The Rumpus Interview with Jerald Walker
Jerald Walker grew up believing the world would end when he was twelve. His parents—both blind—had joined the Worldwide Church of God at its height in the 1960s. The Church would later prove to be a fraud, its leader collecting hefty dues from its parishioners and using them to fund a lavish celebrity lifestyle. But before Jerald Walker understood this, he came of age believing that The Great Tribulation would transform him, his family, and all believers into gods, and that his parents’ sight would be restored, and so for years, the stringent rules and deprivations within the Worldwide Church of God seemed worth it. When the Great Tribulation did not come, and the family’s faith began to unravel, Walker was left with a life that had no order. The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult is the story of Walker’s childhood journey through believing, ending in the realization that he will now have to erect an understanding of life from the ground up.
The World in Flames is as hilarious as it is harrowing. Walker’s accounts align so faithfully with his childhood point of view that the reader can see how he managed to believe that a dog bite was a direct punishment from God for wanting to celebrate Christmas, or that “integration”—something the Church forbade—was as bad a sin as “fornication.” And oh, yes, the Church preached slavery as ordained by God, and supported racial separation. How does the black Walker family make sense of that? The dissonance between what young Jerald understands, and what we know he understands later in life, creates instant comic friction.
The World in Flames belongs on the shelf next to Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle in the canon of childhood memoirs that are almost too hard to believe, and yet manage to be uplifting page-turners. I corresponded with Walker via email to discuss some of the challenges and surprise rewards that came from the writing of this book.
The Rumpus: I kind of want my first question to be: “Jesus Christ.”
Jerald Walker: That’s a great first question. I ask it of myself almost every day.
Rumpus: Aside from the introduction and the epilogue, the point of view in The World in Flames stays very close to the events you recount from your childhood. There is virtually no reflection from your present, adult perspective. Can you talk about the experience of delving so completely into what was obviously a very confusing and unusual childhood state of mind?
Walker: Imagine lying on a therapist’s couch to discuss your anxieties, fears, and hopes, only there’s no therapist in the room, and you are a child. That’s what it was like. In constructing the narrative, I intentionally erected a wall between my youthful understanding of the life I was living, and my adult analysis of that life. I didn’t want the clarity and rationality of hindsight to guide the reader’s experience. I wanted readers to feel what I felt, to be immersed along with me in chaos, and for us to emerge from it—tentatively, at least—together. Sometimes, when I really lost myself in the narrative, I rose from my computer with heart palpations and sweaty palms. Sometimes I rose depressed. Other times, I was angry. Midway through writing the book I began having the same nightmares I’d had as a child. But the process wasn’t entirely negative, because no one’s youth is entirely negative. One of the great joys of writing this memoir—and, despite the subject matter, there were many great joys—was reliving some truly heartwarming experiences I had with my family.
Rumpus: Much of the story is told in dialogue. How did you reconstruct this dialogue? Did you rely primarily on your memory, or did you consult siblings and others to corroborate your memories? Do you have any specific guidelines regarding how much you can invent when recreating events from the past in memoir?
Walker: I don’t invent events, which is to say I don’t claim a conversation took place, for instance, when I know that it didn’t. When I reconstruct conversations, I do so with the minimum goal of accurately capturing their essence. This is not to say exactness isn’t achieved; it’s to say there’s often no way of objectively knowing. But most readers of memoir understand that a certain amount of honest approximation is built into the genre regarding dialogue, particularly if it occurred long ago. As for corroborating memories, I discovered long ago that memories of a shared experience can vary wildly. So generally, I chose to trust mine.
Rumpus: Has anyone in your family read the book? Any notable reactions? Is there anyone in your family you hope does not read the book?
Walker: My wife has read it, and my sons have read sections. Not surprisingly, they think it’s great. I think the rest of my family will like it as well. But I do recall that after one of my sisters read my first memoir, Street Shadows, she took issue with the fact that I said she ate catfish, so who knows how someone will respond to their rendering on the page? All I can do is portray people honestly, humanely and respectfully, which I think I’ve done.
Rumpus: It’s a hard book not to like, particularly because it’s a book that makes you laugh. I was at an event about publishing in literary magazines many years ago during which one literary magazine editor advised, “If you want to get published, write something funny or write something shocking.” In The World in Flames, we get both. Even as you are describing what must have been difficult or even terrifying—some of the Worldwide Church of God beliefs you held to be true as a child, such as the possibility of the sky opening and the world ending, or the more universal confusions of childhood, like trying to understand your bourgeoning sexuality—the darkness is always braided with humor. Part of the humor comes from the dissonance between the childhood point of view and the adult point of view. But mostly it’s just masterful comic timing. Of all the things that can be taught in terms of creative writing, humor seems to be the most difficult element of memoir to teach. Do you have any advice for those of us who would like to be funnier on the page?
Walker: My only advice would be to read funny writers, people like James Thurber, George Saunders, David Sedaris, Dorothy Parker, and of course all of the Twain you can get your hands on. If you weren’t funny to begin with, they probably won’t help you much, but if you were then you’ll likely learn useful elements of craft that they employ.
Rumpus: Your childhood religion was the Worldwide Church of God. Can you tell readers unfamiliar with the Worldwide Church of God what it was all about? Is it still around?
Walker: The Worldwide Church of God was founded by a man named Herbert W. Armstrong in 1933. At the height of its success in the 1970s, it had a membership of over a hundred thousand and annual revenues of eighty million dollars, more than Billy Graham and Oral Roberts combined. Composed of a hodgepodge of religious beliefs, including Levitical dietary restrictions, the observance of “Holy Days,” literal Sabbath-keeping, and the rejection of medical treatment, the underpinning tenet was British-Israelism: the view that Western and Northern Europeans, as direct lineal descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, was God’s chosen race. The membership was ruled by fear, intimidation, and threats, such as the assertion that anyone who dared leave the church would endure hardship for the remainder of this life, and eternal suffering in the next. And the next life, according to Armstrong, would arrive in 1975, three years after the start of The Great Tribulation.
When Armstrong died in 1986, leadership of the church fell to Joseph Tkach Jr., who began to move the church away from Armstrong’s teachings to mainstream Christianity. The name of the church was changed to Grace Communion International, and ultimately Armstrong was declared a “heretic” and “false prophet.” Needless to say, many members rejected these changes, and a dozen or so splinter groups formed, some of which adhere to Armstrong’s original teachings.
Rumpus: One thing that differentiates your experience from the experience of a childhood in some other extreme religious communities is that the reader gets hints throughout the book that this religion is not just restrictive and fear-inspiring, but might also be an enormous monetary scam. You and others who grew up within the church and later left it had to come to grips with reevaluating pretty much everything that had previously ordered your life, including the possibility that you and your entire family had been taken advantage of. What role did writing play, if any, in your process of understanding the world after your youth? When did you realize you would be a writer, and when did you realize you would write about your childhood in the form of memoir?
Walker: Writing helps me to understand most everything; in a very real sense it’s how I process my world. My view prior to writing the memoir was that my parents’ decision to join a church run by a con man was inexcusable, and I harbored a bitterness toward them about it that lasted for decades. And so when I began writing the book, I knew there was a real possibility that this bitterness would taint, if not largely shape, the narrative. But I also knew that something else could happen, because for me the process of writing is the process of thinking and learning, of acquiring knowledge more than dispensing it. I wasn’t entirely surprised, then, that by the time I’d completed the book, my bitterness toward my parents had given way to sympathy, understanding, and a deepened respect.
Though I’d been writing stories since I was a child, I didn’t realize I’d be a writer until I took a creative writing course in college. Fiction was my genre of choice, but my stories were always thinly-veiled works of autobiography. My MFA degree is in fiction writing, and for more than a decade after completing the program I continued to write fiction. It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I tried my hand at writing nonfiction, and I fell in love with the form, particularly the essay because it requires the writer to think on the page, which, as I noted, is my wont. I had no intention to write about the cult because I didn’t want to think deeply about it, to reopen those wounds. But the honest truth is that I’m a writer, and my experience in the cult is rich material. Sometimes you have to put the work first, even at a high emotional cost.
Rumpus: You wrote and published Street Shadows before The World in Flames; however, chronologically it takes place basically where The World in Flames leaves off. In your mind, are the books meant to be read together, as companion pieces—and if so, in what order would you suggest someone read them?
Walker: Street Shadows begins with my teenaged delinquency on a South Side of Chicago ghetto. After nearly a decade of drug and alcohol abuse, petty crimes, and street violence, I managed against great odds to make it out of that ghetto, only to find that it, and the life lessons I learned there, would remain with me forever, sometimes to good effect, sometimes to bad. Religion played very little role in my life after I left the church, so I only made a few passing references to it as the narrative in Street Shadows begins. However, my experiences in the cult, and the devastation of learning that it was all a fraud, played a pivotal role in my embracing the reckless lifestyle that nearly led to my ruin. I realized, in hindsight, that for many years I had not placed much value on my life, which makes sense considering I was raised to believe I would not have a life—at least not one in a human form—beyond the age of twelve. And so while the memoirs don’t need to be read as companion pieces because each stands on its own, they complement each other and offer a more complete view of my life’s trajectory. It’s difficult to say in which order they should be read, though my impulse is to suggest the order in which they were written.
Rumpus: I read them in the order in which they were written, and it’s an interesting way to take in the story of your life, beginning when your innocence has been lost, then taking a big step back to young Jerry, the kid able to believe in a mythology that sets him apart from almost everyone around him. That said, I can imagine many readers of The World in Flames wanting the story to continue, so it would be gratifying to read Street Shadows directly after The World in Flames. I certainly went straight back to Street Shadows as soon as I closed the cover of The World in Flames, even though I’d read it before!
You mentioned that you originally considered yourself a fiction writer, or that fiction was your original “genre of choice.” Do you intend to write fiction in the future? What can fiction do that memoir cannot?
Walker: Oh, yes, I will return to fiction, despite the fact that I’m not entirely convinced (nor were the publishers who rejected my novels!) that I’m artistically constituted for the form. It could be that I lack the kind of discipline it takes to create a believable world from the infinite number of decisions fiction writers make regarding characters, plots, etc. This isn’t to say that I haven’t produced good fiction—I believe I have. But it is to say that too frequently I write stories with characters who act in ways that are false to who they are, and plots that veer toward the unlikely and illogical. The imposed structure of fact and memory, on the other hand, requires me to keep my sometimes manic creative impulses in check. I also like the challenge of shaping the chaos of life into cogent, and, dare I say, artful, narratives. But I envy fiction writers’ license to create characters, plots, and scenes that serve their fiction, and I have not given up on my belief that I can produce an important novel or two.
Rumpus: Unlike novels, memoirs are frequently expected—at least by their publishing houses—to come with a subtitle explaining exactly what they are about. Tell me about the subtitle of your book: “A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Cult.” And while we’re at it, could you also talk about the subtitle of Street Shadows: “A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption”?
Walker: I didn’t want to use subtitles for my books, and I didn’t come up with them. In fact, I didn’t come up with the titles either. Editors and publisher think far more deeply and wisely about these things than I do, and generally I trust their judgment. In hindsight, however, I will say that I wish I’d held firm on my working title of Street Shadows, which was The Mechanics of Being, because it accurately reflected my broad aim of using my life to address universal questions of self-identity. The title Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Redemption, by contrast, suggests that the subject matter is much more narrowly focused on inner-city life and the specifics of racial identity. But as the marketing team warned me, “You won’t sell any books with The Mechanics of Being as the title! Too Zen!” I didn’t write the book hoping to get rich, of course, but like all writers I hope to find a large readership. As for The World in Flames and its subtitle, I haven’t had any second thoughts. I think they’re perfect. There’s a lot going on in this book, after all, too much to adequately convey without the title and subtitle doing a fairly large amount of work. And of course, the juxtaposition of “black boyhood” and “white supremacist” was meant to cause potential readers to stop in their tracks and say, What the hell? because there’s no better way to sum up my life than with, What the hell? So that works nicely, I think.
Rumpus: How do other members of your family reflect now on that “what the hell” time of your lives together? You don’t talk much in the book about your parents’ reactions to the church and your faith in it falling apart. How was their experience of learning the church was a scam?
Walker: It’s one of those things that we don’t talk about. In fact, the only time in the last thirty-five years I’ve spoken extensively about the church with members of my family was when I was doing research for the book. Those conversations were primarily with my mother as I sought clarification or confirmation about some point, as opposed to us reflecting on what we’d experienced. On occasion, I would feel the anger rising in me that the mere mention of the church sometimes evokes, but more often than not that would give way to my mother’s and my laughter when she exclaimed, as she frequently did, “I can’t believe we fell for that nonsense!” So perhaps not talking about it has been our way of coping, starting all the way back in the late seventies, early eighties, when the church was falling apart. The one scene in the book where my brother Timmy reveals to me the extent of Armstrong’s madness and corruption is pretty much the only collective reflection there has ever been—at least that involved me. Soon after I broke from the church, I put it behind me as a topic of discussion, even though the effects of having been a member were (and still are) alive and well in my psyche, ultimately leading me, as I mentioned earlier, to the self-destructive behavior I chronicled in Street Shadows.
Rumpus: So, it’s 2016. You’re at home and the doorbell rings and you open the door to see two friendly-looking people holding pamphlets about the end of the world, wanting to talk to you about their religion. What do you do?
Walker: It’s a hypothetical I can’t begin to answer for one simple reason: once I saw them through the window, I wouldn’t open the door.