Book Review: Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

One thing I learned from Chee: no honest writer can simply write “what happened.” Especially diving into his later essays, one learns while reading “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” that writing is not mere reflection or a detailing of facts. Honest writing—true writing—is itself action. And it is no less action than the events described. 

I realized this most deeply in his essay “The Guardians,” where one feels not only the pain of a historical trauma but also the struggle of a writer to work things into words. The writing itself aches and is pained at times in a way that sets it apart from his opening essays, which feel in comparison a much more removed reflection on times abroad and tarot card reading. 

And the writing particularly in “The Guardians” is so effective that it is not only action of the writer, but action of the reader as well, at least in my case where I felt my own aching and a struggle to bring Chee’s writing into myself. Chee’s writing induced struggle through the memories and emotions it brought to life in my own world of reading on the train to work. I thus felt a threefold activity: that of the historical person written about in his essay, that of the writer fighting with himself for the accounting of a history, and that of the reader having his own struggle with this encounter. Chee’s writing is thus a multilayered theater where it is not always clear who is watching, who is performing, and who is producing. Book buyers beware.

Aside from this strange magic, you can find so many things in this essay collection. Chee’s essay on growing and loving and learning about roses is just as lovely and moving as any story about raising children. His reflections as a writer will exhort struggling writers to persevere and find inspiration. I was especially happy to see him share advice originally received from Annie Dillard. His tales of being a young gay man in San Francisco will make modern history come alive and make you want to change the world, even if only by printing fake newspaper pages and wrapping thousands of copies of the local paper in them by night. Pick up “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” if you want to spend time with some excellent writing, if you’d like to wander life with a thoughtful explorer, or both.

You can order a copy here.


Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

Failed Formation: Archbishop Naumann’s Response to a Gay Couple

Many Catholics have been following the controversy regarding a married same-sex couple attempting to enroll their child in a Catholic elementary school in Kansas. Upon the advice of diocesan leaders, the school decided to refuse admission to the child, and after considerable media attention, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City provided a public response. Daniel Quinan, a canon lawyer and personal friend, considered Archbishop Naumann’s statement and identified a number of issues from a Catholic perspective. Because I found his comments penetrating and clarifying, I asked if I could share them here, and Dan agreed. Dan’s comments are included below as commentary on sections of Archbishop Naumann’s letter.

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Book Review: Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know

Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know is perhaps the most understated memoir I’ve read thus far. But that doesn’t mean it fails to move the reader. I had several motives for picking her book off the shelf. As a Pacific Islander living in a state with serious racial tensions (Minnesota), I hoped to more seriously explore questions of race in this memoir about growing up as a Korean-American in a white household. As a gay man living in a largely Catholic community, I wanted to see if she could offer insight on the experience of one who has lived with unacknowledged misunderstandings for most of his life. As a partnered man in new adulthood, I wanted to get a perspective on adoption that might help me discern whether to adopt in the future. And as an aspiring memoirist, I wanted to read a book by someone who had succeeded in the long journey to publication. On none of these counts did she disappoint. 

Chung presents an honest story, one where not all loose ends are tied up, not everyone finds reconciliation, and many questions remain unanswered. She does not write a story for closure, but for understanding, and for posterity. She realizes, in giving advice to a young couple, that adoption isn’t a “right” or “wrong” decision. It’s just a complicated one, no matter the circumstances, and the complications should be acknowledged. Of course, adoptive parents can offer all of the love in the world to their children, but they should also be prepared to face the fact that in today’s world their love will not be enough to shield their families from complication. They should face and accept this. Chung doesn’t advise against adoption; she’s happy to tell prospective parents that they will love their children well. She just wants parents to adopt with their eyes open.

In the memoir, you can’t help but feel some reconciliation to these complications, and how she uses her history to make something more for her children. Chung writes how she had spent decades disassociated from her biological family history, and as you near the end of her memoir, you start to realize that she has created something beautiful for her own children. The answers she had always sought from her birth parents about the past will be awaiting her own children on a bookshelf at home. 

The book does not have high drama, and the stakes for Chung in her search for familial understanding are largely interior. But the reader experiences them as very real nonetheless. She does not overdramatize, and her writing is rarely forceful, which is surprising considering that Chung considers herself to be a very strong willed person. I thought some of her strongest passages in this respect were her reflections towards the end on pushing her adoptive family to set aside their “colorblind” approach to race and stare at the issues that have hung over her life since childhood. 

One cannot help but be moved by the passionate love story that blossoms in Chung’s reconciliation with her birth sister, Cindy. I won’t write too much about it. You should just read it for yourself. 

You can order a copy here.


Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

In The Atlantic: Parents Respond to the Clergy Abuse Crisis

On March 17, my work with YArespond (a collection of young adults committed to holistic and informed responses to the clergy abuse crisis) was featured in an article in The Atlantic. The piece explored how parents are responding to the current crisis in Catholicism and included:

In 2018, after the Pennsylvania grand-jury report, Chris Damian, an author and attorney based in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, co-founded YArespond, a group that hosts events for young Catholic adults to get together and discuss the crisis in the Church. At a meeting in August, more than 100 attendees gathered in the basement of a Minneapolis church to express sentiments including worry, disillusionment, anger, and grief. According to Damian’s blog, one attendee said, “There’s no way I would let my child be an altar server.”

You can read the full article here.


Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

The Death of Objective Morality

More and more we find that objective moral teaching is dead. Perhaps for lack of interest, perhaps for lack of commitment. And perhaps it should be. My own interests now lie more in the intersection, or the integration, of the objective and subjective components of moral teaching. Or perhaps “moral teaching” isn’t the right term, and it would be better for me to say “moral practice,” or “moral experience.”

“Objective moral teaching,” as a child of the Enlightenment, has died with the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, with its gnostic forms and pursuits, sought always the objective, separated out from our own personal lives and experiences. It wanted to rip away the individual and personal, and to rise up to the repeatable, the reducible, the observable and recordable components of life and experience. It rejected that which could not be reduced to a laboratory or formula. And what is that which we call objective moral teaching, other than a formula?

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Lessons from a Survivor of Clergy Abuse

This post was originally published on YArespond.

YArespond recently hosted a survivor of clergy sexual abuse for an evening conversation, so that we can better understand, respond to, and facilitate healing for survivors. We learned a lot from our three-hour discussion, but here are just a few of the takeaways:

“How do you heal in the Church when the abuse was from the Church?”

Continue reading “Lessons from a Survivor of Clergy Abuse”

Inside the Closet of the Vatican: Interview on Viewpoints with Todd van der Heyden

I was recently featured on Viewpoints with Todd van der Heyden, where we discussed Catholicism, homosexuality, the Vatican summit on the clergy abuse crisis, and Frédéric Martel’s recently released book “Inside the Closet of the Vatican.”


Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

Clerical Transparency vs. “Coming Out”

Father Thomas Petri is Vice President and Academic Dean at the Dominican House of Studies (where I discerned, with much sadness, that I did not have a Dominican vocation). He also co-hosts The Church Alive on EWTN radio. His public statements can carry some weight in the American Church, and because his above comment is representative of one faction of American Catholicism, it merits discussion.

Continue reading “Clerical Transparency vs. “Coming Out””