Lamott, Anne. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
Pantheon Books, 1999
Hardcover, 275 pages
I’m not a big fan of the poor-me-I-had-a-lousy-childhood school of memoir writing that’s so popular today, so when Lamott began her book with declarations of her childhood search for parental love, approval, and acceptance, and with acknowledgement of an abortion and drug and alcohol abuse, I was skeptical.
The book’s subtitle is Some Thoughts on Faith, and early on Lamott tells the story of finding her faith. She was in college and “was thirsty for something that I will dare to call the truth” (27). Then in a class she came upon Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, “and my life changed forever” (p. 27). She read the story of Abraham, who was called upon to sacrifice a lamb. As Abraham and Isaac walked to the mountaintop, Isaac asked where the lamb was. Abraham answered that God would provide the lamb. After Abraham drew his sword, an angel intervened and told Abraham that he had successfully shown his devotion to God.
In the interior silence that followed my understanding of this scene, I held my breath for as long as I could, sitting there under the fluorescent lights—and then I crossed over. I don’t know how else to put it or how and why I actively made, if not exactly a leap of faith, a lurch of faith […]. I left class believing—accepting—that there was a God. I did not understand how this could have happened. It made no sense. It made no sense that what brought me to this conviction was the story of a God who would ask his beloved Abraham to sacrifice the child he loved more than life itself […]. I felt changed, and a little crazy. But though I was still like a stained and slightly buckled jigsaw puzzle with some pieces missing, now there were at least a few border pieces in place.(pp. 28-29)
Later, after she had an abortion and was lying in the dark, drunk and bleeding:
I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there—of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.(p. 49)
She continues: “This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood” (p. 50). Everywhere she went she “had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in” (p. 50). She tried to resist for a week, then finally said, “All right. You can come in” (p. 50). After that she “discovered that if I said, Hello?, to God, I could feel God say, Hello, back” (p. 51).
In the Reader’s Guide to Traveling Mercies Lamott explains why she wrote the book: “I started to realize that there was a great hunger and thirst for regular, cynical, ragbag people to talk about God and goodness and virtue in a tone that didn’t frighten and upset you, or make you feel that you were doing even more poorly than you’d thought.”
Lamott’s description of her own experience early in Traveling Mercies is pretty standard stuff in the age-old tradition of religious-conversion literature. Yet after this early explanation of her experience, the emphasis on traditional aspects of religion recedes. In fact, Lamott says in the Reader’s Guide, “I don’t think of Traveling Mercies as a book about religion at all, but rather as a handbook, or maybe a sort of owner’s manual, for people who are trying to live faithfully: which is to say, learning to cooperate with grace—even (or especially) when real life rears its very confusing head.”
And herein lies my major problem with this book. Much of the book deals with life in general rather than with what we think of as traditional aspects of religion, particularly Christianity. I read this book for a group, and other members of the group pointed out that this lack of religious emphasis is what makes the book so appealing; Lamott is, they say, describing what works for her, not prescribing what other people should do or should believe.
That’s true. But why, then, does she subtitle the book Some Thoughts on Faith and begin it with a religious conversion experience? Is she using the religious hook to draw in some readers who otherwise might not choose her work? This is, after all, a woman who says to her young son, “Shall we pray?” when their car breaks down. She seems to be practicing a pick-and-choose brand of Christianity that uses what she finds valuable but ignores the more difficult or uncomfortable strictures of traditional religion.
As I continued reading Traveling Mercies, I wondered what a devout, traditional Christian would think of Lamott’s pop, self-help approach to religion. I found out when I discovered a review of the book by D. Marty Lasley,** who calls Lamott’s spirituality “muzak best suited for calming the nerves of emotionally unhinged ferrets.” Lasley further says, “the sales numbers [of the book] are a sobering warning of the spiritual dehydration of our generation.”
Anne Lamott has a strong, unique voice capable of describing human experience in a way most people will identify with. She admits, for example, wanting to protect her young son by sitting on the front porch with a shotgun across her lap, like Granny Clampett. And who doesn’t know what she’s talking about when she worries about how much her thighs jiggle? This is good stuff. But what does it have to do with faith, particularly Christian faith?
Unless you share Lamott’s religious beliefs to begin with, Traveling Mercies probably isn’t going to convert you. But it just might make you an Anne Lamott convert.
© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown
**Update: April 2022
In preparing this old post for republication, I find I cannot now document this article. An internet search turned up this reference:
-REVIEW: Jesus And A Sack Full Of Boo-Boo Fish: A Review Of Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts On Faith (D. Marty Lasley, American Wasteland)
But when I clicked on the link, the page that came up told me that the American Wasteland domain was available for purchase.
After much talking to myself, I’ve decided to retain the quotation, since it was active back when I originally wrote this review, in 2000.