The following is the Prologue to my first book, soon to be released by BOOKMACHINE.
This book took me a very long time to write, and a very long time to decide to share it with people.
The genesis of this book was my sophomore year of college. I was attending a private Christian university in Seattle, WA. I grew up in a Christian family in Fullerton, CA. My dad worked for the largest church in town: The First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton. Up until college, I was a very devout Christian.
Ironically, it was at a Christian university that my faith, and much of my identity, began to unravel. During my sophomore year, I began taking lots of Bible classes. Growing up, I was encouraged to study the Bible, to read it devotionally. But, in college, I began to read the Bible academically. I learned about textual criticism, studied contexts and cultures of when the Bible was written, how it passed through scribes and editors, how a group of clergy decided, hundreds of years after it was written, which books were to be included, and which excluded. To make a long story short, I began to question the Bible as God's infallible word.
To an average college kid, such thoughts might seem normal, even boring and irrelevant. But to me, a sincere, devout, bookish 20-year-old Christian, my doubts and questions were devastating.
My solution to my doubts was to read more, to study more, to grasp at the truth that was crumbing beneath my feet. And the more I read, the deeper my doubts became, and the once solid ground beneath my feet gave way, and I fell into a deep and dark depression. I began having severe stomach pains, intense loneliness, and a level of inner suffering I had never before felt.
In the midst of this, I began to write.
I had always been a pretty shy kid, quiet and introverted. The only outlet for my suffering and confusion were the pages of my journals. Writing became my voice. Quiet and alone, in the throes of pain, I became a writer. I wasn't seeking fame or money. For me writing was, and continues to be, a method of survival. At the time, I wasn't thinking about writing a book. I was just writing.
When my depression became more than I could bear, I returned home to Fullerton, utterly broken inside. But I continued to write. As I went to twice a week therapy, as I tried various anti-depressants, as I started taking art classes at Fullerton College, as I took long, lonely walks through suburban neighborhoods, as I accompanied my parents to church (feeling utterly detached), I wrote. I wrote everything down. One thing that depression can do for you is destroy your ability to lie to yourself. The writing style that worked best for me, that alleviated some my pain, was brutal honesty.
I continued reading, took literature courses, and found, in the voices of writers like Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare and Hemingway and Plath and Achebe and O'Connor and Blake and Byron, kindred spirits, fellow suffering humans trying, in their different ways, to find meaning in this big and lonely world.
Somewhere along the way I began to think about turning my journals into a book. They were personal and weird and tormented, but reading lots of classic literature helped me understand something that had eluded me in 18 years of public education: most of the really good books, the ones that meant something, were about suffering humans trying to find meaning in their lives.
That's what I'd been doing all along. And so, around age 22 or 23, I began compiling my journals into a story, a memoir of sorts.
My biggest problem, for a long time, was that my journal entries were so fragmented and random that they seemed to lack what writers call a "narrative thread." There was no "story arc" that I could see. It was pages and pages of observations, feelings, ideas, drawings. It was, like my head at the time, a mess.
And then I discovered Dante. I had actually read Dante's Inferno in college. Most people are at least aware of that book. It's a 13th century epic Italian poem about a man's descent into hell, the stuff of horror films and goth music…and depressed people.
What many people don't know is that Dante's Inferno is only the first third of a three-part epic called The Divine Comedy. The second part, Purgatorio, is about Dante's slow ascent up an allegorical mountain, as as reaches nearer and hearer to the heavens.
The third and final part of The Divine Comedy is Paradiso, about Dante's journey into heaven, into paradise.
The Divine Comedy is not a comedy in the modern sense. It's not funny. It's filled with suffering and angst and frustration, but it ends well. The classical idea of a comedy is basically a story that begins in misery and ends in happiness.
Something about Dante's epic rang true with me. He wrote it in the midst of a long and lonesome exile. My story, this far, felt like Dante's. I'd been to hell. I was in the process of slowly ascending the mountain of purgatory, of healing. And though I was certainly not happy at the time, the idea of happiness in life gave me hope. I began to believe that happiness was possible, not in some distant afterlife, but here, now, in this life. For a 23-year-old suffering a major depression, this was a revelation.
And so I took the three-part structure of Dante' Divine Comedy and applied it to my book. My experiences in Seattle were hell, a slow descent into torment and loneliness. My experience in therapy, in art classes, in my decision to major in literature, post-hell, were my purgatory. And paradise? When I began compiling my book, paradise was a distant dream, a whisper of hope. Paradise was, to quote the Bible, "a still small voice," a voice that told me, "Don't give up. Keep trying. Keep writing. The story is not finished. This is a comedy, you dummy, not a tragedy, even though it feels like one."
As I continued through college, got my degree, and began teaching college English, I continued writing. Many times, I found myself thinking, What am I doing? I'm not happy. I'm functional, but I'm not happy. For me, purgatory lasted a very long time. About seven years. Interestingly, in those years, as I moved into my own apartment in downtown Fullerton and became an "independent adult," many of my experiences mirrored those in Dante's purgatory. On his journey up the mountain, Dante encounters people with all the classic human flaws and weaknesses, people looking for happiness in all the wrong places…in sex, in drink, in petty jealousies, in power, in wealth. I tried all these avenues (except wealth), and always found myself miserable and empty.
For me, paradise, real happiness, began when some friends and I decided, against all "good judgment" to open a small art gallery in downtown Fullerton. This was in 2008. At the time, the downtown was dominated by bars. Our gallery was a weird little anomaly. But, through the gallery, I found myself starting to share all the passions I'd picked up on my journey of suffering. We had poetry readings, art exhibits, live music performances. And, from the very beginning, our little gallery became a catalyst for artists and writers to come out of their lonely cocoons of torment and see that they were not alone.
The real test, and the real turning point on my journey came about six months after we opened the gallery, when the initial excitement wore off and the financial reality hit. our rent alone was $1500 a month, and there were many months when we didn't sell anything. People came to the shows, but they were mostly like us, poor artists.
It was around this time that a new passion began to stir in me, an idea that changed my life and has made me happier than I ever dreamed I could be. It was not an original idea. It was, in fact, a very old one, an idea the stretched back to my Christian upbringing, to my earliest identity, an idea that would ultimately lead me back to a faith I had long thought impossible.
The idea was this: It is better to give than to receive.
Simple. Cliche. But revolutionary for me.
I began to view the gallery, and other involvements in the downtown community, not as avenues for making myself wealthy, but as gifts, gifts I had been especially well-equipped to give, precisely because of my journey of suffering. The art, music, and literature I'd absorbed like a sponge for years became the substance of my gift.
Now, as part of a vibrantly creative downtown scene, I get to experience paradise every day, in the relationships I've made, in the coffee shops and galleries and poetry and music I hear. The first night of the Downtown Fullerton Art Walk, an idea I'd cooked up a year before, I walked around downtown, past families and students and artists and folks interested in art, and I thought, "For me, this is heaven."
This is not to say that I'm happy and ecstatic all the time. I still suffer depression more often than I'd like. As the wise old Gandalf said, "That wound will never fully heal." But now, in a strange way, I am thankful for my years of lonely exile. C.S. Lewis once said, "The pain then is part of the happiness now."
This is my story, An American Comedy, a journey from hell to heaven, and other places in between. You may be wondering, why does every chapter begin with a letter to someone named Beatrice? Who is Beatrice? In Dante's epic, Beatrice is his muse, a woman who represents love. For me, Beatrice is based on a young woman I met up in Seattle, a woman I actually exchanged letters with for years. The letters to Beatrice are my invocation of the muse, the one who represents the hope of love and happiness in the midst of great suffering.
Jesse La Tour
December 31, 2011
You can read the whole book HERE.