In search of Sister Aimee Daniel Mark Epstein finds spirit of a believer in writing biography

April 26, 1993|By Patrick McGuire | Patrick McGuire,Staff Writer

Ultimately, he believes. That is as plain as the Wyman Park apartment in which he lives alone with a pawn shop guitar, a chess set, a few odd sticks of unmatching furniture.

He lives here apart from his small writing studio, which is across town, and apart from his two children and wife, from whom he has recently and painfully separated. Yet wherever he has been in his 44 years, Daniel Mark Epstein has always been a passionate believer -- in God, in love, in life -- something evident to even a casual reader of his plays, his poetry, his elegant prose, all as soft and rich as potting soil.

And yet, as he settles into a chair across the nearly empty sitting room, sipping from a glass of grape juice, it occurs that his latest work, "Sister Aimee, the Life of Aimee Semple McPherson," is something of an anomaly.

Why would a gifted, prolific poet, especially one who has received such recognition -- the Prix de Rome given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the prestigious Robert Frost Prize -- descend into something as mundane and predictable as a biography?

And why a biography of someone as obscure and, well, as unbelievable, as this scandal-tainted faith healer who blipped the horizon in the 1920s and has served ever since as the prototype for Elmer Gantry-style fake evangelism?

The answer to the latter is as easy as the questions that formed in Mr. Epstein's mind some 20 years ago when he first read a brief passage about Aimee McPherson in an almanac. "I thought Aimee's was a marvelous story," he says in his soft-spoken way. "But, with certain journalistic instincts, I always felt there must be more to it than I'd read. What was it that made her so famous?"

Several previous biographers have presumed to answer that question, focusing mainly on the elements of sex and scandal. A charismatic tent revivalist, Aimee Semple McPherson reportedly healed thousands while preaching her way across the country between 1910 and the early 1920s. She founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel in Los Angeles and in 1926 disappeared for a month.

When she mysteriously reappeared, she told an incredible tale, believed by few, of being kidnapped. Meanwhile, stories spread that she actually had been having an affair with a radio announcer. Two highly publicized perjury trials followed, and her holy reputation faded even as her infamy grew.

Mr. Epstein's mother was Christian and his father Jewish, and he has written extensively about religion.

"I've always been interested in individual gifts which transcend normal human powers as we understand them," he says. "I strongly believe that prayer and touch can aid in the healing process. And if we all have that gift to some degree, why isn't it possible that someone could have that gift to an enormous degree, in an almost virtuoso sense? I thought this is something I've got to research.

"Were those healings of hers authentic?"

But he was a poet, a teacher of writing at Johns Hopkins University and at Towson State University, not a researcher. So for years he considered making Aimee the subject of a dramatic poem or a play, perhaps even a novel. Then, in 1986, when a publisher asked him to write a biography of an American religious figure, Sister Aimee came immediately to mind.

"I thought then that Aimee's story is so fascinating that fiction cannot improve it," he says. "I figured I could best tell the story straight."

That meant, though, an unfamiliar, even uncomfortable role for him: that of journalist. A thoughtful man, Mr. Epstein spends a great deal of time delineating, agonizing between the roles of reporter and poet. A journalist, after all, doubts, asks questions, whereas a poet has the luxury, even the responsibility of believing. Can the two ever be reconciled?

"I worked very, very hard from the beginning to be objective," he says. "I wanted a full picture of this woman's life. If I were prejudiced one way or the other, then the portrait would be skewed.

"So I wanted to go in with a healthy skepticism."

The critics have almost unanimously declared his two-hatted experiment a success. He asked the right questions, they report; he did the research right. And then he projected it all through the warmth of a poet's vision, making "Sister Aimee" more a piece of literature than pop culture.

"I couldn't imagine doing a journalistic biography," he says, "although I did observe certain journalistic principles. I didn't invent quotes or anything like that. But I think that my vision is more poetic and less reportorial."

For one thing, he believes Aimee's healings were genuine.

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