It takes all of 10 minutes for him to unload his emotional and philosophical struggles in a wannabe hipster coffee/doughnut/slider/brew house, a metaphor for the source of his existential pain and familial estrangement: He got fancy; his family did not.
We’re here because we can’t be in his home for lengthy reasons shared in emails and conversation and . . . oh, never mind.
It’s stupid loud. Coffee grinders and blaring music require Dreher to semi-yell intimate moments of extreme rejection.
“You’re so easy to talk to,” he says.
Perhaps, but you get the feeling that he might unload to almost anyone and that it’s always a half-hour before closing in the graduate school library of his mind.
Filters are for coffee and air conditioners. Dreher has none.
Well, there’s a whole lot of truth to that, as any reader of my blog knows. It’s a flaw. I really am something of a self-centered ass.
But in my brief defense, I should point out that I suggested that particular coffee shop to the reporter because it was relatively easy for her to get to from the interstate, because it’s supposed to have good coffee (I’d never had it before), and though I’d never been there for anything other than take-out donuts, I thought it would be quieter than the nearby Starbucks (it definitely wasn’t). I answered all the reporter’s questions in detail, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t say anything that I haven’t said in my books or on my blog. It feels weird to have tried my best to give the reporter what she asked for, then to be dunned for it.
Oh well, journalists. Funny, but I’ve done a lot of newspaper profiles, and I’ve never faulted a source or made a source look bad for answering my questions. Lesson learned.
One more thing:
“The Benedict Option” preaches living in a like-minded religious community to promote faith and values, yet Dreher knows few people here. He spends much of his time alone at home writing. Most of his friendships are epistolary.
This is true. I explained to the reporter why, and that this is something that I’m working to combat. We moved to Baton Rouge in the summer of 2016, for Benedict Option reasons: our country mission parish lost its priest, and we wanted to be close to the nearest Orthodox parish (which was in Baton Rouge), and the school situation. We haven’t been there very long, and my job — working from home — is isolating by its nature. I’m a pretty social person, but I haven’t adjusted well socially to working from home, in that I have become a lot more introverted, and inclined to cocoon instead of be social. The reporter seemed to have this persistent idea that she had caught me in a contradiction, in hypocrisy, but I readily admitted to her that I struggle to live out my own convictions, and am a work in progress on that front.
And by the way, in almost every Ben Op speech I give, I point out to the audience the plain truth: that I am still finding my way, and should not be looked at as a role model. In my own life, I haven’t solved all the problems I write about, but I’m trying. I’m, well, an open book about that.
Anyway, it’s good for me to read critical things about myself. It’s good for one’s humility, and heaven knows I could use more humility.
UPDATE: I still can’t figure out why a reporter doing a personality profile would find it weird and inappropriate for the subject to talk about their personal life, especially when they’re asked about it at length. As someone who has done those kinds of stories before, I have been trying to look at this piece from an angle that explains that approach, and I’m not seeing it.
Also, one reason I got right to the heavy-duty stuff is that the reporter had only a couple of hours to spend in Baton Rouge, because she had to be at a place hours away in Mississippi by dark. Again, as a professional journalist who knows what it’s like to do these kinds of stories, I wanted to be helpful in the relatively short time we had together, and give her what she came for. I might be remembering this wrong, but I think she had not read my Dante book by then, and that’s important to understand what happened after Little Way ended, and how that affected my way of seeing the world.
Anyway, that’s how the sausage gets made.
UPDATE.2: It occurs to me that I ought to put that anecdote about my late sister into context. I had taken a mutual friend of ours to a nice French restaurant for dinner. Later, recalling the evening to my sister, the friend told her that as we were leaving the restaurant, I had had a conversation with the maitre d’ in which he gave me a couple of restaurant recommendations for the next time I was in Paris. To which my sister responded,“Isn’t that just like Rod? He’ll only talk to people if he can get something out of them.”
I thought that was a nasty response, one I couldn’t understand at first. Then it occurred to me that my sister wasn’t the sort of person who would go to a restaurant that had a maitre d’, and would not know that the conversation I had with the maitre d’ that night was completely normal. Hey, there’s no fault in that, not at all. The fault was the instant assumption that I had done something selfish and wrong. This anecdote explains a lot about why my attempt to return home failed. My sister and my father interpreted most anything they didn’t understand about me in the most negative possible way, but kept it mostly hidden behind a façade of familial harmony. That façade could be supported if I stayed away, but not when I moved home.
And yet, it is still undeniably true: they were two of the most wonderful people I have ever known. Folks are complicated.
UPDATE.3: My dear friend Frederica Mathewes-Green, who spoke to the reporter for the story, has just posted this to her blog:
I was disappointed by how Karen Heller’s profile of Rod Dreher turned out, in today’s Washington Post. Especially I felt bad that the quotes she has from me, which make Rod sound manipulative and self-centered. That’s the opposite of how I described him. That’s so frustrating. I wrote up some notes about what I’d said immediately after our conversation, which provides a better context.
She marveled that he spoke so freely about the pain he’s felt about his family. It seemed like her impression was that he shares these very personal things because he is emotionally distraught and can’t hold it in. On the contrary, I said, he is able to talk about these things because he doesn’t have the ego needs most of us do, the need to manage other people’s esteem and admiration. He can talk about personal things without feeling the embarrassment or shame we would. He is, actually, an uncomplicated person, I said, a guileless and in some ways childlike person, simple, not egocentric, and amazingly free of defensiveness and pride.
I said also that he can feel comfortable talking about personal difficulties because he has made the ultimate decisions about them. When his priest told him he had to treat his painfully rejecting father with love and servant-heartedness, Rod accepted it and went about putting it into practice. I told her that when you’re in an emotionally painful situation that you can’t resolve the way you like, just making a decision about how you’re going to respond diminishes the pain. It turns it into something you’re coping with, rather than something that keeps wringing you out. So it’s not that he talks about these things because he’s agitated, but because he has settled in his mind about them; he has decided what is the right thing to do, and is doing it, so he is able to have peace in the middle of it (like Christ stilling the storm, I said).
She mentioned how surprised she was that, when he supplied names of people for her to talk with for the profile, he included some who are critical of him. I said that was just like him; he’s secure enough that he can listen to criticism without reflexively getting defensive (unlike most of us writers).
Stories I told—I told how I met him at a Susan B Anthony List event in 1994 (95?) and went to the restaurant next door, and how he ordered a dirty Manhattan [Note: just a Manhattan — RD], impressing me no end (wow, a real reporter, so sophisticated and cosmopolitan!), then ordered a baked potato with catsup. We hit it off immediately, and became fast friends. He appears in “Facing East” pretty frequently, as “Rod the Reporter”. He spent Pascha with us that year.
I told her about his trip to Austin when I was going there to give a talk; he came because he wanted to show me around a city he loves. That day he was worrying about ever finding the right girl to marry, and said he had asked God to show him when he found the right one by making him certain of it in his heart immediately (basically, to fall in love at first sight).
I was exasperated with this and said flatly “That’s not going to happen.” I told him to be realistic: make a list of the single women he knows and likes, put them in order, and go down the list seeing if romance could bloom. So the joke was on me when, at the book table that evening, he met Julie and knew immediately she was the one. He came back to the friend who was with us that evening and said “I just met the girl I’m going to marry.” Julie was actually there with a date, on a first date with a guy she knew from school (UTA). Rod, just bubbling over, persuaded them to join us after the talk at a restaurant, and then somehow managed to sit between them, and talked and talked to her all night. [Note: Julie says it wasn’t a date, but the nice young man did want to date her, or so he indicated to me; that was clear to me, but I knew when I met her that She Was The One, and I wasn’t going to let her get away — RD]
I told her about the long blog post he wrote about his decision to become Orthodox, which was a very sensitive topic at the time and bound to upset some readers. When I read it I was amazed at how just-right it was, that it was both clear and humble, just perfectly phrased. It was long—abt 5000 words. I told Rod how perfect I thought it was, and he replied, “Do you really think so? That’s good. I didn’t reread it before publishing it.” He’s such a natural writer that even something that difficult rolls out easily.
I kept saying how it impresses me that he is not defensive, which is not usually the case with writers. He’s unusually free to accept criticism and consider it, and able to reconsider and admit it when he is wrong. He has a very rare ability to not get defensive and prideful. Those are all things I admire so much.
I perceived that she had two mis-perceptions and did my best to correct them. One was “He’s not doing it [living the Ben Opt] himself.” I wondered why she thought this. She said (as if this proved it) that he is going to a church with only 30 members, his kids are homeschooled and attend classes only in a homeschool group, and spends most of his time on the computer, interacting with people online and in emails. I don’t know why she thought that was not BenOp behavior. Maybe she thought that, being part of a community means being part of the larger civic community, and that would mean going to the biggest church in town, sending your kids to the biggest public school, etc. I said repeatedly that, no, he is living it; that a church with small membership can be very close, and is perhaps more likely to be an intimate community, and that homeschool communities are very close. And, though email isn’t everything, still there is a long tradition of epistolary friendships and spiritual direction, and those can be very close relationships.
The other was—as I said at the top—that he is open about the pain in his life due to some inner agony and restlessness. It said it was because so many of these are things he has simply settled in his mind. I said that he has made all the big decisions, like being Orthodox, being married to Julie, living near his mom during her lifetime, and having made those decisions, he is at peace. Just as he settled with himself how he was going to treat his father, after getting Fr Matthew’s advice. Once he settled it and set about doing it, he could talk about the pain that situation entailed, and maybe still entails—but can speak of it from a point of resolution and stability.
Thank you, Frederica. She’s being completely honest here about the interaction with the reporter. I know this because she sent me a version of this post on the day she spoke with the reporter. I’m including all this here so you readers can have another example of how the sausage is made.