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David Foster Wallace Among the Mennonites

The Reading at Goshen College

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It was a dark and stormy night on December 5, 1996. The roads between Bloomington, Illinois, and Goshen, Indiana, were covered with snow, ice and sleet. David Foster Wallace was late for his 9:30 p.m. reading at Goshen College, but we knew he was on his way so we hunkered down in the Koinonia Room of the Church-Chapel building, which was overflowing with students, some of whom had to sit on the floor. Among the students were ardent followers of Wallace, acclaimed author of Infinite Jest, and many more who had come to see what all the buzz was about.

Finally, Wallace walked into the room, accompanied by a young woman. He had been met in the parking lot by Prof. Todd Davis, our American literature specialist, who recalls Wallace’s desperate need for a cigarette, which he smoked in the lot despite the campus-wide ban. He wore a long coat, jeans and a white turtleneck, with his signature bandana around his long, stringy hair.

After a brief introduction by Todd, Wallace began his reading—not a selection from Infinite Jest, which we expected, but an entire short story, as recalled by Todd:

And what a story he read to us! It might have put a few of our students on edge, but I think most of them were not only intrigued by the story--they also saw the pain the story was written out of, as well as the odd grace and example of forgiveness it offered. The story was about a young man, living in the Midwest (Illinois, I believe), who as he prepares to move out of his house has a strong recollection/flash of memory of his father "waggling his dick in front of my face." This line/memorybecame a refrain in the story and creates a separation between the boy and father, leading up to a confrontation in which the father continues to deny that any such thing ever happened. As the story closes, the young man decides that this incident was indeed real, but that to continue to be estranged from his father is not worth harboring resentment and hurt. He simply begins to see his father and family again, without fanfare.

Compared to the “post-modern” or “post-postmodern” or “grunge fiction” or “new sincerity” style for which David’s writing had become recognized, the story was a classic, realistic narrative, written in plain, direct style, driven by character and plot and creating a resolution and emotional response in the audience. It was the kind of realistic fiction that Wallace was requiring of his creative writing students at Illinois State University in Bloomington at that time in his teaching career. The story was later published as “Nothing Happened” in the literary journal Open City (No. 5, 1997) and is available online at http://www.badgerinternet.com/~bobkat/dfwstory.html.

Interaction following the reading was limited because of the late hour. But he sold and graciously signed copies of Infinite Jest, including one for me with the boldly inscribed greeting, “For Ervin Beck, with all best wishes. David Foster Wallace.” We sent David and his companion, supperless, to the Goshen Inn, urging them to use room service. As we discovered later, there was none.Wallace’s reading was clear, direct and forceful. Throughout the evening he demonstrated a sincere kindness, attentiveness and, as Todd puts it, “a ridiculous degree of humility. He was clearly interested in what we did, how our community tried to work together, how we perceived his stories. He also had an unaffected sense of humor, an easy grin.”

Next morning they returned to campus briefly and spoke with a few students but did not visit any class. Wallace left behind about 150 autographed copies of his hitherto unpublished short prose poem, “Yet Another Instance of the Porousness of Certain Borders (XXI).” Now a rare collector’s item, it was distributed to on-campus subscribers of the “Broadside” series sponsored by the English Department of Goshen College. It has been published in an anthology of Wallace’s writings, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Little, Brown, 2000).

Wallace had come to Goshen College as a personal favor for sophomore Meg Poag, a good friend of his from Bloomington. According to Meg, he hated book signings and readings, so he was surprised that the visit, which he had been dreading, went all right. “He enjoyed talking with my friends, but was generally uncomfortable with how eager everyone was to talk with him, because he was always uncomfortable with attention.”

Back in Bloomington, Wallace told Meg’s parents, Doug and Erin, that Goshen College reminded him of Amherst College, with “really high standards” but nicer people. Amherst was his alma mater and also where he had taught creative writing. He was “surprisingly pleased” with the visit, although he had left Bloomington and the Poags in a huff because Mr. and Mrs. Poag, who had planned to accompany him, at the last minute could not because of a death in the family.

The Poag Family

Doug and Erin Poag, with their children Meg, Beth and Warren, attended The Mennonite Church of Normal (Illinois). As their children matured, the Poags sought a suitable church. After attending a Bible church, they moved to the Mennonite church, partly because a good friend of Erin’s attended there. As Doug puts it, at the Bible church they found “mixed up kids and Cadillacs,” whereas at the Mennonite church they found “good kids and no Cadillacs.”

The Poags’ oldest child, Warren, graduated from Bethel College, the Mennonite college in Newton, Kansas, and is now a plastic surgeon in Ames, Iowa. Meg, the middle child, graduated from Goshen College in 1999, earned a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Texas and is now executive director of the non-profit Literacy Coalition of Central Texas in Austin. Beth Poag, the youngest, attended Goshen College from 1998-99, following her parents’ urging. But her interest was always in the culinary arts, and she is now a restaurant manager in Phoenix, Arizona.

When David Foster Wallace first stepped inside the front door of the Poag house, Erin Poag says he looked like a homeless person found on the street by her husband. He was dressed in his characteristic manner, in grunge clothes, untied work shoes and a bandana over his long hair. He had already been serving for about three months as the “sponsor” of her husband Doug Poag in the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that both men attended. This first visit to Doug’s home was the beginning of a friendship with the Poag family while Wallace lived in Bloomington and taught creative writing at Illinois State University between 1993 and 2002.

During those years, Wallace was drugs- and alcohol-free, thanks to his faithful attendance at AA meetings, sometimes three or four times per week. When Doug Poag first attended, Wallace was there. In a conversation over coffee, Wallace became Doug’s sponsor. Wallace, who was committed to the program, was an effective, disciplined sponsor, leading Doug through the twelve-step program, although Wallace himself always found it difficult to accept the foundational notion of there being a “higher power.”

His friendship with the Poags evolved into regular visits to their home, sometimes two or three times a week, often accompanied by an intelligent young woman, his “current squeeze.” Frank Bruni’s description in the New York Times Magazine (3-24-96)of his visit with Wallace at the Poags’ home has often been repeated:

The Friday night before the Sunday start of his book tour finds Wallace watching "The X-Files" with the Poags in their living room. They are eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and Italian heroes on trays. The Poags mention that another of Wallace's favorite shows is "Baywatch," and his face reddens. "There are very complicated esthetic reasons why I watch it," he protests. "It's why I used to watch ‘The Love Boat' -- it was soothing, like a narcotic. You knew all problems would be resolved in 15 minutes and many lush platitudes would be exchanged."

Wallace’s alternating obsession with and rejection of television, which he both loved and loathed, drew him to the Poags, where he especially enjoyed watching “Baywatch” on Friday evenings. As Meg recalls:

He was genuinely interested in our family, and I thought that was interesting in itself. For some reason we amazed him all the time. I was intrigued by the fact that my family could somehow be interesting . . . . He would come over for dinner and to watch movies or hang out and talk on the front porch. He was always very inquisitive about my school experience, tried to understand what I got of out my involvement in sports, and sometimes challenged my often juvenile ideas about how my life was going to play out. He enjoyed arguing with me, and I enjoyed it, too! . . . Dave liked my sister and me because we were both very open, and our worlds were totally different from his, so we entertained him with our perspectives. We also were agreeable and fun to be around, so he liked to hang out with us for a change of pace.

Sometimes Wallace forced himself to give up watching television at his own house, which resulted in his giving used television sets, at different times during those years, to Meg, Beth and Erin Poag. About her TV gift, Meg recalls:

Dave gave me a small television before I went to college. I got the TV in exchange for helping him clean his house. He was a total slob at home, and needed me not only to clean, but to teach him how to store things in convenient places so he wouldn’t mind putting them back. He was actually giving me the television because he was “addicted” to TV, and felt like he couldn't control his TV viewing responsibly. He would get sucked into absolutely trashy shows, even info-mercials, and couldn't stop watching. He would stay in front of the TV all day and night sometimes, and it affected his writing. So, he offered the TV to me because he knew I needed one for my dorm room, and because he felt like he had to get it out of his house!

One time he gave his “beater” Toyota to Meg’s sister Beth, who tended Wallace’s dying dog in his home.

Wallace was less kind to their brother Warren, at 16 years old and beyond, with whom he developed an antagonistic relationship. Warren was very good at math and Wallace was not, although some of his writings concern mathematics principles. Meg again:

My older brother can have quite an ego sometimes, and so could Dave. So when they disagreed about something, they both acted like jerks. They generally got along OK until Dave asked my brother to consult on a section of a short story he was writing that included a lot of mathematical conjecturing. My brother (who is somewhat of a math genius) told Dave that what he was writing was impossible and had flaws. Dave kept trying to get my brother to just correct the mathematicalstuff that he could, and allow Dave to stretch the truth. He didn't want thewriting to be mathematically accurate, just accurate enough to make hisassertion for the story line. My brother adamantly disagreed and said thatmath was either accurate or inaccurate, and that he couldn't help Dave if hewas going to insist on stretching the truth. Dave thought it was preposterous that my brother couldn't use his imagination and understand fiction, and my brother thought Dave was asking him to do something dishonest to the reader. This is a great illustration of their differing perspectives on life, and this incident was, from what I remember, the start of their declining relationship, although they never had a strong one. Basically, after that they just avoided talking to each other very much.

They may also have been combatants, Doug speculates, because they were equally intelligent, and Wallace could not accept that he might have met his match in a teenager. As Doug recalls it, the antagonism began when Warren called Wallace’s ideas about a math question “bullshit.”

Erin Poag as Special Friend

Over time, Erin Poag developed a special friendship with Wallace. She was old enough to be his mother, at a time when Wallace was alienated from his own mother, who taught English at a community college nearby and lived only a few miles away. As D. T. Max’s biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (Viking Penguin, 2012), points out, ever since his mother had moved out of his family’s house, Wallace had sought mother-substitutes in older women, such as the poet Mary Karr (146-47), and nurturing types of women, especially nurses and social workers, in his romantic relationships.

Erin’s role as friend was most dramatically fulfilled when Wallace had to go to New York City in mid-March 1996 to do readings from Infinite Jest to promote sales of his book. He not only hated such events, but he dreaded them and could barely force himself to do them. Consequently, he enlisted Erin to go to New York with him. Her job was keep Wallace “grounded” and to give him the psychological support and encouragement he needed to enter the room for a reading.

Erin especially recalls the first reading, in the bar-restaurant K.G.B. in a loft at the top of a narrow, dark, rickety stairway. Four steps up and Wallace declared, “I don’t think I can do this.” Erin replied, “You need to see if you can do this” and put her hand on his back, nudging him up the stairs. At the top of the stairs they found themselves in a large, open room, full of people. On seeing Wallace, they applauded, Wallace relaxed, and he performed, at ease. He also read at Tower Books in the Village, at Rizzoli Bookstore on West Broadway, and at the Tenth Street Lounge.

Erin accompanied Wallace to every reading in New York City, always serving to make sure he arrived and performed. Wallace never got used to the experience. He would pace back and forth before every reading. Yet he always liked audiences who liked his book. Erin recalls that actor Ethan Hawke was once in the audience and admired Wallace’s book. In response, Wallace said, “If only I could act like you.”

Erin seldom attended other social events and dinners with Wallace and his friends, although she recalls one dinner with his close literary friends that included the novelist Jonathan Franzen, one of Wallace’s best friends and correspondents. Later in the year Erin flew to Texas to accompany Wallace on a reading tour there.

Erin, who was 47 at the time, was a good match for David, who was 32. A drama major in college, she says that she was more of a “friend” than a “mother” to Wallace, who challenged everything she said. Erin was the first person, in addition to his editors, to read Infinite Jest. When Wallace came to the Poag house just after she had finished the book, she swatted him with a newspaper because he had allowed the main character to be killed.She possesses a galley copy of the book, a gift from Wallace.

Erin audited Wallace’s lower-level literature course in “Popular Fiction” at Illinois State University, which studied mass-market popular writers, such as Mary Higgins Clark, whom Wallace thought needed to be taken seriously. He was a vibrant, demanding, “totally alive” teacher, who moved around the room and insisted that all of his students attend class and show that they had read their assignments by offering opinions, for which he demanded proof from the text. Erin was nearby when Wallace, not mincing words, advised a passive, uninvolved student to withdraw from the course (and she did). He read and marked student papers rigorously, demanding good grammar as well as finding their unique voices. “Write more, until you’re sick of writing,” he told them. The class met once a week for three hours, leaving him exhausted. He welcomed students to his office hours and there was always a long line of students waiting to see him.

Wallace was fascinated by an earlier event in Erin’s life, during the convention of Mennonite Church U.S.A. at Illinois State University in 1989 (“Normal ‘89”). During preparations for the convention, some ISU students objected to the meeting because they (mistakenly) thought that the Mennonites’ use of ISU facilities would be an unfair use of student tuition and other fees. One student wrote a letter to the editor of the ISU student newspaper Vidette, objecting to subsidizing the “bearded men” and “bun-haired beauties.” Erin and some of her Mennonite women friends were much amused by that label, so about a dozen of them ordered custom-made T-shirts bearing the text, “Proud to be a Bun-Haired Beauty,” and wore them during the convention.

In the Poag house one day Wallace, who loved T-shirts with messages, saw Erin wearing hers and begged her to give it to him, which she did. Doug recalls that Wallace wore it in a photograph of him standing in a cornfield, which was used as a cover on a national magazine (as yet unidentified).

The Mennonite Connection

The parents of Wallace – his father a philosophy professor, his mother an English teacher – were atheists who kept their son from attending church lest it “impair his thinking.” But as a student of philosophy himself, especially of the linguistic philosophy of Wittgenstein, Wallace was an intellectual quester whose interests included organized religion. Twice he entered catechetical programs in the Catholic faith, but could not, in the final analysis, accept their claims.

Since Wallace’s death, Christian bloggers have speculated on his religious faith, usually pointing out that his biographer and other interviewers and writers about his life and thought tend to ignore or downplay his theological interests. Almost invariably in those discussions the fact that Wallace’s “closest social relationship” (Bruni) was with the Mennonite Poag family raises the possibility that he was especially attracted to the Mennonite faith. That idea has been sustained, in part, by Frank Bruni’s report of his interview with Wallace, where Bruni says that Wallace met the Poags “at a Mennonie house of worship”—a claim that has been repeated by other writers.

As noted above, that is not true. Wallace first met Doug Poag at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and first met Erin and the rest of the family when Doug brought him as a guest to the Poag home. Perhaps Wallace fibbed in order to deflect public knowledge and scrutiny of Doug Poag as a recovering addict. Max’s biography corrects that mistake, but the longstanding error has encouraged exaggerated accounts of Wallace’s interest in the Mennonite church.

Some citations from interviews and blogs that mention his Mennonite interests follow. All can be found on the Internet:

“He did go to church. . . . This practice began after he stopped drinking and smoking pot as part of getting clean.” (Max, cited in Daniel Silliman blog, 8-11-2012). The reference is certainly to Wallace’s years in Bloomington, Illinois, throughout which he was clean and sober and a good friend of the Poags.

“Back in Illinois he began to attend services at various churches around town—there is something about religious faith, which was missing from his rearing by two atheists, that entices and calms him—and he formed his closest social relationship with an older married couple, Doug and Erin Poag. They met at a Mennonite house of worship.” (Bruni)

“Wallace had met [the Poags] at a Mennonite church he was attending . . . This church-going, dog-loving Wallace . . . is a ghostly but constant presence in The Pale King.” (rev. of The Pale King, Michiko Kakutani, NYT, 3-31-2011).

“Recently he found a Mennonite house of worship, which he finds sympathetic even if the hymns are impossible to sing.” (David Streitfeld, “The Wasted Land,” Details, March 1996: 122-24.)

“Those [Mennonite services] and AA meetings were two places where people talked about things important to them, things that mattered.” (J. Warthen citing Wallace in an undocumented interview. Some Came Running blog)

“Though it’s known that, at one point, Wallace belonged to a church in Illinois—maybe a Mennonite church . . .” (David Silliman blog)

Mennonite bloggers have continued to make such claims: “He belonged to and regularly attended church.” A friend of the blogger reported that at Goshen College Wallace talked “about being active in the Mennonite church.” (David M., JesusCreed blog) “When he taught at Illinois State University in the 1990s he attended the local Mennonite church.” (David Swartz, Religion in American History blog, 3-8-2012). “Stories of DFW attending various Illinois Mennonite congregations have been circulating for some time.” (Jen Graber, Religion in American History blog, 3-8-2012)

The fact is that during his years of friendship with the Poags, Wallace attended the Mennonite Church of Normal, with the Poags, only about four times. Of course, he also had many conversations with them about religion and Mennonites. The ways that Mennonites and Mennonite services affected him are recalled by Meg Poag:

I remember him saying that for “organized religion” he thought Mennonitesprobably had it pretty close to “right” but he was generally distrusting of institutionalized faith and any sort of dogmatic interpretation of the Bible. He liked people at my church, but was always a little uneasy with the idea of organized religion. He did seem to like the teachings of the Mennonite religion and found much of it valuable for reflection and growth. . . . I only remember him coming to church (when I also attended) a handful of times. He was very distracted by a large sign that hung in the sanctuary that read, "Other foundation can no one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ." He just couldn't believe that intelligent people could have such a grammatically incorrect sentence up on the wall, front and center. He was almost unable to concentrate because he kept trying to figure out what it really meant, and how he would re-write it.

Doug is adamant in insisting that Wallace did not regularly attend church, Mennonite or otherwise, despite many people’s generalizations. He recalls that Wallace was “shy” while attending a Mennonite worship service—as he usually was in crowds—but he liked the music and the “low key quality” and “intelligence” of the service and the people.

Erin observes that Wallace was interested in the religious and spiritual aspects of the Mennonite faith, especially the peace stance, which he admired, and the commitment to “walking the walk” with Christ. The closest Wallace ever came to literally endorsing Mennonitism is in the sentence from Warthen, above, which quotes Wallace as saying that AA meetings and Mennonite gatherings “were two places where people talked about things important to them, things that mattered.” Although Warthen does not document the interview he quotes from, Erin says that Wallace would have said something very much like that. Perhaps the statement represents Wallace’s tendency to embrace the lowly in order to critique the mighty. However, his known deep respect for Alcoholics Anonymous probably also carries over to the Mennonite faith with which he pairs it in this quotation.

If Wallace was a religious person, then his creed probably derived not from organized religion but from the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which has vaguely Christian origins and contents. Eight of the twelve steps refer to “God,” beginning with Step 2: We “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Step 11 also puts faith in “prayer and meditation.” Doug says that the notion of a “Higher Power” was “always tenuous” to him. He even declared that the notion of “God” sounded “nuts” to him. However, while he was in Bloomington, Wallace was “saved” from self-destruction by drugs and alcohol after only two weeks of participation in and commitment to the program. He remained a fervent believer and advocate and effective sponsor of other AA members, so he must have depended on its foundational assumptions even though he could not confess them publically.

Whatever influence Wallace’s contact with Mennonites had on his subsequent writing is impossible to say, and is likely only to be found in a nebulous sense in his general musings on philosophy and religion. There are two explicit references to Mennonites in his writings. From Infinite Jest, regarding the Wraith: “He’d been sober as a Mennonite quilter for 89 days.” And from “Three Fragments from a Longer Thing”: “The fantasies come out of nowhere and horrify the principal who is a devout Mennonite.” Unfortunately, both references are to popular stereotypes of Mennonites.

The End of the Relationship

For ten years Doug Poag was director of the nonprofit organization “Partners for Community,” which sponsored two projects. One was a visitation center, especially for meetings of abused women and children, with their husbands and fathers, under supervision. Another was “Recycling for Families,” which gathered used furniture and gave it to needy single mothers. The project was begun by Mennonites and had a number of Mennonites on its board of directors.

One member of the board was Juliana Harms, a Roman Catholic, who was a social worker and a good friend of Doug’s. Knowing that Wallace was hoping for a serious relationship that might lead to marriage, Doug went out of his way to introduce David to Juliana. They immediately were interested in each other, Juliana because she had read and admired Infinite Jest, and David because Juliana was a social worker, hence the “caretaker” type of woman that David needed and sought. Their relationship soon became serious. Juliana moved in with David and both thought about marriage.

Juliana was a moderating influence on David. She got him to cut his hair. She tried to help him wean himself from his persistent addiction to nicotine, in the form of cigarettes, patches and chewing tobacco. She also urged him to enroll in a weekend retreat for men sponsored by the Catholic Church, with the announced goal of leading them into Christian community, i.e., converting to the Catholic faith. Erin says that the experience might have created the “fourteen-inch connection between head and heart” that David needed—and sought. However, at the end of the weekend he was unable to bring himself to make the confession of faith. It had been a “confusing” experience for him.

After living together for perhaps eight months, the couple broke up because David had begun an affair with another woman. In January 2000, Doug and other Mennonite men helped Juliana move out of David’s house and into a house that David, apparently feeling guilty, had made a down payment on for her. Shortly before leaving Bloomington for California, David drove past her house, saw another man’s car parked in front of it, and demanded the return of his down payment.

Doug was so personally offended by David’s bad treatment of his good friend Juliana that he ended his relationship with David. Eventually they did make “mutual amends,” but the close friendship was not restored. Later in 2002 David left Bloomington for California. Poags’ contact with him virtually ended, although they received several postcards from David. In California, he taught creative writing at Pomona College, married, became disoriented by changing his medications, and committed suicide by hanging on September 12, 2008. The Poags attended a memorial service for him in Bloomington.

Summing Up

It was only several months into their friendship that Doug and other members of the Poag family began to realize that their friend David Foster Wallace was an important person in American literature and culture. That was during Wallace’s final work on Infinite Jest, which was finished by June 1994 and published about six months after their friendship began. Especially since his untimely death, they wish they had paid better attention and remembered more about their times with him and what he said and did.

Looking back at her friendship with Wallace, Meg says, “I think what impressed me most about Dave was his curiosity. He genuinely loved to explore other's minds and realities. Actually, he was almost obsessed with it. This made it infinitely interesting, and also fun to be around him when I was young and loved to talk about myself! I am not sure what Dave found so engaging about my family, but I am so glad he was drawn to us as much as we were drawn to him.”

Erin recalls that Wallace was very “hard on himself” as well as on his students. He “didn’t talk freely of himself,” and never talked about himself or his writings in the classroom. He was “very moral” in sticking to his commitments, as with the Alcoholics Anonymous program and the people who attended meetings with him.

Doug found Wallace to be a shy, charming, unpretentious person, despite his increasing fame. He was “extremely funny and warmhearted, yet very dark and hurtful,” especially of women, with whom he had many affairs because women were so drawn to his charismatic character. He was “the most articulate human being ever” and possessed a “level of sensitivity to the world around him” that created agony in him every day. In his AA group he found his best, longest lasting community. The attenders loved him, enjoyed his humor and were inspired by his commitment to the twelve-step program.

Wallace apparently found in the Poag family a simple pleasure that he had lacked throughout his life: a happy, “normal” family life. The Poags represented a stable, middle-class nuclear family with parent-figures and siblings. They were intelligent, accepting people, comfortable with their religious faith, socially aware and engaged in community service projects. That they were of a marginal religious group must have appealed to the spiritual quester and social critic in Wallace, who also found meaning among the marginalized people who attended Alcoholics Anonymous.

Alienated from his own parents, with the Poags he could hang out in the living room, eat pizza and watch popular television programs. The Poag home offered David Foster Wallace informal therapy and was a comfortable middle ground between the academic and popular cultures whose conflicting appeals obsessed him.

R.I.P.

The author is deeply indebted to Doug, Erin and Meg Poag for their extensive personal and candid contributions to this report.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck, Emeritus Professor of English at Goshen College, is co-editor of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, author of many publications on Mennonite literature and folk culture, including MennoFolk and MennoFolk2, published by Herald Press, and compiler of the three Mennonite bibliographies linked on the CMW homepage. From 2006-07 he taught English and dramatic literature at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania. He was on the planning committee for the two Mennonite/s Writing conferences held at Goshen College in 1997 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.