Frank Schaeffer's roundabout journey to find faith
He was raised in evangelism, then he raised the Right. Now Frank Schaeffer sees the other side.
SALISBURY - The front lawn of Frank Schaeffer's 1835 house ends abruptly at a wall of tall reeds marking the edge of the Merrimack River salt marshes. You'd think they'd offer protection, he said, but after a storm he sometimes finds a log floating in the front yard. With the publication of Schaeffer's new memoir, "Crazy for God," all sorts of other things are washing up at his front door: painful memories and funny ones, religious and political controversies. This time he invited them.
"The e-mail and the blogging has been intense," Schaeffer, 55, said on a recent morning. "Surprisingly I'm hearing from a lot of evangelicals taking a second look at what they believe and their place in the culture, but then maybe that's a self-selecting audience."
That "Crazy for God" isn't just another James Frey-style memoir of personal dysfunction becomes clear with the subtitle, "How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (Or Almost All) of It Back." It's an alternately hilarious and excruciating look at Schaeffer's life with his Christian missionary parents and after he left their orbit.
Francis and Edith Schaeffer were noted evangelists who welcomed seekers of all kinds to their Swiss compound, L'Abri, while their Calvinist rigor made them favorites of the likes of Billy Graham. Frank was a deep thinker with a bad temper; Edith enforced day-to-day piety with a steely smile. In "Crazy for God," Schaeffer lays bare his parents' troubled marriage, his own randy adolescent adventures, and his eventual disgust with fundamentalist leaders.
"My daughter says to me, 'I love this book, it's the best thing you've written, and I can't think of one person that I know that I want to have read it,' " Schaeffer said, laughing.
He doesn't have to worry about his parents' reactions - his father died in 1984, and his mother is 93, her memory failing - but his sisters are split on the topic. He had already aired much family laundry in his comic novels "Portofino," "Zermatt," and "Saving Grandma," in which a hormone-addled adolescent pointedly named Calvin wrestles with temptation and the darker side of his dysfunctional missionary family life.
"Crazy for God" goes further, as the teenage Schaeffer finds himself coping with the oddities of living in an increasingly popular evangelical enclave that's part "Heidi," part hippie commune, with Billy Graham and Timothy Leary both passing through its alpine chalets.
"We were this fundamentalist little cult-ic group in Switzerland, and yet that's how powerful the 1960s were," he said. "By the time it was all done, we were all sitting there listening to the Beatles and Bob Dylan and having lectures on Fellini and Bergman. . . . You have parents who are telling their kids they are totally against premarital sex and even dating on one hand, and yet in all the fields above the mission, you have couples pairing off by moonlight."
Advances and retreats
One of those teenage couples was Frank and his "hippie princess," Regina Ann "Genie" Walsh. In an interview, she recalled the first time she met Frank. "I thought, what a forward guy!" she said. "He was so extroverted at that point, it took my breath away. He was kind of pushy. Usually people who are that flagrantly friendly make me a little suspicious. But I quickly got over it. He was very charming."
Charming enough that she soon became pregnant with their daughter Jessica. They married, and among fatherhood's profound impacts on young Frank was his immediate adoption of a zealous anti-abortion stance. A documentary series he was making about his father's teachings veered into pro-life tract and became popular with American fundamentalists. Books, speeches, sermons followed. The Schaeffers were a hit.
Even Schaeffer's father said the powerful preachers they hobnobbed with were "not our sort of people." Schaeffer goes further in "Crazy for God": "In public they maintained an image that was usually quite smooth. In private they ranged from unreconstructed bigot reactionaries like Jerry Falwell, to Dr. [James] Dobson, the most power-hungry and ambitious person I have ever met, to Billy Graham, a very weird man indeed who lived an oddly sheltered life in a celebrity/ministry cocoon, to Pat Robertson, who would have a hard time finding work in any job where hearing voices is not a requirement."
Schaeffer worked with them for more than a decade, preaching in their churches and helping them solidify their empires, while growing ever more disenchanted. When his father died, he was offered even more opportunities but walked away instead. Still in his early 30s, Schaeffer lived out a Hollywood dream, directing four secular movies including "Baby on Board" with Judge Reinhold and Carol Kane. In the middle of blowing his chance at Hollywood stardom, Schaeffer decided to write "Portofino." When it was published to solid reviews, he at last found a new calling.
He and Genie had moved their two children to the Salisbury retreat in 1980; their third was born a few months later. Genie said she doesn't mind seeing the intimate details of their life on the page. "Actually it comes as a relief," she said, "because we have gone through so much together that - I'm not sure if this is a result of age or having so many random experiences or what - but it's nice to see it given a shape and a narrative."
The Right and wrongs
In 1999, the Schaeffers' son John joined the Marines, serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. A novel ("Baby Jack") and four nonfiction books arose from Schaeffer's experience as a soldier's father. That experience also added depth to his anguish over helping to build the religious right.
"To put it very mildly, I've been very invested in what's been happening to our country, because my son was getting shot at. Those were the toughest periods in my adult life," Schaeffer said. "And I can tell you I think George Bush is the worst leader this country has had, ever. And that his failure of moral leadership after 9/11 will go down probably as the greatest missed opportunity in American history.
"Alex del Rio, my son's bunkmate from boot camp, is missing two legs and most of one arm because of this president, for no reason . . . and that could have been my son John," he said. "And to the extent the religious right empowered the domination of Republicans in Congress and the White House, there's a direct line between this failed presidency and the war we're in, and the people my dad and I helped empower and stir up in the 1970s and 1980s. . . . So this is a disaster for which I and a lot of other people bear a direct responsibility, and in that sense I'm very sorry."
That sort of talk has made the book a hit with the left, including a long review from novelist and onetime L'Abri tourist Jane Smiley in The Nation. But Schaeffer emphasizes that he was trying to tell his own story, not simply become a culture-war turncoat. And he has not turned away from religion, having joined the Greek Orthodox faith.
"At one point in your life, you think faith is an actual thing in itself that you've made some conclusion about. You say things like 'I believe.' I think what Mother Teresa woke up to maybe at some point and that certainly would describe my own journey too, in terms of faith, is that you can't really say 'I believe.' What you say is, 'I hope' something. 'I hope this is true.' And to me that's what faith is."
Writing for redemption
Charlotte Gordon, a writer from Rockport, met the Schaeffers in the mid-1980s and became their friend. "I think Franky is far more reflective now and far less reactive," said Gordon, who is an assistant professor at Endicott College. "I think that he's very introspective now and very independent, thinking back on the mistakes he's made. And the one thing that's very much on his mind is redemption, and I think he sees writing as a form of redemption, as a form of confession . . . and so the most important thing to him is the truth."
Frank's sister Deborah Middelmann is no longer affiliated with L'Abri but still lives nearby and teaches at a local boarding school. She said she approves of the new book. "I thought Franky did a really wonderful job of being very honest and yet coming across as what I considered very compassionate toward his parents, toward his childhood," Middelmann said by phone from Switzerland. "The one area in which if I had been writing the book I probably would have emphasized things somewhat differently would have been in the area of my father's ideas. My father and I were very, very close."
These days, L'Abri is still going strong, though his parents are no longer there, Schaeffer said.
"It's just a straight evangelical retreat center that would be just horrified if the guests from the late '60s showed up," he said with a laugh. "They'd throw them out in a hot minute."