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September 23, 2011

We are not enslaved to our past: Ian Cron’s inspiring memoir

by quaesitor
Ian Morgan Cron

It is a rare gift indeed to be able to evoke the confusions, perceptions and wonder of childhood from the perspectives of adulthood. And it is a gift that Ian Cron clearly possesses. His recent memoir (self-deprecatingly subtitled ‘of sorts’), Jesus, My Father, The CIA and Me, is a wonderful, life-affirming account of a deeply troubled and agonised family – but it is wonderful because it demonstrates hope in some very dark places indeed.

And for that reason alone, it is a book I would thoroughly recommend.

Ian’s father was at times a Hollywood big shot, a businessman, an undercover CIA agent.

But most significantly for this book, he was an alcoholic. And it was that which blighted Cron’s childhood from a very early stage. As one of his chapter heading quotes puts it:

Alcoholism isn’t a spectator sport. Eventually the whole family gets to play. (Joyce Rebeta-Burditt)

And he asks near the start:

“Home is a place where you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to.” That’s what John Edward Pearce said. But what if your childhood was a train wreck? (p3)

Ian Cron’s upbringing is tragically not an uncommon one. But his ability to write of it in poetic, inspiring and, at times, devastatingly funny, prose, is very uncommon – and despite its painful subject, I could not put it down. Occasionally, too, I was moved to tears, as with this most arresting of descriptions, referring to the anguish of having primarily negative feelings about his father:

These kinds of experiences are not biodegradable. They float in the reservoir of memory forever. (p94)

Change is possible

Gradually, but surely, through mundane events and friendships, God is at work, rescuing him from his past. The fact that he is not enslaved to that past when he so easily could have been (he found himself accelerating towards alcoholism himself as a young man) is evidence of a personal revolution of truly miraculous proportions. For he is all too aware of what he missed out on, as this poignant passage articulates so well:

Frederick Buechner once wrote, “The grace of God means something like: here is your life. You might have never been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”

To see delight in your father’s eyes is to see his believe that the party of life would be a bust without you. He may not know it, but from the moment he first glimpses his baby boy’s head crowning in the delivery room, a father makes a vow that with stumbling determination, he will try to get a few of these things right. Boys without fathers, or boys with fathers who for whatever reason keep their love undisclosed, begin life without a center of gravity. They float like astronauts in space, hoping to find ballast and a patch of earth where they can plant their feet and make a life. Many of us who live without these gifts that only a father can bestow go through life banging from guardrail to guardrail, trying to determine why our fathers kept their love nameless, as if ashamed.

We know each other when we meet. (p47)

God at work

Of course, this does not mean he has found God easy to believe in, let alone trust. He writes very powerfully of his early understanding of Protestants having empty crosses in their churches (in contrast to the Catholic crucifixes of his childhood), suggesting that “the cross was empty because there was no Saviour to put up there. There was no God who loved me or my father or anyone else so much that he died for us.” (p142)

But different experiences led him to doubt that despair. The most moving parts of this story come when other people help him. An elderly African American woman, or the youth leaders at Young life, or the wise words of a spiritual director/counsellor. God is at work through so many of these conversations. But the standout for me was his teenage contemporary who had the guts to say that his drinking habit was turning him more and more into his dad.

I stopped breathing. I stared at Tyler and he at me. A gust of January wind put its shoulder to the side of the barn and tried to push it down. Instead, it found a crack in a beam and settled for making it whistle. There was no other sound – until I bowed my head and cried.

There are acts of love so subtle and delicate that the sweep of their beauty goes unseen. I know of none more miraculous and brave than that of a seventeen-year-old boy coming to his friend’s side to take his tear-soaked face to his breast. (p162)

Now, I did not find myself always on the same page theologically as Cron. I do not share anything like his eucharistic focus, for example (a running theme through the book). But that didn’t matter. Because this is a memoir which (more than almost any other I’ve read) manages to convey a sense of progress despite (and sometimes because of) pain. It is about God’s redemptive power to erode despair, to free slaves and above all, to change lives. And it is something that all of us, whether in ministry or not, will do well to remember. For none of us is the finished article. We all carry baggage and blind spots. So after describing some of the psychological gymnastics he has to endure as a result of his deep insecurities, he…

confessed this nutty practice to my spiritual director. He smiled, put his arm around my shoulder, and said, “I never trust a man without a limp.” God bless him. (p27)

God bless him indeed. It gives the rest of us, his fellow-limpers, hope.

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