Inheriting the Crazy Bible: My Grandfather and Me

“Who in the World is Casually Throwing Around the ‘C Word’?!”

Sarah Condon / 8.11.20

In our family we have what has come to be known as the “Crazy Bible.”

We know that religion was a huge part of my grandfather’s struggle with bipolar depression. It is well remembered in family stories and documented in the records from the military psychiatric facilities where he desperately tried to get well. We know he was deeply involved in the local charismatic Baptist church. Sometimes when he was in a manic episode he would have the entire family on their knees praying in the kitchen. Whenever I think of that image I always think of my grandmother. I wonder what she was must have been thinking. I wonder if my infant mother was there and if my grandmother was attempting to hold her and follow her husband’s manically devout whims.

He would die by suicide in 1955. He would just miss the discovery of lithium as an incredibly effective treatment for his illness.

But the Crazy Bible would only come into my life this year.

I know that “crazy” is not the preferred nomenclature for mental illness. I worked as a chaplain in a psychiatric hospital, and it took me an entire week to figure out that, when we were told not to use the “c word,” “crazy” was the “c word” everyone was talking about. Up until that moment of enlightenment, I kept silently thinking, “Who in the world is casually throwing around the ‘c word’?!”

Still, families are not clinical settings. And we have to deal with the pain and loss of suicide with a touch of humor. Otherwise, the burden of grief can just become too much.

Besides, the Crazy Bible is really kind of funny.

For starters, it is massive. Like, was intended for a library. I keep thinking about this small country house in the Mississippi Delta with a Bible the size of a medium dachshund just sitting there. Also hilarious is the fact that my grandfather gave this Bible to my grandmother for her birthday. My grandmother was a beautiful blonde who loved jewelry and driving a white Cadillac. As a child I clearly remember our favorite part of church was just getting dressed up for it — and, of course, the compliments that we would get as the grandmother-granddaughter fashionable duo perched on the pew of the Baptist church.

I do not remember her ever really talking about religion. And I imagine her getting that giant Bible was like the world’s most hilariously awkward birthday. “Goodness Woodrow,” I can hear her saying to my grandfather. And then I wonder what she said after that. I feel like she was either cautiously gentle or outright pissed.

My mother once described me as “the keeper of the family Bibles.” It is a role I treasure. I have a whole stack of them. I have family Bibles from other people’s families because their adult children had no interest. I have German family Bibles, and we are not German. I love them for so many reasons. I pour over them for inspiration and to see what flowers and notes are tucked inside. But mostly, I love to see what is underlined and written in the margins.

Was this person a student of scripture? Did they take take notes as the pastor taught? Or is the underlining few and far between, as though you know the reader would swear to herself that she was going to read it everyday and then (like most of us) life pulled her into another direction. But even then, what little is underlined and written in the margins matters.

The Crazy Bible was clearly used by my grandfather. This is not a huge surprise to me. I do not know much about him, but I know that he loved knowledge and that he would have had very little access to it. One of the first things I found was a blank page where he had scribbled out a Biblical timeline. It struck me how little grace there was in it. Jesus is only mentioned once, and it just says “Christ” with a crudely drawn cross. For some reason the part where he scribbles “world destroyed” along with the flood is particularly heartbreaking to me. And of course the whole of Biblical history leads to “rapture” (his words).

I wonder why he felt that he needed to remind himself of this.

So much of what he underlines are the most legalistic parts of scripture. And that’s painful to see, too. There is a liability that the church has long had for making mental illness worse for our most vulnerable believers. I shudder to think of the things he heard from pulpits that only drove him further into feeling as though he could never meet the mark.

This summer I have felt a strong connection to my grandfather for other reasons too. While I was long ago diagnosed with anxiety, the pandemic has increased my own chemical imbalances ten-fold. Mothering, working, and just surviving had become paralyzing tasks for me. In May I decided to start psychiatric medication. And it has made an indescribable difference.

My grandfather was always this looming figure: dead, complicated, and tragic all at once. He was so different from me, or so I thought. When I started to feel better this summer I realized how much he and I probably shared. We have felt called to the service of Jesus and love to learn about scripture. We both have known struggle. Neither of us was gifted with the best brain chemistry. But these days I kind of wonder who is.

The one comfort I discovered in his Bible is that he had marked off the beatitudes in Matthew. And my prayer for my grandfather Woodrow is that he saw himself included in all of those categories Jesus calls blessed: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. It’s my prayer for me, too.

So I now see us together when I flip through the pages of the giant Crazy Bible that now belongs to me. Woodrow and I standing in the margins of scripture. Hoping that the grace of God includes us, too.