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Stephen G. AdubatoOctober 28, 2022
Mariah Carey at the Saint Regis Hotel on June 9, 2014 (Alamy)Mariah Carey at the Saint Regis Hotel on June 9, 2014 (Alamy)

In honor of its 25th anniversary, Mariah Carey has released a new edition of her 1997 album “Butterfly,” with higher audio quality, previously unreleased tracks and remixes of the original songs. (The release also includes a line of butterfly-themed merchandise.) The image of a butterfly—with which Carey often signs her name and uses on her tour sets and album covers—is a symbol of liberation for Carey, whose troubled marriage to Sony executive Tommy Mottola, ended in 1997.

But the re-release of the album has brought back something else for me: visceral memories from my senior year in high school. Listening to the album anew, I can see how Carey’s songs shed light on the spiritual and psychological struggles of children of divorce (like Mariah Carey and I).

I can still remember the rainy afternoon when I came home from tennis practice and started searching through YouTube to find the deeper cuts from the “Butterfly”album.

I began confronting some pointed existential questions as my time in high school was winding down. Some things I learned seemed to strike a chord with me in a way that they did not with my other classmates since the second grade, but as I moved toward adulthood, I found that questions about the truth of my identity and the greater meaning of existence could not be shaken off. I had to find some outlet where I could begin to find answers. Around the same time, I started to delve more deeply into Mariah Carey’s musical catalog.

I can still remember the rainy afternoon when I came home from tennis practice and started searching through YouTube to find the deeper cuts from the “Butterfly”album.

The album’s production varied from classic bouncing hip hop beats and soulful R&B instrumentation to Spanish guitar-driven tunes and piano ballads. In her wide vocal range, Carey sang about longing, memory, liberation, alienation. The golden-toned album cover featured Carey’s hair tumbling down as the camera caught her mid-turn, with a butterfly resting on her raised hand. Every element of the album evoked a rich sense of texture and mystery.

The album enveloped me in a realm that tasted and smelled “just like honey,” as one of her lyrics put it. It made me feel as if, even for just a moment, I belonged. I felt that perhaps I was not the only one with such an acute sense of self-awareness and a tendency to dwell on, overdramatize and overanalyze the circumstances I found myself in. Carey never hinted at any answers or solutions, but the beauty of the opus as a whole pointed to the possibility that maybe there was something (or Someone) that would resolve my existential queries.

As I moved on to college, I found Carey’s music to be a companion on my journey.

As I eventually moved on to college and continued asking elemental questions about meaning with more and more gusto and intentionality, I found Carey’s music to be a companion on my journey. Not far into my time in college, I also discovered Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, written byElizabeth Marquardt with the sociologist Norval Glenn. The main goal of her study, which was based on both a questionnaire and a series of one-on-one interviews, was to examine the inner lives of children of divorce.

Marquardt asserts that regardless of whether the relationship between divorcing parents is good or bad, divorce inevitably results in the children feeling they are caught between two worlds. She highlights the importance of the “parents’ job to bridge their differences; even if they do their work badly no one would say that their child should attempt the job instead.”

“Where,” Marquardt asks, “does the child stand? As children, we became travelers between their worlds. Sometimes we stood in one world, sometimes in the other, but in our own minds most often we were suspended uncomfortably somewhere in between.” This work of having to forge their own bridge between two worlds, writes Marquardt, forces children of divorce to become “mini-adults.” (Many cheerily refer to such kids as “old souls.”)

Marquardt also notes that children of divorce also develop a tendency to internalize the dramas they experience, which causes them, at their best, to become strongly introspective. At their worst, they dwell obsessively on their thoughts. Their moral inquiry often turns into existential inquiry—“Who am I?” and “Where do I belong”—much earlier than their peers of intact families. Though they tend to be less religious than their peers, children of divorce are more likely to become more religious or spiritual than their divorced parents.

In her study, Marquardt found that the spiritual journeys of children of divorce “usually begin from a place of suffering and isolation.” The discord between their parents made it hard for some children of divorce to trust in God as a parental figure. Others looked to God as a more stable and trustworthy fill-in for their less-than-stable family situation.

“Butterfly” speaks to these feelings of being out of place. On “Outside,” the album’s closing track, Mariah sings over a mellow doo-wop melody:

It’s hard to explain/
Inherently it’s just always been strange/
Neither here nor there/
Always somewhat out of place everywhere/
Ambiguous/
Without a sense of belonging to touch/
Somewhere halfway/
Feeling there’s no one completely the same.

Carey says she wrote the song about her experience of being biracial. (Her mother is a white Irish American, and her father was a Black American of Venezuelan descent.) She said she felt during her childhood that she was not fully embraced by either Black or white people. Others have adopted the song as an anthem for sexual minorities, or more broadly for any outcasts who feel themselves “always… Somewhere on the outside.”

As the song progresses, Mariah considers the existential implications of feeling on the outside, wondering if this was somehow destined or divinely ordained:

Early on, you face/
The realization you don’t/
Have a space/
Where you fit in/
And recognize/
You were born to exist/
Standin’ alone....

Carey then swiftly shifts from lush cooing to Gospel-style singing:

God knows/
That you’re standing on your own/
Blind and unguided/
Into a world divided/
You’re thrown/
Where you’re never quite the same.

The song ends without offering any optimistic resolutions.

The sense of mystery that “Butterfly” exuded was, I came to discover, in part an expression of Carey’s own pursuit of the ultimate mystery.

Mariah Carey’s parents divorced when she was 3 years old, the same age I was when my parents divorced. Her parents’ split was much more tumultuous than mine. Their divorce was largely exacerbated by racial tension. After reading Mariah’sautobiography when it was released in 2020, I could not help but recognize so many of the elements that Marquardt cited about the psyches of children of divorce. In addition to her introspectiveness, intense self-awareness and feeling of being caught between two worlds, Carey also embarked on a spiritual journey that in some ways mirrored my own.

The sense of mystery that “Butterfly” exuded was, I came to discover, in part an expression of Carey’s own pursuit of the ultimate mystery.

Carey’s mother was a lapsed Catholic; her father’s parents were Pentecostal preachers. Her paternal grandmother, Nana Reese, once prophesied over Mariah that all of her “dreams and visions [were] going to happen.” Mariah recalled that on the day of that prophecy, “a deep faith was awakened” in her.

In 2001, after several bouts with what was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder (and what the media labeled as “public breakdowns”), she was invited by a friend to attend a Bible study at a nondenominational church in Brooklyn. There she experienced healing and deepened her relationship with God. The experience inspired her 2005 song “Fly Like a Bird.”

Echoing much of Marquardt’s words about the spirituality of children of divorce, Carey recounts in her book that “finding a family in God” was something that her mother “couldn’t understand.” Mariah’s mom left her daughter a “snide phone message” asking, “What is this with you and your new friends and your new prayer?”

No one in her family “understood what it meant to care so much about God,” Carey writes. “But I had to. Returning to God was the only way I made it out of all my trips to hell.” She goes on to refer to instances of spiritual warfare and having to protect herself from what she perceived to be dark forces acting within her family dynamic and within the music industry.

Like Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross, Mariah has a knack for delving deep into her internal thoughts to allow for a relationship with the mystery of God.

As I continued my own spiritual journey as an adult, I found myself drawn to spiritual writers and theologians who, like Mariah, sought God from a place of longing and alienation. I began to recognize parallels between her lyrics and the words of spiritual writers like St. Teresa of Ávila in her poem “I Live Without Living in Myself.”

Both authors express the feeling of not belonging to this world: “I was a wayward child/ with the weight of the world/ that I held deep inside” Carey sings in “Close My Eyes.” “[I] steadied my feet on the ground/ raised my head to the sky…still I feel like a child/ when I look at the moon/ maybe I grew up/ a little too soon.” St. Teresa similarly explains, “Oh, this life is so very long!/ How grievous are these exiles./ This prison, these iron shackles/ By which the soul is trapped!/ Just awaiting my release....”

Similarly, the lush production and nostalgic lyrics of Carey’s song about being with her lover during twilight, “Fourth of July,” is reminiscent of mystical love poems like St. John of the Cross’s “Spiritual Canticle.” Mariah’s powerful vocals on “My All” are tinged with the sense that she was longing for a kind of love that another human could not give her. The deep and intense feeling of a lack evokes an emptiness too vast for a boyfriend or husband to fulfill. Like these spiritual writers, Mariah has a knack for delving deep into her internal thoughts to allow for a relationship with the mystery of God.

Twenty-five years later, “Butterfly” continues to accompany me as I heal from the wounds of my parents’ divorce and continue to ask elemental questions about life. While our wounds may make us feel alienated and misunderstood, they can serve as stepping stones to understanding something more of the mystery of the cross and Christian life. Christ demonstrates to us that it is not by erasing these wounds but by sharing our woundedness, whether it is through music or any other life-giving outlet, that something beautiful can emerge.

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