My Formative Years

And Yet…: Essays
By Christopher Hitchens
352 pp. Atlantic Books. $18.

I was raised in a big family and after a mostly forgotten year enrolled at a Christian kindergarten in Phoenix, Arizona, I was homeschooled up until the time I was 18. Up until that age, social encounters for me involved attending the youth group at my church — though I was far too shy to actually go up and talk to anyone — and having a can of Coke with the elderly couple whose yard I maintained. It was, along with babysitting at the aforementioned church, my first job, and then 18 came and suddenly I was thrust out into the world, starting college and getting a part time job, at Starbucks, more or less at the same time.

It was jarring, to say the least. I had no social skills to speak of, and were it not for the five siblings I’d spent nearly my entire life with, the thought of actually interacting with people my own age would have sent tremors through me. Instead, growing up, it was only talking to girls my own age that did this.

When I tell people about growing up, which is rarely necessary these days, I skip over many of the stranger details, but inevitably I’ll be asked why my parents made the decision to homeschool my siblings and me. For religious reasons, I invariably reply. For my parents were confident that were any of us to actually attend school, never mind a public school — the old terror momentarily fills me just by writing the word — we would certainly be corrupted and found injecting heroin in the bathroom, while simultaneously engaged in promiscuous sex, of course (funny how they always said the word “sex” with “promiscuous” in front of it … there simply was no other kind).

Likewise, I recall from a young age being informed by my father what scoundrels Democrats were, all of them. There simply were no good Democrats. “Liberal” was an even worse word.

At some point in the mid-90s, my sister and I both had a job walking the neighbor’s dogs. We were thrilled at the prospect of each earning $5 on a daily basis and the neighbor was a lovely woman. She was younger, in her 30s, and recovering from breast cancer. I remember my sister and I wondering aloud why she didn’t have hair, something that I only later realized was from the chemotherapy she endured.

That job lasted for a few weeks, as I remember, until one day she knocked on our door to pay us for the last week and my dad answered. Before I knew it, the two were in the midst of a heated argument. “You’re a teacher, right?” I can still remember my father saying in his accusatory way. “Of course you support Clinton.”

So it was that it wasn’t until I started college that I was really exposed to any new ideas. Or at least, any new ideas that weren’t immediately labeled by my parents as somehow “immoral.” It was during this time that a friend and I were invited to an event a nearby university was putting on, a debate on religion featuring Christopher Hitchens and the, now very disgraced, evangelical Christian Dinesh D’Souza.

I didn’t really know much about Hitchens at the time, but I very much recognized my father, or rather, his ideas, in the conservative D’Souza.

Needless to say, D’Souza never stood a chance.

Following the event, I was able to speak with Hitchens a bit, and got a copy of his book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, which he was kind enough to sign. It was a formative experience, to be sure, as the encounter and my subsequent readings and conversations led many of the ideas I’d formed up through my adolescence to fall away.

I have since gone quite the other way. I’m an atheist, though not as militant about it as perhaps I once was, and am as far from a Republican as its likely to get in this day and age. I know many who have experienced a similar transformation, to the point that I often joke that the surest way that parents can ensure liberal, atheist adults is to try and raise them to be close-minded, religious zealots.

Unlike the aforementioned “god is Not Great” and his other collection of essays, Arguably: Selected Essays, only two or three of the essays in “And Yet” actually deal with religion at all. Some deal with American politics, and feel somewhat dated as a result, while most are book reviews that double as profiles of famous individuals.

One thing I do like about Hitchens is that his book reviews are only occasionally about the books themselves and more often an excuse for him to spout off on whatever the topic of the book is.

I can’t help but wonder what Hitchens would say if he were alive now, in 2020 — the age of coronavirus, Trump, Brexit, economic migration, and border walls. That we don’t have his knowledge, his blistering scorn, and, most of all, his miraculous wit highlighting the issues of the day is a great loss.

But reading his past works, feeling the weight of his words on the topics of yesterday, lend us perhaps some insight into all that he might have said.

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