Author Exclusives
Author Exclusives

John Archibald on Humor and Heartbreak in His Upcoming Memoir

February 4, 2021
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Guest Author, John Archibald

I’d love it if you cried. I admit it. I want you to feel things. I want you to feel all the things. I want you sad and angry and indignant and introspective. And alive.

But that’s not all the things. If I believe anything about writing it is this: If I bring you down, I need to lift you up. If I make you mad, I need to give you a moment to smile. If I expect you to take on something as heavy as my new book, Shaking the Gates of Hell, I need to offer a laugh to help you as you read – and me as I write – deal with its weight.

A chapter. A paragraph. An aside. A word.

So I write of white silence in the face of enormous evil, of the Great Disappointment that comes only from Great Love, and I follow it up with dad jokes or puns, with chapters about childhood theatrical productions gone horribly wrong and fish hooks stuck in the bullseye of my father’s bald spot.

Perhaps it is incongruous. Or unconventional. I don’t think so.

Because life is pain, to be sure. But it is joy, too. Because anger and indignation are easy if all you want is to point at others and scold, as social media proves every relentless day. Because humor and intimacy bring people to life and make them accessible and relatable and human. But mainly, I believe, if we can acknowledge harsh truths, and find a way to smile as we do it, we are far more likely to see each other, and ourselves.

That’s what I want.

I want you to laugh as I do, guiltily but without feeling guilt, in the most inappropriate of moments. Weddings. Funerals. In those moments when your kid asks – with such gravity -- if babies not born by C-section “come out their moms’ butts.” In this very serious book about love and disappointment and the enormous sin of silence.

I was born in April of 1963, days before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that remarkable Letter from the Birmingham Jail that not only laid out the necessity of civil disobedience but offered a scathing rebuke of the white church for failure to stand against segregation and inequality. My Dad was a preacher in the Birmingham area, like his dad and his dad before him.

I thought my father infallible. I took for granted – because he was vocal at home that all people are God’s people and it would be sinful to think one group fit to judge another – that he was as sure in his pulpit as he was to me.

So the book is in large part a sober search, a journey not only to find out what Dad said from his Alabama pulpit in those momentous days, but an examination of a conspiracy of silence that permeated the white church during the Civil Rights Movement and remains today.

We all have pulpits. Big or small, religious or otherwise. They might come with great audiences, or only those sitting around a Thanksgiving table. But a question haunted me as I wrote this book: If you don’t use all the power of your pulpit to speak against discrimination and racism and evil in the forms that surround you, can you lay claim to goodness?

It is impossible, I know, to go back in time and put ourselves in the shoes of others. We cannot hope to know how we would react in those days, in those ways. But we can certainly look back and see how others responded, how others succeeded, or struggled, or failed. And we can use that to determine how we will respond to comparable issues today.

It’s no laughing matter, I know. And still somehow I want you, in moments, to take the time to smile.

It is what allows us to carry on. In words, and in life.


Get a signed copy of Shaking the Gates of Hell here.

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