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Hannah’s Child

Stanley Hauerwas on 'Becoming Christian'
Lauren Winner interviews Stanley Hauerwas about writing “a theologian’s memoir”

Hauerwas: They are.

What’s it like to walk into that academic tower every day and see the contrast between those tools and your own tools, all those books? And did your mother have tools? Do you have her tools, too, there in your office?

Hauerwas: Nope. My mom wrote a poem about when my father died, and I have that framed with his tools. But I don’t have my mother’s tools, which would be her gardening tools—insofar as they were tools. My mother really didn’t have tools. She had her voice and she talked constantly, and I suppose that’s still there. As for my father’s tools, I have quite a number of them at home, but I just thought it would be good to put the level and the trowel and the brick hammers in my office to remind me of the extraordinary hard work that constituted his life, and of how fortunate I was to have that kind of exemplar, always reminding me that I’m a very fortunate guy to be able to spend my life in books and in interaction with students. At the end of the day when I go home, I’ve still got something left. When you lay brick, you oftentimes don’t have anything left.

You write a lot about Anne, your first wife, in this book. When I teach memoir writing, the question comes up immediately, how do you write about other people? Writing students always say, kind of jokingly, “Well, I’ll just wait until my family is dead to publish it.” But I find the burden of writing about the dead to be much heavier; at least the living can say, “You didn’t get it right.” Anne can’t talk back.

Hauerwas: People say it must have been very emotional to write about Anne, and I say “No.” I was determined to try to write in a manner that did not turn her into a foil. I wanted to write honestly in a way that helped the reader understand the pain she was in, as well as the pain that we were all in. I didn’t find the writing of it emotionally difficult. Oftentimes, if I’m presenting and I read some of it, I get emotional and that’s perfectly, I suppose, intelligible that it would work that way. Just this Sunday, some of the people at Holy Family had read Hannah’s Child, and they wanted me to do a session on it. I was reading the part about when Anne had left me and gone back to Indiana and tried to commit suicide. I refused to go there, and then the next day when I went in with John Westerhoff and said, “She’s absolutely alone,” John said, “No, God’s with her”—and I teared up at that. I don’t know whether I felt emotional or not, but I certainly teared up. Part of the craft of writing kept a certain kind of emotion at bay, but that can come back in the reading of it.

Were there any memoirs or autobiographies that were models for you as you were writing? I know you’re a fan of Carlos Eire’s memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana .

Hauerwas: Eire’s book is unique in that it’s magical realism, and it’s just beautifully done. That was the appropriate genre for a Cuban, but that wasn’t the appropriate genre for...

A Texan?

Hauerwas: A Texan. Exactly. [Laughter]. So how to write straightforwardly and simply about the complexity of our lives was part of the challenge. Looking back, I’d read quite a number of memoirs and autobiography. How to make the distinction between autobiography and memoir is not easily done.

I wanted to ask you about that. I draw a distinction that your book has confounded. When I teach memoir writing, I say autobiographies are the first-person narrative nonfiction account by a famous person where the narrator and the subject and the plot are all the same; whereas in a memoir, to borrow Vivian Gornick’s formulation, the writer is the narrator but not the plot. A memoir uses first-person nonfiction narration to say something about something else. Hannah’s Child has confounded my tidy little distinction. I think many people are reading it as they read autobiography. That is, many people are reading it because they want to know about “Stanley Hauerwas,” but I think it’s more than that.

Hauerwas: I hope it is. The subtitle was originally “A Theological Memoir” because I think there is really serious theology being done in the