Last summer, when the film adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle hit theaters, I took my mom to go see it. I found this family saga stunning on many levels. The characters were revealed in all of their deeply flawed glory, but the final message was one of love and forgiveness. It hit particularly close to home because the film ends with a parent dying, and just weeks before our movie date, my mom had been diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer. For our family, the specter of death now looms close. It has thrown us into chaos and remembering. We talk about who we were when it was just us, a hippie clan subsisting alone on a mountain in the desert. We wonder what our stories will be someday, when we are gone.
As I’ve delved more and more deeply into other great memoirs, and into life in general, I’ve realized that no person, if observed closely, could ever come out on the other end of scrutiny looking anything other than messy, and maybe even downright dastardly. What if our children wrote books about our ugliest moments? What if our parents did? What if our ex-partners did? How would we come off?
Martin Luther King Jr. was inarguably one of the bravest, most inspiring men who ever lived. He changed the face of our nation forever. He was also a reported womanizer and misogynist. Mother Theresa saved many lives, gave hope to the destitute. She is also purported to have let people die screaming because she believed they were paying for their sins. I used to get disillusioned when I found out my heroes had villainous moments. Not anymore. It turns out, we are all both heroes and villains.
I struggle with the way some memoirs throw family members under the bus and elevate their narrators as faultless heroes. It’s not that I don’t believe the family members did terrible things. It’s that this good guy/bad guy dichotomy strikes me as over-simplified. There are no good guys, and there are no bad guys. If we live long enough, we will do despicable things. And if we live long enough, we will do beautiful things as well. In The Glass Castle, the father is a selfish jerk and a loving jokester all at once. That kind of dissonance, to me, feels inevitable.
All of the people I love profoundly have been in need of great forgiveness at times. And all of the people who love me profoundly can tell you I’ve been in need of the same thing. This is the beautiful thing about love. It overcomes even the ugliest sins.
I’m not saying I am a pro at forgiveness. I have found that I am capable of unconditionally loving only a handful of people. Unconditional love is a rare gift. I don’t know if other people’s hearts are big enough to give to the whole world. I just know mine isn’t. Unconditionally, I can give respect and goodwill. I can place people who bother me, even those I outright dislike, on the altar of “live and let live” and honestly say to them, “Go your way, and I’ll go mine. I wish you well.” But unconditional love? That’s different. It’s bigger.
To me, unconditional love is this otherworldly thing that makes it possible for us to get the living daylights kicked out of us, battered and bruised and wronged, and after all that, come out on the other side still wanting the person who did the kicking to be in our lives. I have it for my kids. I have it for my parents. I have it for my brother. I have it for the great love of my life and a few friends. If these people became serial killers, I would still love them. It’s awe-inspiring to me that I can love anyone like this, because it’s not a meme, or a bumper sticker slogan, or a song. It’s real, an immovable force that stands in the face of cruelty, neglect, and time, and doesn’t change. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in this world.
If I ever write a memoir, I want it to be like The Glass Castle. I want it to be true without being cruel. I want it to showcase life in all of its beauty without being hopeless. I won’t have good guys or bad guys. Just people. I want it to show me as I really am, too. Maybe that’s what I struggle with most: how to put myself on the page without whitewashing my sins, how to expose the real Tawni in all her good, bad, and ugly to the world.
I think a lot about the reason I’m alive. Sometimes, when I am most lost, I look towards immovable truths, and I see my home, this planet that is both horror movie and romance, cast with messy characters who are the most inspiring heroes and the most treacherous villains, all wrapped up in one. So, if true meaning is supposed to grow out of this mortal mess, what if the purpose of my life – of all life – is to find unconditional love amongst the rubble? What if the purpose is to look into the face of the villain that lives inside every hero and say “I love you” – and mean it? I told some people I loved them when I really didn’t. When I saw the villain in them, I ran. But for a precious few, I have looked into their eyes in their darkest moments and unflinchingly declared, “Yes, I see you are a monster. And I love you anyway.”
In those moments, it felt like I found the meaning of life. It wasn’t money. It wasn’t sex. It wasn’t success. It was unconditional love. And if I can manage to get even a whisper of it on the page when I’m writing – about myself, my beautiful, courageous mother, or even my worst enemy – I’ll have achieved something bigger than I could have imagined.