This reading group guide for Amen, Amen, Amen includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Abby Sher. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In this vivid, humorous, and candid memoir, Abby Sher invites us into a life consumed by rituals. When she is ten, Abby’s favorite aunt and father both grow ill and pass away unexpectedly. Overcome with a grief she does not know how to handle, she takes to rituals of comfort: kissing her father’s picture repeatedly, singing songs as she passes familiar landmarks, and praying incessantly for the safety and health of others. Soon, her fervent prayers for the protection of those around her have consumed her life. As Abby transitions into adulthood, her compulsions manifest in new and darker ways. This is her tale of living with obsessive compulsive disorder—a life filled with tragedy, impermanence, and uncertainty, but also joy, passion, and comedy. And, most importantly, an unshakable faith that both nourishes and confounds her being, forever and always, amen.
Questions for Discussion
1. Abby provides a number of examples of early compulsive behavior. Are these innocent childhood habits or do they indicate a predisposition to OCD? Do you think her father’s and aunt’s deaths in some way led to her OCD?
2. Discuss Abby’s experiences with death as a child, a teenager, and an adult. How does David’s death make the imagined accidents more real? How do her ideas about guilt and responsibility evolve with each new experience?
3. Discuss the role of prayer in Abby’s life and the different things she prays for. How are her fears of death and danger related to what she prays for? In what ways do her prayers help her and hinder her?
4. Abby’s various compulsions/obsessions evolve and take shape over the course of her life. From singing the cement mixer song to picking up sharp objects to kissing her bike to pounding her head. List and discuss her rituals and compulsions. How do these rituals relate to the circumstances of her life at different times? What are the motivations behind each of them?
5. After going on medication, many of Abby’s compulsions are eased but, she writes, “I had the sense that G-d was not pleased with my decision to medicate.” Why does she feel that acknowledging her OCD undermines her piety? Is her faith distinct from her illness, or is it connected? Does the medication make her less devout?
6. How does Abby’s intense friendship with Ruthie challenge her notions of self? How is their relationship similar to that of Abby and Ellyn or Abby and her mother? Consider the ways that Ruthie both broadens Abby’s horizons and becomes an unhealthy obsession.
7. What does Abby relish about being on stage? How do her feelings about performing change over time and why?
8. What factors contribute to Abby’s progression from counting calories to over-exercising to self-mutilation? Why do you think her adult compulsions are more self-directed than earlier ones? How do her prayers change as these behaviors manifest?
9. Consider Abby’s romantic relationships with Will, Tristan, Mark, Ben, and Jay. How does her reverence for G-d, and for her father, complicate these romances? What expectations does she have of the men she loves and what expectations does she have of herself? Ultimately, she and Jay find happiness together; what compromises and epiphanies allow them to make it work?
10. Abby relies on and adores her mother, but their relationship isn’t always close. How does it shift over the course of the book? Which events draw them together or pull them apart? Does her mother help with or enable Abby’s illness and her compulsions? Discuss the significance of the chapters “the incredible shrinking truth” and “start spreading the news.”
11. Abby’s mother values restraint, she writes, and rarely reveals distress. How does her restraint affect Abby and the way they communicate? In what ways does Abby follow her mother’s example or reject it?
12. How do the lists, prayers, and photographs help to frame Abby’s story? Does the way she writes about the formation of new prayers and the manner in which she must say them help you understand her thinking?
13. Abby’s love for her parents shapes many of her beliefs and experiences. How does the advent of her own parenthood change her outlook on her past, her faith, and her health?
14. Discuss the various ways that Abby is “faithful.” Faithful to G-d, to her father, to her ideal of family, and others. Does faithfulness or loyalty become an obsession for her?
15. Look for passages in the book in which Abby describes her feelings about G-d and her relationship with Him. What does she believe He wants from her? How do those passages change over the course of the book? At the end of the book has she found a balance between her understanding of Him and her illness?
Expand Your Book Club
1. We all have rituals, routines, and superstitions. Have each member of the group describe one of theirs. Have any of these habits become compulsions? Discuss the borderline between the two.
2. Visit http://www.ocdonline.com/ to learn more about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Have one group member present the technical definition of the disorder to the group.
3. Produce some lists of your own, in the same spirit as the author’s. Can you come up with ten things you believe fervently? Or five things that you do every day?
A Conversation with Abby Sher
1. When and how did you decide to write a memoir? How long did it take you to write it?
I actually wanted to write a memoir years ago, but then decided it would be too painful and I didn’t really have resolution with my story. Then a personal essay of mine was published in SELF in 2007, and I got a lot of good feedback from readers, including an editor who wondered if I would be interested in expanding it into a book. From start to finish it probably took me two years to write, although it will never feel finished.
2. What was the process like? Were there things you remembered that surprised you? Did the shape of the book or the way you presented your story evolve or change over the course of writing it?
I loved writing this story. It was incredibly freeing. First structuring a proposal and finding some of the through lines, then having a purpose and goal to my writing each day. I usually have to write everything by hand first, then go through and put it in the computer, editing as I do this. Writing by hand often makes me wander and that’s where I find the memories that could be somewhat hidden. My fabulous editor really challenged me and helped me dig in deeper on each draft.
3. Throughout the book you mention not wanting to discuss your prayers or mention Him. Yet here you have written a book about them. How and when did you arrive at a point when you were more comfortable writing and talking about your faith and your relationship with G-d?
This is probably the hardest part about publishing the book. I still want to keep my faith secret in many ways. But as I continue to work on my obsessions, it gets more important for me to be honest and open. Secrecy has always been for me a sign of anxiety.
4. Were there parts of the book that were harder to write than others? Did you find it easier to write about your experiences as an adult, seeing as they are more recent, or your childhood experiences?
I definitely had more fun writing about my childhood because I have more distance from those memories and could almost observe them unfold. Also, I miss my aunt and father, who died when I was young, very much and it felt like I got to play with them as I wrote about them. The later years were harder because I’m not proud of many of my actions, and it was hard to take ownership of my mistakes and the way I hurt people.
5. In the book you write about the difficulty of reconciling your illness and your faith. How would you describe OCD in your own terms? How do the two coexist in your life today?
I think a lot of people view OCD as an obstacle or struggle. For me it was and continues to be a survival skill. Especially my prayers. They helped me through the hardest times in my life. I still try to pray daily for at least half an hour. I also time myself, to make sure I live life fully. I think my greatest challenge is to think about what I’m saying and doing, before I require myself to repeat it again.
6. You write that anorexia is an imperfect description of your eating disorder because of your OCD. Why is that?
Anorexia felt like it was only addressing what I put in my mouth, not the tornado in my brain. But as many doctors have told me, the starving or bingeing or whatever your disorder entails is just a way to mask what you’re running from.
7. Will your friends and family be surprised by the book? How much of your internal struggle do they know?
Yes, I’ve had a few friends and my sister read the book already and say “I had no idea.” Another friend looked at the cover and said she was scared to read it. I kept most of this secret for much of my life.
8. You’ve described the book as being part elegy, part adventure, part detective story, and part love story. Would you explain what you mean?
It’s definitely an elegy to my parents. I’m still learning how to honor them without idolizing them. It’s an adventure, because I endowed myself with these super powers and I was sure I was responsible for saving the world. The detective part is a little trickier because I wound up being the villain instead of the hero and had to cover my tracks. And the love story is still evolving. I’m still not sure how but I wound up with a great partner and he’s agreed to stick around and love me and make me omelets on Sunday mornings.
9. Why did you choose the title Amen, Amen, Amen?
I’m sure there are multiple definitions for the word, but I learned that Amen translates to So be it. It’s supposed to be the finale, the end of whatever song or prayer or plea you are offering. But for me, Amen just became another word I had to repeat over and over again. It lost its meaning because I was too busy counting out its syllables and making sure they were divisible by five or three or eleven.
10. What would your mother think of the book?
I really hope she likes it. I love being able to write in her voice. I hope I’ve done her justice, and that I used good grammar.
11. What do you find similar or different about performing comedy versus the more solitary process of writing?
I love both processes. And I think performing in a group, especially improvisation, helps me just throw onto the page whatever comes into my head first. I really try to make that first draft be as uncontrolled and messy as possible. I love writing in coffee shops so that I feel like I’m part of a greater creative whole, but also on my own. And I got to write most of this book while I was pregnant so I always had someone (in my belly) with whom to sound out ideas, which was really fun.
12. Your life now seems remarkably settled. Describe an average day in your life. How do you deal with things when your OCD makes itself known?
Yeah, it’s a little scary to think that I’m settled, but I love my home. I love the rituals that I do continue to observe. I pray when I wake up. I feed my daughter breakfast and then go to a café to write and/or go to a yoga class. My husband leaves for work at midday so I either get to play with my daughter for the afternoon or I teach yoga or write some more. We have a dinner, bath time, and bedtime routine. After she’s asleep I make myself dinner and either do some more work or once in a while get to perform at my friend’s theater. I definitely have rituals I have to watch – extra prayers, picking up litter, restricting my food. I talk about them regularly with a therapist. And I am currently on medication because after I gave birth I was having a lot of anxiety and did try to hurt myself once. I don’t want to subject my family to that.
13. What would you suggest to people who read this and feel that some of the behaviors resonate with them?
Talk about it. Talk about it with someone you trust, be it a doctor, a sibling, a friend or even your diary. So much of OCD, and many addictive behaviors, is about secrecy. It’s always helpful to sound out the stories that are playing on repeat in your head. I’ve also included a resources section at the back of the book – just some doctors, books and institutions that have helped me sort through my obsessions.