By ANNIE BOKEN
Last Thursday, about 140 people joined Saint Louis University professor Mark Chmiel, Ph.D., as they shared in the memory of the late Mev Puleo, a SLU alumna, at â€œThe Impassioned Eye: A Reading of The Book of Mev.â€ Participants relived Puleoâ€™s work as a photojournalist and student of theology, her passion as a social activist, her Catholic faith and her battle with cancer.
In The Book of Mev, which was published in 2005, Chmiel tells the story of his life with Puleo. She died in 1996 at the age of 32, 21 months after she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Puleo and Chmiel had been married for three-and-a-half years.
Thursdayâ€™s reading marked the first time that Chmiel, a professor of theology at SLU since 1997, held a reading of the book at SLU.
SLU students Jenny Thumann, Erica Irwin, Julie Oâ€™Heir, Tina Moode, and Poornima Shah, along with VOICES staff member Katie Oâ€™Brien and SLU alumna Anna Paszyna, took turns reading passages from The Book of Mev. All of the young women were, at one point in time, students in Chmielâ€™s Social Justice course. Their participation recreated the plurality of voices that come together to form the narrative.
â€œI didnâ€™t want the reading to be just my voice. I have something to say, of courseâ€”I wrote a book to say it,â€ Chmiel said. â€œBut Iâ€™m aware, when Iâ€™m in a group of that many people, Iâ€™ve got one story, and others have other stories.â€
Thatâ€™s why Chmiel invited the audience to talk with those around them, posing discussion questions before presenting each passage from The Book of Mev. The event was less like a book reading and more like a session of the popular, discussion-based theology course on social justice that Chmiel teaches.
â€œI wanted people to be thinking about their own experience before we shared ours,â€ Chmiel said. â€œThat makes it more explicit, the linking of the reading with their own life. This is what we ought to be doing more and more of.â€
Chmiel described the book as â€œmulti-textured,â€ as its brief chapters jump from Chmielâ€™s memories of Puleo to excerpts from Puleoâ€™s journal to transcripts from interviews that Puleo conducted.
â€œYou certainly get my narrative, but you also hear her speaking to me,â€ Chmiel said.
The chapters also include accounts from friends and human rights activists, and all of these voices manifest themselves in different formsâ€”prayer, poetry, conversation, love letters and eulogies.
Also essential to the book are the subjects depicted in Puleoâ€™s photographs, whose faces speak of suffering and injustice, while conveying beauty and strength. Puleo used photography to connect the impoverished populations of the Third World to the affluent communities in the United Statesâ€”like Ladue, where Puleo grew up.
â€œThere are many people in that bookâ€™s pages,â€ Chmiel said. â€œItâ€™s not just about a couple, the narrator and protagonist. Itâ€™s about different communities; itâ€™s about people in other countries; itâ€™s about saints; itâ€™s about prophets.â€
Chmiel said he had some difficulty finding cohesion and structure among all of these elements as he wrote the book, a process that took more than three years. The turning point in the process was discovering a structure used by two Latin American writers, Eduardo Galeano and Reinaldo Arenas, which yielded the â€œmemoir-scrapbook-biography,â€ as Chmiel describes it on the bookâ€™s Web site, www.bookofmev.com.
The bookâ€™s chapters are arranged in chronological order and divided into three larger parts. The first part, what Chmiel called the â€œhealthâ€ part, is the longest; it follows the development of Chmiel and Puleoâ€™s relationship, their graduate studies in theology and their travels to, among other places, El Salvador and Palestine. The second part chronicles Puleoâ€™s suffering and death, after she is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.
In the third part, Chmiel copes with her death and gives thanks for her life.
One of the triumphs in completing the book was, Chmiel said, finding â€œan admittedly idiosyncratic way of telling a very simple story. You know, two people meet, they fall in love, they have a great time, something happens.â€
And while there are so many extraordinary elements to Puleoâ€™s story, the element of the commonplace also lends strength to the narrative and universality to her suffering. At one point during the reading, Chmiel asked that people raise their hands if a family member or close friend had battled, or died from, cancer.
It was difficult to find a hand that was not raised.
â€œWhat she went through and what she experienced strikes a chord with a number of people,â€ Chmiel said. â€œThat pleased me a lot.â€
Sharing the book with students, both in the classroom and in the readings that he has held, has given him hope, Chmiel said.
â€œSo many of my students unwittingly helped me in my own healing,â€ Chmiel said. â€œThat passion, that spirit, that fierce indignation â€¦ that love of lifeâ€”for a while, I thought it just diedâ€¦but itâ€™s everywhere.â€
Last Thursdayâ€™s reading, held in the Knightâ€™s room in Pius XII Library before a standing-room-only crowd, was sponsored by VOICES, UNA, Amnesty, Pax Christi, Micah House, Halo and the College of Arts and Sciences.
This article was first published in The University News, January 26, 2006.