Friday, October 29, 2010

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A memoir about going home

Elizabeth Gilbert describes this memoir as "wincingly funny." To begin with, Rhoda Janzen came up with a wonderful, eye-catching title. Janzen left the Mennonite faith as a young woman and became an English professor. She married a bipolar, bisexual man who verbally abused her over the years and attempted suicide. In her early 40s, she experienced serious medical trauma from a botched hysterectomy, and her husband nursed her through her recovery before announcing to her that he was leaving her for a man he met on That same week, she got in a serious car accident.

Janzen returns home to her Mennonite family to recuperate from life's upheavals. During this time, she writes funny e-mails to her friends, and one of them suggests she should write a memoir. This book is the result, and it reads more like a series of blog posts or e-mails than a straightforward memoir.

With that said, I did enjoy this book. Janzen has a funny, snarky writing style, and she colorfully describes a number of amusing situations and characters. She tries to shed light on the Mennonite lifestyle and offers a Mennonite primer as an appendix. I enjoyed reading about the Mennonite faith and history, but I wanted more.

The book fell short for me in several ways.
  • Although she lovingly describes both her parents, I didn't get a clear sense of her father. Her mom seems like a real character, and I enjoyed the stories about her.
  • She never really explains what made her leave the Mennonite church and when it happened. She described a Vacation Bible School experience as a child where she began to have doubts, but she went on to attend a Mennonite college. What made her decide to leave?
  • She doesn't seem to be fond of children. With a few exceptions (her sister's daughter), she seems to view them as brats. On her Web site, she professes to love children. This does not ring true.
  • The various chapters did not seem to be tied together in any logical way, reading more like independent e-mails or blog posts. (She apparently wrote this memoir in 1 month, because she had nothing else to do while she was staying with her parents.) Readers looking for chronological progression will be frustrated.
  • Most glaringly, I could not help but wonder about her current relationship with her brothers and sisters-in-law. She writes scathingly of her brothers and meanly pokes fun at her sisters-in-law. Even their children are not free from attack. Did she care nothing of her relationship with them, to be so publicly honest about her feelings? This brutal honesty often surprises me when I read memoirs. It seems that many authors care more about fame and fortune (or writing success) than protecting other people's reputations and feelings.

    It's not just her brothers and sisters-in-law she pillories, but they are the closest to her. Then there's her sister's husband's sister's ex-husband, who must have cringed to see how she described him. Her ex-husband, understandably, does not come out well, either.

    This type of writing makes for interesting reading, but I wonder at Janzen's motives and her lack of sensitivity.

    Janzen has apparently remarried and now attends a Pentecostal church, which strikes me as odd. She is at work on another memoir, and I will probably read it. Am I encouraging this unkind behavior by reading her writing? Perhaps. That's something to ponder.
In subsequent interviews about the book, Janzen claims that she still cares for and respects her ex-husband and tried to portray the ups as well as downs of their relationship. I do not remember reading ANY ups, except for the very first time they met. I also wondered why none of her friends and family encouraged her to leave him for years, while she was experiencing such awful abuse.

Even with these criticisms, I did enjoy this book. I especially enjoyed Janzen's descriptions of her mom and her warm, close relationship with her sister, Hannah, who lives in Bend, Oregon. Their deep understanding of each other reminded me of my relationship with my own sister.

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