Book Review: Severance by Robert Olen Butler

This odd little book is more a collection of thoughts than stories.  Severance by Robert Olen Butler is inspired by two quotes:

After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation.

– Dr. Dassy D’Estaing, 1883

In a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute.

– Dr. Emily Reasoner, A Sourcebook of Speech, 1975

Putting 2 + 2 together, Butler concluded that a severed head would be able to speak (or think) 240 words before expiring.  Thus explains this collection of 62 pieces about what goes through the mind of a severed head.  Each story is exactly 240 words long.  The heads are historical (John the Baptist, Walter Raleigh, Nicole Brown Simpson),  fictional (Medusa, the Dragon slayed by St.  George) and fanciful (a prehistoric man, a chicken, and the author himself).  Over history people are beheaded by angry kings (Henry VIII) and angry mobs (the French Revolution) as well as by murders and in horrible accidents.  The thought are often not about the beheading, but focus on a vital moment in the life of that person as the author imagines it.  The text is written in a primal stream of consciousness, all one sentence no  periods.   I don’t know who all the characters are, but in some ways the people I know nothing about are all the more fascinating to read about in just 240 of heightened speech.

It’s an interesting concept for a book and it works, although I suspect that Butler takes a lot of liberties with the personal histories of the actual people included in his books.  This is especially a concern for those who may still have family alive like Brown Simpson or a woman killed in the World Trade Center attacks (the latter includes a bad pun about Paul Anka singing “Put Your Head on My Shoulder”).  Barring squeamishness though, this book is an intriguing examination of humanity in extreme situations.


St. Clare of Assisi

In a very powerful scene in Roberto Rosellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis, Clare comes to visit Francis and all the friars are filled with joy about the meeting of these two living saints. It’s a scene in which two people who love each very much come together in the serenity and joy of the greater Love of God that brought them together and changed their lives.  This was my introduction to Saint Clare of Assisi and one that’s stuck with me over the past couple of years as I’ve learned more about this remarkable woman.

Just as it was portrayed in the movie, Clare was a lifelong friend and spiritual guide for Francis, and in many ways they were brother and sister.  With Francis she is the co-founder of the Franciscan movement and would be the first woman to write a Rule for religious women that would be the basis of the order now known as the Poor Clares.

Her spiritual transformation began in her youth when during a time of war she spent time with other women as penitents in Perugia.  Many of the women she knew from this period would later join her order, including her mother and sisters.  Later she would return to Assisi where she would hear Francis preach and through his inspiration would chose to give her life to poverty for God.  At the age of 15 she refused a prosperous marriage and at 18 she ran away from her wealthy home and family to give herself over to the spiritual life. Francis himself helped by cutting her hair and introducing her to a religious order where she traded fine gowns for rough robes of a sister.  Her father and brother were furious and tried to force her back home, but she clung to the rails of the altar in the chapel.

While Francis traveled great distances to spread the Gospel message, Clare never went far from the convent of San Damiano in Assisi for the remainder of her life.  Her relatively sedentary existence would not hinder her influence.  As mentioned above, women flocked to her to join the Poor Clare’s order.    By Francis’ command she became abbess at the age of 21 and remained so until her death.  Yet all the sisters were considered of equal rank and made decisions affecting their lives together.  Instead, Clare lead by the example of her virtue in a live focused on austerity and gospel poverty.  Many men came to consult her as well, including cardinals and even Popes.  Clare also correspond with people such as Agnes of Prague, the Queen of Bohemia who would take vows as a Poor Clare under the inspiration of Clare’s writing.

After Francis’ death Clare would take the lead in persevering on the way of Francis when other Franciscans wished to relax the Rule. Many people of the world and even church leaders thought the life of the Poor Clare’s to be too strict, and Clare had to negotiate up until the day before she died until she received official approval from the Pope for her Rule.

Clare is an inspiration in how she chose poverty in order to become close, her example of leadership, and her steadfast devotion to Christ and the Franciscan movement she helped found.

More information about Clare of Assisi: