A Review of Kelly J. Beard’s An Imperfect Rapture
November 9, 2018 § 3 Comments
by Margaret L. Whitford
“My mother saw demons,” begins Kelly J. Beard’s stunning debut memoir. Though I feared the narrator would show me the cruelty and violence of her parents’ chosen faith, she does so with such a commitment to understanding the sources of her family’s suffering that I had to follow her narrative.
Religious fundamentalism and poverty, the latter made worse by the former, fracture the narrator’s family into unrecoverable pieces. Only her parents appear unscathed by the “steel belt” of their faith. They remain devoted to each other, their intimate and loving relationship a stark contrast to the isolation of their children.
“Over the years, I’ve wondered,” Beard writes, “why it seems other families endure similar or greater deprivations without siblings turning rivalrous or mean…. I wonder what particular ingredient combined to make our compound combustible. Our father’s complicated anger? Our mother’s changeable heart? Or that one singularly unstable ingredient: their hard faith?”
Beard examines all three influences from the perspective of a sensitive and perceptive child and that of an adult looking back, the two voices essential to memoir. Some of the most beautiful passages arise when both of these narrators co-exist. “It was the last time I remember our family laughing together. We were headed into mean years none of us could see. Still, when Dad turned the car around, we all looked back, staring at the road behind us as though our laughter were a tangible presence lingering there, dark swifts in twilight, darting and diving before vanishing into the distance.”
A quiet grief, evident in this passage, infuses much of An Imperfect Rapture. Regret, I am starting to believe, is an emotion with which all memoirists struggle, a tendency to engage in if only thinking in our examinations of the past. My regrets are not the same as Beard’s, but I recognize the feeling.
Organized in three parts, the memoir follows a loose chronology that begins with the narrator as a small child and concludes with her graduation from college. The third section, aptly titled, “Taking Leave,” focuses on the ways in which the narrator pursues distance as a strategy for self-realization. She recognizes that her survival depends on leaving, in both a psychic and physical sense, the literal and figurative desert of her childhood. She studies first in France, and then, following graduation, departs for the Pacific Northwest, a place where no one knows her and where she might “fathom” her own heart.
I also looked to travel overseas as a means to claim something separate from my family, starting with study in France. And, like Beard, I came to understand that the distance I needed to achieve was more complicated than mere geography.
Beard’s journey is primarily a spiritual one in search of her own inner voice, a whisper more powerful than the bellowing of the God of her youth, “an omnipotent schizophrenic,” whose “moments of grace were stitched into years of grief.” And yet, the narrator recognizes and cherishes these rare instances of grace—in the survival of a beloved dog, in the time to pursue the wrong questions until the right ones emerge. Rather than accept the punishing dualism of religious fundamentalism, whose lingering influence she acknowledges, she nurtures a more complex and healing faith.
In a book rich with vivid description, one image stands out for me—a small wooden table the narrator’s father gives her. He’d crafted the piece when he was twelve years old, the first thing he’d ever made. Proud of his accomplishment, he gave the table to his father, whose only response was to put his cigarette out on the wood’s smooth surface, leaving a permanent scar. The narrator keeps the table in the passenger seat as she departs for the Pacific Northwest. “It comforted me to feel the wood’s grain in its scalloped legs, to stroke its smooth surface, to whorl my finger around a scar he could never buff away,” Beard tells us.
Some wounds leave marks. The key to living with grace, it seems to me, is to balance recognition of the scars with an appreciation of the beauty that remains.
Margaret L. Whitford is a writer focused on personal essay and memoir. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, The Fourth River, Brevity, and elsewhere.