Picking Up the Pieces: An Interview with Runaway Radical’s Amy and Jonathan Hollingsworth
“Sometimes I lie awake, night after night
Coming apart at the seams
Eager to please, ready to fight
Why do I go to extremes?”—Billy Joel
As I wrote in an earlier post, reading Runaway Radical was a profound experience. It moved me as a father, challenged me as a follower of Christ, and taunted me someone whose pendulum tends to swing pretty wide.
The book is Jonathan Hollingsworth’s personal testimony about Christian radicalism’s devastating effect on his personal journey and faith. At the same time, it’s his mother’s—author Amy Hollingsworth—story of the heartbreaking revelation that her child is walking a lonely, excruciating road. Like life, it’s a book filled with more ambiguity than answers.
One of the most troubling and rewarding aspects of Runaway is its lack of resolution. We leave Jonathan, newly released from the Egypt of his own expectations, wandering around in the desert of disillusionment.
Amy and Jonathan write it from the middle of that desert, a testament to uncertainty. Their willingness to be so vulnerable is an act of charity allowing us, as voyeurs, to discover and make peace with our own stories and questions.
The two of them were graciously willing to sit down and answer a few questions for my readers:
Jayson: After Jonathan’s experience, everyone’s wounds are raw and your relationship’s full of tension. What kind of person decides this would be the best time to rehash it all for a book? I mean, writing a book is trying in the most ideal circumstances. What were you hoping to get out of it? And do you feel you achieved it?
Amy: A crazy kind of person? A desperate kind of person? For me there were two reasons. The first was that I was working on another book but Jonathan’s story kept creeping into the narrative of that book. At some point I realized his story was the book I was supposed to be writing. The second reason was sheer desperation. Jonathan had been sworn to secrecy, and I was complicit in that. I agreed only because I didn’t want to prolong his pain. But in the end, the silence was the worst blow.
So one morning I just knocked on his bedroom door and said, “Let’s tell your story.” There were days when I thought I was crazy for suggesting it. It was an enormous risk. We had no idea when we began how Jonathan’s story would resolve, if at all. But as it turned out, one was the key to the other. Having the freedom to tell his story is what allowed him to slowly recover. And I think you hear his voice getting stronger as the book progresses.
Jonathan: I think initially I was just trying to make sense of everything that happened. Writing is my coping mechanism; I can’t really move on or find closure until I’ve gotten it all down on paper. A couple months into the writing process I remember thinking to myself, I wish I had read something like this before I went to Africa. That’s when I realized I was writing a book. Because the story had a message.
Jayson: Amy, you are not unfamiliar with writing about personal relationships and experiences, but it seems in the past there has been a bit of a relational and chronological buffer between you and some of the events you discuss. In Runaway Radical, you don’t have the luxury of a lot of space (your subject is your son) or time (the events are still reverberating throughout your life). What kind of effect did that have in the process of writing Runaway over, let’s say, Letters from the Closet?
The pain was immediate, pressed into every word
Amy: For Letters from the Closet, I had the distance of twenty years. For Runaway Radical it was more like twenty minutes. The writing process was definitely more painful. Sometimes I would write a passage just after it happened. So the pain was immediate, pressed into every word. I think the strength of the book is that it was written in real time, even though, as I said, it was an enormous risk to begin a story without knowing its ending. But that, too, gives Runaway Radical a distinctive: many people have said the story pulls you in and doesn’t let you go. The uncertainty of how things turn out—which even we didn’t know—is a big part of that pull.
Jayson: Jon, If you had the ability to go back in time to three points in this story: the idealistic, radical Jonathan writing inspirational quotes in his closet, the alienated and nearly prisoner Jonathan in Africa, and the disillusioned Jonathan that returned, what would you say to the different Jonathans at those three points of your life?
Jonathan: When it comes down to it, each Jonathan was just uncomfortable in his own skin. Radical Jonathan was ashamed of his privileged upbringing and the complacency of the American church, while prisoner Jonathan was ashamed to admit that his lofty ideals weren’t exactly holding up in the real world. Disillusioned Jonathan knew he didn’t want to be a radical anymore but he wasn’t sure where else he belonged.
So I think I would say the same thing to each Jonathan, that forcing myself into a mold was the wrong approach to spiritual growth and that it would only delay the moment when I was finally able to accept myself and my beliefs for what they were. I had a very rigid view of what a “real” Christian was supposed to be. In fact, I doubt whether radical Jonathan would even listen to anything I had to say now.
Jayson: Jon, were there any huge revelations or changes in perspective as you began to see your experience through your mother’s eyes in the writing process?
Jonathan: The temptation, I think, for anyone looking back on their own story is to pick it apart. You notice a lot of unflattering qualities about yourself. Patterns of behavior, perceived failures, etc. It can be a lot to swallow. So reading the story from my mother’s perspective really brought some balance to how I viewed my past. Reading her account reminded me that not every decision I made was totally misguided, that in spite of my skewed ideology, some truly meaningful experiences did come from it all.
Jayson: What was the most challenging thing for each of you to document in Runaway? A particular story? Emotion?
Jonathan: The lowest point in Runaway Radical is when I come home from Africa. Not only had I failed my chosen mission, but I felt like I had done more harm than good. The chapter ends with no resolution or silver lining because at the time there was none. The way we structured the narrative called for me to hit rock bottom and stay there for a while, and I think that section of the book really conveys that hopelessness. It’s still the hardest chapter for me to read. But to put a bow on that moment would have been disingenuous to the story.
Amy: Jonathan’s “I am home from Africa” chapter is the heart of Runaway Radical, the fulcrum the entire book rests upon. As for me, there is one story I was unable to tell straight out, in the
Prescribed spirituality is what landed me in so much trouble in the first place
first person. I wrote it almost as a hypothetical: if, then. It was intended as a place marker, and I was going to return to the story and tell it more directly when I was able to. But I was never able to. Then and now, I can only approach the story sideways.
Jayson: It’s strange to write something personal and hear someone respond to it through the lens of their own experiences. You often think, “where did you get THAT from?” From people’s response, do you feel they get it? Are you happy with the response that it’s eliciting? Have you had any response that have made you shake your head?
Jonathan: I’m really surprised people aren’t more frustrated by the lack of hard-and-fast answers in the book. One of the things we tried to avoid in writing Runaway Radical was offering an extreme solution to an extreme problem. Because to me, that’s just fighting fire with fire. We really wanted readers to come to their own conclusions, especially since prescribed spirituality is what landed me in so much trouble in the first place.
Amy: The biggest surprise for me is how many readers have said, “This is my story.” The object and nature of the idealism often differ, but the fervor with which they approached it and the disillusionment that followed is nearly identical. One reviewer said it was “a coming-of-age story as moving and meaningful as Salinger,” and I was really grateful that someone picked up on the fact that this is the classic Bildungsroman—a young person ventures out into the world, suffers a great loss, and comes to maturity through disillusionment instead of through enlightenment. And sometimes the protagonist’s mother loses her illusions, too.
Pre-order your copy of Runaway Radical today
Runaway Radical releases on February 24, but it’s available to pre-order now from Amazon at a 25% discount. So, if you have that holiday Amazon card burning a hole in your pocket, or you are just looking for your next favorite book, head over there and pre-purchase your copy now.
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