The American writer Marianne Wiggins wrote the novel Almost Heaven. One of its central characters is a middle aged woman called Melanie John. We meet her in the psychiatric unit of the Medical College of Virginia suffering from hysterical amnesia. Five weeks earlier she was a happily married mother of four living in the Richmond suburbs.
One day five weeks earlier she and her family are in their car heading down the highway. Her husband Jason, the love of her life, is driving. The four kids are in the back. Melanie has been writing in her journal when a gust of wind catches a sheet of paper and rips it out the window.
Jason pulls the car over to the side of the road, Melanie gets out and heads into the field at the side of the road to recover her writing. That’s when she hears the awful screech of tires skidding, smells the burning of rubber, and turns around to see another vehicle slam into the rear of her family’s car. The vehicle explodes. Jason and the children are killed instantly.
Melanie’s system copes by shutting down, by blocking out all memories of this day and of her family. The last 20 years, the family years, are erased from her conscious memory. She remembers the day 20 years earlier she graduated law school and went to work in the law office on Broad street. But meeting Jason and falling in love, the day of her wedding, the birth of her children, the building of their house, the times they all spent at the beach, the fights and the love – she can’t remember any of it.
The amnesia acts as an emotional anaesthetic, but it also robs her of herself. She has no sense of who she is. Inside that shell of a body who is Melanie John? What is her life about? Where does she fit? What’s her place, her purpose? Without the stories of the last 20 years she has no way of knowing. Without the stories of her past there is no meaningful present and there can be no meaningful future.
The novel recounts Melanie’s journey to recovering her memories, the pain of her loss and the regaining of her sense of self. One of the things the story reminds us about is that we are made up of our stories. Our sense of self, of who we are, of why where here, of where we fit and where we’re headed are the map by which we make sense of life.
When you reflect on this you discover that it’s true at both the individual level and the cultural level. As well as our individual stories we are shaped by our cultural stories, stories which tell us who we are, what life’s about, what we should and shouldn’t value. For Christians, the Christian faith provides us with an alternate story to that of our culture, and calls us to its sense of place, of value, of direction and meaning.