Norman Maclean:  “But we can still love them”

JESSIE: Why is it the people who need the most help … won’t take it?

NORM: I don’t know, Jess.

I FIRST BEGAN writing about my family on HuffPost on October 25, 2007.  

My first blogs were impassioned, enraged, self-righteous.  We all start there, I suppose. I had been sharing my fury with my therapist for years.  But now for the first time that anger — which I now recognize as the second of Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief — burst into publication.

One moment in particular still blazes across my memory.  I was writing about my older sister’s husband, who enforced a strict system of discipline in his home.

I knew his children were submissive, dutiful.  During my 30s, I learned one of the reasons why.  I was standing in the kitchen when I spotted a one-inch by one-inch yardstick, well worn.  It looked a lot like the rubber hoses and sticks my own parents kept above the refrigerator.

Later, I heard the truth.  If family devotions were interrupted, the unruly child would be taken into the next room and beaten thoroughly and severely.  Their siblings sat in rigid silence.

Their mother … my sister … sat silently, shedding tears, helpless to intervene.


ANY REBELLION OR infraction of the rules in our home earned what they called a “spanking.”  Obedience, submission … was a primary value. If you can’t submit to your parents, how can you eventually submit to God?

I was in my 40s before a counselor told me the raw truth.

“That’s not a spanking you received, Steven.  That’s a beating.  You don’t ‘spank’ with blunt wooden objects.  Or with rubber hoses.”

If only I had known.

Shortly afterward, in a blog written on November 6, 2005, I wrote about my brother-in-law, comparing his religious practices to those of the Taliban.  My tone was snarky, disguising my anger. According to him, I noted, women and children must obey their divine authority.  Only men could rule.

Christian or Muslim patriarchy? — what’s the difference?

When I attended the next family reunion, my sister challenged me in tears.  

“Steven, how could you write about our family like that?  About Harold? He loves his children. It’s not true.”

Blueberry Delight. The author’s favorite dish is one that symbolizes the best of his family memories:  a delicious dessert that puts heart in you.  “My sister Rose knew how to make this dish in a way that no one else quite did,” Steven said.  “When I went to a family dinner and saw this dish among the desserts, I knew it would be a good day.”

I stood in the dining room, the two of us speaking quietly, our family members ignoring us, swirling around us at this potluck my family had organized to spend time with me.  Rosie had made my favorite dessert: Blueberry Delight.

But I wasn’t going to back down.

“I write what I see,” I said, awkwardly.  “I’m writing from my point of view.”

Rosie measured me for a moment, then turned away, back to the mixer where she was preparing mashed potatoes.  I loved the buttery, creamy flavor mixed with rich beef gravy.

But there was nothing delightful about that moment.


OF COURSE, NOTHING changed because of my words.  Not that I could see, anyway. Instead, my family grew even more distant.

It took me years to realize I wasn’t writing about my (late) brother-in-law.  Instead, I was processing my own childhood, the severe corporal punishment I experienced.

My rage burned through the keyboard of my computer:  visceral, physical, unforgiving. My words were a take-no-prisoners attempt to control my situation.  What they had put me through, what I had missed during my childhood and teen years — it was wrong.

I paid for those revelations.  The panic attacks grew worse, not better.  

“In their eyes, you’ve broken the one rule you must not break,” my therapist said, wryly.  “Telling the truth about what goes on behind closed doors.”

At that moment, I hated my family.  Hated the abuse I had suffered under my father’s hands, and those of my teachers.  And for good measure, hated the manipulative actions of my mother.

It took time to come to grips with my charred soul.  I had still to learn that only people who deeply love and care get that angry.

And then, after I finished that section of the memoir — after doing the hard work of rewriting … and rewriting … and rewriting — the truth emerged, red-faced and squalling like a newborn child.  It crawled out of the wreckage of my post-traumatic stress disorder.

And with my new realization, the panic attacks finally began to disappear.  

It was love I felt for my family.  Love, not hate. It was love driving me to wrestle with the memories of my family.  It was love that drove my fingers into the keyboard.


ROBERT REDFORD’S FILM A River Runs Through It captures the complexities of that love [Spoiler alert].  With thoughtful tenderness, narrator Norman Maclean (Robert Redford/Craig Sheffer) relates his memories of key conversations and events leading up to his personal holocaust.  

I bonded powerfully to the story.

The film is based on true-life events.  Set in Missoula, Montana, the story centers on the narrator and his younger brother Paul (Brad Pitt) as they grow up in a tight-knit, reserved Presbyterian family.

For the Maclean clan, fishing and faith are everything.

After skimming across childhood and adolescence, the story cuts to a crucial summer.  “Norm” returns from finishing a six-year education at Dartmouth.  Bemused, he discovers his younger brother Paul has become a local sensation — “The fishing journalist.”

Shadow Casting. “And I realized that in the time I was away, my brother had become an artist.” The beauty of Paul’s art makes the eventual tragedy all that more devastating to the family.

But Paul has taken his love for fishing beyond what Norm or their father, the Reverend Maclean (Tom Skerritt) can do.  In Paul’s hands, the fly rod has become something much more.

He called it shadow casting, keeping his line above water long enough and low enough to make a rainbow rise.  And I realized that in the time I was away, my brother had become an artist.  

Paul has elevated their family’s greatest love to the level of the divine.

But Norm, who owns a writer’s keen eye, quickly sees that all is not right with his brother.  Paul’s hands have also gotten him into trouble with the gambling industry, and a local police officer warns Norm that his brother has incurred significant gambling debts.  

Like everything else he does, Norm approaches Paul’s troubles with steady purpose.

Or tries to.

He offers words of advice, even money.  The problem is, you can’t help someone who refuses to be helped, who refuses to own up to his impact on the world, who refuses to take off the charming mask that both delights and distresses their parents.

“It’s my debt, Norm!”  

Helpless, the older brother watches his younger brother’s craft rush toward the rapids of destruction.  Although Norm is a master of words on the page, and a superb storyteller, he struggles to find the right words to reach his brother.

He can’t.

Norm’s options disappear when he gets a phone call from the police early one morning, and must return home to tell his parents “that Paul had been beaten to death by the butt of a revolver and his body dumped into an alley.”

After his mother disappears to grieve alone, Norm admits to his father that “Nearly all the bones in his [right] hand were broken.”  While ending his life, Paul’s gambling creditors had cruelly destroyed the hand with which he created divine art.

The murder devastates the family.  How do you come to terms with such an event?  


DVD case for the film. “I think I’ve seen this film over 20 times,” Steven said. “It’s my favorite film. I identify so clearly with the older brother Norm.”

I CRY EVERY time I watch this film … and I think I’ve watched it 20 times.  

Like any great teacher, Maclean’s elegant, graceful story shows me something new every time I sink into it.

In fact, I’m sure I had his story in mind when I finally settled on the structure of my own memoir, which is divided according to the five stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

It took me nine years to finish.

But although the film hits close to home, the film’s characters don’t align with the members of my own family.  The film reaches much deeper than allegory. It cuts to the heart of what binds and separates a family.


AFTER HIS BROTHER’S death, Norm witnesses his father — a man of profound faith — circle his greatest loss, again and again, trying to measure its meaning.  

It takes him a lifetime.

In his later years, when the Reverend asks his oldest son whether there is anything else he can tell him about Paul’s death, Norm states:  “Maybe all that I really know is that Paul was a fine fisherman.”  

His father disagrees.  “You know more than that.  He was beautiful.”

It’s a powerful line, but only during one of his father’s final sermons does Norm realize its great cost.  

Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: “We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed?”

For it is true, we can seldom help those closest to us.

Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love themwe can love completely without complete understanding.


WHEN I FIRST began to watch this film, I tried to view it allegorically.

Was I Paul?  Was I Neal, Jessie’s wayward brother?  I had fled to London, and later to Los Angeles.  I had disappointed my family.  I was the one who, during visits home, grew restless during family gatherings.  During my teens and 20s, I spent a lot of time doing coffee with old friends. During my 30s and 40s, after I left, I graduated to harder stuff.

Hanging out with my happy-go-lucky family inspired discomfort, boredom, anger.

If I visited my parents’ church, I sometimes got caught up in uncomfortable conversations.  Somone often felt burdened by the Lord to share their concerns.

“So how’s your walk with God, Steve?”

Sometimes it was one of my pastors, his body showing the comfortable effects of simple choices.  He had spent time on his knees in prayer. Empathy shone in his eyes.

“I’m good, Brother Sommers.  My teaching is —”

“You know, your name came up the other day during a prayer meeting.  Your father loves you a great deal. I know he prays for you.”

He moved in closer.

“We’re concerned about the things we hear, Steve.  Are they true?

I glanced about the emptying sanctuary, searching for a way of escape.  If I went down this rabbit trail, it was all over.

Graveside. The scene at the graveside service for Steven’s mother, Magdalena Denlinger, in June 2013. “Several weeks before she died,” Steven said, “during one of our daily phone calls, she asked me, “Are we okay? Is everything all right between us?’ I told her it was.” 

“You know, Brother Sommers, I’m glad people are praying for me.  But I have to go. I promised to meet a friend in North Canton.”

He stepped back.

“Well, we’ll keep praying for you.”

I knew what lurked behind that empathetic smile.  I knew I was a topic of fervent discussion during public prayer meetings:  “Remember Steve in prayer, living in sin. Pray that he might repent and return to God.”  I knew my former community saw me as an apostate, that my reputation was tarnished beyond repair.  I knew people viewed me as fallen.

Heartburn coursed through my chest.  Feeling the eyes of my former community burning into my back, I slipped away, guilt rippling through my body.

It’s no accident that I moved to Los Angeles, I think.  It was geographically about as far from home as it’s possible to live in the United States.


I RETURNED HOME from the West in October 2009 to spend time with my mother, my broken car limping into the parents’ driveway on a Sunday night.  I would spend the next 12 months there, rebuilding my life.

Inside the small house we had built for my parents, a sort-of welcome party awaited.  I met the curious eyes of my family — tightly knit, spiritually satisfied, and deeply suspicious of me.

My mother was just beginning her slow decline, having just returned from the hospital after experiencing a mild heart attack.  I longed to spend time with her, but first I had to deal with the perceptions of my family.

Out in the world, I was a teacher, a successful, respected leader of young people.  I prided myself on my integrity.

At home, I was the Outsider, a Prodigal Son who had rejected his heritage and wasted his life in the entertainment capital of the world.  No matter that I had a network of loyal friendships that stretched far and wide.

I was no longer one of God’s Chosen People.

In my community’s eyes, I had refused to settle down and marry and have children and rejoin the community of my birth and keep my faith pure.

I had been stained by the wickedness of the World.

When I observed my brothers and sisters and saw their close connection to our parents, I envied them.  They were a warm family unit. I was out in the cold, estranged from my family, therefore estranged from the Church — ergo, estranged from God.  

Over the years this has remained unchanged, even though we have reconciled.  

I remember several years ago getting a call from my oldest sister Marcia.  She and her husband and daughter were driving through Seattle. They wanted to visit, have dinner with my wife and me.

It was a strange experience, and wonderful.  I felt comfortable and curious.  I asked a lot of questions. My wife sat quietly.

It wasn’t until afterward when she pointed out to me that my family hadn’t asked me a single question.

“Your family can’t talk to you,” one of my close friends told me later when I described the meal.  “They have no context in which to place you. Your world is so different from theirs.”


TOWARD THE END of Redford’s film, Norm’s father gives him advice that it takes the author a lifetime to fulfill.  

“Someday when you’re ready, you might tell our family story.  Only then will you understand what happened, and why.”

As a writer, Maclean’s tale — translated to film by Robert Redford in nuanced characterization, lyrical dialogue, and sweeping cinematography — comforted me.  

Like Norm, I struggled to unpack my family story.  I was distracted by a fog of grief.  Most of all, I felt rejected by my family.

To be fair to them, I didn’t really let them know.  When I first began writing, my youngest sister confided in me that she loved reading my blogs — primarily because it allowed her to know, finally, what I was really thinking.

I found the Maclean’s book difficult to read.  But Redford’s stunning film captures the essence of Maclean’s story and taught me to peer below the surface of family conflict, to discover what drives each person’s actions.


ONE OF THE most powerful moments of transformation I experienced involves my mother.  It occurred as I told and retold and retold my story on paper.

For the first time in my life, I began to understand her.

The complexities of love. Steven’s mother, Magdalena Denlinger, stands before a meal she has cooked in the kitchen of the old homestead in August 1988, just before Steven left for a year abroad in London. “Today, I’m almost precisely the age my mother was in this photo,” Steven said.  “Today, her worries make much more sense than they did to that cocky young man who left for London. It’s difficult to leave a culture like mine, no matter how you look at it, but there are some things I wish I’d done differently.”

I saw this most clearly while reflecting on the story of our painful break while I was in studying in London.

Back then, I feared her power:  the way she made my father dance to her wishes.  In my memories, I worked hard to keep her from controlling me.  I acted out, making choices that ran contrary to her beliefs:  smoking, drinking, dancing … all the things she had warned me against.

Worst of all, I rubbed my choices in her face.

When I wrote publicly in a newsletter about my decisions, it went viral, spreading by word-of-mouth through Amish-Mennonite communities around the world.  

She sent me a letter, appealing to my faith.

Steve, you are our son.  We love you. We wish God’s best for you.

The life you are living in London … your drinking … causes us pain.  I pray that you will remember the words of God in Proverbs, and turn to Him, rather than the wickedness of drink.

You are in my heart.  I pray for you every day.

She had no right to give me such advice, I decided.  I rejected her words, called her by phone, and shut off our conversation. 

Her actions were manipulative, I thought.

So we no longer talked or wrote for the remainder of that year, over four months.  She told me later that after she found out I had begun to drink, she just couldn’t write anymore.

The silence continued between us — even after she threw me a beautiful graduation party when I arrived home.  We no longer talked, not in the way we did before I left home.

Our trust was broken.  

I couldn’t even imagine going to her in tears, as I once did when I faced difficult situations.  The close relationship we had as mother and firstborn son was shattered.

A decade-and-a-half crawled by.

Finally, in Los Angeles, fellow writer Dylan Struzan pointed out something I had never noticed in her picture.  

Dylan had never met my mother, but she had a writer’s eye.

“Have you noticed the tightness in her brow?” she asked.  “Have you noticed the tightness in her brow?” she once asked. “It’s like she’s holding in all of her love and concern for her children, for you.”

Dylan’s words offered me a new perspective, gave me a new lens that allowed me to flash back over my life.  

Something shifted.

My feelings unlocked, and for the first time, I began to feel regret.

“It makes me almost … sorry ….”

My words hung there.  

Dylan smiled.  “I too have a son. It’s hard to understand what we mothers go through.”

That conversation transformed my life.

In the weeks that followed, I found myself turning to the phone … and calling my mother again.  To my surprise, rather than finding condemnation, I found the wise, listening ear I had known since childhood.

A mother’s love.  This picture of Earl and Magdalena Denlinger, taken in about 2005, helped Steven change the lens of his perspective toward his mother.  “Have you noticed the tightness in her brow?” a friend, who was also a mother, once asked. “It’s like she’s holding in all of her love and concern for her children, for you.  It’s hard to be a mother.”

“Mom, it’s Steve.”

“Oh, Steve.  I thought of you this morning.  I was walking in the garden. I saw the most beautiful bird.  A robin, I think.”

Nothing deep or meaningful needed to be said.  But the old warmth was back.

Not too long after, Mom’s heart attack occurred, and I went home.


MORE THAN ANYTHING, Maclean’s story taught me that true love means giving up control.

For example, Norm learns how to respond to his brother Paul while watching Jessie respond to her brother, a handsome, washed-up actor returning home from the distant land of California.

Neal does everything wrong, mistreating his family (even Spot the dog) as they desperately try to connect with him.  He admires himself in the mirror. He takes up with one of the local “loose” women. He shows up late for fishing — a grievous sin in the Maclean household — and ignores Norman, the only one who can really help him.

On a fishing trip with the two brothers, Neal disappears with their cold beer, sleeps off a hangover, and catches a massive sunburn.  Suddenly, he arouses Norm’s anger.

NORM:  The hell with him.

PAUL:  Well, I thought we were supposed to help him.

NORM:  How the hell do you help that son of a bitch?

PAUL:  By taking him fishing.

NORM:  He doesn’t like fishing.  He doesn’t like Montana, and he sure as hell doesn’t like me.

PAUL:  Well, maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him.

On the surface of this conversation, Paul is advising Norm about how to connect with his future brother-in-law.  Yet in reality, the younger brother is revealing to the older brother what he needs.

Norm can’t see it at the time — and when he does, it’s far too late.

It takes Norm a lifetime to realize that truly loving someone doesn’t mean they will permit you to help them.  Instead, as he comes to see, true love means rejecting control — and embracing sacrifice, vulnerability, helplessness.


THE CONVERSATION BETWEEN the two brothers stands in for those I had with my family, as well.  Or didn’t have. I know they, like Norm, struggled to love me during the years I was absent.

My silence, my decisions, hurt them.

The Maclean brothers’ conversation captures every heartache my parents must have experienced when our worldviews collided.

The film speaks to me when I strongly disagree with choices my siblings have made.  Or when I see my students — some of whom are like my own children — ignoring my advice, making life decisions that will have disastrous consequences.

Family Bonds. Steven’s family poses for a photo in 1986, not long before he left to study in London. “It’s amazing to see how young and happy we all look back then,” Steven said.  “Family love is so complex.”

During those moments, I feel as helpless as Norm does while watching his brother Paul — too stubborn to listen, too proud to accept help — destroy his life.

There was a startling moment several years agoperhaps after my father passed, perhaps while showing the film to a class of students — when I realized I had begun to identify with the older brother.

Something passed to me when I lost my parents.  Perhaps my grief uncovered the love I felt for my family.  Perhaps I figured it out while finishing the memoir.

It’s something I’m still working through.  

But whatever it was, I know one thing.  

Like Norm, I have become whole again through the writing of my family story.


THE FILM’S ULTIMATE question is poignant.

If those you love refuse to listen, if they refuse your help how can you continue to love them?

Maclean’s answer emerges in the last three minutes of the film.  It rises out of the story like a rainbow trout rising above the rapids, suspended, like a snapshot captured in the flash of evening light.

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand in my youth are dead, even Jessie.  But I still reach out to them.

Of course, now I’m too old to be much of a fisherman, and now I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t.  

But when I am alone in the half-light of the canyon, all existence seems to fade to a being with my soul and memories, and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River, and a four-count rhythm, and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.

In other words, those who love have no choice when confronted with tragedy.  They continue to reach out, continue to reflect, continue to grieve.

But most important, they always remember.


MY OWN PAST stays with me.

More than anything, thanks to the insights I gained from Maclean, I am haunted by the complexities of love — the great lesson his story offers.  It’s what makes him such a great soul teacher — his ability to convey the pain and joy that love brings.

We may not be able to help those we love.

“But,” as Maclean says, “we can still love them.  We can love completely without complete understanding.”

By | 2018-06-02T20:01:07+00:00 June 1st, 2018|soulteacher|0 Comments

About the Author:

HuffPost writer, teacher. An expert on memoir and religious trauma. Author of the upcoming memoir, How To Tie A Tie. Represented by Chip MacGregor of

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.