In 1947 my mother and father moved to Europe. They were American Protestant, Reformed, Calvinist missionaries. I was thus part of an experiment in radical Christian living "by faith alone" in the commune of L'abri in Switzerland where I grew up.
I've been exploring this childhood in my semi-biographical novels of the Calvin Becker Trilogy---Portofino, Zermatt and Saving Grandma. I guess that they are what the Times of London called them, "Cross-cultural comedies" and "coming of age stories." But perhaps what they are really about is what children face in households where their families are dedicated to some cause, be it fundamentalist Christianity, or left wing messianic politics. Even as children we find ways to challenge the orthodoxy that surrounds us...
Other boys might have been worrying about baseball; I was worrying about "discerning God's will for my life." Ours was a life of self-examining spiritual intensity.
In 1954 I got polio. I was two-years-old and fortunate that the doctor Mom took me to didn't kill me. This "polio specialist" talked Mom into allowing him to replace some of my spinal fluid with a "special serum" he made from tapping the spinal fluid of chimpanzees.
Years later Mom admitted she knew that this sounded crazy but she prayed for guidance anyway. Apparently God told her to proceed. They administered one "treatment."
When I told this story to Dr. Koop, a friend who was about to be appointed by President Reagan as Surgeon General, he said that you couldn't design a better method to murder a child.
Teasing Mom was one of my favorite childhood pastimes. On any given night, say when I was ten, Mom would be about to close my bedroom door, having tucked me in and turned out the light. I didn't want to go to sleep. It was time to challenge the received wisdom and stay up a bit longer.
"Mom?" I'd ask.
"Yes dear?" Mom answered opening the door just wide enough to pop her head back into the room.
"Mom, if monkey serum cured me then maybe it proves we really are evolved from monkeys."
"Don't be ridiculous dear."
"But would lizard blood have worked?"
"It wasn't blood dear and you're just trying to tease me."
"I'm not, Mom. I've been thinking that maybe this proves the atheists are right."
"I hope you're joking," said Mom opening the door a little wider.
"No, I really do think that maybe we should change what we believe because it looks like my treatment proves evolution."
Mom stepped resolutely back into the room and turned on the light. I struggled to keep a straight face. Mom gave me a look and sighed.
"You might be joking and you might think this is funny but you are coming awfully close to joking about things we never joke about."
"You know perfectly well what I mean!" Mom snapped. "We don't joke about the things of the Lord! Now goodnight dear!"
Mom flicked off the light, turned and closed the door.
"I think Dad should change what he teaches about creation!"
The door opened. Mom was standing there with her hands on her hips.
"Now you really are being absurd dear!"
"No I'm not. Dad says that Christianity is so true that if someone, anyone, can really show it isn't true or show the Bible is wrong about anything that he'll give up his faith! He says we must have absolute confidence in the Scriptures!"
"Well, the Bible is true and you know that!"
"But I have monkey blood in me so I've become sort of a missing link!"
Mom shut the door. I heard a muffled laugh.
"I evolved!" I shouted triumphantly.
"You DID NOT!" Mom called back from halfway down the stairs. "Now that is quite enough! Go to sleep! You have crossed the line and are perniciously close to taking the Lord's name in vain!"
"I didn't say Jesus has monkey blood!"
I heard the rush of her steps on the stairs and the door flew open. Mom's face was flushed.
"That's IT! One more word and I'm getting your father! And you know that will put him in a MOOD! So don't you dare make me!"
What is strange is that Portofino, Zermatt and Saving Grandma---about growing up in a Christian fundamentalist mission---have found so many readers who don't share my evangelical background. Yet they seem to powerfully relate.
The novels are in nine languages. I receive passionate letters from Israelis raised on kibbutzim, from the daughters of feminist leaders, from children of Japanese political figures and others. Of course many evangelicals, Roman Catholics and others raised in a myriad of intensely religious households also write.
The letter-writers share something. It isn't what the family "theology" was about but the sense of being of raised as the "anointed" then discovering that we're all just frail humans after all.
Kids raised by, say, zealous pacifist mothers or Roman Catholic or Zionist true-believers understand the longing to allow the ordinary good things of life to overrule "theology" and "ideology." It seems we don't want to be overly "chosen." And questions aren't bad. In fact uncertainties are comforting.
I express this longing for a shared non-exclusive human community in Portofino through the words of my eleven-year-old protagonist. Calvin Becker explains why he lies about his father's missionary work and tells the people he meets in Portofino Italy, while on vacation, that his dad is a teacher:
"Some kids I met told lies to be special. I told lies to be normal."
Don't we all.