I Have Not Loved You With My Whole Heart is a memoir of trauma, healing, faith, and violence. At its center is the author’s father, the Rev. Renne Harris, a heavy-handed, alcoholic, Episcopal priest who came out in the height of the AIDS crisis and died of HIV in 1995.
In this interview, author Cris Harris, talks about the genesis of the book, the writing process and what he hopes readers will take away from this memoir. Scroll to the end to listen to him read aloud a chapter of I Have Not Loved You With My Whole Heart.
OSU Press: What inspired you to write I Have Not Loved You With My Whole Heart?
Cris Harris: I’m a bit of a storyteller, and I have often found that all my best stories are cribbed from my real life. And of course, a story has to have a causative situation, a character in trouble. As readers will discover, my childhood and my family were “blessed” with plenty of causative situations. Writing about those events has become a kind of bearing witness, recording some truths, some victories of love over violence, some narratives of beauty or humor among trauma. Writing about that time in my life also helped me to sort out what was gained and lost in those events, how I was harmed and how I was healed, what tied me up in knots and what gave me freedom. When I hear from a reader that a piece made them cry, or made them remember, or made them laugh or think, that does inspire me to keep at it.
One part of my story is also a history that, culturally, we don’t seem to acknowledge as much as we should. AIDS remains such a stigmatized topic that those of us who lost parents to HIV find our stories harder to tell and be recognized. In sharing these memories with others, I often discover a real and untapped need for the discussion of these particular lives lost, these particular struggles too often glossed over. The CDC estimates that over 675,000 Americans have died from HIV/AIDS, and death rates around 1995, when my father died, were as high as 40,000 a year. All those people have families, all those people had complex lives that included a lot more than the disease. I Have Not Loved You With My Whole Heart is a book that adds a voice to the small list of those stories told, and perhaps can encourage others to tell theirs as well.
OSU Press: Was it difficult to write such a raw father-son memoir?
Harris: That’s a surprisingly complicated question. To write about my experiences comes easily—it’s what I have been doing since I was a teenager. Even to write about very difficult experiences, confessional experiences, feels natural and, honestly, like a sort of release. But writing a memoir is more than just getting the stories out; it’s an exercise in meaning making. The editorial and revision processes were the hard parts for me. What order to tell things in? What voice? Where to end? How to make the people in the story real and reflect their nuances? For example, my father was in some ways a monster—abusive, addicted, neglectful, a tyrant. In other ways he was gentle, loving, repentant, generous. There were many moments in my childhood where he earned my hate—that’s not too strong a word. But, this is the miracle for me, we somehow found a way past the past and got some good years in before he died, years where I learned to love him in all his complexity. It was difficult to get that paradox across, but I hope I did.
Getting a book ready for publication also involves reading it again and again, and trying to read it with fresh eyes. For me, that meant going through many of those “raw” aspects of the book with an eye toward making the reader feel them in their intensity. So, while parts of the writing were cathartic, it was also exhausting and sad to go through some of that material repeatedly. A lot of tears on the keyboard, but also a powerful feeling of accomplishment when I got it right.
OSU Press: What did you learn throughout the writing process?
Harris: Once you leave your schooling and writing workshops behind, feedback on your writing is hard to come by. It usually comes in the form of acceptance, rejection, or encouraging rejection by various publications. The process of pitching the book, responding to peer review, of working with a copy editor, was a welcome change where I got a lot of feedback from a variety of sources, which was great. It taught me a lot about writing and about myself. I also learned that while humor often gets you through really tough times, it can also obscure or deny the seriousness of that reality. In pulling the book into shape, I had to face the fact that I was sometimes finding the humor in an absurd situation and sometimes hiding behind humor to avoid relating the trauma fully, to avoid acknowledging my own anger or pain. I also learned that sometimes really clever sentences land flat, and it’s better to keep the language simple when that happens. And of course, I’ve learned patience, the kind that you need over years of composition and revision.
Another aspect of the writing process which I’ve grown to love is research. When you write non-fiction, sometimes you start with research and then pull those findings into relationship. When you write a memoir, you start with memory and then have to do research to fact check. The research on I Have Not Loved You With My Whole Heart, particularly on the Anglo-Catholic church, helped me make sense of some stories that have always seemed odd, and proved a fascinating exercise in seeing what aspects of memory make it into some kind of historical record.
OSU Press: Why did you choose to share aloud Ch. 9 "Pender Tales" of your book?
Harris: I chose “Pender Tales” for several reasons. First, the book has an unusual structure; I often describe it as overlapping essays, where each chapter has its own internal logic, its own movement back and forth in time, but also key handoffs with the chapters around it. “Pender Tales” is one of the more standalone chapters, where you don’t need to know many contexts to get the whole experience. It’s also subdivided into vignettes, which makes it easy to record, break up, and edit for publication, so its structure helps make it work for that medium.
The book is heavy in some places, including material on abusive parenting, sexual assault, bullying, grief, death by the cruel progress of HIV, but it builds a world in which those elements are earned, or at least explained. I didn’t want to just throw a listener into those darker elements without context, so I thought one of the subtler chapters might be a better entre. “Pender Tales” hints at my father’s alcoholism, my parents’ sometimes benign, sometimes not so benign neglect, the questions of faith, violence and chaos that come up later in the book, but it does so through metaphor, like monsters in the water or madness in our sleep. Finally, audio storytelling is a hobby of mine, and the chance to play with sound effects and music, with fire crackling and dock noises and seagulls crying sounded like fun. It’s a challenge to use soundscape without overwhelming the text, but I hope we got there on this recording.
OSU Press: What do you hope readers take away from I Have Not Loved You With My Whole Heart?
Harris: I have this vision of a reader finishing the book, closing the cover, and taking a moment. I hope at that moment, a reader is feeling some open-hearted resonance that helps them remember, with tenderness, their own journey through childhood, loss, grief, and healing. I hope the book speaks to those who still harbor old wounds, and that it offers a glimpse into how wounds can scar up in ways that are, if not beautiful, at least strong and true. I like to think of that reader, maybe with a little lump in their throat, taking away a sense of compassion for themselves and for others who need it.
This book will be available June 2021, but get a glimpse of the book by listening to author, Cris Harris, read aloud "Pender Tales" chapter nine of his book.
Cris Harris teaches writing and experiential education at an independent school outside of Cleveland. He grew up in Portland and studied writing at the University of Chicago and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His essays have appeared recently in Post Road, Alice Blue Review, Proximity Magazine, The New Engagement, and Nowhere Magazine, and are forthcoming in the Indiana Review. In 2018, he received an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for nonfiction.