One of Us is a Mystery: Marilynne Robinson and the Cosmology of Perdition

Adrienne Celt


Cosmology is the practice of discovering and articulating origins: scientifically speaking, the origins of the universe. But human experiences have their own murky geneses to wade through, and they deserve (or at least require) an equally diligent attention. Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy of Iowa novels – including Gilead, Home, and now Lila – offers such singular focus. The books can be viewed as a careful unpicking of complex human relationships, but if you take things one or two steps farther, they can also be seen as a study of the origins of suffering.

I recognize that there’s a lot of hope in Robinson’s writing, many second chances. An old preacher (Gilead’s narrator, John Ames) finds a wife and fathers a child after a lifetime of loneliness. A woman (the eponymous Lila) leaves behind poverty, exhaustion, and shame for a home and family. A prodigal son returns to his hometown (in Home) and finds his own family, still waiting. (Anyone who’s read the books knows that to be a woefully inadequate description of Jack Boughton, but it is nonetheless true.) You’ll have to forgive me, then, for focusing on the bone-deep sadness and taking it for my theme. Robinson herself, in a recent New York Times profile, said: “I hate to say it, but I think the default posture of human beings is fear.” These books do not fear to tread in dark water, and so neither can we, when we consider them. And anyway, around the corner from Robinson’s evocation of perdition is always a lighter shadow: the twin form of grace.

It might also be fair to explain why I’m so interested in perdition. Robinson’s own reasons, from what I can tell, come from an interest in the human condition at large. In the same way that religion (and art, and science, and all exploration or purposeful devotion) can be seen as an expression of the divine through accreted human habit, Robinson’s books are an expression of human emotion through persistent literary work. Her writing is an empathetic science, whereas my interest in it is more selfish and particular.

I grew up with two sisters and one brother – a passel of children not large enough to rival that of Jack Boughton (who is the son of John Ames’s best friend and Ames’s own namesake – Jack has five siblings, besting me by two), but large enough. Robinson describes the Boughton household as having been, in its prime, full and happy – with the exception of Jack, who carried some inveterate loneliness even as a child. For our part, my siblings and I were always close – we fought, we bit, we played, and as adults we chose to be friends. All except the youngest of us, who is a mystery.

gileadRobinson’s Iowa books feel familiar to me because of this shared family phenomenon, this preternatural discomfort that makes one child hold himself apart from the rest. For Robinson, that’s Jack Boughton (and in a different way, Lila). For me, that is my younger sister, J. The littlest girl, with a white streak in her hair that’s been there since birth. As if something scared her deep in the womb, and has kept on scaring her for all these years.

Let me talk a little bit about Jack and Lila. Jack is a trouble-maker from his earliest days. Small potatoes at first: firecrackers in the mailbox and petty theft. Later he graduates to impregnating a young girl from the wrong side of town, and leaving without a backwards glance. Even in the bosom of his family he’s shifty, hoping to find a way out of each room he enters before someone has the chance to notice that he’s there. But if you look closer, you see that the shiftiness doesn’t come from ill-intent. It’s more like a terrible shyness, a certainty of not belonging, a semi-justified fear that some dark kernel inside him will hurt those he loves. Jack doesn’t trust himself, and it pains him deeply when others do. (Though it also seems to pain him when they don’t.)

Lila, on the other hand, grew up itinerant but not unruly. She was raised by a woman named Doll who stole her off the front porch of a house where she was being ignored and unloved. Doll had no home of her own, so she and Lila bounced around, most often with a group of traveling workers who were short on money and long on pride. Lila’s life was practical: don’t make waves. Do your work, and don’t ask questions, or hope to belong. Stay close to Doll, because she’s the only one who understands your private language of inner solitude; she’s the only one who shares it. “Doll used to say ‘No cussing!’ and they would laugh because of all the things they knew and nobody else did. But if you’re a stranger to everybody on earth, then that’s what you are and there’s no end to it. You don’t know the words to say.”

When Lila arrives in Gilead as an adult, she doesn’t know how to stay still or trust anyone’s good intentions. She’s been a prostitute (though not a very good one), and has dreamed of stealing a child of her own, with whom she can recreate the life she had with Doll, before Doll died. Watching her try to trust and love John Ames, who is twice her age and a respected Congregationalist minister, is like watching a kicked dog get up the courage to take food out of a kindly hand: approach and shy, approach and shy. That she might be able to offer him love, which he will value much more than anything he gives up for her, does not occur to her for quite some time.

My sister J, as I’ve said, is the youngest of us. I can remember a time when she played our games and seemed happy to do it. I remember a photo of her with my older sister and our neighbor, mounting a prank protest about the price of milk at the grocery store. They’ve drawn signs, and wear duct tape over their mouths, but you can tell they’re smiling underneath the tape. You can tell they’re pleased and amused.

I remember listening to some maudlin CD in middle school, crying in my bed. I had no reason to be sad, I was just full of burgeoning teenage emotion – too much empathy with no outlet. And so the songs made me weep. J’s room was across from mine, and when she heard me she came in to see what was wrong. My room was dark, but there was a light coming in from the hall, illuminating her outline and just a few of her features. A lip, bitten. Two eyebrows, raised. She was gentle and concerned, and she didn’t understand me, but she wanted to help. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old.

Later, I remember beginning to catch her in lies. She was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and I was off at college. I left some jewelry in a drawer and she stole it, maintaining her innocence until the very moment that I told her I’d uncovered it among her things. One night, during Christmas break, I came upstairs to find her awake and alert and babbling. I was tired and just wanted to go to sleep, so I didn’t press her on why her eyes were so red, what she was talking about. I didn’t ask her why she’d been in my room, though I’d later find out that she and her boyfriend were growing pot behind a panel in my unused closet. The least of the drugs, the least of the problems.

Any mention of her specific misdeeds, though, seems unfaithful, not because it exposes her but because it exposes her the wrong way. For example, I could tell you about the time she was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon after holding a knife to that same boyfriend’s throat while they were both high. I could tell you about her more recent stints in jail, or the long months when we haven’t known where she was or how she was living. But those don’t tell you anything about her. They just tell you that I don’t know anything true to tell.

My sister is sad in the way that Jack and Lila are – that’s a simple enough way to say it. Each of them has been ashamed of themselves far longer than they’ve had any reason to be. Each of them, for reasons either obvious or obscure, seem to have been born into their condition.

The root of Lila’s mortification is luck. Her family is poor, and cruel in the way of people who think that if they ignore you, you’ll disappear. (In her case, of course, they’re right.) Her savior, Doll, is kind, but so empty-handed as to be unmoored: she has let go the rope that might have tied them down to a house, to a town. And so Lila’s early memories are of being alone, troubling a half-broken toy on the floor. After which they’re all of Doll, sweeping the girl up into her arms and placing a shawl around her shoulders as they walk through the night rain. Even the time of her life is unlucky: had the Dust Bowl not swept through, Lila might have saved that last seed of pride (hunger, theft, the inability to find honest work for honest pay) that was so conspicuously missing when she arrived in Gilead.


On the other hand, Jack is born with every outward advantage, which is what makes his estrangement from the world so puzzling to his family. His sadness is such a mystery to those who love him that John Ames, in trying to account for it, resorts to magical thinking, remembering the moment in which he baptized Jack – in his own name, but without love. He says: “I thought, This is not my child – which I truly had never thought of any child before.” And later, after some reflection: “I have thought from time to time that the child felt how coldly I went about his christening, how far my thoughts were from blessing him.” This, he thinks with remorse, is the second it all went wrong. He robbed Jack, in his earliest moments of life, of some necessary comfort that no one else could see was missing, and never admitted it – not until it was perhaps too late.

Whether or not John Ames is right about the importance of this moment, it points to the reality of Jack and Lila’s existence: sometimes a transgression can be invisible and still indelible. Sadness and shame are marks we can’t wash off our hands, even though – or perhaps because – no one else can see them.

It doesn’t feel right to me to add my sister to this list, though she is, as I’ve said, its natural companion. It’s just that I know her both more and less than I know Jack and Lila. Any immersive reader has had the same uncomfortable realization: we can go farther inside the minds of people we’ve never met in the flesh than we can go inside the minds and hearts of those we love. I find it harder to say something meaningful about my sister because I have no narrator to tell me her story, and because I’m so afraid of being wrong.

Perhaps I can say that I know J the way that John Ames knows Jack: with tender fear and anger and a certain sense of my view being obscured. “I wish,” Ames says, “I could put my hand on his brow and calm away all the guilt and regret that is exaggerated or misplaced, or beyond rectification in the terms of this world. Then I could see what I’m actually dealing with.”

Like Jack, Lila is made hurtful in her fear, without wanting to be. The first thing she ever says of Doll is that “if there was anyone in the world the child hated worst,” it was her. Because Doll is the one who cleans and cares for her, the only one in her young life whose eye is keen enough to see her. (A problem, of course, that Jack has too. There is something difficult about being noticed.) Later, Lila tells John Ames over and over again how she cannot trust him, sometimes laughing, mostly serious. “I don’t want you to give a damn about me,” she says. Even when she’s given birth to his child, and has allowed herself in some ways to believe that her life with Ames will not be uprooted, she thinks about stepping out into an open field with the baby and disappearing.

The notion gives her a happy chill – here is something she can trust, even if it’s pain. She is able to turn away from the open door because she knows there is no rush. The empty world will always be waiting for her.

My sister occasionally comes home, and we track her patterns, try to make predictions about what she’ll do. When she’s kind to my father, I feel a little safer, because in her darkest times she throws blame on him like he could take it out of her hands. Like it’s her burden, and she is trying desperately to slough it off.

But even when things are good, she stays clear of us, and from the ordered world. I came home again for Christmas a couple of years ago and saw her just once in the week I was there, despite the fact that we were under the same roof the whole time. She had been living with my father for months at that point, occasionally even holding a job. But every morning that she woke up for work was a morning my father came and roused her from bed. Left to her own devices she could sleep through four separate alarms – sleep all day – and it was difficult to tell if her remorse was real when she finally got up and saw what she’d done.

My father eventually asked her to leave, and when she was gone he found her room was covered in clothing, dishes, and food. Paint was splattered on everything, and rotten hot chocolate was molded into the carpet. Plates of food from months before, covered by magazines and congealed like glue. He hauled out six trash bags full of her possessions – whatever he could salvage from the more kinetic forms of decay ­– and put them into storage, then scrubbed the carpet over and over again trying to bring it back to clean. I’d be tempted to think she left the room as a punishment – certainly, she wasn’t happy to move. But she makes a similar nest everywhere she goes, walking over the stratification as blindly as if it were stone.

I can’t talk about her very well, because I sound angry, and I am. But what am I angry about, and who with? I don’t know. My sister has always feared she was being judged, that she was an accident, that she didn’t belong. It seems strange to blame someone for feeling like that. the problem with perdition – its very root, located by Robinson’s exquisite archeology – is that we think of it both as too lonely, and too shared. We can’t seem to sort out the actual thread of it, what’s tying us together and what’s holding us apart. In Home, Jack’s sister Glory finds a little hovel he’s built in the rafters of their barn, knowing that he built it while they were living together and seeming to get along. The horror of its meaning strikes her hard: he is so terribly alone. But in a way, she’s wrong. His pain is always with her, always shared by her brothers and sisters and father, and even by John Ames, who blames himself for it. Jack is unable to recognize how his burden makes him an immutable part of his family, darker on the pages of their lives, and not lighter – not half-invisible, as he thinks. In fact, when I recently returned to Home I was shocked to see that it wasn’t, as I remembered, narrated in the first-person by Jack, but in a close-third following Glory. So do the troubles of our loved ones swallow and efface us. So do they include us.

On the other hand, people are always trying to help Jack and Lila by offering them some ordinary comfort, which neither can accept. Ames frets when he finds that Lila is reading the Book of Job, worried that the dark subject matter will upset her. In fact, it’s the most familiar thing she’s encountered in Gilead up to that point. “She never expected,” we learn, “to find so many things she already knew about written in a book.” What Lila and Jack need, more than kid-glove treatment, is for the darkness of their pasts to be validated. For someone to assure them that their pain exists on the same plane as ease and joy. Without the one, the others ring hollow – for although their pain isn’t good it is real. Ames experiences this too, in his way, when his congregation tries to appease his “doddering” or – more poignantly – when Boughton offers his son Jack as a namesake in compensation for Ames’s own lost child. This is a comfort so far outside Ames’s ability to receive it that his soul issues a preternatural blight upon the infant he should have blessed. Or so he fears. So he feels.

What can I give my sister? I want to give her something, but at times I resent what she takes. I want to tell her story, but I only know my own. She’s a part of my family just by being who she is, though sometimes it’s difficult for us all to admit it. John Ames imagines talking to Jack in the afterlife, when they are free of their fears, when they can speak clearly. I think about this often in regards to J. What conversation might we have if she could set down her burdens? If I could set down my own?

One last question. Why have I framed this as a cosmology? Of course, because I want there to be some origin. An origin suggests a reason, a cure. And I think there is, in Robinson’s catholic view of these characters, spread across three novels and generations of time, an indication of that origin I seek.

The pain, it comes from nowhere. Or it comes from somewhere, and never goes away. But it is in all of us: we intersect, we are tied together. And if that is not a cure, it is still a comfort.


Adrienne Celt’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, Carve Magazine, The Southeast Review Puerto del Sol, and Gargoyle, and her translations, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, The Millions, Cerise Press, Lemon Hound, and elsewhere. Adrienne has an MFA in fiction from Arizona State University, and has taught writing at ASU, the National University of Singapore, and Story Studio Chicago.  She was a finalist in the 2013 story South Million Writers Award and Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and was awarded residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Ragdale. 

Her debut novel is forthcoming from W.W. Norton/Liveright Publishing in 2015.