FIVE QUESTIONS FOR. . . .
Veronica Chater (left) is the author of Waiting for the Apocalypse, an extraordinary memoir about her childhood within a Catholic family that refused the new rituals adopted in 1965 by Vatican II. Instead, her family—led by her fanatical father--went to extreme measures to preserve traditional Catholicism, measures that included moving from Northern California to Fatima, Portugal in search of a proper religious environment. When that venture failed, the family returned to the Bay area and continued to practice their brand of Catholicism with a few like-minded ultra-conservative souls. Convinced that communists were behind the corruption of the Church and that an imminent apocalypse would soon chastise all but those who remained faithful to traditional Catholicism, Veronica’s father drew his large family (which eventually counted 11 children) into poverty and marginalization. And in spite of this daunting scenario, Veronica is able to tell her family story with compassion, humor, and even grace. The 5 Questions below were sked by Marilyn Yalom
ONE. During the 70s and 80s, when your father was single-mindedly pursuing his opposition to the modernized Catholic Church, what held your family together?
VC: I often ask myself, what is the magical prescription that keeps a family together, especially a large family like mine? Families are complex, delicate things. They can become unhappy and dysfunctional for a million reasons; they can go for years not speaking to one another—the children resenting their parents and visa versa—for a multitude of real and imagined harms, and never recover. Why did mine survive?
I believe the answer lies in our mother. In terms of what she put up with to keep the family together, she was heroic. As my dad dragged us from place to place (and deeper and deeper into poverty) in his search for a Catholic nirvana, my mother was constant, like the sun and moon. She wasn’t just strong, she possessed a unique mixture of spirit and gumption and tolerance that kept us united. Because of who she was, our family never descended into that terrible state of blame and vindictiveness and mutual loathing that is so common in families that suffer hardships.
But qualities like hers are difficult to portray in a book. If you look at the famous heroines in literature you won’t see many mothers. My mother wasn’t a tragic heroine like Anna Karenina, or a sharp-tongued non-conformist like Elizabeth Bennet, or a plain and morally upright Jane Eyre, or a shrewd and selfish Scarlett O’Hara, or a wily and capitalizing Moll Flanders. My mother’s heroism was the kind you didn’t notice, because it was always there—a warm, vibrant force of unconditional love. There is an invisibility to that kind of heroism, especially when it’s juxtaposed with the entertaining antics of someone like my dad. But over time, and through the pages, the strongest character always stands out. And that was my intention in portraying my mother, because that’s how she was in real life.
TWO. Was there a period in your life when you felt totally alienated from your parents?
VC: Oh yes, but I’d go further and say that for several years I wanted nothing to do with my parents, and in fact left home with the intention of never returning “ever, ever again.” And I did this not once, but twice, and with absolute conviction. During the roughest years, when I felt misunderstood and rebellious and angry, I decided that my parents were certifiably crazy and didn’t deserve me as a daughter and would be lucky if they ever got a phone call or even a postcard from me. (Both times I took a backpack and “disappeared” into Europe. And many of my siblings “disappeared,” too, either by moving away or ceasing to communicate with them). But eventually, because of our mother, we all came back and ended up closer than ever. It just felt wrong to throw away what came down to all the love in the world.
THREE. Have you come to terms with your father and your bizarre childhood?
VC: As I was growing up, my dad was larger than life. He was eccentric, charismatic, smart, funny, and very, very convinced of his ideas. . . Also, he had more passion than anyone I’ve ever known, and passion is a laudable quality. To put everything on the line for your beliefs. . . Well, not very many people are willing to do that. And yes, he put our family on the line, and that wasn’t commendable, obviously. But because of him, I developed a love of learning, and a respect for ideas, and a willingness to take risks in life, and I’m thankful for that. If I hadn’t grown up with a powerful belief in something, would I stand by the beliefs I have now? Sure, my dad acted like a lunatic, and I still shake my head over the way I was raised. But the dark years are over, and he’s made up for them in more ways than one, and there’s no point in holding a grudge for things done in the past. I can honestly say I don’t have any feelings of retribution for either of my parents.
FOUR. Since you wrote your memoir as an adult and as a parent who has had three boys, how did you recapture the feel of your own childhood and the viewpoint of a child?
VC: Having children of my own who are the same age now as I was at the time of my memoir was extremely helpful in terms of recreating my own adolescent mind. My boys’ view of the world reminds me so much of how it feels to be twelve, thirteen, and fourteen—the intensity of sights, smells, sounds, and touch, the significance of every relationship, the growing image-consciousness of that stage, the shame they feel for their parents, the sorrow, love, and hope they experience over every event, and the heartbreak of unrequited love. Because of my sons I feel very close to the young person I used to be, and that is invaluable to a writer of memoir.
But being a parent has also helped me relate to my parent’s point of view. How must it have been for my mom to raise eleven kids on the outskirts of a real community? How did she run the household on a shoestring budget? And with no help from Dad? How much of herself did she keep from the family? Did her love for her children put a strain on her loyalty to our dad? I learned so much about my mother just by imagining her life through the eyes of my own motherhood.
FIVE. Would you speak about the place of humor in your work?
VC: Humor comes naturally to me because there was always humor in my family’s home. Despite the hardships that dogmatic religion put on us (or perhaps as a consequence of those things), life seemed hilarious to us—to all of us. And I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. When you feel different from the rest of the world, you crave the relief that comes from laughing at yourself.
We didn’t always have a television, but when we did we mostly watched westerns and slapstick comedy. There was something about the little guy going up against the big guy that really tickled us. It’s the dichotomy you find in Mark Twain’s books and in Woody Allen’s work (and other great comics). The more wretched a situation seems, the more there is to laugh about. It has to do with the clash between spiritual hope and existential despair. That sort of thing. And what a delightful topic, when you think about it.
Causes Veronica Chater Supports
Sierra Club; Public Library; Public Schools; Crowden Music Center; Women's Cancer Resource Center; Democratic Party