10 Ways Memoirs Reveal Identity
by Jerry Waxler
My obsession to find the meaning of life surfaced in high school, when I read James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist." His journey to find himself made me realize it might not be easy to figure out how to become an adult. At first immersing myself in math and physics, I thought I had found an easy answer. But in college, I realized I was missing the human element. Philosophy 101was too dry and disconnected. Literature was more exciting. I soaked in many powerful stories, which were full of irony and despair. They tore me apart.
Eventually I found ideas that calmed me enough to become a functioning adult and I marched through the long middle years of my life, pursuing a career, marrying, and eventually finding much satisfaction. Now, at 61, I wonder if I ever figured out who I was.
The question should be much easier to answer now. I no longer need to speculate or philosophize. I simply need to look back through my life, and discover exactly who I have been. So I sort through the story of my past for the ultimate answer to my burning question, "Who am I?"
It turns out the authors of many memoirs have been seeking to answer the same question. In book after book, one of the key elements of the story has been the uncovering and clarifying of this very question, "Who am I?"
Finding yourself through (or in spite of) family roots
In an ideal world, all kids would have a coherent sense of purpose when we leave home. Armed with such a coherent image, we could start forging our way into the world. But in fact, many of us leave home with a confusing picture of self, or even a damaged one. Some memoirs recount long journeys to disentangle confusing or misleading information, trying to understand exactly what they have inherited from their parents, and learn how create a coherent story of themselves.
A.M. Homes, "Mistress's Daughter." She was comfortable with her identity, until her biological mother contacted her. Then the puzzle became an obsession. She wanted to know what that other "real" identity might be.
Linda Joy Myers, "Don't Call Me Mother." Rejected by her mother, she must define herself by her extended genealogy.
Barack Obama, "Dreams from our Fathers" He was born in the American melting pot with a white mother and a black African father. Where was Obama's true identity?
Emerging from the shadow of fame
The celebrity culture is so enormous it threatens to annihilate the identity of those who come too close. (As Alan Alda quipped in his memoir "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed," "If they offer you fame without the fortune, don't take it." These memoirs explore what it's like trying to find yourself near the rich and famous.
Susan Erikson-Bloland, "In the Shadow of Fame" Susan's father was the famous psychologist, Erik Erikson, He was featured on the cover of Time Magazine and was so smitten by his own reputation he had little time, and sometimes it seemed, little interest in his daughter.
Tony Cohan, "Native State." Cohan's father Phil was a radio producer who was always far more interested in the stars who appeared on his show than on his own son.
Jancee Dunn, "Enough About Me," became a celebrity interviewer, and then must find her own identity within this milieu of fame.
Recovering a trashed identity
Identity ought to be a stable thing. Once you find it, you should be set for life. But some events are so disruptive they threaten to shatter our sense of self. Victims must work against these memories to reclaim themselves, or redefine a new identity that will integrate this new reality.
Alice Sebold, "Lucky." With her innocence stolen in a violent, explicitly described rape, she tries for the rest of her life to find out who a person is without innocence, and how to make the most of that. It's a powerful quest.
Jim McGarrah, "Temporary Sort of Peace." He finds himself by rooting through the rubble left by service in Vietnam.
David Manchester, "Goodbye Darkness" heals his nightmares by visiting the Pacific islands where he fought in World War II. In addition to a powerful historical account, he searches for his own identity, trying to put his demons to rest.
Jill Bolte Taylor, "My Stroke of Insight." After a stroke destroyed the left-half of her brain, she takes an 8 year journey of rehabilitation.
Gary Presley "Seven Wheelchairs." Presley shifts from healthy young man to paraplegic overnight, and then has a lifetime to come to terms with it.
Spiritual search – What is my place in the universe
Some writers seem to be asking the universe for answers. How do I fit into some greater, transcendent reality? While spirituality might on the surface seem to be very different from finding personal identity, I find them much related. The quest for a spiritual belief system is, from one point of view, nothing more nor less than the search for some story of a self that fits in with the cosmos.
Kate Braestrup, "Here if you need me" seeks her own Truth about life and death, triggered by the tragic loss of her husband.
Ann Lamotte, "Traveling Mercies" muses about life in a fabulous series of autobiographical essays.
Martha Beck, "Expecting Adam" completely changes her life, transforming from intellect to spiritual awakening, after the conception and birth of her son with Downs Syndrome.
Finding identity by finding purpose
When looking for identity, some people look towards a higher purpose. It turns out one of the most compelling reasons to live can be found by pursuing a project filled with meaning.
Viktor Frankl, "Man's search for meaning." The Master of meaning was Viktor Frankl who kept himself alive during internment in Nazi death camps by dreaming of sharing his insights with others. After the war, he did exactly that, promoting the idea of meaning as the antidote to the ills of modern life.
Davis, Jenkins, and Hunt "The Pact" Three doctors move beyond the ghetto to become doctors. From a black urban environment, these men found meaning through the challenge of their education, their mutual support, and then after they "made it" their renewed purpose was to give back to the community by inspiring others.
Greg Mortenson, "Three Cups of Tea" finds himself by building schools for poor children in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Identifying with a large organization or career
As Bob Dylan said, "You have to serve someone." How you lived out that service varies enormously from one person to the next. In some memoirs, the organization takes a prominent place in the discovery of self.
Diane Diekman, "Green Shirt," spent her lifetime in the Navy, and writes about herself largely as a person who has served a greater purpose by serving in that organization.
Ji Chaozhu, "Man on Mao's Right" found his identity within his devotion to serving his country.
Donald Walters, "The Path." One of Paramahansa Yogananda's assistants, Donald Walters tells about his life in the service of an Indian spiritual teacher.
Discovering how cultural identity fits into a dominant culture
If you grow up identifying with a particular culture, and then switch to a different one, you must make fundamental changes to your identification. And if your parents relocate, your culture inside the home might be different from the one at school. Between your own culture and the dominant one there are thousands of differences that lead to surprise, confusion, and learning. To adjust to the dominant culture, you alter some of your old identity and replace it with new parts.
Firoozeh Dumas, "Funny in Farsi," an Iranian American describes how her family adapted from a foreign culture into the melting pot. Her comfortable humor shows how thoroughly she has embraced her new home.
Harry Bernstein, "Invisible Wall," and "The Dream." The first volume deals with Bernstein's life as a Jewish child in a Gentile England, and in the second, he moves to America, teeming with immigrants, and learns to blend into American society.
Henry Louis Gates, "Colored People." Overcoming the barriers of color in the Melting Pot, the author looks for his rightful identity as a fully invested participant in American culture
Coming out from the cloud of drugs and alcohol
Drugs and alcohol start out seductively, seeming to expand options and reveal consciousness. Sooner or later the freedom is replaced by slavish devotion to the substance, eroding the foundation of rational life, eroding the basis for identity itself. Climbing out of this trap can be a saga of heroic proportions, a battle against evil and a search for the self.
Susan Cheever, "My Life in a Bottle," daughter of a famous writer hits the bottle.
Dani Shapiro, "Slow Motion," daughter in a privileged New York family lets drugs and alcohol consume her life.
Nic Sheff, "Tweaked," son of a successful journalist loses himself in heroin and meth.
Coming of Age –means finding your identity
Growing up requires that you take off the mask of the child and discover the face that is going to work as you go into the world. This universal challenge to find your identity in the world has established the Coming of Age story as a staple in popular literature.
Jeanette Walls, "Glass Castle." She went from ragamuffin adventurer child to successful television personality, two extremely different identities.
Linda Joy Myers, "Don't Call Me Mother." The emotional abuse and abandonment she experienced as a child stirred up a lifelong journey to find herself and help others do the same.
Coming of Age later
But coming of age doesn't stop when you are 18. People continue to grow through a variety of stages and changes. Many, perhaps most of us, still have questions and continue year after year to look for adjustments and authenticity.
Sometimes profound life-forming experiences occur over a period of years, and so, the development of "Coming of Age" is postponed or added on to, allowing us to find and evolve our identity later in life. Coming of Age could be any story that creates a deeper sense of self, say after a divorce, during a new second career, after the kids move out, and so on.
This could mean figuring out how we're going to earn a living, or settling down to a family. Our challenges seem so ordinary, and yet in their infinite variation, they are unique. To transform your own events into a fascinating dramatic tale will require insight and craft. Here are some that offered excellent twists.
Toby Young, "Sound of No Hands Clapping." He's a big kid. In his zany approach to finding himself in the world of adults, he offers an intense look at self-discovery. If you look on the surface it seems like a superficial tale, but there is depth here, too, that keeps the pages turning.
Chris Gardner and Quincy Troupe, "Pursuit of Happyness" must find a job against all odds, bringing out the contrast between the ordinary gloominess of racial and economic inequality, terrifying poverty, and then the triumph of extraordinary tenacity and intelligence. It's all so ordinary, and at the same time, comes together in a powerful, passionate story.
John Robison, "Look me in the eye," A guy trying to organize his self-image, and find himself in the world, having been misunderstood and disconnected as a kid. Later in life, he understands the spectrum of Asperger's and shares his journey in this story.
Alan Alda, "Never have your dog stuffed," tells about his childhood, his famous acting career, and the lessons of growing older.
In my own memoir in progress, I realize it has taken 61 years to move beyond my obsession with pure ideas and learn to integrate all the parts of life. Now still seeking to grow, I can learn from my past, identifying who I have already been so I can learn who to be.