It’s hard to be a saint in the city

It’s hard to be a saint in the city August 14, 2013

I recently cataloged about 1,000 of my 1,300 or so vinyl records (the classical music remains to be done), something I’d been meaning to do for many years. For a vinyl obsessive, this means checking liner notes and record quality. It’s fun to see who appears on which albums. You begin to see more clearly those trends across labels, decades, producers. It’s fun.

I’m nowhere near the obsessive of Dawn Eden, who was profiled in the New York Times Sunday Magazine by Alexandra Molotkow. The piece has gotten mixed reviews but I rather enjoyed it. I will acknowledge that it’s a weird piece. For instance, it’s a profile of Eden but it doesn’t mention her until you’ve read six paragraphs on Curt Boettcher, a pop-music producer with a distinct sound (think “Cherish” by the Association).

Eden, who I have had the pleasure of reading for many years, used to be a rock historian and journalist. She repopularized Boettcher. And she converted to Christianity and has written about it at length. Molotkow’s piece is an exploration of Molotkow’s interest in Boettcher (and, therefore, Eden since she wrote extensively about him). There is, perhaps, a lack of coherency to the piece but it worked for me. We have the journey of Dawn Eden from a rock historian battling demons to a Christian woman whose latest book is “My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds With the Help of the Saints.” And then there’s the journey of Molotkow, a seemingly secular woman trying to relate to someone she has “otherized.” She comes to realize she’s been reductive and unfair.

It all gets a little meta, but I enjoy reading about how someone overcomes prejudgments and learns to deal with a source or subject on their terms. On that note, Ann Rodgers of Religion Newswriters Association has a tremendous piece on just that in the latest RNA newsletter (sorry, not linkable). She gives advice to religion news writers about how to interview subjects whose views you dislike. It’s good advice for all reporters.

Back to the Sunday magazine piece:

When she learned of [Boettcher’s] death, she decided to write his biography. His obscurity seemed like an intolerable injustice, and correcting it gave her a sense of purpose. When she felt suicidal, she told herself she couldn’t die because she had to write his story. And her efforts went a long way toward reviving his music. She wrote the liner notes to several CD reissues of his work, which spread the cult of Boettcher. (She conducted the Gary Usher interview in 1988, quoted above, that is included in the Sagittarius liner notes.) This April, the singer Beth Sorrentino released an album of Boettcher covers, produced by Sean Slade (Radiohead, Hole). But Eden never did write that biography.

What ultimately allayed her depression was not Boettcher, but God. In October 1999, she had a “born-again experience,” and if her name sounds familiar, it’s because she has been very public about it: she has blogged about conservative and religious matters on her site, The Dawn Patrol, since 2002, and was fired from a copy-editing job at The New York Post for inserting pro-life terminology into an article on in vitro fertilization. (She now says she regrets this.) Her first book, published in 2006, was called “The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On.”

I have read this book; I have pored over The Dawn Patrol. I’ve spent years wondering what kind of person Dawn Eden might be. I was interested in Boettcher myself, and thanks to Eden’s obsession with him, I became interested — and even a little obsessed — with her.

Molotkow’s first interest in Eden was as rock historian:

That was my introduction to Dawn Eden. An Internet search yielded another Eden, a more recent iteration: strident conservative; chastity advocate; favorite target of the Web site Gawker. Initially I hoped to connect with her, this fellow Boettcher obsessive. Now I wondered what on earth we had in common.

I found a contact e-mail for her but sat on it for years. I worried that, because she had renounced her secular past, she would shoot me down in a blaze of hellfire for even asking about her former preoccupations. Finally, I decided to get in touch. She responded right away. She seemed delighted by my interest. Boettcher’s music was still a part of her, she wrote me: “Understand, I am not at all like those ‘born-again’ rockers who adamantly refuse to say anything at all about their pre-Christian days.”

Eden is now studying toward an advanced degree in sacred theology at the Dominican House of Studies, and while she still writes, her tone is milder than in the past. Before our first, lengthy conversation, she suggested to me that I look for the “point of continuity” between her old and new lives. It turned out to be easy to find.

Ah, the old “strident” adjective. So interesting to see when that’s pulled out. I understand it’s only to be used on conservatives or traditionalists, never for progressives or liberals. But it’s really not appropriate for Eden. She’s not loud or harsh or unpleasantly forceful.

But the writer susses out how Eden’s obsession with Boettcher compares to her interest in the lives of saints and what those lives can say to fellow believers.

And it ends:

Eden knows this, too. Boettcher had faults like anyone — he could be a tyrant in the studio — and he had qualities that might not appeal to a practicing Catholic. For starters, he was gay. When I asked Eden if she now felt conflicted about his sexuality, she said she probably did. But she added that she didn’t want her views to affect the way she told his story. She could still relate to him, she said, as a person looking for love; she heard a “longing for God” in his music. While she strained, sometimes, to reconcile her worldview with Boettcher’s, I strained to reconcile mine with hers. At these times I learned more about her than him, and I learned something about myself as well: how badly I wanted to find a bridge between us. She mythologized Boettcher; I mythologized her. We both worked, in our way, to find what we needed in someone else. But you can’t really know someone you don’t really know.

It requires a bit of a circuitous route for a secular writer and news outlet to begin to understand the interest in the lives of saints (or, really, those who are interested in the lives of saints). So be it. I found it edifying in any case. And I look forward to reading Eden’s latest book on what the saints have to offer those who have sexual wounds.

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4 responses to “It’s hard to be a saint in the city”

  1. I read the NYT article earlier this afternoon and really loved it. The whole idea of bringing an little-known people to public attention truly is a lot like thinking of yourself as an unknown person. AND recognizing that you are making a guru out of somebody is also there in the piece. Differentiating that from looking to real saints is fascinating. I learned a lot from this article. Can’t remember the last time I read something that seemed to really get a serious religious person.
    BTW I don’t explain myself anywhere near as well as Dawn and the NYT writer – but it really was a very impressive article for me that goes beyond my ability to explain it. That happens sometimes and is why I’m not paid for what I write.

  2. Ah, the old “strident” adjective. So interesting to see when that’s
    pulled out. I understand it’s only to be used on conservatives or
    traditionalists, never for progressives or liberals.

    What a fatuous statement! The word “strident” is notorious for being applied to feminists.

    • You mean, it _was_ notorious for being applied to feminists. Don’t think I’ve seen it used in the news that way since the Eighties. Early Eighties, maybe. But why opine, when we can search Google News for “strident”?

      Aha, I see one citation of “Cameron’s strident feminist pronouncements”, from the UK’s The Independent. Possibly the (feminist) columnist is being sarcastic, since Cameron’s a guy, and the rest of the column is very very biting.

      The Pittsburgh Post Gazette cites a new female church leader saying that people called her strident back in 1981, which goes to my theory.

      The other uses don’t really seem to have anything to do with the liberal/conservative political axis per se, or they come from countries far away from the US and UK.

      • Of course, it’s not election season, and I didn’t give more than a cursory glance to the stories, so it’s possible that I missed this usage. (And yes, “strident” does get a lot of use in stories about conservative religious or political leaders.)