What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

Dani Shapiro’s memoir “Slow Motion” is a study in desire. When she enters Sarah Lawrence, one of the top liberal arts schools in the U.S., she is young, beautiful, and rich. Then, a man 20 years older swoops into her life, picks her up in his limousine and showers her with flowers. At first she is disgusted. Then she gives in, and starts taking more and more of his gifts. The problem is he’s the step-dad of her best friend, he’s married, and he’s a liar. Every time he pulls another creepy stunt, I want to scream, “Run!”

I’ve heard plenty of real-life stories of people’s lives being destroyed by love affairs and addiction. Now this book puts me inside the head of someone choosing a self-destructive track, and I find her desires almost incomprehensible. How can a person want something that is going to hurt them? This book gives me a chance to peer into one such person’s path. If I can understand how desire works for Dani Shapiro, I hope to learn more about desire in other memoirs, and in my own life.

For more insight, I turn to one of the great explainers of human nature, the psychologist Abraham Maslow. In the 1940’s, Maslow wanted to push psychology beyond illness, so he studied highly motivated, challenged, and satisfied people. Based on his research, he developed an explanation known as Maslow’s Hierarchy. This famous model says that people satisfy basic needs first and then move up to more sublime ones. I tried to apply the hierarchy to Dani Shapiro’s memoir.

Dani Shapiro on food and drink.
At the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy are the biological needs. You would think hunger and thirst would be the first things that a person with money would satisfy. But when you look closer, you see how Dani distorts these needs. She accompanies her lover to the finest restaurants, orders any food she wants, and then either doesn’t eat it, or eats it and goes to the bathroom to throw it up. She is starving.

Similarly Shapiro’s relationship with drink is far more complex than simply satisfying a biological need. In one restaurant, Lenny, her lover, is disappointed that they don’t stock vintage wine from 1959, so he reluctantly settles for 1961. As he raises his glass, he says to Dani, “This wine is older than you are.” He is using drink as a tool of power and sexuality. As she becomes more dependent on alcohol, she drinks to fog her mind. Over and over, her biological needs are distorted by power and self-destruction.

Dani Shapiro on safety.
After the biological needs are met, Maslow says we try to achieve safety. Dani perverts this need, too. Even though she doesn’t see it, the reader can see that she is consciously moving out of safety and into danger.

Dani Shapiro on social needs.
The next rung up the ladder are social needs, such as friendship, intimacy, and family. Dani’s family, many of them highly successful, ought to be a major source of support. Except for the fact that they hate each other so venomously they had no room in their hearts for Dani. When she seeks satisfaction from her lover, he drains her like a vampire, sucking so much of her energy she doesn’t even have friends. What’s a reader to do? I want her to get this guy out of her life. And yet if she removes him, she might fall for another shallow, powerful man. To satisfy me, she must gain a clearer understanding of her own social needs.

During high school, instead of pursuing drama or writing, her extra-curricular activity is cheer leading. During college she models, seeking to be paid for her beauty. Her goal is to maximize the amount of praise and power she can earn from her looks. From this point of view, her affair with Lenny seems ideal. He shower her with wealth, his perfect trophy mistress. Unfortunately, Dani’s approach to social needs keeps her trapped in the bottom three rungs.

Dani Shapiro on esteem and actualization.
According to Maslow, once the basics are taken care of, people look for esteem, from others as well as from themselves. At the pinnacle are expressions of creativity, excellence, service, and sacrifice. I want Dani to reach the top two rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy, where life starts getting really interesting. These goals turn out to be Dani Shapiro’s saving grace.

When she first enters Sarah Lawrence as a young woman right out of high school, her path seems assured. Then she drops out, throwing away an opportunity. After much suffering, she stops her downward spiral, by rejecting her parasitic lover and overcoming her substance addictions. Ready to reclaim her life, she makes a call to the dean at Sarah Lawrence. “I want to come back.”

In the end, this desire for creative expression sets her back on track. She finds her strength, enters a community of supportive students and teachers, and moves towards safety, social rewards, and esteem. Her memoir provides a beautiful example that despite the many twists and turns of life the desire to create a story leads towards the triumph of the human spirit.

Writing Prompts:
Look for an experience that will help you understand each of Maslow’s five levels in your life. As you look at these needs in your life, look for anecdotes that will illustrate them:

Did you ever starve, or ever look at food as the enemy?

Did you ever feel undermined by your lack of safety, or so safe you felt compelled to find adventure?

Did you ever feel so lonely you reached out to people you would typically avoid, or so glutted with people you wanted to escape?

List some of the ways you have searched for esteem. Write a paragraph or story about how each one succeeded or failed.

What was the most sublime goal you ever reached for? What is the most sublime goal you are reaching for now?

For further work along these lines, look for the intertwining of desires. For example, Dani wanted love, so she starved herself to look thin. She wanted esteem, so she reached towards a guy who treated her like dirt. A high school grad who wants esteem might sign up for the military, putting himself in harm’s way in order to achieve a higher goal. After college, to “find myself” I pushed away from my family, diminishing my social network.

Notes:
Here’s a Wikipedia article about Maslow’s Hierarchy if you would like to know more.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs

Here is a well maintained commercial site which explains Abraham Maslow’s ideas in order to promote management and organizational strategies.
http://www.abraham-maslow.com/m_motivation/Hierarchy_of_Needs.asp

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More memoir writing resources

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5 thoughts on “What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?

  1. I think it’s interesting that you mentioned knowing things as a reader that she might not have known in the story. Of course the ability to write a story after it’s happened means that the writer ‘knows’ where he /she went wrong, right? But it’s okay for the character in the story to not know. The writer is portraying herself as she was at the time. Can you tell my critique group that? As they read my story they kept saying, ‘How could you not have seen x,y,z? We’re frustrated as readers and want to know that you’ve grown!’ Well, if I hadn’t grown, I wouldn’t have written the damn thing!

  2. Interesting blog and a great, insightful post. Ironically, from someone who doesn’t write memoir, I can see great value from studying memoir as you have and applying what is learned to forge a better understanding of my fiction character’s motivations. Thanks!

  3. Hi Marianne: Hopefully your critique readers’ frustration will keep them turning pages. This tension between what the audience knows versus what the characters know is rampant throughout literature. For example, what would “Romeo and Juliet” be like if the players knew everything the audience knew? I find that I have to force myself to create tension in readers, because as a “nice guy” I would always rather make people feel good. Story writers have the responsibility to generate tension, so the reader has some relief to look forward to.

    Angela, While I research memoir writing, I am learning so much about all sorts of story telling. Memoirs are the Rosetta Stone, providing a language that links life and literature.

    Jerry

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