“A Unitarian Universalist can believe anything.” – Michelle Huneven interviewed by Scott Simon for NPR (April 23, 2022)
When a dear and trusted friend of mine recently reached out to me and excitedly told me that I needed to read the book Search by Michelle Huneven, I winced at first and informed her that like many people in the Unitarian Universalist (UU) orbit, I had heard about the book but not read it…yet. Truth be told, I was actually engaged in a silent personal boycott of the piece for all of last year. Knowing that it was a thinly veiled retelling of an actual situation surrounding a ministerial search and the committee carrying out that search in one of our churches, I didn’t want to support the author or its success in any way. My feeling was that buying a copy was an endorsement of trading on personal relationships for profit. I literally study ethics for a living so that’s just not cool.
But as I currently spend up to 6 hours a week on the road between Charlottesville, VA and Laurel, MD, I was looking for something to put into my audiobook rotation after listening to Vine Deloria’s God is Red and Prince Harry’s Spare, so out of curiosity and knowing I had kind of already paid for it, I used my monthly Audible credit and downloaded it.
At the outset it felt like the perfect road warrior listening. It was a subject I knew well so I didn’t need to listen too closely and it was delivered in an entertaining, if almost caricature like UU voice (if there is a UU caricature voice) so it was mildly amusing as well. But very quickly, I realized that this was not just a book devoted to ‘telling tales out of school’ as it were, but that there might be something else more important than passing time on I-66 for me and others to get from this piece.
Being an academic, I relented and purchased a paperback copy, switched over and began diving in, pencil in hand.
There is no question that Search is a well written book. It is extremely flavorful (like the included recipes) and sits lightly on the palate. But I think it runs into problems when it hits the stomach. I’m not necessarily speaking to the craft and structure of the book, or even to the questionable ethics of the novel/memoir approach to the subject matter that is disturbingly meta (an actual food critic and novelist who served on a church search committee, writing a book about a food critic serving on a search committee, who is writing a book about a search committee…through food; M.C. Escher couldn’t draw that.) The “types” are all real. Having been professionally involved with 5 different UU congregations, I’ve seen them all in the flesh. I’ve also been involved in some of the challenging situations (misconduct, removing committee members, conflicts between youth and elders, etc.) I also have the unique perspective of having been a minister in the Unitarian Universalist search process, likely during the same period when our protagonist/author was involved in her search…judging by the stats and some of the candidates described. I’ve had the experience of preaching in a “neutral pulpit” and then as a settled minister providing one. I have been involved in a “negotiated settlement” which is incorrect lingo (negotiated resignation). This is all legit…if also wildly impolitic to share as source material for a public piece.
Where Search really gives me gas, however, is in its (mis)portrayal of people of color within a Unitarian Universalist context and what that ultimately says, not about the protagonist (“Dana”, a member of the ministerial search committee), but about the author Michelle Huneven. As a black, gay Unitarian Universalist minister, Huneven’s attempt at representation here is entirely inedible.
The three principle people of color on the search committee in the book, “Adrian” (African American, male), “Jennie” (Asian-American, female) and “Curtis” (Filipino-American, male) are given to the reader in troubling ways. I won’t go into full character analysis of these people, but I can offer key perspectives from the narrator that illustrate my point.
First, we get the sense of a simmering, albeit unrequited, sexual fascination for the lone African American man in the entire book, Adrian, who is an age contemporary to Dana on the committee. The “relationship” between the two, despite being entirely in her imagination, is repeatedly referred to as a possible “love interest” for the book she is writing. This despite the fact that Adrian is all business with Dana…chummy but professional and somewhat remote. He gives her no indication that such a closeness is in the offing. As it is, Dana has a husband, Jack, although he appears more like a roommate than a sexual partner (something most evident when Dana and Jack engage in a clumsy conversation about polyamory). They never share anything as charged and intimate as her imagined near kiss after a committee meeting with Adrian. As one of many African American men who has been physically objectified and unwillingly projected on the sexual fantasies of white women in predominantly white spaces, this story telling choice made me physically nauseous on behalf of the “imaginary” Adrian character. Yuk.
Next, Jennie is a young adult of Japanese-American descent. Her mother, Virgie Kanematsu Ross who is Japanese, is portrayed as being aggressively manipulating, using a financial contribution to get Jennie on the search committee and somewhat impossible to please (Asian mother trope). Jennie herself is then described in an earlier relationship with one of the ministerial candidates (a white male) as what can only be seen as a modern-day equivalent of the racist concept of a “dragon lady” who won’t take no for an answer. His rebuff biases Jennie’s decisions on the committee and scuttles any possibility of him as a candidate. As we get to know Jennie through Dana, she comes across as relentless, bullying, selfish, self-righteous and frankly, dangerous (the descriptions of her tattoos and clothing read like an encroaching threat). The only redeeming quality she is offered are her cookies and her muffins.
Finally, Curtis is offered as a commentary on Christianity that, from a multi-faith perspective, is simply offensive. Despite being a lifelong churchgoer (evangelical Christian) he is given to be utterly ignorant of what church is, how it works or why people attend. He’s made out to be a blind follower with no will of his own. Prior to coming to the UU church, Curtis and his gay partner are tolerated by the Filipino evangelical community (references to Curtis’ “Aunties” abound). According to the story laid out by Huneven, they leave this community after their surrogate suffers a miscarriage and the evangelicals try to essentially pray the gay away in a prayer circle, traumatizing Curtis. Curtis defects to his husband’s UU church. The description of the evangelical reaction to this tragedy is a bald and ignorant insult to Christian communities and sets up the UU church and minister as a literal white savior.
Huneven includes several other characters with people of color identity, or multi-racial identity (the elder stateswoman candidate…a black woman…provides a cartoonishly preachy interview in language that is straight out of black preacher central casting). At several points, the author also attempts to raise the bar of racial awareness with a handful of slim insights from the white candidating ministers about privilege. But overall, Huneven’s tone and approach to diversity throughout the book comes across as poorly researched, ill-informed, exhausted, and even a little impatient. Where was the editor?
Here is where I believe reading Search might be useful for Unitarian Universalists. Do not read this book to gain insight into ministerial search committee dynamics. Do not read it for entertainment. Do not read it to learn how to write a book. Do not even read it for the recipes. Instead, reflecting the Widening the Circle of Concern (2020) report, UU communities have the opportunity to recognize that Search reveals the author as a perfect example of the kind of ignorance and lack of self awareness that is most problematic in our communities. Regardless of what her personal experience may be, Huneven’s writing displays no relational sense of what it means to be in close community with marginalized communities…people of color or LGBTQ people or people of different religious identity, etc. Huneven, not Dana, paints a world where the only people who have any nuance or empathy or interest or real story arc at all are the ones who reflect her own social location in some way. “Helen”, a search consultant and old friend represents Dana’s past; “Elsa”, a ministerial candidate who is Dana’s age, represents missed opportunities (Dana briefly attended seminary); “Belinda”, the elder committee member represents Dana’s destiny and maybe an aspiration; all of them are white women who are fully fleshed out with strength and vulnerability. Certainly, an author will always write what they know. But a better writer would not then relegate literally every non-white character to a set of cringe inducing tropes and two dimensional story lines. If Search is any indication, Huneven’s world is entirely and exclusively created from white, female, heterosexual perspectives, with no hint of self-reflection. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with white, female, heterosexual perspectives. But an insidious cultural violence emerges when that (or any) perspective is broadcast as an unspoken and absolute norm of being against which everything else is diminished. This is particularly true when a steady stream of insulting historical biases and assumptions about the “other” that come with Western dominant norms are reinscribed, reaffirmed and laughed off as profitable wit.
It is no secret that actual Unitarian Universalists have enough challenges around diversity without this book being in the world. But with it, we may have an opportunity. In many ways, Huneven has shown the worst of what narrow perceptions of people of color, or judgmental straight monogamous perceptions of queer and polyamorous relationships, or dismissive middle-aged perceptions of youth can look like from a dominant point of view. While she may have intended to offer humor and cleverness, what Huneven in fact does is expose herself, not her characters, as the problem.
(I reside obliviously in my entirely white-only, intellectual, elite world, where I can be safely offbeat, irreverent, a-religious, and quirky, colloquially referring to my pet donkeys as “donks”. Not only does my world know nothing first hand or even vaguely intimate of the people who would call themselves “marginalized”, but I don’t care…unless they help me look at myself better in the mirror…or sell books…or both! Amen.)
Continuing the food analogy, Search is basically a sponge cake of opportunism filled with a hidden jelly center of dangerous cultural ignorance that feeds the anti-woke rhetoric around this country. Any real or perceived dysfunction of Unitarian Universalist ministerial search is not the real problem here. The fact of this book, i.e. liberals who don’t care enough to care authentically and face no threat of harm or adversity for not caring…because they profit from not caring…so they are careless…this is the real problem. (More literary Escher.)
My friend is right. I believe that Unitarian Universalists do need to read this book. But they should only buy one copy and take turns reading it between their friends. Then they should return it to the bookstore for a refund because racism doesn’t go down well…even with a lot of wine.