by Jerry Waxler
One of the most haunting books I read in high school was James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” His childhood in Dublin was radically different from mine in Philadelphia, so I couldn’t figure out why his story moved me. Now, I look back and realize we both experienced the terrible anxiety of being young. During the period between the ages of say 13 and 23, I struggled to relate to my family and to excel in school. I learned about friendships, sexuality, money, and responsibility. My decision about which college to attend profoundly altered my course. Finally, I was spit onto the shores of adulthood, gasping for air.
If this was supposed to be terra firma, why did I feel so shaky? To learn why life had not turned out according to plan, I spent years in talk therapy and read scores of self-help books. I went to graduate school to learn how to provide psychotherapy to others. But the transition from child to adult still wasn’t coming into focus. Finally, I found the solution. I can learn about that period of my life by reading memoirs.
Some of the most popular memoirs of recent years have been about that stage in the author’s development. The Liar’s Club” by Mary Karr tells about growing up in Texas with two parents who were drowning in their own lives. “Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls tells of a chaotic childhood, traveling from town to town escaping her father’s demons. In “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank McCourt grew up in Ireland in a family where alcohol and poverty played a key role. And “This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff tells of an ordinary boy with a single mom. She tried to take care of him, but to a large extent, he had to take care of himself.
These Coming of Age tales make one thing clear. Parents have flaws. They can’t always be there. They make mistakes that cause their family to suffer. Each of these dramas reminds me of the extreme vulnerability of children and the importance of parental guidance.
These books often show the role of money. For example, Tobias Wolff’s mother married a man she didn’t love in order to provide a home for her son. Jeanette Walls ate margarine sandwiches to stave off hunger. Frank McCourt scavenged bits of coal that had fallen off trucks, and his mother went down to her husband’s factory to try to get his check before he could drink it away.
Alcohol comes up a lot. Sometimes the parents are drunk, and sometimes it’s the kids who have started to explore the anesthetic properties of drinking. Religion is often invoked as a way to keep kids in line, which in turn creates confusion about these belief systems. Other institutions come up as well. Kids spend a lot of time in school, where they must survive tests from teachers as well as from peers. And constantly, parents and society try to counsel the kids on how to behave.
Until the last few years, no one was ever supposed to talk about life inside their home. It wouldn’t be “right.” Coming of Age memoirs have broken through the taboo. Now that we’re comparing notes, we finally can discard once and for all the syrupy-fake television families of the 50s like “Leave it to Beaver,” “Father Knows Best,” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” Reality is much more complicated that they led us to believe.
But memoirs reveal more than secrets. They also reveal wisdom. In our younger years, we lacked the sophisticated thinking that would have let us make sense of what was going on. When we return to take another look, we identify the causes that tied it all together.
For example, in high school I did schoolwork while my peers were out playing in the back alley. Every Friday and Saturday evening I worked at my dad’s drugstore. At the time, anyone else might have immediately understood my pervasive loneliness but to me it was a mystery. Now, as I write my memoir, my adult mind untangles events and it all makes more sense.
James Joyce started the Twentieth Century by writing a semi-autobiographical story about his Coming of Age. At the beginning of the Twenty First Century such stories are becoming a regular feature of our culture. In my high school English class I also read poetry. William Wordsworth said, “The child is father of the man.” I knew it was important but its meaning was just out of reach. Now, thanks to reading and writing memoirs, I grasp the way that child gave birth to the person I am today.
Here are more Coming of Age stories.
— “Name all the animals” by Alison Smith. A Midwestern girl loses her brother, and discovers her sexuality amidst her grief.
— “Sleeping arrangements” by Laura Shaine Cunningham. An orphan in the Bronx was raised by two uncles, in a zany, heartwarming rendition of New York in the 50s.
— “Invisible Wall” by Harry Bernstein. A young man in Great Britain before and during World War I (yes, that’s a one) lived in a neighborhood split through the center of the street.
— “Colored people” by Henry Louis Gates. A black boy growing up in a tiny town in Jim Crow south finds himself. And he uses the book to try to explain this culture to his children.
— “Don’t call me mother” by Linda Joy Myers. A girl orphaned not by death but by abandonment, struggling to grow up despite her many emotional obstacles.
— “Black, white and Jewish” by Rebecca Walker. This is a book of self-discovery by the daughter of the famous author, Alice Walker.
— “Color of Water” by James McBride. A young black man explores the history of his white Jewish mother and in the process also discovers himself.
— “Tweak” by Nic Sheff. This young man falls into the clutches of crystal meth. Like any hard addiction, this one refocused his entire journey on the goal of getting high. It’s a sobering look at how badly drugs distort Coming of Age.
— “Funny in Farsi” by Firoozeh Dumas. An Iranian-American explores her childhood in America. These adventures of the Melting Pot update the many generations of immigrants who have tried to become part of this amalgamated culture.
Harry Potter was a coming of age story, about the hero’s adventure growing up in an unusual high school.