A Troubled Daughter and an Atheist Mother

Yesterday I wrote about the fictional story of a successful man whose child inexplicably descends into self-destruction in her teens. Today, my friend Nate Bloom alerted me to a similar story in The New York Times. The big difference is that the story in the Times is true.

In Sunday’s edition, Julie Schumacher, a novelist and English professor, writes painfully and poignantly about her daughter “who has fallen apart.” Schumacher was brought up Methodist but is a long-time atheist; her husband once said she was “the least spiritual person he had ever met.” But she finds herself in a Jewish women’s support group after being invited by the mother of a girl her daughter had met in treatment:

The first time I showed up at a support group… the women were talking about their synagogues and rabbis and about upcoming bar and bat mitzvahs.

“So,” I said, struck by what I assumed was an interesting coincidence, “is everybody here Jewish?”

After a brief silence, one woman said, “You aren’t?”

“No.”

… “I guess I misunderstood,” I said. “I can leave.”

The woman who had invited me shook her head as if emerging from a dream and insisted I stay: “But I thought you were Jewish. Isn’t your daughter Jewish?”

The answer, strangely, is yes. Schumacher is married to a Jewish man, but his ties to Judaism are tenuous. The only practicing member of Schumacher’s family is her daughter. After attending a bat mitzvah at 11, she came home and announced, “I want to do that.”

She did, and was bat mitzvahed. But her faith could not save her from mental illness.

Like the hero of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, Schumacher is confused and ashamed. She and the other mothers in her support group ”obscurely suspect… we had failed at life’s most important task. … We avoided our mothers, and we doubted ourselves.”

“The hardest part,” says Schumacher, “was to try to keep alive within the child and ourselves a faith in a better future–a belief that this collective suffering was not without meaning and would one day make sense and be put right.”

So the skeptic sure that God doesn’t exist hopes that her religious daughter continues to believe, because it will give her something to hold onto during her worst times. The difference in belief makes for fascinating debates between mother and daughter. Daughter claims that nothing less than belief in the divine is faith; mother says, “Although I still don’t believe in God, I have come to believe in support groups.”

Ultimately, though, Schumacher doesn’t have faith that everything will be alright–she hopes it will. That’s a big difference. Hope is a reaction to doubt, an aspiration towards something you desire but don’t expect. Faith, on the other hand, is a rejection of doubt. Those with faith expect what they desire.

The best Shumacher can do is hope that her daughter, and her troubled peers, find something to believe in for the times when there is no reason to have hope. “That they find something to hold on to,” she says, “and hold on hard.”

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