In 2016, Randy Potts published his memoir “The Bible Went Down With The Birdie Jean: an elegy” on Instagram. Between September and January, every other Sunday, Potts released a thirty-three-post “book” to the Instagram account @thebirdiejean describing, through a combination of Potts’s photographs, videos, music, prose, and poetry, Potts’s childhood growing up gay on a Pentecostal compound in Oklahoma. In what appears to be the first long-form work written on Instagram, at approximately 80 000 words, “The Bible Went Down With The Birdie Jean” is a heart-aching memoir that abounds with moments of haunting beauty.
Potts’s memoir covers a lot of ground, from his memories growing up on the compound of his grandfather, the famed televangelist Oral Roberts, to the heart-breaking end to his marriage, to his tale of release as an openly gay man. In the end, although the memoir is imbued with a deep melancholy, it is a story of Potts’s triumphant escape from a past that had suffocated others. Woven throughout the story of Potts’s growth and own recollected abuses are vignettes describing those suffered by his mother and his grandmother, and, perhaps most poignantly, the suicide of Potts’s closeted gay uncle. Potts’s cathartic revisitations of these memories over the course of his nine Instagram books serve as gloomy reminders of the prison from which he might not have escaped. In the end, we are left with the gladness that true elegy and deep lamentation bring; a reflection of the good that remains as the final postings in “The Birdie Jean” leave us with sunny photographs of Potts’s children. As Potts writes: “This is a lamentation. This is a path to the stars.”
The constraints and features of the Instagram platform simultaneously inhibit and enable some striking aspects of “The Birdie Jean.” Each Instagram post is limited to 400 characters, so entries are short – but this limitation lends Potts’s memories a pithiness that is affecting. Moreover, the way Potts manages to control Instagram’s lack of paragraphing is through the employment of a period between paragraphs, which prevents them from running together. Although this doubtless serves a primarily structural function, for readers it produces a staccato and elliptical effect that segments the narrative into what Wordsworth long ago called “spots of time.”
Of central importance in reading the work is that the text of each entry begins below an image, also taken by Potts, which frequently comments on, supplements, resonates, or creates dissonance with what is written below it. For instance, in an extended section reflecting on the suicide of his uncle, Potts describes his shock at how little documented evidence there was of his uncle’s death. This post, however, three of six in a sequence titled #GoldBlessTheChild, is begun with the photo of a satyr statuette, who bears a roll of toilet paper on his erect phallus. The sequence is primarily about a period of self-enforced celibacy, in which Potts gradually peels away the skin of heterosexuality he had been forced to adopt for so long. The satyr, then, that emblem of unbridled lust, evokes Potts’s pulsing, constrained sexuality even as he writes of his uncle, whose repressed sexuality contributed to his death. The ironizing effect of the juxtaposition between image and text drives the reader to search for Potts in all of this. It is his memoir, but the emotional content of each entry is -- sometimes playfully, sometimes tenderly, sometimes darkly – made timorously elusive by the gap that yawns between text and image.
The hashtags with which Potts has tagged most entries, included in a “comment” on each post, provide another layer of irony and context to his story. They provide us with a sense of intended audience, certainly (#LGBTfamilies, #homosexual), but also with a sense of intent (#Christian), and are a way for Potts to comment on his own history. Moreover, they crack Potts’s story open as they hyperlink to other people’s narratives. Touching a hashtag moves the reader to a gallery of other images with the same hashtag, but from other Instagram users. So as we jump from Potts’s memoir of one #LGBTfamily’s beginning to another person’s Instagram account with images of their #LGBTfamily, we might marvel at how our own stories are echoed explicitly in Potts’s, but we are also pushed to consider our own methods of self-authorship in the digital world as we leave fragmentary memoirs littered across various social media.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of Potts’s choice of platform is that each Instagram post brings with it the potential for readers to comment on the work and for Potts to respond to these comments, which he frequently does. The comments reveal an array of readers who respond favorably or not to what Potts is writing; but the comments also give an indication of the good work Potts is doing in sharing his story of sexual and emotional abuse and his triumphs over his past. Commenters respond with their own stories of abuse or coming out, and more commenters still share the posts with others by tagging them with their Instagram handles. The overall effect is that Potts’s work visibly enacts communal healing and generation.
While Potts’s memoir is fragmentary in a way akin to Twitterature or other kinds of social media literature, it is nonetheless carefully curated. The image of each “book” of thirty-three posts is marked in the corner by a number that tells the reader where they are within their sequence. Within each book shorter, closely related moments are connected by opening hashtags that serve as headings, which are also given a number – for instance, “#GodBlessTheChild, 2 of 6.” For all that, the platform mandates that earlier posts are pushed further down, so that when a reader first visits the Instagram project, the first thumbnails they see are in fact the final posts made. This necessitates that the reader wade through a sea of thumbnails on their way to the beginning, an invitation for nonlinear reading as any image that catches the eye, and there are many striking photographs, will lead a reader to begin in media res.
Which is fitting in a way. Potts, too, seems to have begun his life in the middle. His memoir holds a finality to it, but it is also the story of a new beginning. Having come out at the age of thirty-one, a father of three, not yet forty at the time of writing, Potts closes the book of his past and appears eager to move into a future as vibrant and verdant as the final images of “The Birdie Jean.”
What might you say are the "literary qualities" of this work?