I spoke with Shalom Auslander, author of Foreskin's Lament, and part of the interview appears in this week's paper; you can read it here. Foreskin's Lament is a memoir of Auslander's traumatic upbringing as an orthodox Jew; his religious parents and his Jewish community in Monsey, New York, instilled a deep, illogical fear of God in him from childhood. Over the years, he rebelled with such godless vices as marijuana, porn, and non-kosher food, and the book is a scathing, funny look back at his rejection of God, religion, and family.
Here's my complete conversation with Auslander, who was as funny on the phone as he is in the book. Thanks to Logan Sachon for help transcribing this conversation. Auslander gives a reading tonight at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, 7:30 pm.
MERCURY: It seems like it must a difficult choice to decide to write that and be as brutally honest as you were with all the family history and everything? Was that a difficult decision to make?
AUSLANDER: Yeah, and not just because fiction wins all the awards. Deciding you're going to write a memoir is like deciding you're going to porn in the literary world. I didn't actually want to do it. I'd begun writing some of the chapters that are in there as pieces for This American Life, but that was only to promote a short story collection I had coming out. And they were difficult stories, but they were very cathartic, and I was on the fence about doing it at all, and the thing that did push me over the edge with it was finding out my wife was pregnant and deciding I need the cash. It brought back all of this stuff; it made me have to look at myself on the one hand and say, "You're going to be a father and you walk around in terror of God all day long, and maybe we should look at that before he gets here." And even more than that, but the fact that he was a boy, this issue of whether we circumcise him or not. All these things sort of collided, and I ended up getting super pissed off, I don't know if you noticed that in the book.
I was super pissed off that I couldn't even enjoy... I was 32 to at the time, I'd been married for 12 years, we'd been putting off having a kid and just trying to work shit out, that I couldn't even enjoy the news because all that filled me was terror. What if I don't circumcise him, is God going to kill him, is God going to kill her, is she going to carry him to term and then he'll die in birth. I was just, the usual sort of fundamentalist terror that always went through my head, and for some reason, very quickly, that turned to anger, and I just decided look, you know, whatever I write in the future, I think I need to write this now, I need to write what this terror is like. And I think I'd been playing around writing fictional characters that are terrified of God in the same way but somehow it doesn't do it justice. I wanted people to read this and I wanted this experience to be real. This wasn't a joke; this wasn't a character. This was real.
Some of it seems deliberately funny, but were you surprised by the response that it actually is funny dealing with that terror and that anger?
I was surprised that everything I thought was funny turned out to be horrifying. And everything I thought was horrifying, people were laughing at. The first reading I did for that book, when it was actually finished and I was on tour, I was reading it, and the first chapter I'm describing imagining seeing my wife dead in her car and people were laughing, and I looked up and I thought somebody was mooning me or some rabbi was dropping trou', but they were just laughing at the horror of it. And so it becomes difficult to gauge, because I'm looking at it from my filter. But I also knew that there's clearly something crazy about this. And I also knew, in the process of writing the book, okay, what works, what doesn't work, what elements of this am I going to bring out. And the thing that always came up was this sort of normal guy in a normal world but inside, terrified all the time. A guy is sitting at a traffic light looks like everyone else at the traffic light but because he's been raised to believe in this God, it's not just the traffic light, it's the moment before a collision.
Do you still believe in God?
I'm still worried they might have been right. I'm still terrified on the billion-to-one chance that everything they told me was true turns out that way. Intellectually no, I don't. I'm not an atheist, because I think we ought to have a bit more respect for our ignorance in general either way, but it's incredibly unlikely and certainly more to the point, what they taught me, is impossible. If what they told me is right, that we are just pawns of an omniscient douchebag, we might as well just fuck it and have fun now because we are all going to die and spend eternity with that asshole because this is our only free time. This is recess. It just can't possibly make any sense. I think that people who wanted to be angry at me for the book only remain so if they didn't read it. If you read it, it's very hard to stand up and defend that philosophy. It's very hard to stand up and say, "No, they were right for scaring the shit out of you with bullshit." It's just impossible; you sound like an idiot.
Is your family aware of the book? Are your parents aware that it's been written?
I haven't spoken to them in a real long time, parents or siblings, but I did an event here in Manhattan. Someone came up to me in the end and he told me he was probably the only relative of mine that didn't hate me. And it turned out that the last time I saw him he was about five years old or so, and he's the adopted son of a cousin of mine, and now he's 6'4" and gigantic and clearly not a blood relative of mine. And we ended up talking and discussing stuff and they know about it. The only book I could have written that they would have been proud of would have been the New New Testament, or Back to the Desert or something. It would have had to be something like Jews and God Are Great, Volume One.
That wouldn't have been as interesting a book.
And you know what? There are a lot of... That book's been written. And the book about Christians being great is written, and Muslims being great is written. None of this had to do with anybody in particular, to be perfectly honest. There is nowhere in the book where I say, Judaism is stupid. When people come up to me and say "That's not Judaism," I say, "Well I never claimed it was." I'm talking about what I was taught. And based on the comments I get and the people who show up to readings and who e-mail me, a lot of Catholics were taught this, and a lot of Muslims were taught this, and a lot of Calvinists were taught this. Regardless of what nouns you use, the story's all the same and it's a bullshit story that shouldn't be taught to kids. It's not about attacking anyone in particular. What I think I struggled with in writing it was I kept worrying that's what I was doing, because that's not something I do want to do. I had to stop and re-read everything I had and go, wait a minute, that's clearly not what I'm saying here.
Why do you think that it's been handed down from generations, that fear, that terror? Do you think it's just tradition, and a cycle that's difficult to break?
I think it's incredibly difficult. I remember hearing Christopher Hitchins talking, and I forget who it was, one of these televangelist types, and he said not only was he a fool, but a fool and he didn't believe anything he was saying. And in my opinion, the news is a bit worse: They believe it completely. I don't think anyone who told me that God boils you in your semen for masturbating didn't believe it. I think they believed it completely. And when you believe it, you do not want to fuck around with that guy. And part of not fucking around with that guy would be to not teach the next generation that, to say I'm not going that way, something is wrong. And I think it's an incredibly difficult cycle to break.
For everybody around the world, it's just getting worse, it's not getting better. That character that whoever created a long time ago for whatever social reasons they did is just becoming more and more crazy. He's not just Freddy, he's Freddy and The Shining, and every year he just becomes even crazier.
Are you going to continue to write memoirs, and are you going to continue to deal with religion and family?
I think my life is my life and it's going to bleed through everything. I'm writing a novel now. It's called Leopold Against the World, and it has to do with, if that was about how terrified of God I am, this is about how terrified of people I am. Even when you take God out of the equation it even makes it worse. You've got God to blame for people being assholes, but you take him out of the equation and we're just these brutal people that murder millions of each other every few years. It's a hard way to grow up and it's a hard thing to know about. But it's all about man's inhumanity to man and God's inhumanity to man. But it all comes down to the same thing, which is how do you get through your life with an awareness that it kind of blows, that we die, and brutally, often, and in large numbers by other people's hand. So that's the thing I'm working on most, and family will come into it too, and belief systems, because that's the thing that gets us through this 80-, 90-year sentence that we're all on.
So it's a lighthearted comic romp?
Yeah, but somehow it is! Honestly that's the only way I've ever found of dealing with these things. Before writing Foreskin's Lament, I read every book possible, whether it's philosophers, theologians, cultural critics about God and religion, and it's all very heavy, and even when I'm agreeing with them I don't really want to read it. It's just not the way I approach life and problems. Life is just too serious to be taken seriously sometimes. And the only way I can deal with it and not just do the optimist thing--no, no, everything is going to be okay--is to look at the problems, and you have to laugh at them. That's Vonnegut's way through it, Beckett's way through it, Kafka's way through it, and Bill Hicks' way through it, and it seems to be the way I get through it, too.