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A mad, wonderful adventure

By Ron Wall

In her book Redeemed, memoirist Heather King chronicles her journey from 20 years of active alcoholism to becoming a writer, a Catholic and living a life that is beyond anything she ever dreamed possible.

Posted 1/23/09 at 1:46 AM

In her first book, Parched, Heather King documents twenty years of worshipping alcohol to the point, as she says, she was “willing to sacrifice everything: career, family, money, health, reputation, my life, and what is far worse than any of those, my soul, for alcohol.”

Her second book Redeemed – A Spiritual Misfit Stumbles toward God, Marginal Sanity and the Peace that Passes All Understanding, picks up where Parched left off. [Read an excerpt here] She achieves sobriety, becomes an attorney-at-law but finds that career path almost as soul-sucking and death-inducing as her alcoholism. Instead, she follows a different path, becomes a writer and responds to an even deeper inner call to follow Christ as a Catholic.

And while this may all sound rather serious and dramatic, King is deeply passionate, darkly funny and writes in a self-deprecating style that is quite disarming. 

More than anything, Redeemed is King’s story of how she became a writer and a Catholic, almost simultaneously. Yes, she’s a Catholic writer in the same sense that Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic writer. No false piety here, no pastel tones and certainly no punches pulled. And she follows the path O’Connor staked out in Mystery and Manners:

“If the writer uses his eyes in the real security of his Faith, he will be obliged to use them honestly, and his sense of mystery, and acceptance of it, will be increased. To look at the worst will be for him no more than an act of trust in God… If the Catholic writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is.”

Everything is broken

King both speaks and writes truthfully from where she’s come from and her life today. Like the surgeon who must cut deep to remove a cancerous tumour, her writing exposes not only the sickness and brokenness within her but also the human condition universal to us all. As Leonard Cohen wrote, “there’s a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.”

Says King, “We are fallen, we are broken and we will take the short cut whenever we can. It’s a gift to find that out about yourself. This is the true cross and blessing of being an alcoholic. I know what depths I am capable of sinking because I’ve done it. That we’re fallen is always right there for us to see but the Good News is that we are forgiven. Like the man in the gospel story, we can pick up our mat and walk again.

“There is nothing intrinsically interesting about being a drunk or about becoming a Catholic. The excitement and vitality come when you can tell your story with such detail and humour and heart and truth, in the sense of Truth about the human condition that everybody can key into it. You have to write about the universal human condition so that your story resonates whether the reader is an alcoholic, or Catholic, or neither.”

Writing as vocation and sacrament

King began her writing career when she was 41, at a time when she was finally making serious money as a lawyer and hating every minute of it.

“I came out my drunkenness, got a law degree and thought this must be my God-given purpose in life, to step up and contribute but I hated being a lawyer. It killed my soul. I had huge crisis that I describe in Redeemed – the big questions about freedom, justice, what am I doing here on earth. I had nowhere to turn and that’s when I finally found the Church.”

Her call to be a writer came to her in what she describes as a Garden of Gethsemane moment, “I knew that without having ever seriously having written that I had an incredible reverence and worship for literature. I knew without ever having written that writing was going to be a kind of marriage. I view writing as a sacrament, a lifelong commitment on every level, something I wanted to do more than anything. I knew I was going to write whether I made money at or not.”

But it didn’t come without sacrifice and struggle. She attributes the breakdown of her marriage in part to her devotion to her writing. She worked for 10 years writing essays before the first book was published, making money from freelance legal work.

“This is a religious calling so I feel like my whole life is ordered around it. Even when I’m not writing I’m thinking about it. It’s the richest life possible and that’s an absolute function of being grounded in Christ, of having my house built on solid rock.

If you believe that everything that happens to you is extraordinarily important, you get to live your life at this beautiful level where you bring all your faculties to bear – your heart, memory, will, understanding, intelligence. And it is all seen through the lens of Christ, magnifying the light of God on our lives.”

On being Catholic

Living with books and music in an apartment in the Los Angeles community of Koreatown, going to Mass as often as possible, and accompanying other clean and sober addicts on their spiritual journeys provides King with more than enough material to write about for several books to come. In the midst of it all, she seems to go about her life as some secret agent of grace, a mystic who drives a 12-year old Toyota Celica and shops at Trader Joe’s.

“If someone saw my life from the outside, it’s almost entirely uneventful but my inner life is a mad, wonderful adventure in which each day has epiphanies and tragedies, reconciliation and impasses and cliff hangers. This is what being a Catholic is truly about,” says King. “We have an entire way of being based on mystery, love and responsibility. Often we are stumbling in the dark not knowing God’s will, unsure of the kind and loving thing to do. So everything has to be undertaken with total humility, and yet we also need the courage to say things as we see them.”