictions and complications on the page to make the reader empathize with them – even when the reader may not want to. I feel most heartened by responses like one I received in an email the other day, where a woman said she felt like she should hate my dad but she ended up loving him instead.

It’s deeply complicated, of course, and it brings to mind the Watson research from the ‘60s (studying, among other things, the effect of maternal negligence and abuse on chimpanzee babies, and how the babies kept trying every strategy imaginable to evoke love or tenderness from the parent, no matter how many times the mother ignored or abused the baby – it’s really heartbreaking, but pretty eye-opening, too) concluding that babies and children are so hard-wired to love their parents it’s almost (almost, but not completely) impossible for a child not to love her parent.

Also, I believe that with very few exceptions, if we really get inside the skin of another person, if we can move around in that person’s interiority long enough, we will find empathy and compassion – and love – for that person. I think I spent my whole life prior to writing this memoir trying to figure out the why of my parents’ abuse, the why of what prompts someone who loves you (and who you love with the wide-open heart of a child) to also hurt you. My dad died in 1996, long before it occurred to me to ask that question directly. My mom is still alive, though, and I recently asked her some version of that question. It wasn’t a very satisfying answer. She’s in her 90s now, and has some cognitive challenges, so I didn’t think anything would be served by pressing it, even though her answer was to blame my dad.

AEK: I have pretty well spent my lifetime trying to extinguish my need to walk around in those people’s shoes, but the difference is likely that your father and mother clearly loved all of you. But there is a point at which I just have to say, forgiveness is God’s job, not mine. As one pastor said to me a long time ago, if one of those people showed up at my door and was truly contrite and asked for my forgiveness (and, when your father, Kelly, does that, it changes everything about him for the reader), then I would have a choice to make. I never had to make that choice.

My private feeling is that the betrayal of the mother is worse for most of us. Whether she is the abuser or complicit in abuse by father, sibling, whoever it is, she is the one who is supposed to not be that person. And I would think someone like your mother would have to blame someone else. I agree with you that there is a point at which hammering out the truth despite the expense just isn’t worth it. It doesn’t make us less authentic, I think, but really more so.

And I have to compliment you in turn: what you achieved was obviously a breath-takingly delicate balance of what is, in your life, the truth, the authentic. It is an incredible accomplishment. I love your book and hope there is another one to come, and that we can meet again.

KJB: Thank you so much, Adrian. I was already a huge fan of your work before we had this chance to chat, but getting a peek at the person behind the work has been a thrill. I hope our paths cross again.

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