Sunshine State: Essays
(Harper Perennial, 2017)
The title of Sarah Gerard’s Sunshine State, a collection of eight carefully researched, beautifully patterned, and vividly written essays that relate in some way to the author’s home state of Florida, is ironic, for it makes Florida out to be a happy place. Though there are mentions of sun and heat in the collection, Gerard’s Florida is not, metaphorically speaking, sunny or rosy. It is instead, according to Gerard’s essays, characterized by extreme wealth and poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, and fraud, with one character—the founder of a floundering bird sanctuary whose history and shady demise Gerard tries to illuminate in the title essay—whose behaviors could easily make the “Florida Man” Twitter feed. Though there is humor where Gerard encounters it, the author’s tone is unsmiling much of the time, which adds gravitas to a book that, because of its subject matter, is inherently serious. One has the feeling that Gerard is intensely, anxiously hungry for information, and that this hunger propels her writing. The critical reader will appreciate Gerard’s focus on getting to the bottom of things, to the end of the story, which—spoiler! (not really)—is never happy.
Some of the essays—including “BFF,” first published as a chapbook by Guillotine, who aptly describes it as an “autopsy of a…friendship”; “Rabbit,” a tender look at what it means to grow older and die; “Records,” a portrait of a “year of living dangerously” at an arts high school; and “Before: An Inventory,” a reverse-chronological autobiography told through the lens of encounters with animals—are personal. Though the author’s experiences (of loss, of a search for meaning) are likely universal and often—especially when it comes to privilege and class—political, in these three essays, she focuses on her own story without summoning outside research.
In other essays, Gerard uses extensive research—from both books and shoe-leather reporting—to put her memories into a wider context. Emotion-rich scenes from Gerard’s life stand alongside straightforward descriptions of historical events unencumbered by editorializing. These hybrid personal-and-reported essays are the best of both their worlds.
“Mother-Father God,” for example, Gerard weaves the story of her parents’ meeting and the family’s participation in the Unity Church with the history of Christian Science, Unity’s forebear. One thread of the essay describes, in clear, impersonal prose, ways in which the Church, which championed the power of positive thinking, empowered women experiencing illness and abuse by encouraging them to believe in their own minds. Hypnotism was the seed of this concept of mental power; then Christian Science built on the idea.
[Women’s] claims to power had previously been based upon self-sacrifice and spiritual superiority on the grounds of moral purity, reinforcing the association of women with the ‘feminine heart’—as opposed to the ‘masculine intellect,’ or mind. Now studies in hypnosis challenged that, suggesting women’s own minds might be better suited than their hearts to empower them—if they could harness the mind’s potential.
Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy believed in the power of the mind to cure the body and, after treatment by a hypnotist, established the three tenets of Christian Science, which Unity inherited: God is all; God—and therefore all—is good; and “God is mind—or Divine creative force—and therefore the true world is pure spirit, immaterial.” Evil, according to the third tenet, is an illusion or trick of the mind. By believing in evil, according to Eddy, you make it appear.
In addition to chronicling Unity’s history, Gerard describes ways in which the teachings of the church, which she has few concrete memories of participating in, unconsciously influenced her. Here, the writing becomes personal. When Gerard was about ten, she changed schools and “had a hard time making friends.” Lonely, Gerard writes,
I turned inward. Many times that year, I lay in bed in the morning affirming that I was sick so that I wouldn’t have to go to school. It worked: I missed a third of the school year. By the end of the year, one of my lymph nodes became infected and I had to have it removed. To this day I’m certain I did this to myself through the force of my own mind.
Gerard didn’t just play sick; she “affirmed” sickness, using the language of the church. And the church’s influence persists: looking back on relatively recent arguments with her husband, Gerard notes how his tendency to articulate his fears as a way of coping with them bothered her, and she traces her annoyance back to the church. Gerard had developed a “kind of superstition in which I believed admitting I was afraid, even acknowledging the feeling to myself, would cause my fears to manifest as reality.” Her husband’s negativity roused that superstition: “Hearing [possible negative outcomes] voiced so often by my husband infused my life with a low-grade terror that manifested as irritation. In saying bad things out loud, he was making them real—so I had to make him stop.”
The link between the story of Mary Baker Eddy and Sarah Gerard is the story of Gerard’s parents and, in particular, of her mother, Pat. Like Eddy, Pat Gerard came to the church in part hoping to recover from something, in this case, not physical illness but domestic abuse. When her first husband was beating her, Pat found a mental place where she felt untouchable.
One night, curled in a ball as Bob punched her, my mom grew calm. She felt that there was a spiritual being inside her. It was a new feeling. Bob could kill her body, but he couldn’t kill her; he could physically control her, but he couldn’t control her mind.
Gerard recalls finding a place like this, too: “the time [she] first felt God was real. […] I felt a light open up in my chest and spread outward through my arms, my throat, and into my mouth. […] Just a feeling of protection. A pure, nameless joy.”
“Going Diamond,” Gerard’s essay about her family’s participation in the multi-level marketing corporation, Amway—“some call it a Ponzi scheme”—is also a blend of research, early-childhood memories, and reporting—in this case, meeting with realtors to look at houses in the sorts of neighborhoods where Amway participants aspire to live and posing, with her husband, as a rich young couple looking to buy a house.
Two of the essays, “Sunshine State,” and “The Mayor of Williams Park,” about homelessness in the area where Gerard grew up, are just barely personal. Though Gerard describes her shoe-leather reporting in the first-person, she functions mostly as a clear-headed observer rather than as a character with a stake in the situations she describes.
“The Mayor of Williams Park” is perhaps the strongest of the collection. It is a neatly stitched work of journalism, but Gerard’s opinions and feelings shine through the seams. Perhaps this is the case because Gerard gets so close to her subject, a formerly homeless man named G.W. Rolle, who hosts free breakfast Saturdays at a St. Petersburg church. When not working at the breakfasts, Gerard and Rolle drink together, and smoke together (the author seems to use smoke breaks as opportunities to interact with her subjects when they are relaxed). She reads his autobiographical novel, Made To Break, which she describes in the essay as “the story of a formerly homeless minister, also named G.W., who presides over the citizens of Williams Park,” that is, its homeless population. The essay’s title pays homage to Rolle’s novel. “I tell him I feel his novel is of urgent concern,” Gerard writes, in an example of her intense, formal prose style. Rolle once asks Gerard for money after, it’s implied, stealing from the breakfast fund to buy drugs; he has relapsed. She tells him no, but not only because giving money to a source, for any reason, would undermine her journalistic objectivity: she refuses because she worries that he will buy drugs with the money, thereby endangering himself. “Two days pass. We don’t speak. I worry he’s using. I text him and he doesn’t answer. He always answers texts. I worry that his silence means that he’s dead. […] I worry about his book. I make a silent promise to him that it will see the light of day.” When Gerard is leaving town, Rolle asks her to text him when she gets back to New York; he has something to tell her but doesn’t want to do so in a phone call. “I text him as I walk through the door of my apartment,” she reports, documenting her characteristic reportorial gumption. Rolle texts to say that he is worried about his health. “Two weeks later, G.W. sends me another text: ‘Hey! I’m writing. How about you?’” The essays ends here. The text says so much: that Gerard was approachable, that he knew she respected his writing, that he felt comfortable keeping in touch with her. And it’s also a great ending, given that she was, in fact, writing about him.
Sunshine State is Gerard’s second full-length book (she has also published two chapbooks). Her debut novel, Binary Star, is told from the perspective of an astronomy student with anorexia, and in it, Gerard captures the narrator’s busy, flitting mind, speaking often not in paragraphs but in a succession of poetic phrases, each given its own line. Gerard’s essayistic voice, on the other hand, doesn’t flit. The ride is smooth, and the paragraph transitions, perfect. I am amazed at how many potentially cumbersome citations of books and newspaper articles Gerard distilled into readable sentences. Rather than citing each source of information in the text, she attributes every fact in back-of-the-book notes.
It is evident that Gerard has paid careful, considerate attention to the people she’s writing about, even when her descriptions of them end up being unflattering. In “The Mayor of Williams Park,” for example, Gerard describes two approaches to helping the homeless: “housing first”; and a state-run shelter, called Safe Harbor, that serves as a cheaper alternative to jail. At first, Gerard takes an objective tone: “Safe Harbor works on a reward/punishment model.” But it’s clear that she finds this system unnecessarily punishing and sees the nearly unattainable “reward”—a comfortable place to sleep—as a basic right. Later, her preference is a bit more explicit when she talks about the fact that given a choice between Safe Harbor—where during the punishment phase, people spend many nights outside in a drunk-tank-like pod—and jail, the homeless choose incarceration: “Safe Harbor isn’t that different from jail—and at least the jail is air-conditioned.” Plus, Safe Harbor doesn’t follow up with people after they leave, so it’s impossible to know whether the facility helps the people who pass through it. In the essay, it’s housing last versus housing first, and Gerard doesn’t have to say that the former is cruel and ineffective. She simply describes it. For the most part, Gerard’s approach works well.
But other essays, such as “Records” and “Mother-Father God,” contain so many themes that it is hard to designate what they are about. In “Records,” for example, Gerard describes taking a photo at the suggestion of a shady character who, it seems, tries to pay her—a high-school senior who has ventured outside the Times Square Hotel where she and her parents are staying—for sex, before she escapes into a cab. Unsure what to do with the photograph, which evokes traumatic memories, she frames it and puts it on the wall: a record. When her photographs are flawed, she calls them abstract. Is Gerard saying that this is in part what art is, then, a way to cope with trauma and redeem mistakes? The essay is also about drugs, privilege, sexual assault, and secrecy, or the discrepancies between the author’s inner thoughts and what she says and does.
This thematic ambiguity and avoidance of the pithy message are qualities—in addition to the effective use of autobiographical scenes—that some of Gerard’s essays share with those of Joan Didion. If you seek certainty, or don’t trust your readings of the ambiguous, these qualities may frustrate. On the other hand, ambiguity also turns the book into an Everlasting Gobstopper for thought. Also like Didion’s essays (when they first appeared), Gerard’s are records of a recent past that will soon enough feel like history.