Randy R. Potts is a Texas based journalist, photographer, and writer. He is also a grandson of American televangelist and preacher, Oral Roberts. Potts’ new project, “The Bible Went Down With The Birdie Jean,” is a searing ‘reported memoir’ about his upbringing, Roberts’ legacy, sexual abuse, homosexuality, and memory, juxtaposed against 300 photographs taken over the past year in Oklahoma. You can read an excerpt from the project here.
Patrick Blanchfield: What was the initial impetus for the project? When did you first conceive of it? And what’s the significance of your choice of the mode of elegy specifically?
Randy R. Potts: have been writing portions of this work since 1990 when I was 15 years old. At age 20, while mowing my now-ex-stepfather-in-law’s lawn, I saw this project in a sort of vision: words and images balanced, like a scrolling graphic novel of sorts. Ten years ago, I began to formally write this work as a memoir without images but I was never happy with it. Two years ago, I began to experiment with what you might call short “longform” journalism on Instagram – inspired by the work of Jeff Sharlet and Neil Shea – and I eventually decided Instagram might be the closest platform to what I envisioned years before.
To describe it for others, I call @thebirdiejean a project or a memoir but, for myself, the best descriptor is elegy. The Bible Went Down With The Birdie Jean is a lament for the dead and, though it contains reported journalism and photography, its chief concerns are the concerns of poetry: the sensual: the unimaginable: the unreportable. The word elegy situates the work in a space we’re not used to journalism going, where, some say, journalism can’t go. I am convinced, however, that what we often dismissively call “poetry” *must* be part of journalism and the factual record. At some level, poetry and its concerns are the *only* record.
Blanchfield: “Birdie Jean” draws on some many genres and media. Interspersed with your recollections and photos, you have translations of poetry, sculptures, video, and more. What led to your choice of Instagram as a platform for it all, and what’s it been like to work with it? Do you see Instagram as another medium, a venue, or something else?
Potts: I see Instagram as a venue – a democratic stage, simultaneously global and local – and I see The Bible Went Down With The Birdie Jean as a performed elegy within the space defined as @thebirdiejean. I didn’t understand until recently how important it is that it is a serial. I am still changing photographs and editing and moving things around as my heart changes: cold, hot, hatred, love: all those things affect the reported material and how I choose to frame them.
Blanchfield: What’s the deal with the little plastic men in the orange jumpsuits, climbing the book sculptures? They look like convicts, but I’m not entirely sure?
Potts: I think of these as dioramas representing a landscape I both find myself within and simultaneously construct. The figures are convicts made for train sets; I’m using them to explore the nature of my own captivity in a mental, physical, intellectual, and temporal landscape.
Blanchfield: Part of what’s so arresting and urgent about your work is how it seems to disrupt settled (and often stifling and shaming) boundaries between public and private, the stories families tell versus the stories families try to hide or forget. Some of the material – about divorce, or sexual abuse – seems like it must be very challenging and require a lot of bravery to share. What has that experience been like for you?
Potts: Hellish. I’ve been documenting the physical toll this project takes on my body, including: diarrhea, panic attacks, rashes, asthma, nausea, headaches, exhaustion, sleeplessness, nightmares, etc., none of which I normally experience regularly but many of which have been somewhat constant for the year I’ve been working on this project. These boundaries are there for a reason: they seem to literally constitute our link between our bodies and the outside world and at least some of my physical pain seems to be my body simultaneously purging and defending itself.
In this process I’ve been confronted with something missed by the modern incarnation of the LGBT rights movement: LGBT is, by definition, something that revolves around sex. On the one hand, the
marriage equality movement has it right: being LGBT *is* about love but, to convince heterosexuals of their cause, the modern movement has tried to remove all suggestions that this “love” we’re talking about involves physical bodies having sex – specifically, a *kind* of sex society continues to hide away. Homosexual people have long been placed in a ghetto: fearing for our physical safety, we are often forced to flirt and carry on romance on websites like Craigslist and apps like Grindr. One of my family’s most vocal complaints is that I have tied the memory of my uncle to “dirty” websites and “random people online.” This complaint misunderstands that there is no way to describe life in the ghetto without visiting the ghetto. There is no way to describe the LGBT experience without immersing yourself in what society has defined as “dirty.” The idea that I could “research” or understand my dead gay uncle’s story by speaking only with his straight family members is part of what constitutes the ghetto where my uncle found himself.
Blanchfield: Reading your writing, I have noticed how you also share the artifacts of your own *doing* that research in the present – the Craigslist postings you wrote while you were looking for people who may have known your Uncle, for example, which show up in your Guardian article. There seems to be something very profound at play in how your project investigating repressed relationships and erased communities in the past extends itself to building new communities and connections in the present – and doing so publicly, via social media in particular. What’s it been like to work in those worlds at once: unearthing private memories from decades ago, but in age of digital social media exposure? Is what’s happening in the here-and-now changing your sense of the past, and vice-versa?
Potts: This project is most closely being followed in Oklahoma; the second largest group of followers are accounts based in Russia and Ukraine. I’ve noticed that on social media my posts often make people uncomfortable. The “liberal” crowd, usually composed of people with college degrees or higher, want to mock Oral Roberts and conservative America. My work questions that disdain even while simultaneously notating and documenting the “sins” of a figure like Oral Roberts and conservative Christianity. What has been fascinating is that my readership (based on looking at how the account’s followers describe themselves on Instagram) is largely Oklahoma-based, Christian, and conservative. Meanwhile, I am openly discussing my sexual experiences with men and the harm that this Oklahoma community has wreaked on people like me.
Blanchfield: What can we look forward to in the next installments of the cycle?
Potts: Each cycle or “book” is dedicated to a person or place and will follow the same format as the first book. However, in the last two books, the project will begin to unravel as I deal with sexual abuse in Book VIII and especially as I say goodbye to my past self in Book IX. In terms of sexual abuse, I’ve decided to not name the individual responsible, though readers are free to make assumptions based on contextual clues. The statute of limitations in Oklahoma – where the abuse happened – runs out two years after a person turns 18; further, the abuser is, in my mind especially, a Monster, not a person. In the same way that a good horror film never shows the monster in full, this account won’t – can’t? – show the Monster as it actually exists in the person who abused me. This particular monster this project is dealing with is far less material and, seemingly, eternal.
Blanchfield: Lastly: What do you think your grandfather would think about the Birdie Jean project? What would you say to him, if you could say anything?
Potts: I am confident he would have publicly called this account an attack of the devil. Privately, I think he would have hung on every word – Oral was a closeted intellectual and it’s easy to imagine that his curiosity would have gotten the better of him. Because I never knew him well, this project would have had to speak for itself – I don’t imagine we would have ever discussed it – almost all the family drama I’m discussing in this work is drama that is never discussed. My family is Southern and, in the South, the past is buried: we address it only by erecting monuments. I think that, in many ways, @thebirdiejean is its own kind of monument.
Patrick Blanchfield is the Henry R. Luce Initiative in Religion in International Affairs Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Religion and Media at NYU. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Emory University and is a graduate of the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute. He writes about US culture, guns, and politics at carteblanchfield.com and is on Twitter as @patblanchfield.
Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.