Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Faith journey. Growing up as a member of the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, Hattie Kauffman (one of seven children) became the first Native-American reporter and anchor for a broadcast network when in 1987 she was hired as a Special Correspondent for ABC’s Good Morning America. In 1990, she jumped CBS News to be a correspondent and substitute anchor on CBS This Morning. During her decades with the network, she also contributed reports to 48 Hours, Street Stories, Sunday Morning, CBS Radio, CBS Special Reports, The Early Show, and CBS Evening News.

But, while she was known for her interview skills and empathy in reporting the stories of others, viewers knew little to nothing about her own life story. And, like most people, there’s more to it than meets the eye. She began her life in poverty and, later, after years of success struggled with depression after her husband of 17 years suddenly informed her that their marriage was over. 

In Falling into Place (which was released in paperback earlier this week) she files her most personal report yet. 

JWK: The title of your book is great. It very succinctly sums up your story. 

HATTIE KAUFFMAN: Yes, it actually has sort of a double meaning…The title can refer to “Wait a minute! Where’s this story going?” and then all of a sudden it falls into place when you realize that the threat that was connecting my childhood and my adulthood was God’s pursuit of me and my final surrender. It also is falling into place in that, you know, I finally fall into place after trying to make it on my own.

You know, there’s a scene very early in the book where I steal a loaf of bread basically from my own mom’s grocery bag and I say “I’m a little girl learning that my survival is up to me.” By the end, I’ve come to accept that the Bread of Life is Jesus. So, there’s that parallel. To me the “falling into place” is I’m thinking that survival is up to me and finally there’s this surrender where I realize it isn’t. So, I think that title fit in so many ways.

JWK: What fascinated me — just on the logistic level of how you did it — is how you moved from such real poverty to become a TV reporter.

HK: Well, of course, that was before I even came to faith. As a little girl I was always asking “How come?” which is sort of what reporters ask — Who? What? Where? Why? I was always trying to figure out what’s gonna happen. I think I kind of had a drive to be curious and to try to solve puzzles as a little kid. So, I think there was that inclination. Then, too, I had some kind people come along the way…At one point I wanted to drop out of high school and somebody said “Hattie, we don’t need more Indian dropouts. We need more Indian graduates.” And my ears were open to hear these little nuggets that came from outside that kept me (on the right path). Even though I’m driving off the cliff, somebody turns me left. Now, when I look back I see God’s hand in all of that. 

As a kid coming up in poverty, getting back to your original question, I think I had a real drive to make sure I was never poor again. I mean I worked soooo hard. I’ve always worked really hard but I think it started as a youngster.

JWK: Your father was white and your mother was Native American, correct?

HK: Yes. My father was white and my mother was full-blood Nez Perce Tribe. So, I’m half.  

JWK: What impressed me is that you write that they were both alcoholics and you write about two failed marriages but there are no real villains in your story. You don’t get the feeling that you’re lashing out at anyone.

HK: Well, I hope not.

JWK: How important do you think forgiveness and lack of judgment is to your own healing?

HK: Well, that’s the renewal of the spirit that I have experienced. I wrote this book after coming to Christ. If I had written this earlier, I’m sure it would be full of spite and “How could you be so unkind to me?!” I mean I went through decades really of anger at my parents –or rage even — and self-pity and all that kind of thing. And, also, I was acting out (and) kind of doing the same things that I condemned them for. For instance, I drank as well in my twenties. So, I don’t think I could have written what I wrote until I became who I became — if that makes sense.  Because I look back, with the Grace of God and the forgiveness that I received, and I realize it was almost like I used to see my past as if I were looking through dark glasses and now I’m look and I’m no longer wearing those really dark shades and I can see not only God’s care for us — these seven kids — but I can see that my parents loved us. They were doing the best they could. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be in their shoes. My mom, particularly, came from the reservation and (was) now in Seattle and…there’s drinking and there’s fighting and, again, (they’re) so poor. The frustration…for them. I have love in my heart for them and I feel peace about it.

JWK: Can you tell me about the moment when you hit bottom and what you would tell others who are in them moment now?

HK: (laughs)Which bottom are you talking about? I had a lot of them!

JWK: Can you even pinpoint the moment when you feel actually hit bottom and what that was like?

HK: Well, actually that’s why I started (the book) with the divorce. For me, that was like the ground falling out from underneath my feet. I had built this successful life. Not only was I earning a lot of money as a network news correspondent, I had this big career. I witnessed American history unfold and I came back to told people about it. I am a success and I have this long-term marriage and I have this beautiful home in Brentwood and I think I have order. When I got that news from my husband that this was not real — in fact his words that I put in there were “I’m not committed, I’ve never been committed to this marriage.” It was just like the whole thing was false. For me, that was my bottom in terms of self-reliance because I saw that all that I had built was not on a solid foundation. It shook me. It shook me so much that, I think, on a psychological level I internally experienced the fear of the little child who legitimately wondered who’s going to take care of me? When are they going to come home? What are we going to eat? All those things from my poverty came welling up and here I was 52 years old and living in Los Angeles. On the face of it, there was no reason for me to be that shattered from the world’s point of view because I still had my career and, “Hey, women get divorced all the time. You can make it!” You know, I had all those things but, foundationally, I knew that there was falseness in all that I had built my life on. I think that would be the spiritual point when I hit bottom.

JWK: From your own experience, what would you say to someone who’s feeling that right now — who feels like everything they’ve built up on their life has crumbled beneath them? Do you have any advice?

HK: Oh, yeah. I mean once your eyes are opened to the eternal and idea — not only the idea, the conviction and the knowledge — that God is there, that we are in this gigantic hand, then we don’t have a reason to fear anymore. It took me a long time — decades really — of running away from that. It is a surrender. It is a surrendering to God.

But I hate to sound trite because I know that what people are going through at any time — you know, the feelings, the pain of life — can be overwhelming. I don’t want to quote Scripture at somebody and say “Just pray!” or something like that because I know how devastating life’s wounds can be — but to relax into God’s care is the only way…

JWK: When did you realize that it wasn’t all up to you — and that you could rest in God?

HK: Well, actually when I had that experience that I describe in my book — this touch upon my head that was a literal, palpable feeling on February 25th of 2007 — and I knew that God knew who I was and knew my pain. I mean suddenly I had the experience that it’s not just some philosophical concept that is some creative power but, instead, but (God’s love) is individual and personal — not to minimize the greatness of God but… God is minutely aware of our specific personal pains.

So, when I had that feeling which I describe in my book — my conversion experience, I guess, my born-again day — I walked out of that church actually and I had a different perspective on my past and a different perspective on my present and a different perspective on my future.

JWK: In the book you talk about growing up and how your Aunt Teddy taught you the 23rd Psalm and, how that has helped you as an adult.

HK: Well, when I was little I had no idea what it meant. Aunt Teddy was, you know, a figure who appeared occasionally into our chaotic home. She was my dad’s sister. She was a missionary who went on to foreign assignments…She didn’t live with us. One time she briefly stayed with us but she would drop in and check in on us and when she did she took me aside and taught me the 23rd Psalm and had me memorize it. I was seven years old and it was the King James Version and I had no idea what those words meant. But she would repeat them and I would repeat them back. She would try to explain, for instance, that “still waters” means it’s safe, it’s not stormy, it’s not crashing waves…So, I had a little bit of an idea of what things meant but I didn’t know how that applies to your life. It wasn’t until 2006-2007 when my marriage ended and I felt my spiritual crisis that I recalled Aunt Teddy’s words. Suddenly, the words were real and they were speaking right to me.

“I shall not want.” I got “Oh, I’m gonna be okay. I will not be wanting for something. My needs will be met.”…So all of a sudden it made sense…”The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”…  It seemed very real to me.

As you see in my book, two scriptures presented themselves to me at that time. One was the 23rd Psalm, just because of remembering my Aunt Teddy, the other was Isaiah 54. A woman friend called and said “Hattie, read Isaiah 54.” She knew I was going through this devastating divorce and I was crying and I was feeling sad and scared. So, I found a Bible and I looked up Isaiah 54 and within it there is one verse that says “To the forsaken woman, let God be your husband.” Those words jumped out at me and so over the next weeks…I began to read all of Isaiah and then all of the psalms. All this led up to the experience that I had with the hand touching my head.

JWK: I know you had your Aunt Teddy, but did your parents raise you in any sort of faith?

HK: No, however my grandmother (did). Aunt Teddy is my father’s sister and, as you know, my father’s white, so Aunt Teddy is white. But on the reservation, my mother’s mother — my grandmother — would attend a Presbyterian church and a Presbyterian camp which I refer to in the book. So, as little girl I went to this camp but for me it was just running around and playing. The bell would ring and my grandmother would go off. So, I had some peripheral exposure. I knew that there are Christians and there are people that believe in Jesus (but) I really didn’t know what it meant.

JWK: It almost seems a little politically incorrect for a Native American to so publicly embrace Christianity. Have you experienced any sort of backlash? I believe you actually touch on that concern in your book.

HK: Oh, I do. In fact, (there) were reasons for me not to believe…I thought “I can’t believe! I’m Native American! I can’t believe! I’m a network news correspondent!” I mean all those things were saying “You can’t! This is impossible!” But I couldn’t argue with what happened — my palpable experience.

In answer to your question, in terms of have I experienced a backlash or anything like that, no I actually haven’t — and I expected to. I thought that I would be mocked or that my speeches which I make to Native-American groups, basically encouraging young people to stay in school, I thought perhaps I’d become uninvited — that no one would want to hear from me anymore. That hasn’t been the case. So, I’m pleasantly surprised there.

JWK: Now, there is a happy ending to your story. You have two children and you have a third husband that you met in church.

HK: (laughs) Yes, I do! That’s so amazing! I never thought I would be Zsa Zsa Gabor with multiple husbands. I have three! I’m currently happily married!

JWK: The third time’s the charm.

HK: Yes, thank you.

JWK: So, the title of your book really does sum it all up. Things have fallen into place for you.

HK: Yes, they have — and I am finding that just writing my story — I didn’t know it would be this way but — it is in a way being of service (by) telling other people that it’s okay. I’m hearing from people all over America (who say it’s helped them).

JWK: That must be gratifying — to hear that your story has touched other people and comforted them.

HK: Yes — and because it’s such a full story, the people who contact me relate to one thing or another. I’ve heard from women who have gone through painful divorces. I’ve heard from Native Americans and (those touched by alcoholism) finally talking about (how) alcoholism affects childhood. You know, children of alcoholics are well-trained in keeping secrets. So, by letting go of all these secrets I think I’m (helping) some other people to let go of their own. I think that can only be healing.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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