Andrew Sullivan, one of the Internet’s most widely read and veteran bloggers, wrote ‘to blog is therefore to let go of your writing in a way, to hold it at arm’s length, open it to scrutiny, allow it to float in the ether for a while, and to let others, as Montaigne did, pivot you toward relative truth.’
In ‘The Reluctant Blogger,’ Ryan Rapier’s solidly constructed slice-of-life fiction novel that has just been published by Cedar Fort, Todd Landry, a young devoted Mormon father in Arizona who deals with the deaths of his wife and his mother along with a rapidly occurring series of emotional hardships affecting his friends and loved ones, discovers the epiphany that a blogger cannot have writer’s block. As Sullivan explained in his 2008 essay in The Atlantic, ‘you have to express yourself now, while your emotions roil, while your temper flares, while your humor lasts. You can try to hide yourself from real scrutiny, and the exposure it demands, but it’s hard.’
Emotionally paralyzed by the sudden death of his wife, Todd, a widower with three children, has been seeing a psychiatrist (Dr. Schenk) who has strenuously tried to persuade his stubborn patient to take up blogging as a therapeutic tool. While Todd’s Mormon bishop referred him to Dr. Schenk, the young man has resisted trying medication to cope with his depression and being open in his communications with the psychiatrist, who is portrayed in the book as an admirably thoughtful and compassionate listener.
Hence, the ‘Reluctant Blogger’ comprises his writings for his blog ‘Todd’s Landry List’ that chronicle his ongoing life situations and his therapy sessions. And, Rapier does quite a nice job showing how this fictional blogger is trying to reconcile the tidy boundaries of his faith with a writing medium that does not always operate on the premise of durable truths and permanent conclusions.
During a session in which Todd expresses his exasperation at his father, a man deeply proud of his Mormon pioneer heritage who believes faith trumps therapy in healing emotional problems, Dr. Schenk confronts his patient. ‘I’m sorry Todd, but that’s a lie. Your refusal to try medication is tied to a deeper issue. An issue that prompts me to ask, why do you feel guilty for seeing me in the first place?’
Todd fires back, suggesting his therapist is going down the Oedipal route and hinting at ‘an unexplored hatred’ of his father.
Dismissing immediately Todd’s criticism, Dr. Schenk explains, ‘Todd, do you know how long I’ve been treating members of the LDS faith? Twenty years. Now, that doesn’t make me an authority on your doctrine, but I’ve come to learn several things about Mormons. You tend to see life as very black and white.’
The discussion percolates further as the two go back and forth on chastity and sexual misconduct. Dr. Schenk asks, ‘Would you rather your daughter, Alex, [Todd’s oldest child who is 13], be guilty of a moral indiscretion in her youth that is resolved before she marries a fine young man, resulting in her living happily ever after; or would you rather she live a chaste life, but marry an emotionally abusive man who, over time, breaks her? In each case, a sin is committed. Which one is worse?’
Todd feels trapped, adding the question is unfair but Dr. Schenk quickly responds: ‘It’s one more members of your faith ought to be asking themselves. You’ve done a grand job in creating high expectations of chastity, but what about your expectations of respect and equality?’
‘Pointing my finger at him and stabbing the air as I spoke, I retorted, “I was taught respect for women from the day I was born.” His softly spoken comeback was edged with steel. “I’m sure you were, but I’ve visited with dozens of LDS women over the years. In that time, would you care to guess how many LDS men I’ve counseled for being emotionally abusive and controlling?”
‘I looked away without answering.
“None!” he seethed. “Not one in the twenty years I’ve been in practice.”
‘Dr. Schenk inhaled deeply to collect himself before posing his final question on the subject. “If the expectations are the same, how does this discrepancy occur?”’
This passage, which occurs about one-quarter’s way into the narrative, proves to be critical in shifting Todd’s mindset from the challenge of accepting the sudden loss of his wife to the larger issue of his own acceptance.
Rapier’s book is certainly a promising entry in an emerging canon of Mormon literature that seeks enlightenment and mutual understanding for the benefit of Mormons and non-Mormons alike. There is a natural sincerity emanating throughout the book in the voice of Todd Landry, a good-natured and wholesomely funny man whose rock-ribbed faith is being continuously tested by trials that only seem to escalate after the death of his wife, which occurs before the book opens.
There are the awkward reentries into the dating scene, the promising relationship with Emily which risks being derailed permanently, the sometimes prickly interactions with his father whose love for church and family is as demanding as it is equal, the sudden death of his beloved mother, and the difficult road of raising a teenager and two younger children who also are adjusting to unfamiliar circumstances.
Among the most challenging trials arise in his friendships with two men that confront their strict Mormon upbringing and reveal long-held secrets. Jason, whose relationships with women always seem to fail, has secretly enjoyed alcohol since their college days. Meanwhile, Todd finds it near impossible to hold onto a relationship with his best friend, Kevin, who reveals he is gay after leaving his fiancée at the temple on what was to be their wedding day.
The book moves quite quickly and can be easily finished in one day’s reading. And, Rapier has some exceptionally insightful passages and phrase turns, emphasizing just how enriching the value of personality can become in the blogging medium. In a post chronicling his mother’s funeral, Todd writes:
‘Long past the time when the final car had pulled away from the cemetery, my father and I sat alone staring at my mother’s casket. A typical July monsoon was forming around us, creating an overcast sky and a breeze that provided some relief from the oppressive summertime heat. We had positioned ourselves several seats apart with between us. To the casual observer, the space between us could easily be mistaken as symbolic. But in truth, my mother’s heart attack, and eventual passing, had proven to be another catalyst in our evolving relationship.
‘Of all my siblings, it was no coincidence I was the one sitting with him today. Together, we now belong to a club no one wants to join. Everything negative between us had been put aside. We needed each other. To me, this is what families are all about.’
There are many instances where Todd’s most intimate aspects of his humanness seeps through his blog posts, drawing the reader ever closer to the recognition that his experiences, regardless of being fiction, are often precisely the same as the reader’s own real events and situations.
Observing his father at a church’s singles dance, Todd writes:
‘Tonight though, I was staring at hard evidence that suggested otherwise. My father—who by my own analysis should have fit in even less than I did— was adapting and even enjoying himself. He hadn’t approached tonight as if he were coming off the mountain to walk amongst the peasants. He was spending a pleasant evening rubbing shoulders with equals. He was busy exemplifying the love of the Savior while I’d been concerned with channeling my inner Pharisee.’
Later, in Dr. Schenk’s office, the epiphany becomes yet a bit clearer, as Todd notes how his relationship with his father had improved since his mother’s death. In his blog, Todd recounts Dr. Schenk’s words:
‘”So my theory is this—whether you realize it or not, receiving latitude from your father has led you to reciprocate and extend that latitude back to him. It’s not about whether or not he’s making a mistake. For you, this is about building upon the mutual respect that has formed between you and your father. In the end, you’ve come to realize that a solid relationship is more important than being right.”’
‘His analysis was like a ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds.
‘“I think you have a point, Doc.”
‘“Well thank you, Todd. I just find it a shame that you seem unable to apply this same principle to all of your relationships.”’
By the end of the book, Todd finally accepts — with obvious clunky, awkward missteps along the way — the wisdom of Dr. Schenk’s counsel and his relationships, faith, and connections are renewed and strengthened. And, in Rapier’s approachable, warm, genuine prose, the book reminds that blogging sometimes might just be the best form of self-medication.
This is the first novel for Rapier, an Arizona native who is married and the father of four children. For more information, see here.
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