From my interview with Adam DeVille about The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming:
AD: Plekon (among others) has resisted the tendency of older forms of hagiography to turn people into “plaster saints” or what Cardinal Newman called “clothes-racks for virtues.” Your book very commendably manages to achieve a balance between recognizing the goodness, sanctity even, in your sister, but also not hiding her conflict with you. Was that a hard balance to maintain?
[RD:]Yes, it very much was. The truth is, Ruthie was a saint, or at least I think she was. But she was a human being too, and in my case, it meant she was at times bitter and spiteful toward her brother. Ruthie was a lot like our father, in that she didn’t understand why anybody would want to leave what we had here in Louisiana. I’ve called them Bayou Confucians, because they believe life has a hierarchy, and one’s duty if to find one’s place within that hierarchy, and live it out. For Ruthie and my dad, my leaving was a sign of betrayal — and nothing more than that. To be fair, after my first, failed attempt to return, in the mid-1990s, my father had a moment of grace in which he saw — or said he saw — that my vocation required me to live away from here. The thing is, we forget such moments of clarity. My father and my sister had a very strong “poetic memory” (I think the phrase is Kundera’s), in which they selectively remembered details that caused a narrative to make emotional sense to them. It made emotional sense for Rod to be here with the family — and ultimately, they wouldn’t allow any facts to counter that narrative within their hearts.
This caused me a lot of pain, and truth to tell, it still does. Once Ruthie decided on a story, she hung onto it with the tenacity of a snapping turtle. This served her well facing cancer; the story she hung on to was that God loved her and would be with her no matter what. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that’s a true story. The point here is the strength with which she clung to that narrative. Unfortunately that trait was destructive of her relationship with me. For a reason I don’t fully understand, she would not admit any facts that contradicted what she wanted to believe about me and the things I loved. For Ruthie, to have chosen a way of life other than the one we were prescribed by our father was, it seems, an unforgivable sin. The thing is, there was only one person in the world she judged so uncompromisingly: me.
I don’t say all this to invite the reader’s pity, but rather to explore the mystery of my sister’s character, and of human character. One friend of mine told me the other day that reading my book, he has a tough time accepting my judgment that Ruthie was probably a saint. Like most people who have expressed this to me, he’s thinking about the bouillabaisse story, but also about my niece Hannah’s revelation in Paris, toward the end of the book. I appreciate his sympathy, but I think in our time, we confuse sanctity with niceness. I can’t deny Ruthie’s ugliness towards me, but I certainly cannot deny that that’s pretty much the only blemish on a lifetime of extraordinary goodness. One does not obviate the other. St. Paul struggled with a thorn in his flesh; Ruthie and I were the thorns in each other’s flesh. The difference is that Ruthie had a greater capacity than I to endure emotional pain for the sake of sticking by her principles. My dad is the same way. In most cases, this presents itself as evidence of a principled character, which is what Ruthie was and my dad is. But at times this refusal to examine critically one’s own conclusions can manifest as sheer obstreperousness. It’s sometimes hard to know where to draw the line.
Anyway, my goal in telling this story was to make the case for why I consider my sister to be a saint, or in any case to have led a life of sanctification, despite her all-too-human flaws. And I wanted to indicate that I too likely played a role in turning my little sister against me when we were young. The bouillabaisse story is, for me, the key myth about my family’s attitude to me in adulthood. But the early childhood story with which I begin the book — the story about Ruthie I told in her eulogy — is the key myth, in my mind, about the kind of Christ-like character my sister had innately.
Read the whole interview. And hey, if you haven’t yet, buy the book — and do it through the unbelievably great bookstore, Eighth Day Books. If you are an intellectually oriented Christian, you will think you have died and gone to bookstore heaven.
UPDATE: Sorry, folks, I somehow thought Adam DeVille owned Eighth Day Books. I was wrong (thanks, reader, for the correction). I’ve updated this post to reflect that. You should still buy the book from Eighth Day, and do yourself the favor of browsing its website.