Writer-at-large Jan Reid on growing up, his mother, and her religion.
texasmonthly.com: Why did you write this story? Was it something you feel that you had to do?
Jan Reid: It began as an assignment that was related but quite different. By far the best parts of the draft I turned in were those that were personal. My editor, Chris Keyes, knew this issue was coming up, and he wisely suggested that we take the piece in that direction. It’s how magazine articles often evolve. But, yes, once I was into the rewriting I did feel an urgency to explore things in my life that were long veiled and avoided. A friend once wrote me about some short pieces on personal experience that would grow into a memoir, “Go deeper if you can.” That’s good advice for any writer on any subject.
texasmonthly.com: You pay close attention to detail in your story, how did you manage to recollect such early memories so vividly? Was it at all challenging to dredge up these memories?
JR: I guess because those experiences have dwelled so powerfully near the forefront of my inner life all those years. Also, I had the gentle prodding of a good editor. It was a challenge. When I started the rewrite I thought, “But I’ve already said all I remember, and that’s not enough to carry a magazine story.” For instance, I had mostly forgotten or repressed the row with my mother over the moral implications of the movie glamorizing Audie Murphy’s war heroics, but in this context and process it came back to me as clear as the day it happened half a century ago. And I realized that my mother had been absolutely right, and that I had inherited principles from her that a fool might have thought he made up on his own.
texasmonthly.com: Your story provides an in-depth exploration of personal details, was it at all painful or intrusive to share such personal details? Did you have any problems providing information that was too personal but still essential to the story? Where did you draw the line?
JR: It’s quite painful to explore a time of conflict with a beloved parent and a period in your life and behavior that you can’t be proud of. And I did have—still have—anxieties about it being intrusive and hurtful to others, and their memories of her. I tried to remember what this story was about and avoid dragging innocent bystanders and unnecessary privacies into it. It helped that there was as happy an ending as life serves up, and I remembered that my mother was proud of me for what I do in my writing, or at least try to do: tell the truth, make observations of others that are fair and generous, and be honest with myself. Though she did say once with a laugh that she was going to wash my mouth out with soap.
texasmonthly.com: Your situation was unique in that you were both the writer and the subject of the story, how did you harmonize the two roles? Did your role as journalist provide you with a different perspective of your family?
JR: My past as a journalist afforded me the craft and experience to attempt such a piece of writing, but though I remain fascinated by what I discovered about the history of our church and the contemporary role in the world of fundamentalism, on this one too much reporting got in the way. We pared away all of the attendant material we could.
texasmonthly.com: Had you previously viewed your family from the perspective that you present in the story? Did you realize anything about the dynamics of your family from writing this piece?
JR: I had spent most of my sixty years viewing my family in this perspective—and many other perspectives, as well. Health, sport, history, sense of place, and so on. Compressing and focusing in this way revealed a great deal to me about the complexity and durability of our relationships.
texasmonthly.com: Religion is something that comes up a lot in the story. Was this the first time you had realized the influence of religion on your life, particularly on your relationship with your mother?
JR: No, it was always there. When I set out to write my first book in 1973 about Texas music—something I had no more preparation for than a co-authored piece in the first year of Texas Monthly—I was stumped on where to begin, and found myself writing a prologue about how my love of music was instilled by the hymn-singing at our little church. I feared I was taking a wide bend in the road, like those crumbling strips of old pavement we see in pastures beside our new highways, but that resonated with a lot of fans of Willie Nelson and the others I wrote about, I found. And something about the tone of that first effort reassured my mother about what I was choosing to do with my life, and made it easier, after she was gone, to revisit those scenes and emotions in another way.
texasmonthly.com: In retrospect, do you think that the decision to get baptized might have been influenced by a desire to please your mother? Was ending up in church at the end a full-circle experience for you?
JR: No doubt it primarily came out of a wish and need to please her. I only physically ended up in church again, so in that respect it was hardly full circle, but those Sunday mornings with my mother near the end of her life definitely helped leave the circle unbroken in my relationship with her.