Bill Long 11/22/05
One of the topics in life that I take seriously is autobiography. I wrote my first one, 39 and Lost in America (150 pages, single-spaced on an early dot-matrix printer) in 1991 and the second, 52 and Strangely Found: An Autobiography Intellectual and Intimate (247 pages, double-spaced, with a "modern" printer) in 2004. Each book told the same story, which isn't as obvious a statement as it might seem. Many people who write several volumes of autobiography (and those numbers are only in the double-digits, I think), often dedicate each volume to a different part of their life's journey. Jill Ker Conway is an example of a writer of this ilk. Not me. The first two volumes covered the same ground, though I didn't consult volume one when writing volume two. I just wanted to see how I "heard" the history of my life at two different points in my life. Someday someone will no doubt make comparisons and come up with aha! observations that will probably reduce me to nothing more than a babbling idiot, but in the mean time I will keep thinking autobiographically.
I have no idea at this point if I will write a third volume. Suffice it to say at this juncture that the autobiographical problems that stalk me today are those of much greater precision than my concerns in the books. For example, I now spend lots of time thinking of particular events or memories, instead of the "grand sweep" of life, and then try to extract some kind of "meaning" from a specific memory.
I have thought, however, that if there is a third volume, it will be devoted to much more honest and critical assessment of specific moments in my life. I will be more honest about what I felt were influences on me from outside as well as my self-perception which, I have come to believe, has hindered me as much as blessed me. It will be sort of like a series of photographs, which freeze a reality at one point and which allow for detailed consideration of many things in the portrait. This essay will be a contribution toward that task, as I try to "freeze" the action in my life around 1970 or 1971, when I was in my early undergraduate days at Brown University.
Four Realities in 1970/71
While the nation was at war, while students were being killed at Kent State University, while protests against that same war were mounting from place to place, I was safely living in my own historical "tube" in CA. I graduated in 1970 from Menlo-Atherton High School on the mid-Peninsula and then headed off to Brown University in Providence, RI in the Fall. I thought I was going to be a mathematics major because I had done so well in that subject in HS, could calculate anything in my head and because my dad and older brother were math-oriented. I didn't know, frankly, that there could be much beyond this for me. But in addition to this external reality were four other things about myself that I have only begun to appreciate over time. I denied them for years either because I wasn't aware of them or because they were sort of socially unacceptable to parade before groups of people if you wanted to make friends. But, they shaped me, and here they are.
1. Arrested Development with respect to Preference and Choice. I have only come up with the precise wording of this debility or reality in the last year or so, even though I think it shaped me considerably from childhood until after my divorce in 2001. The issue can be stated briefly. I grew up in a family of four boys (I was number two), with parents who loved me but who didn't have much patience for individuality or special gifts in their children. I think we just about ran my parents ragged in many respects, and they responded by enforcing strict rules of behavior. We never got in trouble with the law, but we seemingly always transgressed some of their "rules." One of the results of this "rule-based" living was that I never remember once being asked by my parents about my opinion on anything as a young person, whether I wanted to do anything or whether I liked or disliked anything.
The flip side of this is that everything from musical choice, to fashion in clothes to dinner menus to portions of food was decided for me by my parents (especially my mother). It is not as if I felt that I wanted to choose something else--I didn't think that I actually had a choice. I frankly didn't know that you could express preference for things. Sports, church, student government, good grades, piano lessons, family, paper route--all were such unquestioned "givens" in life that I didn't feel that life could be any different than it was for me. I had no choices and no preferences.
I know this reality stayed with me over the years. It is not something that changes when you hit the magic age or 21 or when you get married. Once your mechanism of choice and preference has been severly marred, you have to work very hard to get it back. It was not until I was in my early 50s that I realized that I did have choices because I could have preferences. I suppose I would have intellectually agreed with the proposition throughout my life that I had preferences, but I had no internal criteria to determine what I "liked." This might sound strange, but it led me to all kinds of unwise decisions in my life. I don't bemoan or lament them now; I just recognize them for what they were--decisions made when I didn't know how to assess or choose.
2. The Reality of Evangelical Christian Faith. This expression of Protestant Christianity came into my life in the late 1960s after our family had moved from CT to CA in 1967. I was raised in the heart of New England Congregationalism, a tepid expression of a once vibrant form of faith, which shuffled outmoded doctrines like a faded deck of playing cards while it affirmed the dominant cultural values of the post-WWII world. When I arrived in sunny CA in 1967, however, as a strong and optimistic 15 year-old, I both wanted to embrace the culture and was afraid of that new culture that faced me. Within a week of my arrival my high school was closed down because of race riots. I had lived in a town in CT where there were NO racial minorities. Yet, I could wear my shirt sleeves almost year round, and the atmosphere of the high school (when it was not rioting) was akin to a summer camp. In the midst of this new life for me, my family decided to jump ship from the Congregationalists, who only had a small operation in Menlo Park, in favor of the much more prominent Presbyterians. I would later learn why it was that Presbyterians and Congregationalists were so much alike and why the former seemed to stay pretty well tucked into New England.
In any case, in order to join Menlo Park Presbyterian Church I had to go through a membership class, where the Evangelical God was presented to me. What this means is that God was a personal God who cares for you in every aspect of your life, is right there with you and loves you. This God was presented to me. I eagerly accepted this God into my life.
The next essay continues this story.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long