News & Articles

August 17th, 2006

by Steppenwolf Literary Manager Aaron Carter

On August 17th, 2006 my brother-in-law Charlie Johnson walked out the front door of his sister Elizabeth’s house. He said goodbye, and walked down the front steps, heading to his car parked on the quiet residential street. At that moment a drunk driver traveling 80 mph lost control of his car, careened through the front yard and struck Charlie, throwing him against a tree. Elizabeth rushed to his side and held him as he died. He was 30 years old. Cassie and I got the call that night. Her mother said there was nothing to be done, and that we should simply plan to come to the funeral to be held in a couple of days. Dutiful and stunned, we complied, both of us heading to work as usual in the morning. Around noon Cassie and I spoke on the phone. Even if there was nothing we could do to help, we agreed our place was with the family. We left work, packed a bag, and drove home to Lexington. Charlie was Cassie’s step-brother. His father Earley Johnson had married Christie-Cassie’s mother-when both Cassie and Charlie were practically adults. They weren’t raised together: Charlie was a nice guy who we saw on holidays during which we all agreed good-naturedly to behave like blood relations. To Cassie and me, he was a friend. To Earley, however, Charlie was center of the universe. We got into Lexington late, around 11pm. Cassie quietly unlocked the front door with the key she’s carried since childhood and we slipped into the house. Despite our attempt at stealth, Christie and Earley heard us come in. Earley stumbled out of the bedroom, and stood-shirtless-at the top of the stairs. He saw us, raised his arms. There was only one thing to do: we both rushed up the stairs and hugged him as hard as we could. Until that moment, I had thought the phrase “mask of grief” was a cliché. I now know it to be a literal description. Grief twisted Earley’s face, fixing his cheeks into a wooden grimace, rendering his mouth a gash of pain. Grief was a physical thing: its weight stooped his shoulders and buckled his knees. I cry whenever I recall simply witnessing it: I can’t imagine experiencing it. Over the months and years that have followed, well-meaning people have asked, a concerned note in their voices, “How are you doing Earley?” He forces a tight smile and delivers his signature response: “Just another day in paradise, buddy,” his slightly nasal southern drawl giving the phrase the blunt force of gallows humor. It doesn’t take long to figure out that “paradise” is Earley’s term for hell on earth. As near as I can figure, the death of his oldest son simply confirmed for Earley what he had suspected all along: that God exists, and his sole desire is to make us suffer. Earley’s painful childhood, his struggling business ventures, and his devastating loss all point to a God that takes satisfaction in arranging a near-constant flow of personal pain. Earley’s is an Old Testament God. I admit a certain grudging respect for his version of faith. Though now an atheist, I grew up in churches that varied from Methodist to evangelical. As a child, I was witness to profound expressions of faith: speaking in tongues; laying on of hands; prophecy and visions. At age 15 I became a born-again Christian, professing that Jesus was my personal savior. Eventually, I would repudiate that belief. At the crux of my loss of faith was the issue of suffering. I could not conceive of an all-powerful being that would allow it. And I became deeply suspicious of anyone who claimed that their belief allowed them to transcend it. Earley’s God caused suffering and expected you to feel it. That made more sense to me. When I first encountered Shelah, the central figure of HEAD OF PASSES, I thought I had her pegged. As she refused medical treatment for a terminal illness and professed her readiness to die, I heard a language familiar from my childhood. Here was a woman, I thought, whose faith was preventing her from being healed, and blinding her to serious problems in her own home. This was the tradition I had walked away from, the polar opposite of Earley Johnson. My criticism of faith is habitual at this point: reflexive. It is an intellectual argument I have in my head with straw men. But having heard the play several times as performed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce, after conversations with Martha Lavey and Tarell McCraney, I find that my perceptions are shifting. My habitual response had inured me to the emotional truth of the play. Perhaps it is something in her tone of voice, perhaps a look that flickers across her face. But if I let my guard down, I find that Shelah’s journey conjures the face of Earley Johnson on that August night. My cynical interpretation was that Shelah’s faith was used to block out the truth of her suffering. As I think of Earley, however, I cannot imagine a belief so solid and total that it could numb you to that kind of pain. If I cannot dismiss faith as an opiate in this situation, how else might I conceive of it? A more generous interpretation is that Shelah’s faith is a pillar that supports her and allows her to survive her trials. But even that suggests that her portion of pain is somehow smaller. Witnessing my father-in-law’s grief, and reflecting on the final scene of Head of Passes, I feel compelled to craft a new metaphor of faith that does not diminish their personal suffering. I begin to see faith not as a static thing to stand on or to hide behind. I begin to see it as a motive force, a kind of engine that you can harness yourself to. Once you choose to embrace faith, this engine propels you relentlessly towards knowledge of yourself and your place in the world, no matter how painful that revelation may be. Your only choice is to hang on, or to let go. As a result, I find myself acknowledging a deep respect for both Earley and Shelah. Theirs is a faith that I do not share, but they are the stronger for it. They’ve earned that strength. They didn’t hide from grief. They felt its full measure and survived.