When the actor Michael Douglas, who in the film Basic Instinct played a police detective investigating and attracted to a possible female serial killer (Sharon Stone), realized how the film would end, he complained to Joe Eszterhas, the screenwriter, that he had allowed evil to triumph. Eszterhas, who also penned the scripts for Jagged Edge and Showgirls, was himself for many years a triumphant member of the Hollywood community. Yet his life followed the arc of many a Hollywood celebrity: great achievement mixed with equally grand habits of self-destruction leading to an inevitable downfall. What is unusual about Eszterhas’ life is that his recovery entailed more than checking into a posh rehab center. It involved conversion to the Catholic Church, as he details in his new book, Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith.
Along with Anne Rice’s Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession and Heather King’s Redeemed: A Spiritual Misfit Stumbles Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace that Passes Understanding, Eszterhas’ book is one of three very interesting Catholic conversion memoirs published recently. The paths that led each of these individuals to embrace the Catholic faith are irreducibly distinct and compellingly specific, yet the lives described, both before and after conversion, share much in common.
All three were successful by worldly standards: Eszterhas and Rice as famous authors and King as a lawyer and aspiring writer. Yet their conversions had nothing to do with embracing a Gospel of Success, so fashionable in our culture. They had to give up their aspirations for achievement, at least as they had previously pursued it, in order to follow Christ. They had to accept the hard truth that, in the words of Flannery O’Connor quoted by King, “Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness.”
How did such individuals, who had seen no need for God and even mocked religious belief, come to this realization? There appear to be two reasons, one negative and the other positive.
As Michael Douglas’ observation about the end of Basic Instinct intimates, Eszterhas was “drawn to darkness” for most of his life. The darkness, to which Rice and King were also attracted, is not just absence or ignorance; it is rather the willful pursuit of pleasure, ambition, and vanity to the neglect of the good of others, indeed to the point of self-destruction. All three were addicted to alcohol and all were personally involved in the securing of abortions.
Their conversions were in part prompted by the sense that they could escape from the tantalizing darkness, as much internal as external, only by submission to Christ and his Church. But why the Catholic Church? Indeed, these conversions all took place at a time of growing public awareness of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, a time when the darkness seemed to many to be greater within the Church than outside it, a time when we were told (yet again) that such problems are endemic to organized, institutional religion, especially to an institution that clings to ancient traditions. Why, at this time and in the face of such a withering public critique of the Church, would such worldly individuals become Catholic?
DRAWN TO THE EUCHARIST
The response is simple; it has to do with that most ancient of Christian traditions, the Eucharist. Perhaps surprisingly, the point is captured best by the least well known of the three converts, Heather King, who quotes her favorite author, Flannery O’Connor, on the frailty and indispensability of the Church:
To have the church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those graces that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature. God has chosen to operate in this manner. We can’t understand this but we can’t reject it without rejecting life.
On the human level, the Church is and always will be an imperfect institution, but its failings cannot erase its divine mandate to mediate the grace that only God can offer: the very presence of Christ in the sacrament of the altar, the Holy Eucharist. King puts the point even more bluntly than O’Connor:
Why we can’t reject the Church without rejecting life is, again and always, the Eucharist. What distinguishes the Catholic Church utterly, finally, infi nitely from any other church is that Christ left it as the repository of his Body and Blood, the Sacrament of Sacraments—pulsing, dynamic, eternal source of the power that created and rules over the universe—to nourish and connect us until the end of time.
That, needless to say, is the not the pulse that surges through our popular culture. As the author of popular scripts laced with sexualized violence, Joe Eszterhas was one of the chief purveyors of the most toxic elements in Hollywood culture. Basic Instinct is perhaps the paradigmatic film treatment of the aesthetics of evil; its main character, a career-defi ning part for Sharon Stone, is a trans-gendered author, who deploys everyone and everything (especially sex) as instruments of her own art. The loudest protests against the film came, not from conservatives, but from gay and lesbian groups objecting to the film’s alleged homophobia. Hardly a politically correct film, Basic Instinct captures, as Camille Paglia has noted, the inherent connection between sexual liberation and violence. Eszterhas likens himself, not to Stone’s character, but to Michael Douglass’s detective, the one who gets “too close to the fi re.” During his career, Eszterhas sampled nearly all the forbidden pleasures Hollywood had to offer.
Yet he eventually decided to move his family out of Hollywood and into the Midwest, to Ohio, in order to safeguard them from the world in which he had indulged so enthusiastically. Soon after that move, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, caused by years of heavy smoking. Confronting mortality, he had to face his own emptiness and self-destructive habits.
The least learned of the three and the most given to impulsive judgments, Eszterahaus still manages to craft an entertaining and readable story of a genuinely searching soul. He is all over the map, equally passionate about any number of things. He takes up the antismoking cause and writes an op-ed in the New York Times about Hollywood hypocrisy on the issue. A basketball fan, he nonetheless tries to start something of a crusade against NBA player Lebron James, or at least against what he takes to be the idolatrous language used by the Cleveland Cavaliers to promote their star, King James.
His is a decidedly masculine faith, put off by the wimpy Jesus so prevalent in our popular culture. He is moved to tears by the manly suffering of Christ in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a film he watched repeatedly. To counter the impression of believers as “goodytwo- shoes twerps,” he wears rock t-shirts as he carries the cross at Mass. His crude toughness serves him well in his response to the sex abuse crisis, about which he displays an honest anger, which peaked after a priest from the parish his family attends was removed. The combination of the scandal and typically bad homilies at Catholic parishes led him and his family to skip Mass one Sunday to attend a local mega-church. He and his wife found the sermon riveting, appealing to both heart and mind in a way that they had not experienced in Catholic churches. Returning home from church, he and his wife found that mere words, no matter how moving, were insufficient. They were restless and unsatisfied, hungry to receive for the word made flesh in the Eucharist.
In language that is at once objectionable and instructive, Eszterhas concludes, “We needed Communion, the body and blood of Christ, like two starved vampires needing to feed on Christ’s grace.” The desire of the vampire for it knows not what is at the heart of many of our most popular films. Of those who craft vampire tales for popular consumption, Anne Rice, author of another recent conversion memoir, is by far the most influential and most ambitious. Although she was not able to describe her work in this way at the time she was writing it, she now sees her preoccupation with vampires as attempts to determine good and evil in a godless world. Vampires roam in a world without God, engage in spectacular quests, and are consumed with a longing for meaning. They inhabit richly symbolic universes in which the aesthetic and the moral are fused. These, she notes, are hardly popular themes in contemporary fiction.
There is good reason to think that the most compelling elements in her fiction have their source in the religious artistry in which she was immersed as a young Catholic. In her Called Out of Darkness, Rice devotes a great deal of attention to her upbringing in a vibrant parish in New Orleans. In a refreshingly positive and articulate take on pre-Vatican II Catholic life in America, Rice praises her teachers, the Sisters of Mercy, whom she found to be “entirely self sacrificing.” They were independent women, ebullient in their faith. She describes her education as ranging widely over the classical and the Christian heritage and as having nothing defensive about it. The world in which she lived was “a universe,” largely a self-contained universe, but a remarkably healthy and vital one.
As wide as that world was, it did not contain everything. Like many intellectually curious youth, Rice eventually moved beyond her Catholic community, found a different group of friends, and became intrigued by contemporary thought. Along the way, she lost her faith. She moved to San Francisco, became a fan of foreign film, read the Beat poets, and enjoyed the performances of the plays of existentialist authors such as Camus and Sartre. Living in the Haight district, she joined its counterculture. She also became a writer; with the publication of Interview with a Vampire, she found a large and loyal audience.
But through it all she had glimmers of something more, rooted to some extent in memories of her childhood faith. Eventually she would return to New Orleans. She bought and restored a religious chapel, took trips—purportedly tourist trips that became unwitting pilgrimages— to Europe and Israel, and found herself watching Mass on EWTN and listening to Mother Angelica. Her soul was re-awakening to the reality of God present in his Church, particularly his “real presence” in the Eucharist.
LOSING FAITH IN ATHEISM
Just as she had once lost her faith in God, now she was “losing her faith in God’s nonexistence.” Indeed, she notes that her atheism required of her as much discipline as faith did, a disciplining of the mind not to go where certain thoughts might lead. Of course, thoughts about the transcendent might lead in any number of directions. As part of her personal and professional interest in mythology, she had studied other religions but she kept returning to the “unique power of the story of the Incarnation.”
After her conversion, Rice could not conceivably continue writing the sort of novels she had previously composed. As she puzzled and prayed over what to do now, she experienced an illumination: “Write for God.” That, too, is the conclusion reached by Joe Eszterhas, whose conversion led to his being ostracized by Hollywood.
While Eszterhas and especially Rice hint at the interconnection between the life of writing and the life of faith, the connection is amply on display in the conversion story of Heather King. King, whose self-destructive drinking habits were the subject of her critically acclaimed inaugural book, Parched, speaks of being “saved” by books. For King, who now writes for NPR, the cultivation of the habit of writing and of reflective reading anticipates and then dovetails with the spiritual disciplines of prayer and lectio divina. Perhaps because her conversion is the most literary of the three, her memoir is the most polished and most edifying.
Having overcome alcoholism and become a successful Los Angeles attorney, King remained restless and unsatisfied. She felt as if she had moved from one form of “bondage to another.” She tried the various New Age answers, the popular cures for anxiety and anomie so prevalent in L.A., and found them all empty. These are not so much ways of answering, as of avoiding, the deepest questions of human life: “Almost nothing in our culture validates such questions, provides any meat, gives the person worried about his or her soul anything to latch onto.” The most infl uential contemporary answers avoid basic truths, namely, that “life is really hard and almost unbearably lonely.” By contrast, the Gospels explained directly “why” she was “so miserable” and why the profession of litigation itself makes its practitioners miserable. As King observes, “Anger and insults are the meat of our profession.”
As she became clearer about what she lacked and what the Gospel offered, she begged, “Christ, don’t leave me out.” She finds her mind arrested by Christ’s sacrifi cial love, by his total vulnerability, his willingness to “let us kill him.” As resistant to spirituality-lite as Eszterhas, King crafts a language more adequate to the reality of the Church; doubtless, her more precise and more trenchant language has much to do with her immersion in the writings of the masters of Catholic spirituality. The reason the Catholic religion cannot be equated with consolation is not because it calls us to a kind of machismo, but because it teaches that we are “all in exile.” More clearly than either Eszterhas or Rice, King sees how radical and how radically liberating are the teachings of the Church on sexuality. As she comments, the Gospel requires a “radical overhaul of our views,” based on the insight that “our bodies are not our own.”
All three authors testify to the truth that conversion, in this life, is never complete; the spiritual life is a matter of practicing the ongoing “discipline of self examination,” a discipline that remains to some extent painful as it prompts us to consider, not just our acts of vice, but whether we are “hiding a bad motive under a good one.” Such scrutiny is not a matter of self-absorption or of self-castigation, however; instead, through grace, it fosters repentance and the joy of forgiveness. As King nicely puts the contrast between her chief passions before and after her conversion: “Pleasure is shallow but joy has pain in the middle of it.”
It is certainly true that, antecedent to the stirrings of grace in the soul, each conversion is equally improbable. Still, some conversion stories more than others cause us to marvel at the mysterious confluence of grace and freedom in the concrete and contingent events of human life. Each story examined here fi ts that category. Whatever the degrees of improbability and however varied the paths to faith, these stories offer dramatic testimony to those currently outside the Church, and a welcome reminder to those already within, that the heart of the Church, its “source and summit” as the Second Vatican Council puts it, is the Eucharist.
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