Narratives of Personal Experience

Four Voices From Literature
and the American Pilgrimage Project

When Dorothy Day was 8 years old, the great earthquake of 1906 struck San Francisco. It sent people streaming from the city into Oakland, where Day’s family lived. The narrative she wrote recalls both her physical experience and her inner awakening to the value of serving others. Day would go on to spend her adult life in service to the poor, homeless, sick, and marginalized through the Catholic Worker movement.

“Another thing I remember about California was the joy of doing good, of sharing whatever we had with others after the earthquake, an event which threw us out of our complacent happiness into a world of catastrophe.

“It happened early in the morning and it lasted two minutes and twenty seconds, as I heard everyone say afterward. My father was sports editor of the one of the San Francisco papers. There was a racetrack near our bungalow and stables where my father kept a horse. He said the night before had been a sultry one and the horses were restless, neighing and stamping in their stalls, becoming increasingly nervous and panicky. The earthquake started with a deep rumbling and the convulsions of the earth started afterward, so that the earth became a sea which rocked our house in the most tumultuous manner. There was a large windmill and water tank in back of the house and I can remember the splashing of the water from the tank on top of our roof. My father took my brothers from their beds and rushed to the front door, where my mother stood with my sister, whom she had snatched from beside me. I was left in a big brass bed, which rolled back and forth on a polished floor. Whether I realized what was happening I do not know, but I do know that the whole event was confused in my mind with something which might have occurred a few nights earlier, my mother fainting on the floor of my room on her way to the bathroom, and my father carrying her back to bed. The illness of my usually strong and cheerful mother and the earthquake were part of the world’s tragedy to me.

“When the earth settled, the house was a shambles, dishes broken all over the floor, books out of their bookcases, chandeliers down, chimneys fallen, the house cracked from roof to ground. But there was no fire in Oakland. The flames and cloud bank of smoke could be seen across the bay and all the next day the refugees poured over by ferry and boat. Idora Park and the racetrack made camping grounds for them. All the neighbors joined my mother in serving the homeless. Every stitch of available clothes was given away…”

Read all of Day’s memoir, The Long Loneliness (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009).

Elizabeth Duran grew up on Pojoaque Pueblo, Indian tribal land in New Mexico, where she experienced the ways in which US policy damaged the language, culture, and self-sufficiency of her community. The story she told expresses her grief at the loss of her tribal traditions.

“The relocation of American Indians to reservations had a huge impact on the self-sufficiency of American Indians and also on the language and cultural practices, especially while they were being watched or under the care of the US Department of Army. The Indian Boarding School Act had a huge impact because children were forcibly removed from reservation, transported hundreds and thousands of miles away from their tribal communities, and put into boarding schools. Young boys had their hair cut, which was very damaging for their cultural identity. Long hair for males was always a gift that gave them a lot of life and strength. They were prohibited from doing their morning offerings, from doing their traditional prayers, singing their traditional songs. Girls were required to wear Western clothing. Boys were trained to do general labor, to work on farms, carpentry. Girls were taught how to cook and do housekeeping with the idea they would become domestic workers…

“…We were all self-sufficient. We had our gardens. We learned how to preserve our foods without refrigeration, without electricity. We had the traditional mud houses, Adobe houses with mud floors, wood stoves. All of us raised our own animals for food, our gardens for food. I grew up learning the stories of the importance of the serpents to the Pueblos and the one that gave fertility and life to our villages. I grew up learning about the serpents that lived in the Rio Grande and the process of caring for those serpents. I also learned about the need to understand our environment, how you got up in the morning and did your morning prayers. You always said your prayers by standing on earth, not on the sidewalk, not on a wooden step or anything. You stepped on Mother Earth, said your prayer, looked to the east, observed the sun, and, depending on the appearance of the sun, you could tell that it was going to be cold, if it was going to be a rainy day.

“You’d look at the moon at night. It would tell you when you could expect moisture. You would look at the animals. They would tell you whether or not there was going to be change in weather or winter was going to be very cold. We could look at the trees and the plants, the birds. We were taught how to study all these things, and a lot of that’s been lost.”

Elizabeth Duran’s story was recorded on November 26, 2018; audio and full text are available here. Excerpt courtesy of the American Pilgrimage Project, a partnership between Georgetown University and StoryCorps.

In the 1960s, Lois Reiner helped Barbara Cotton become the first African American to live in Valparaiso, Indiana. This town was still a “sundown” community, where people of color faced curfews, restrictions, exclusions, and outright bans. Reiner’s simple personal story, told to her friend Kristen Lewis, leads to a revelation about the essence of her faith. 


The night of August the 25th, 1968, was my epiphany. This woman by the name of Barbara Cotton worked in the office where Walt had his office. She said to him, “Your kids can be going home safe. They’re going to good schools. Why can’t my children have the same as yours?” Well, when Walt threw that out to me, I said, “Walk the talk, Reiner, okay?” We’ve got to be a Christian. We’ve got to love the neighbor.


And now the neighbor was asking you something.


And this was a time when there was not one Black family in Valparaiso, in Porter County…


…What was the conversation like when you went back to Mrs. Cotton and said, “We want to help you move to our community?”


She said, “I pictured myself in a little red house in the Valley. And every realtor said we will be the first.” Well, we lived in the valley, and we had a side lot. So, we built on that side lot, a little red house…Right next door to us. It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life…[to] build the house and become neighbors to the first Black family…


…What were some of the warnings from the community?


Cross burnings, cars coming down the driveway late at night with their lights off. We were the only people down in that valley, and it’s pretty creepy down there at night. Barbara and I would both get calls at night. No sound, just deep breathing. That’s when we started the night watch…They were mainly VU (Valparaiso University) faculty. They’d come in two-hour shifts. Two to four guys started at eight o’clock at night and went till six o’clock in the morning. There was a tool shed between our two houses, and we kept a coffee pot called “the blessed urn.”


How long did the night watch last?


About six months, until Barbara finally said, “That’s enough. If I can’t make it on my own, I’m not staying.” She stayed and she went to school. She started college. She graduated from VU.


How did that change your understanding of your faith or your call to be a Christian?


It pared it down to just basic decency. Just do what’s right.

Lois Reiner’s story was recorded on May 3, 2019; audio and full text are available here. Excerpt courtesy of the American Pilgrimage Project, a partnership between Georgetown University and StoryCorps.

Walker Percy was a novelist and essayist, with interests in philosophy, semiotics, and his Roman Catholic religion. While teaching at Loyola University of New Orleans, Percy was approached by the mother of John Kennedy Toole, a writer who had committed suicide over his failure to publish. Percy played an important role in the posthumous publication of Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Percy wrote the Foreword to this important American novel.

“Perhaps the best way to introduce this novel—which on my third reading of it astounds me even more than the first—is to tell of my first encounter with it. While I was teaching at Loyola in 1976 I began to get telephone calls from a lady unknown from me. What she proposed was preposterous. It was not that she had written a couple of chapters of a novel and wanted to get into my class. It was that her son, who was dead, had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel, and she wanted me to read it. Why would I want to do that? I asked her. Because it is a great novel, she said.

“Over the years I have become very good at getting out of things I don’t want to do. And if ever there was something I didn’t want to do, this was surely it: to deal with the mother of a dead novelist and, worst of all, to have to read a manuscript that she said was great, and that, as it turned out, was a badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon.

“But the lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.

“In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good. I shall resist the temptation to say what first made me gape, grin, laugh out loud, shake my head in wonderment. Better let the reader make the discovery on his own.”

Read Walker Percy’s narrative fiction, the National Book Award-winning novel, The Moviegoer (New York, NY: Farrar Straus & Giroux Classics, 2019), with a foreword by Paul Elie.