If you know her only as “It’s Pat” from Saturday Night Live, then you probably won’t know that Julia Sweeney is also a talented writer and performer of monologues à la Spaulding Gray. Unlike Gray, Sweeney moves around on the stage a lot, but like Gray, her subject is her journey into self-knowledge. Her first show, God Said, Ha! (1998), concerned disease, death and survival: the story centered on her brother Michael’s lymphoma and how it brought her closer to her parents–literally closer; they moved in with her to help her care for her brother. It’s a surprisingly unsentimental, unselfpitying show, very funny throughout, and, therefore, a much richer experience than the usual hystrionic tales of family dysfunction and disease.
I picked up the Quentin Tarantino-produced film of Sweeney’s show from the library a few weeks ago thinking it would be about Sweeney’s loss of faith. I’m at the age when titles of movies and plays don’t stick in the head the way they used to and I was thinking of her next piece, with the similarly divine title Letting Go of God (2006). But I’m glad I saw her earlier piece first, not only because it was fascinating and beautifully performed, but also because it drops a few clues about how someone with Sweeney’s deeply Catholic background could take the radical spiritual turn she takes in the second monologue, which I finally got to see last night.
I was not a big fan of Sweeney’s when she was on SNL. I thought the androgynous Pat was hilarious and memorable, but otherwise, Sweeney’s work didn’t stand out for me. That could very well have been the result of SNL’s long-standing misuse of its female talent. But when I learned a few years ago that Sweeney had lost her religion and was speaking out about it, I instantly pricked up my ears and took notice.
I, too, in my late 30s, early 40s, discovered my atheism. It wasn’t as dramatic a turn for me. I came from an unchurched family and had long felt nauseated by religiosity. But I considered myself spiritual and bought into the assumption that there must be a god of some kind, even that there must have been a Jesus on whom the Gospel Christ is based. Like Sweeney, however, I came to question those assumptions by discovering science and skepticism. It’s a story unto itself.
One of the most interesting moments in God Said, Ha!, for me, was Sweeney’s story of an encounter in an L.A. bookstore with an actor she has no memory of who knew her from her early days in improv with the Groundlings. It’s one of those awful chance meetings where every question about “How are you? How’s your family?” has to be answered with a progressively worse response. (She had just found out that she, too, had cancer, of the uterus.) What struck me most about this story was that, during this terrible conversation, she’s holding a new bestseller by the pope–and she feels dirty, like it’s pornography of the most tawdry kind. Even more interesting, before picking that book out, she had paused over a book about atheism and mocked it. It’s interesting, I think, that she lingered over it at all.
Sweeney talks about how she and her brother compared his months of suffering–radiation and chemo and their aftereffects, bodily and mental deterioration, an ostomy, days of delirium, canker sores coating the back of his throat–to Jesus’s, and Jesus’s comes up far short. In Letting Go, she says the Easter story is referred to by some as “Jesus’s really bad weekend.” Sort of puts the Passion of the Christ in perspective, doesn’t it? I mean, just sitting through Gibson’s movie is almost as awful as what his Christ endured. But, of course, only someone who takes the story as seriously as Sweeney does would notice the disparity between the world-historical significance of Christ’s bad weekend and the insignificance of the suffering of most actual human beings.
Now, if I am making Sweeney sound like one of those nasty militant atheists who respects no one’s sacred cows, it’s probably coming from my own nasty militant atheism. Sweeney is actually marvelously respectful of the faith (or faiths) she casts off. The beauty of Sweeney’s monologue is that she takes us carefully through every step of her loss of faith and her backslides back into it along the way, looking closely and digging deeply into her feelings and thought processes. She makes it clear that this journey was not at all fun for her but a painful loss, like the death of a family member (or ex-boyfriend, in her own analogy).
I think what Sweeney has done with Letting Go is a great service to humanity–seriously! One of the extras on the DVD of the filmed version is a montage of audience reactions. Most are people who have done their own searches for God and also come up empty handed, but one shaken-looking white-haired woman says she considers herself a person of faith, but she kept thinking Sweeney’s points were hitting their targets (or words to that effect). How many reactions like hers has this film provoked? How many like that reaction will it continue to provoke!
There’s definitely a place for “angry” atheism. I adore reading it and partaking of it myself in friendly company. I won’t be jumping on any bandwagons against it and will defend it when it’s attacked. But I suspect Sweeney’s gentle but profound truth-telling will do more devastation to unexamined faith than the worthy Dawkins, et al., ever dreamed of doing.