“The obliterated place is equal parts destruction and creation. The obliterated place is pitch black and bright light. It is water and parched earth. It is mud and it is manna. The real work of deep grief is making a home there.”
—Cheryl Strayed, from Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
Cheryl Strayed is not Jewish and she claims to be an atheist. But for all that she can sound very rabbinic. In her advice column for The Rumpus, under the pseudonym Sugar, she is worldly and wise, foul-mouthed and soul searching, fierce with passion and unstinting in the depths of her compassion. She gives many readers a kind of spiritual care.
She can do this because she has herself traversed deep turmoil—abuse as a child, abandonment by her father, the loss of her mother as a young adult—and can speak openly about her own experiences in a very raw way that also illuminates a path to healing. What she writes is like no advice column you’ve ever read before, because what she offers is never a set of do’s and don’ts from on high, but personal essays that are as unsparing about her own mistakes as they about those of the people who write her. I think she inspires trust because she is generous in what she divulges.
The advice column, like the therapist’s chair, is in many ways a secularized version of what would once have been seeking guidance—or absolution—from clergy. One of the most powerful letters in her collection is one she wrote to a father who had lost his only son at the age of 22 in a car accident, who years after the event was still incapicitated by his grief. In this response, she writes about “the obliterated place”—the place within, scorched and seared, where you carry your deepest sorrow.