Book Review: House of Cards by David Ellis Dickerson

When Hallmark lured David Ellis Dickerson to a Kansas City interview, they offered him a potential starting salary of $27,000. After interviewing him in person, they upped their offer to $32,000. “To this day,” writes Dickerson, “I am convinced that in person, I am $5,000 more charming than I am on paper.” (p 49)

I suspect this motivates the choice to promote Dickerson’s new book, House of Cards: Love, Faith, and Other Social Expressions (Riverhead Books, 2009), with a series of videos called Greeting Card Emergency. Dickerson’s audience provides him with a decidedly un-Hallmark-like greeting card scenario, such as breaking a friend’s toilet or letting your snake eat someone else’s hamster. Dickerson then documents the process of creating a suitable card.

This promotion seems to be working. I’ve seen Greeting Card Emergencies reposted on a number of well-trafficked blogs and the videos inspired me to purchase Dickerson’s book.

House of Cards is a memoir of Dickerson’s experience with the Hallmark card company, documenting the period of time between when Dickerson first hears about nearby Hallmark interviews through the time when he decides to leave Hallmark for the presumably greener, warmer, and more licentious pastures of a Ph.D. program in Florida. Along the way, the book also documents Dickerson’s journey from fundamentalism to atheism.

There are three major reasons to recommend this book:

1) David Ellis Dickerson may be more charming in person, but he’s charming on paper, too. The memoir’s light, easy writing style makes for a fast and fun read.

2) The memoir provides an intriguing (if not wholly satisfying) case study about how a fundamentalist upbringing affects a twenty-something who has lost his faith. At the beginning of the memoir, twenty-seven-year-old Dickerson has already converted to Catholicism, become liberal, and started supporting feminism and gay rights. However, he still feels that he and his fiancée must avoid sex until marriage, a conviction that shifts during the course of the book until, after the pair break up, twenty-eight-year-old Dickerson is left trying to lose his virginity approximately a decade after most of his peers.

3)It’s a great deal of fun to read about Dickerson’s work process and word play. The memoir is peppered with his silly poetry, including a love poem about free popcorn:

The popcorn that thou givest unto me
Bringeth emotions I can scarcely utter.
For thou art like this popcorn that I see:
Lively and fresh, though thou contain’st less butter.
And in the carbonated beverage, too,
Which, like the popcorn, thou bestow’st for free,
Though it consist of Brown Dye Number Two,
In it, I see thy hair, and think on thee.
My Pepsi tab would founder many banks.
I can’t repay you; please accept my thanks.

(p 18)

In chapter nine (How to Write a Card), Dickerson details the process of taking a Hallmark card category, brainstorming ideas for it, and proposing a suitable card (which editors subsequently reject or accept). He explains common card types, including cards that come with attachments like paper clips and golf tees, and cards that include pop-ups. This witty, informational sequence gives what the reader has been craving throughout the book.

The memoir suffers some flaws. The first three chapters read like an unnecessarily long build-up: It’s unclear why the book begins before Dickerson even interviews with Hallmark instead of with his Kansas City interview or his first day as a new-hire. The book is called House of Cards; we’re here to read about Hallmark.

Even at Hallmark, the text lacks focus. It gives too little information about work process and too much about petty work woes. It’s not that the latter can’t be interesting grist for a memoir, but here they’re often rendered in long narrative sequences that could be summed up faster. Work events begin to feel repetitive. Worse, they take up space that might have been devoted to Dickerson’s evolving spirituality. After all, there’s more to the journey away from fundamentalism than sex.

From a feminist perspective, the text is mixed. There’s a lovely rant on page 135 defending female humorists, but in the same chapter Dickerson theorizes that women leave Hallmark’s humor department because they can’t handle the boss’s relative masculinity. It’s possible that Dickerson has evidence for this theory which didn’t make it into the text; however, given the available information, Dickerson comes across as condescending. Perhaps women leave because being the only female in that work environment is intolerable. Perhaps they leave because the boss acts sexist in ways that aren’t apparent when there are only male coworkers. Perhaps Dickerson should just ask the women involved?

Other scenes are similarly fraught. For instance, Dickerson’s fiancée is depicted as sex-averse, but this is never satisfactorily explored. From the details in the text, the fiancée appears to be suffering from some sort of sexual trauma*, but the narrative ignores that in order to focus on how angry Dickerson feels when she refuses to fulfill his romantic fantasies, such as a shared bath by candlelight. Perhaps Dickerson decided not to explore his fiancée’s perspective in more depth because he didn’t want to violate her privacy. This is a respectable reason, but the text still feels incomplete.

Of the many scenes discussing Dickerson’s sexuality, the most compelling is a flashback to his early twenties when he was still convinced masturbation was sinful. He discovered that voyeurism gave him an excuse to see women’s bodies “by accident” and thus without guilt. For this feminist reader, at least, the scene was extremely powerful because one identifies with Dickerson’s need to navigate his sexuality within his repressive culture. At the same time, one recognizes that this is an example of how otherwise reasonable, pro-feminist men contribute to the rape culture.

Despite its flaws, House of Cards is an entertaining, engaging read full of whimsical word play. Dickerson’s memoir may not meet every possible literary expectation – what does? – but it’s fun to listen to the man talk, even on paper.

*I might have read her as asexual except for a scene in which she reacted defensively to Dickerson’s attempts to touch her shoulders while she washed dishes. This read to me as a post-traumatic reaction; others’ interpretations may differ. In any case, the absence of any attempt on the part of the text to understand her sex-averse behavior – whatever its cause – was a noticeable lack.

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15 Responses to Book Review: House of Cards by David Ellis Dickerson

  1. 1
    RonF says:

    twenty-seven-year-old Dickerson has already converted to Catholicism, become liberal, and started supporting feminism and gay rights.

    The latter rather calls into question the sincerity of the former. Catholicism has very definite ideas about the role of women in society and about things like abortion that are anathema to feminism, and it’s not generally held up as a religion that supports gay rights given that it holds that while homosexual tendencies may be inborn, those who have such tendencies should not express them in sexual behavior. So he may have claimed to profess Catholicism and started attending services in a RCC parish, but his personal religion would not have been something that the rest of the world would recognize as Roman Catholic. And the fact that he seemed to think it was makes him sound like a rather confused and misinformed young man.

  2. 2
    Myca says:

    And the fact that he seemed to think it was makes him sound like a rather confused and misinformed young man.

    I’ve not read the book, but I am a huge fan of his ‘greeting card emergency’ series of vidcasts, and he is quite openly an atheist. In fact, there’s a vidcast about ‘coming out cards for atheists‘ in which he discusses his experience coming out of the atheist closet. So, yeah. I don’t know the details of his religious journey, but where he is now seems to be perfectly consistent.

    Speaking of support for gay people and coming out of the closet, everyone— everyone — should watch his ‘Four Coming Out Day Cards‘ episode, which makes me tear up every time I watch it.

    —Myca

  3. 3
    Mandolin says:

    confused and misinformed

    *shrug* Seemed to talk a lot with his priest who was fine with things.

    I mean, there are plenty of Catholics who only uphold parts of what the church say. That’s pretty much a given. Dickerson describes converting because his girlfriend was a feminist, gay-supporting Catholic, and he wanted to be like her.

    Yes, I actually — as an atheist — find the idea of becoming a Catholic so that one can be more feminist and more gay-rights-supporting to be odd. I find the Catholic church reprehensible for their stances on those issues, as well as for many other reasons. But actual Catholics themselves as opposed to the dogma the church promotes? Eh, capable of much disagreement.

    And there are traditions of dissent within Catholicism which are much more liberal in their aims. Jesuits, for instance.

    I’m not incredibly well-informed on this subject, but I’ve known enough liberal Catholic dissenters to understand that there’s a tradition of intellectual rigor associated with agitation in the church, even if that’s not something that’s immediately clear to outsiders.

  4. 4
    Mandolin says:

    I should also note that the text gives the impression that Dickerson’s initial fundamentalist background was so conservative that the Catholic church seemed really liberal by comparison. That’s just an Overton window effect– to people with no experience of liberal ideas, mainstream Democrats seem like crazy radicals. Then you meet actual left-wing democrats. Then Greens and Marxists and Anarchists…

    Dickerson might have been happier all around if he’d just initially gone to a Unitarian church (one which might even have been unfussed when he eventually became an atheist). But is that a visible option to most people when it’s so radically far from their starting point?

  5. 5
    chingona says:

    I’ve known several people who started out fundamentalist and had a layover in Catholicism before becoming atheist/agnostic. Not all of them actually converted, but they attended Mass and felt drawn to Catholicism. And for all of them, their flirtation with or conversion to Catholicism was closely related to them becoming more politically liberal.

    The liberation theology wing of the church holds a lot of appeal to people who care about social justice, and there’s a lot fewer outlets for that in evangelical Protestantism (and there used to be even fewer than there are now). And the Jesuit tradition of questioning and wrestling with faith has a lot of appeal to people who feel stifled in traditions that don’t allow for questioning but who don’t just want to leave Christianity.

  6. 6
    chingona says:

    Dickerson might have been happier all around if he’d just initially gone to a Unitarian church (one which might even have been unfussed when he eventually became an atheist). But is that a visible option to most people when it’s so radically far from their starting point?

    The people I know who grew up evangelical have said they could never be Unitarian. To them, if you can believe whatever you want and do whatever you want, what’s the point? It’s a black-and-white, you’re in or you’re out.

    And I’m sure that’s not universal. I’m sure there are fundamentalist refugees in Unitarian churches. But for at least for some people, it’s not that it’s not a visible option, but that they are aware of it and it is just not an option for them.

  7. 7
    chingona says:

    So he may have claimed to profess Catholicism and started attending services in a RCC parish, but his personal religion would not have been something that the rest of the world would recognize as Roman Catholic.

    Swear this will be my last comment.

    I find this statement kind of offensive. There are millions of practicing Catholics who disagree with the Church’s position on women, on gay rights, even on abortion. As far as I’m concerned, why they stay in the Church and how they see the relationship between their faith and the institution of the Church (and plenty of Catholics make this distinction) is their own business and not for you to judge.

  8. 8
    Myca says:

    I’m sure there are fundamentalist refugees in Unitarian churches.

    Indeed. The one I attend has quite a few refugees from both mainline protestant fundy traditions and the schismatic fundy-equivalents, like Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses (including my fiancee).

    I think a lot of it has to do with why you leave the ridiculously restrictive homophobic/misogynist/racist religion in question. If you leave because they dogmatically oppose free thought among their congregants, then yeah, the Unitarians might work out. If you don’t mind the dogmatic insistence on conformity of thought, but you wish they’d pick different thoughts to insist on, then yeah, they’re probably not for you.

    I mean, for some ex-fundies, the lack of black & white is a feature, not a bug.

    —Myca

  9. 9
    chingona says:

    I think a lot of it has to do with why you leave the ridiculously restrictive homophobic/misogynist/racist religion in question.

    I think it also has to do with what you leave it for and what, if anything, you need from or get from religion.

    My mom’s parents are Unitarians now. My grandmother used to be Catholic and raised her children Catholic. My grandfather was a rather lackluster Lutheran. His lack of interest and involvement in her religion was a source of strain. For years, they were completely unaffiliated. As far as I can tell, they’re Unitarians because they enjoy being part of a church community and having some spiritual outlet without having to sign up to any particular dogma.

    For most of the friends I’m thinking of in my previous comments, it’s “Look. Either the Bible is the unerring word of God or it’s not. If it is, then you must do X, Y, and Z and there’s no wiggling out of it. If it isn’t, I’m sleeping in on Sunday.” They don’t feel the need for a spiritual experience just for its own sake. If you don’t have to worry about saving your soul, why bother? Catholicism was very different from the traditions they grew up in, but it still had the structure and discipline that made it, to their eye, recognizable as religion.

    The other factor had to with aesthetics of worship. For some people, the ritual element of Catholicism is deeply appealing after the suburban soft-rock style of liturgy in a lot of non-denominational evangelical churches. Unitarians, in my limited experience, have slightly better taste, but they really can’t help someone out who likes a good ritual experience. (And I understand this seems to contradict what I wrote in the previous paragraph. One, these judgments are not always made in an entirely conscious and rational way. Two, none of them kept going to Mass just for the spiritual experience after they became full-blown atheists.)

    So, I’m not disagreeing with you. Or hating on Unitarians. All I was saying is that there’s reasons other than lack of awareness of the existence of Unitarians that Unitarianism is not the first layover for everyone looking for a liberal alternative to fundamentalist Christianity.

    (And Mandolin, if you want this moved to an open thread, I can do that. It seems like the thread went this way almost immediately, but I realize I’m engaged in some serious thread-jacking.)

  10. 10
    Myca says:

    Up front: Broadly, I agree with you. Someone who is liberal but still basically Christian might well end up with the UCC, rather than the UUs, for example.

    Unitarians, in my limited experience, have slightly better taste, but they really can’t help someone out who likes a good ritual experience.

    Eh, I think that really depends on where you are.

    There are two Unitarian congregations in Berkeley. The UUCB, or Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, which I attend, is sort of ‘high church’ Unitarian, and does the whole ‘robes, organ, and ritual’ thing pretty well, and from what I hear the SF church is even more ritualistic (to the point that it made my ex-JW fiancee a little uncomfortable because it seemed too ‘papish’).

    The other Berkeley congregation is the BFUU, or Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists. It’s a lay-led congregation, and when I was last there, several years ago, eschewed pomp and all but the most basic ritual. It’s a great place, don’t get me wrong, but it does occasionally run the risk of becoming a social club for old lefties.

    Personally, I think that people need rituals. I think it’s good to have certain events formally marked and remembered, whether it’s the anniversary of the internment or a youth coming of age. I think that our society tends to be bad at formally recognizing these things.

    And yeah, this has totally gone off the rails, Mandolin. Feel free to tell us to go away. :-)

    —Myca

  11. 11
    Mandolin says:

    It’d be nice if someone wants to comment on the book or the review at some point, but I do think the book is heavily concerned with contemplating the dynamics of deconversion. So we’re just continuing that conversation. :)

  12. 12
    Myca says:

    How did you get turned on to the book?

    —Myca

  13. 13
    Mandolin says:

    “This promotion seems to be working. I’ve seen Greeting Card Emergencies reposted on a number of well-trafficked blogs and the videos inspired me to purchase Dickerson’s book.”

    ;)

  14. 14
    Myca says:

    “This promotion seems to be working. I’ve seen Greeting Card Emergencies reposted on a number of well-trafficked blogs and the videos inspired me to purchase Dickerson’s book.”

    Hmph.

    Fine, then, just include the information in the post, if that’s how you want to be.

    —Myca

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