On the shelves of our office library are a number of biographies. From Winston Churchill to Johnny Cash, we have no shortage of books about the lives of other, much more interesting, people. The number of memoirs, or autobiographies on our shelves is relatively paltry by comparison. This is not an accident. I tend not to buy memoirs because they are uniformly terrible. Given my reluctance to even read such a dust jacket, I was pleasantly surprised when I read Ian Morgan Cron‘s Jesus, My Father, The CIA And Me: A Memoir…of Sorts (Thomas Nelson, 978-0-8499-4610-3, $15.99, June 2011).
From the outset, it’s important to recognize that writing an engaging memoir is difficult. Most attempts at autobiography try to paint life in its best light (think Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue). But it’s the rare, brave author who communicates the essence of a life as it was actually lived, as opposed to producing a censored version of how one would like life to have been. This sense of honesty is what really sets apart Cron’s book. Taking the back drop of an interesting, and complex childhood, Cron communicates in 252 pages the simple idea that life is messy.
As I noted, giving life a sincere rifling isn’t an easy undertaking. Ours is a veritable age of depression. Whether it’s feeling inadequate for being stuck in the 99%, or latent concerns about the future of humanity, we homo sapiens tend to have more skeletons in our closet than Conrad Murray after a fresh supply of Propofol.
But somehow, Cron’s memoir reassures readers that this is ok – that wading through the bullshit of life isn’t a journey taken alone, but something we all do to cope with the complexity or our own existence. Somewhere between page one and the end, readers come to understand that they are reading Cron’s piece, but the themes explored could well be their own.
The most important theme of Cron’s memoir is how he copes with the chronic feeling of being unloved. I realize that at first this theme can sound a bit like a cliché. It’s fair to say that no one gets through life without developing some sort of “daddy” issue. But in Cron’s case, the daddy issue wasn’t a simple matter of Father threatening to pull the car over after roughhousing in the backseat finally got unbearable – say, hypothetically, on a trip to Taos, NM, circa 1989. Cron’s issues with his father involved the profoundly more complicated reality of having an abusive father who was not only an alcoholic, but also an agent for the CIA. As one would expect of a good Company Man, Cron describes his Father as being a bit “like Darth Vader, only less empathetic.”
Detailing the life of a true Darksider, Cron painfully recounts numerous instances of abuse meted out by his father over drunken nights of scotch. While this is tragic in itself, the author suggests that the greater tribulation of his relationship with the elder Cron was the complete lack of interest he took in his son. The result is that the author was left to “begin life without a center of gravity,” foreshadowing the many ways in which the author would mirror the actions of his father.
The second major theme of the memoir is something I’ve already alluded to. As a recovering law student, I’ve long taken it for granted that the majority of law students and attorneys are functioning alcoholics. And perhaps in Arizona more than most, we tend to revel in our reputation for debauchery. In fact, my alma mater the University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law was recently dubbed “the top party law school” in the Nation. Work hard, play hard as the adage goes.
While alcohol may be all fun and games here in Tucson, the hooch played a far more harrowing role in Cron’s memoir. In fact, some of the book’s most disturbing, and heartrending scenes come when the author describes the drunken physical abuse he endured at the hand of his Scotch-swigging father. What makes these moments even more poignant is that they serve as a dark segue into Cron’s descriptions of his own drunken nights and his painful mornings after. Even Darth Vader himself would mourn for the son who is controlled by the same ghosts that haunted his father.
Finally, all of these stories, in some way reflect the final major theme of the book, the author’s journey as a person of faith. This shouldn’t be confused with dogmatic moralizing. The book is far from an exercise in Christian apologetics. Instead, Cron uses his life to illustrate how complicated it is to maintain faith in the Divine when so many aspects of life are unknown, unknowable, and often contrary, to the teachings of theologians and the various sects of Christendom. Rather than avoid doctrinal crises and moments of doubt, Cron honestly, and openly questions where exactly God was during his childhood, while admitting that he still “sees through a glass darkly,” lo these many years later. (1 Cor. 13.12).
This is what makes the book so easy to appreciate. Unlike many Christian authors, Cron recognizes that grace isn’t cheap. Accordingly, he does not attempt to cheapen grace with empty platitudes of a “loving God,” or with talk of “damnation” for the sinner. Rather, Cron seems to recognize that in our own way we’re all damned — if not spiritually, then perhaps emotionally, as we struggle to confront the demons of our own past; or perhaps physically, as we yearn to strike a balance between work and life; or maybe even intellectually, as we attempt to maintain a sense of what is right, while also keeping our minds open to new ideas and change.
Whatever the challenge, Cron never shies away from the truth. The events are never understated. The stories are simply told. This makes the entire account read less like an exposition of morality, and much more like a beautiful meditation on life. Cron reminds readers that life cannot honestly be separated into good and bad because both coexist on a continuum. There is good. There is evil. In the book, a father drunkenly beats his son. And later, a father overcomes his alcoholism, as he lovingly tries to shield his children from harm. And so the light rises from darkness.
In the end, Ian Morgan Cron uses his life to demonstrate that mere existence can be tough. But it is only through this dose of realism that Cron can use his own life to demonstrate how one can also endure, and thrive.