Diary: Meghan O’Gieblyn, On Writing the Midwest

The essayist Meghan O’Gieblyn grew up outside of Detroit. She reflects on how the Midwest became her subject even as she tried to leave it behind.

One criticism of the personal essay—an old one, though it’s been revived with special fervor in recent years—is its tendency toward confession. To some extent, this is simply a matter of lineage. The origins of what we today call “personal writing” can be traced back to Augustine, so it’s not coincidental that the genre so frequently reverts to the tenor of the Christian ritual: the divulging of transgressions, the preening need for absolution. In fact, I’ve often sensed in these complaints about confessional writing an underlying impatience with religion itself and the persistence of its postures in modern life. It is now the twenty-first century, these critics seem to say, and high time we got off our knees and took ownership of our lives.

The faith tradition in which I was raised, evangelical Protestantism, did not practice the rite of private confession. We did not confess; we professed, and we did so publicly. The narrative ritual taken up by our congregation was performed in front of the entire body of fellow believers, a convention called “giving testimony.” Most often, your testimony was your life story, though it could also be about a particular struggle or a period of doubt. While confession is typically born of guilt and predicated upon the experience of private catharsis, the testimony had a decidedly communal purpose. The point was not to absolve oneself, but rather to “testify” to the truth of the gospel, using one’s story as a form of evidence. Like the courtroom practice from which it derived its name, the idea was that your personal experience was a way of building a case.

Over the past decade, most of the writing on Christianity in this country has taken the form of obituary. When I write about religion, magazine editors often insist that I acknowledge the 2014 Pew Research study about the rise of the “nones”—young people who claim no religious affiliation—as though to affirm the popular notion that America is leaving behind its superstitious past and treading unwaveringly into the future. Perhaps this is true. But as someone who has traveled that path myself, I can confirm that such journeys are rarely linear or without complications. William James once noted that “the most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of his old order standing.” In other words, even when a person outwardly denounces a long-standing belief, the architecture of the idea persists and can come to be inhabited by other things. This is as true of cultures as it is of individuals; our increasingly secular landscape is in many ways still imprinted with the legacy of Christianity. The testimony, as a narrative form, endures in the rooms of twelve-step programs and in contemporary writing about motherhood, which often takes the form of conversion narrative. Meanwhile, the faith’s epic story of messianic redemption lives on in the utopic visions of transhumanism and in liberalism’s endless arc of progress.

Much of my childhood took place outside Detroit, a city that was, during those years, in the process of being reclaimed by the prairie, its downtown haunted by six empty prewar skyscrapers. During the bleakest years of the financial crisis, these rotting cathedrals of commerce became such an unambiguous symbol that some residents proposed their ruins should be preserved as an urban Monument Valley that tourists could visit, as they do the Acropolis of Athens, to witness the collapse of American empire. Of course, this never transpired. Instead, this stretch of downtown has been transformed into a playground for the creative class, a development that has displaced the city’s most vulnerable residents and only heightened the sense of historic unreality. Like so many metropolises along the Rust Belt, Detroit has become a hastily drawn caricature of the city it once was, festooned with the indicators of the manufacturing age (Diego Rivera murals, PBR on tap) that have been drained of any real political and economic significance, while its factories have been reimagined as farm-to-table restaurants and the sleek offices of tech start-ups.

What unites the states of the Midwest—both the ailing and the tenuously “revived”—is a profound loss of telos, the realization that the industries and systems that built this part of the country are no longer tenable. The notion of “lostness” is, of course, crucial to the genre of Christian testimony, which hinges on the belief that bewilderment, limitation, and doubt can become the source of connections with others and more transcendent sources of meaning.

I did not set out, in any deliberate way, to write about these topics. It’s difficult to avoid sensing something perverse in the fact that I keep returning in my work to the religion I spent my early adulthood trying to escape. And while I have written much about the Midwest, the truth is that I’ve often felt that I would prefer to live almost anywhere else. I’m not sure how to account for this, except to say that it’s a paradox of human nature that the sites of our unhappiness are precisely those that we come to trust most hardily, that we absorb most readily into our identity, and that we defend most vociferously when they come under attack. Like the convert who develops a fondness for the darker moments of her testimony, I have come, through the act of writing, to believe in the virtue of my experience.

Meghan O’Gieblyn is the author of Interior States, a book of essays, published today, in which this essay will appear. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Photograph by the author of Michigan, from a plane.