Jessica Hendry Nelson
— Profile by Lex Hamilton, Marketing Editor for Elan Literary Magazine
Deep in my first year as a Douglas Anderson Creative Writer, I had the pleasure of reading Jessica Hendry Nelson’s “Rapture of the Deep”. It changed my life. I was struck by the experience she provided, one of loss and the human heart set in grief. The way, for her, it spiraled desperately into love. From her father’s death to the way she began loving everything in the world was one of the many masterful associative leaps she took. To this day, I know nothing about grief, in the sense that I have never had to mourn a single dead person. But Nelson’s work brought me to the conclusion that we are all grieving at any given time in our lives. The idea that when we grieve, we love, too.
I read Nelson’s personal essay, “A Letter to Eric”, almost a year after reading “Rapture in the Deep”. I did not know how to feel. The repetition of the years she and Eric spent visiting their father doesn’t just say “My whole life we visited our father”. The use of dates draws out the experience and paces the telling of the story to show this is what one comes to know, which connects back to the outcome of Eric in the end. My entire body felt hot with sadness and love. I had forgotten what it felt like to love an addict. I had not known how to accept it, either. There is a certain feeling only those who have loved an addict or a criminal know and I believe it is deep in our chest for all of us and when we recall those memories of our addict, we often cave into ourselves.
I gained more proof that love is grief when I read her memoir, If Only You People Could Learn to Follow Directions during the spring break that followed my reading of “A Letter to Eric”. Our lives felt like they paralleled when she discussed the troubles she faced with a father in and out of prison and an addict brother. On a first read it would actually feel like some of the moments she chose to incorporate in the book, and even their placement, did not add up. The placement, though, is actually really thoughtful. Starting out with “A Letter to Eric” changes the rest of the book. Ultimately, how her life played out. It brought me back to the parts of my life where my father was both my criminal and my addict. I’ve written many pieces of writing where I explain that my father was the first person to ever break my heart but never the way Nelson did because I left something out. I left out the part about how you must first love before you can ever have your heart broken and you must love through the pain in order to heal.
Beginning the memoir with “A Letter to Eric” changed the meaning of the rest of the book. Here, we see the root of habits and lifestyle formed by childhood. We see how unforgiving the actions of our parents are. We see ourselves forgiving them. She taught me there is no obligation on us to love anyone. Not our parents. Not our siblings. Not even ourselves. I learned forgiveness from Jessica Hendry Nelson. She wrote an allegory for children with messed up parents.
Three years into my journey at Douglas Anderson, I often find myself, having thought so deeply about what it means to be a writer, unable to write another piece of work in this state-of-mind. I reread “Rapture in the Deep” to find some clarity. Then I understand how words can flow and how to tell my story. I reread “A Letter to Eric” by Jessica Hendry Nelson when I need a reminder of the fact that it’s acceptable to be soft. Or when I need to let go and love, period.