Heather King. Wikimedia Commons

An Embrace at the Gates of Death

A popular writer, Heather King, discusses her life and craft in light of the newfound freedom of her conversion and of an everyday life in which she walks arm-in-arm with the Mystery.
Suzanne Tanzi

A New Englander gone-West, with her fame as a writer now reaching from coast to coast, sober alcoholic and former Beverly Hills lawyer Heather King’s non-fiction has penetrated the heart of a culture thirsty for change; desperate for answers. Her first book, Parched, unfolds for us the poignant wresting of self away from the slavery of alcohol, and the dawning rebirth, with all its personal drama and losses. Redeemed brings us forward in understanding the place of the discovery of Christ in what was at bottom a spiritual seeking in the first place, with all the ongoing challenges of love and comprehension entailed therein.These works pose more questions than solutions, making one speculate that perhaps what people need are not answers but portals to keeping their questions open, portals of hope.

You have shared how drinking determined 20 years of your life and you followed it “almost to death.” It seems that what brought you to God was alcoholism and all of its broken promises, yet you have also implied that your attraction began from an earlier time.
I think from a very young age we sense there is some lack or split that goes back eons. I was always trying to fix or heal or bring my family together and make my parents happy. Deep in the human heart is the desire to have everyone at the banquet table, and to eat. That’s a hard-wired religious impulse. I can’t know whether I would have come to Christ otherwise, but if things had been working out for me, I can’t really believe I would have looked a whole lot further. As it was, my life took so many egregiously wrong turns; my resources proved so meager; I turned out to be so fatally feeble and frail that I more or less had to turn to something greater than myself.

You describe yourself as a visceral person–both before, as described in raw detail in Parched, and even today. What does this have to do with your meeting Christ?
The first time I went to Mass I had a visceral reaction to seeing–really seeing–Christ on the Cross. I was moved by pity. I saw that He accompanied us in our suffering. A friend recently pointed out, “In the English translation of the Liturgy of the Hours, the ‘Canticle of Zechariah’ reads, ‘In the tender compassion of our God….’ ‘Tender compassion’ sounds nice (cribbed from The Book of Common Prayer), but the Latin says per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri. In other words, God, in His guts, at the core of His Being, seeks to bring us back to Him.”

So certain things we feel in our guts, our bowels. Our guts are close to our loins. We’re incarnate beings who lust, fear, hunger, thirst, suffer pain, and know we are going to die. I once wrote that I could relate to Jeffrey Dahmer. We want, in a sense, to consume the person we truly love. In our loneliness, we desperately fear abandonment. That Christ left us His Body and Blood seems to me the clearest possible sign that He recognizes, understands, sympathizes with, and came to address that ravenous hunger. He didn’t leave a philosophy or a set of teachings: He left us Himself, in agony on the Cross.

Your writings arrestingly highlight the connection between the deeply spiritual and the mundane.
Christ was right when He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” When you don’t have a ton of money, you tend to be grateful for very simple things: a bar of soap, the sun. When you are very lonely, you know the value of a glass of water, a consoling word, a friend. You have time to see that all of nature reflects the divine. You study a tree and realize: Those tiny branches at the top are the most fragile but they also have the best view! You think about the wind that, like the Holy Spirit, “blows where it listeth.” Pesky Administrative Tasks, as I call them, aren’t my favorite things, but signing the checks, licking the envelopes, walking to the Post Office can all be small consecrated acts. To be a follower of Christ means to know that every encounter has eternal significance, that you and the person you next meet–the homeless guy up on Alvarado, the woman at the cleaners–could have an interaction that changes the course of the whole world. I’m not crazy about birthdays. Birthdays give me a sense of ancient shame and incipient disappointment. But a few years ago on my birthday I was walking around my ’hood at dusk and it was so beautiful: clouds shot with gold; the sky crimson, rose, violet, azure; the palms and agaves and acacias and tall old sycamores... And I suddenly thought: Oh, He’s saying, Look, look! This whole day, and sky, and cosmos are one huge present! You’re always suffering, in other words, but the world becomes lit from within.

How exactly did your conversion influence your career move from successful lawyer to starving writer?
When I first got sober and was working as a lawyer in Beverly Hills, I found the whole milieu abhorrent, grotesque. I refused to believe that I had been saved from the brink of death to write Motions to Compel and Summary Judgment briefs. This is not to single out lawyers, but the people with whom I was surrounded had so thoroughly suppressed all human desire, longing, hunger that they were like zombies. This is the inevitable result, the aim almost, of our culture: to reduce us to zombies. To isolate us so thoroughly from our desires that we agree to live in a horrible twilight zone state. We watch TV, text, eat fake food, socially network, buy, sue, make money our main goal, have sex with people whose names we don’t know, argue about Democrats vs. Republicans, and die.

And I found I did not want any part of that. I wanted to live a life that was fully human, whatever that meant and whatever that took. Also, I had a calling to write, which I, zombie-like, had tried to suppress all my life. The ensuing spiritual crisis–stay in “secure” but loathsome lawyering job, or take a leap into the complete, terrifying unknown?–goaded me to start seeking, reading, going around to churches, and eventually led me to Christ. From the beginning, I saw writing as a religious vocation. I quit my job, was confirmed, and began to write within roughly the same time period.

Can you comment on the influence Flannery O’Connor, a fiction writer, has had on you?
Her short story Good Country People has more to say about male-female relationships than every agitprop piece of feminist rhetoric ever written. Hulga, a joyless intellectual home from college, is appalled by her “simple” country kin. She’s also a virgin. A Bible salesman comes a-visiting. Hulga decides, almost as an experiment, to seduce and discard this bumpkin, and the very next second after they kiss, she's thinking, “I wonder what my wedding dress will look like.” This is me and every woman I’ve ever met. And the bumpkin also turns out to be a charlatan and a true nihilist who violates her physically, emotionally, spiritually. We think we want a godless world, but we are not in any way prepared for what that world would really look like. I think we are beginning to see it, with cloning, selective abortion, the fact that children can now be more or less manufactured to spec, bought, and sold. O’Connor was an original. She dared to go against the intellectual, cultural, and sociopolitical climate of her day. And I’m deeply moved by her personal life. She had no peer.

What other authors have been instrumental in your path and work?
Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson… and I have a real soft spot for Kafka. I so identify with Kafka’s toadying rebellion against his father, his simultaneous loathing of and conformity to bourgeois life (he, too, was a lawyer), the trembling dread with which he approached writing, the whole neurotic over-thinking/paralysis of the intellectual (which is nonetheless true suffering), in a culture that is godless and that rejects and scorns the artist. In his way, he’s very tender. He didn’t believe in God and yet I always feel like if he’d gone one millimeter farther he would have met Christ. Like Flannery O’Connor, he died young, in his case of a long, slow, debilitating death from TB. I have a theory that literary geniuses allow themselves to be consumed by their work. They give us their books, leaving themselves with frail, sickly, broken-down bodies. They lay down their lives so that we, too, can keep crawling toward the light…

In Redeemed, you clarify that community is important to you. Many of your friends are those still struggling with addictions. How is your everyday awareness fed by this?
I can’t imagine any group of people who could bring me closer to Christ than my fellow alcoholics and addicts. They suffer, they’re very aware of their brokenness, defects, and limitations, they live by a kind of constant examination of conscience (though they probably wouldn’t use that phrase), and they continually astonish and humble me with their humor, their plain-spoken common sense, and their deep and authentic spirituality. There’s never a sense of: “Ha ha Ha, I have conquered alcoholism!” There’s a sense of: “I’ll be darned, I can’t believe the likes of me is no longer drinking 24/7.” They have a sense of wearing the world like a loose garment, and also of the freedom to make discoveries about themselves and the world and to figure out what they love. They are doing the hardest work there is: holding the tension between the way the world really is and the way we wish it were. They show me the Resurrection, in other words, in constant action…

Where do your next two books take us?
I had a little 8-or-so-year spell where my life was ripped completely apart by a kind of frenzied unrequited love, near the end of which I finally got in my ’96 Celica and drove cross-country and back, going to Mass every day and pondering Jung, Dante, and Bob Dylan. That’s the subject of a manuscript called Holy Hell that my agent’s trying to sell as we speak. Forthcoming next year from Paraclete Press is Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux. That was 2009, which I spent wandering around Koreatown in LA reflecting upon a 19th-century cloistered nun. Oh, it is ongoing, the fun! The struggle. The mystery…