Moore: You have written many books. What made you decide to tackle this most personal of stories?
Olasky: I wrote a column in World about never playing catch with my father, and then received many, many letters from readers containing their own laments. It struck me that a book telling a true story while pointing to understanding and forgiveness would be useful.
Moore: Several of us are old enough to remember the cruelty perpetuated by renowned actress Joan Crawford against her daughter. Crawford’s daughter eventually wrote a blockbuster tell-all titled Mommie Dearest. That book also became a movie starring Faye Dunaway. How did you wrestle with telling some of the dark things about your family while not falling prey to being simply a purveyor of prurient details?
Olasky: Good question. The book isn’t about deep, prurient things, but the disappointments that occur in non-famous careers and marriages. I also credit my parents for not getting a divorce and for doing the best they could for my brother and myself. As a young person I didn’t understand why my parents did what they did, and lots of people never comprehend their own parents: This book tells a story but it’s also a guide to doing research, learning, and forgiving.
Moore: Your Harvard-educated father led a tragic life in many of the conventional ways we measure success. However, you do a terrific job of honoring his bravery and loyalty in carrying out a ghastly responsibility at the end of WW II. Would you describe a bit of his service in the military and how you came to respect him for it?
Olasky: I learned that in 1942 he had a deferment because he worked in a factory making boilers for submarines. He could have sat out the war, but he joined up to fight Hitler. He knew German and Yiddish and for six months after the war served as a translator for concentration camp survivors and refugees. The sights and smells sucked out a lot of his ambition and made him a person who said, “Expect the worst so you won’t be disappointed.” He did not tell his wife or children about the stacked-up corpses, thus saving us from nightmares and a sense that churches were full of anti-Semites.
Moore: Sometimes as Christians we paper over the far-reaching effects of trauma. You do not do that which I appreciated very much. How should we think of human agency when debilitating trauma seems to immobilize many people?
Olasky: I have no expertise here, but it seems good that we know more about trauma now, with the military ready to provide help. If mid-twentieth-century folks had understood more, my father could have received help he needed. We know now that badly damaged people are often unable to heal themselves. What we’ve often forgotten, though, is that God can heal even the most traumatized, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly.
The Bible gives us the example of Job, who is literally immobilized—sitting stunned after losing his children, all his wealth, and then even his health. His three old friends sit immobile on the ground for a week, then just orate: They would have done well by listening longer instead of offering their mistaken analyses of Job’s problem. Then a young man joins them and orates some more: still no action. Not until God tells Job, “Dress for action like a man,” explains life to him, and then tells him to pray for his loquacious pals, does Job finally move.
Even without any great trauma in my life, I was immobile until God changed me. So we have individual responsibility, but J.I. Packer was right in his summary of the Bible: only God saves sinners. That’s one reason why prayer is so helpful.
Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers will take from your book?
Olasky: Two suggestions. First, one of writer Frederick Buechner’s comments stuck with me. He said he dealt “with the sad parts of my life by forgetting them. I didn’t know I was forgetting them… but the mechanism of forgetting had been so strongly switched on in my childhood that it became a sort of automatic response.” Buechner added, “If you bury your life—if you don’t face, among other things, your pain—your life shrinks.” So, I hope readers will actively lament, and try to understand why sad things happened, instead of trying to bury the memories.
Second, I hope readers will persist in questioning still-living parents. Why did they act in ways that seemed mysterious? If parents are dead, readers can interview others who knew them, and can learn a lot through Internet research. For example, I was able to learn what music my mother listened to in the 1930s, and what surrounded my father when he was in college. My book’s subtitle is, “the journey to understanding and forgiveness”: I hope it will help readers start their own journey. That road is often untaken, but it’s drivable.
Moore: At the end of Lament for a Father, you briefly describe your conversion from Marxist radical to Christian. May I suggest that you consider writing an entire book giving more of those details? I think it would be a great encouragement to the body of Christ! Olasky: Thanks. I’m thinking about it.