I follow the journalist Randy Potts on social media, so I had known for weeks that he was planning to launch “The Bible Went Down With The Birdie Jean,” a serialized, reported memoir about life as the gay grandson of televangelist Oral Roberts, on Instagram. Then late on a Sunday evening in early September, when I settled into a chair and tapped on the Instagram icon on my iPhone, it suddenly was there: a post by @thebirdiejean.
The photo in the post was an intentionally overexposed image of an open book, one side showing verse (“He came from somewhere just like all of us…”) and the other a young woman posing, arm raised, on a costumed elephant. White script in the corner of the photo read “3/33.” I stopped. Potts had already posted the first two posts in the opening series, which he was calling “the book of Mother,” so I flicked my thumb across my iPhone screen until I came to the first post, and there I saw these words by Potts, the beginning:
the day “Grandma Birdie” died went like so: her first grandchild, a two-and-a-half-year-old girl, was shy too shy: “Grandma Birdie” demanded L sit in her lap and L refused, hiding behind me. “No!” she shouted, and that was that: Christmas was over.
All that follows is true.
But first, know this: I remember the second time Oral Roberts disowned his baby girl. I remember when he dressed…
I read to the end and clicked to see the others in the series. Potts was posting quickly by then — 4/33 and 5/33 were already there — and I found myself swept up in this moment of publication, trying to keep up one post after the next. Images: performers in drag on stage at Fat Mary’s Lounge; a black-and-white photo of Potts’ young mother in a park, toddler Randy in her lap; a Youtube video of two men on guitar covering “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Words: memories of mother, and origins of a name; of Oral Roberts, the grandfather; of childhood pain in the Pentecostal cradle; of divorce and early days as an openly gay man.
His posts make for a rich realization of the open-ended narrative conjured by Jorge Luis Borges in “The Garden of Forking Paths,” in which so much is waiting to be chosen and explored. Hashtags at the end of each post offer entry into another world…. But what makes Potts’ long-form Instagram storytelling especially powerful is that the story itself transcends distraction, with the individual images and essays compelling a reader across a longer arc.
Instagram allows users to type 2,000 characters, roughly 400 words, beneath a photo. Post 20/33 featured a blurred snapshot of children on a walkway surrounded by blackness, as though a receding dream. After noting a date (“Summer 2007”) a place (“Katy Trail, Dallas, Texas,”) an age (“33”), and principal actors, his children (“L: Age 8, Z: Age 6, E: Age 4”) Potts quotes song lyrics by Sinead O’Connor, then describes himself:
He’d not chosen the confusion of his 20s: the marriage to a woman – his best friend – and the tug of other men – the desire to gaze upon them – and the wishing it would go away because: it reminded him of the attentions he’d been unable to refuse too many times too many years before. It was years of therapy before he felt he could breathe before he felt he could say, out loud, in the kitchen, by himself, “I’m gay,” in what might have been his first declarative sentence.
I had been scrolling from one post to the next for an hour or more that first night, and I felt like Instagram reader @dos771, who commented: “Reading this is sort of scary, like going under the knife of a surgeon, but it’s also liberating, like when the surgery is desperately needed and long overdue. Can I say, painful but healing? Okay, catching breath, and back into the operation room.” And then, @thebirdiejean, replying: “Thanks @dos771 I’m really appreciating your wonderful comments.”
Potts looks outward, too, using his journalist skills to research his grandfather Oral’s famous past and to interview the mother of a gay soldier who died in Afghanistan while serving under the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. The result is a story at once personal and universal. An “anthem,” one reader called it.
Potts has already posted four installments — “the book of Mother,” “the book of Oral,” “the book of the Compound,” “the book of Munna” — with five more coming in the weeks ahead. Each book explores a central character in his life, and from one post to the next, Potts harnesses the episodic experience of Instagram with purposeful freedom. His writing at times evokes that of James Agee, in which words with fierce pace take a moment in time and twist it around and set it down, showing what had been but not seen. He cites passages from the Bible (Psalm 31: 9-11, Ecclesiastes 9:4-7) and pages from a personal journal written 11 years ago. He writes in first person and third. He translates poetry (Rainer Maria Rilke) and crafts his own. He investigates and remembers and explores the terrain between.
His posts make for a rich realization of the open-ended narrative conjured by Jorge Luis Borges in “The Garden of Forking Paths,” in which so much is waiting to be chosen and explored. Hashtags at the end of each post offer entry into another world. Comment by readers prompts curiosity about the person behind the handle, only a click away. Hyperlinked headings offer nested narrative order — #InsidetheWestboroCompound, #HomosexualVerse, #ThePortionofMineInheritance, for example — but also a path away from the main thread of the story being told.
But what makes Potts’ long-form Instagram storytelling especially powerful is that the story itself transcends distraction, with the individual images and essays compelling a reader across a longer arc. “The Bible Went Down With The Birdie Jean” is vivid proof that multimedia platforms and social networks can deliver what great literature always has. As Faber, the professor living in a world without bound volumes in Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” notes: “Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.”
“The Bible Went Down With The Birdie Jean” resumed Sunday with “the book of My Baby Brother.” In a tweet beforehand, Potts wrote: “Sexual abuse, guns, cemeteries: next week’s installment will be intense.”
When @kthysvg stumbled upon the work-in-progress, she asked: “How can I read the book?” Replied @thebirdiejean: “you can read it as each photo is posted or wait a few days and read it all at once.”
I think it’s best to begin at the beginning, with “the book of Mother,” which now rests at the bottom of the @thebirdiejean Instagram feed. There, Potts confronts action and consequence:
It was, after all, what we heard in church and what we read in the Bible: we were the Army of the Lord. Outside obedience, demons were waiting to drag little children to hell. Maybe the first commandment was love; the second, surely, was this: put on the full armor of God – “train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it” – promises.
I can hear it now, in the words of the bard, Ms. Dionne Warwick:
I don’t pretend that what was
wrong can be right.
Oh, promises, promises.”