Let Your Memoir Take You to the Fourth Step

by Jerry Waxler

The first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting I attended was held in the basement of a church. I sat in my car until the meeting was about to start and then slipped in, hoping no one would notice. It wasn’t my idea to be there. The professor of my addictions counseling class at Villanova had assigned us the task of attending.

The speaker told her story of descending into the pit of alcoholism, losing her marriage, home, and children, and finally selling her body. Thanks to the Twelve Steps, she had been able to pull herself together. When I left the meeting that night, in addition to a renewed appreciation for the havoc that can be wreaked by substances, I also had witnessed one of our culture’s great institutions, dedicated to helping people in desperate situations build up their self-esteem and life-skills.

While I am not addicted to substances, there have been many times in my life when I felt out of control, like my years struggling with loneliness and depression, or coming to terms with the barrage of news about war, divisive politics, poverty, and disease. While I have a variety of tools to help me cope, occasionally I wish there was a Twelve Step meeting to overcome everyday feelings of being out of control.

Although I have not found an actual Twelve Step program for ordinary situations, I do see analogs that could serve some of the same purposes. The method of self-help pervading all civilizations since the beginning of history is the quest for support from a Higher Power. There are lots of meetings that can help us seek that transcending connecction. Another powerful offering of the Twelve Step programs are slogans, such as “give me the courage to change what I can and accept what I can’t” and “one day at a time.” All of us could benefit from uplifting phrases, because the things you say to yourself affect how you feel.

Now, as I study memoir writing, I believe I have stumbled upon another connection with the Twelve Steps. The Fourth Step says, “We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” The goal of taking this inventory is to replace vague sorrows of “having messed up,” with more detailed information. It’s an important exercise for addicts who, in their pressure to obtain the next buzz, overrode their conscience more often than they would like to remember.

However, addicts do not hold a monopoly on regrets. Everyone bumps against things they wish they hadn’t done. As long as unpleasant memories remain tucked away, there is no way to learn from them. The Fourth Step suggests you pry them out of hiding. Once they’re in the open, you can work with them consciously, discover the details, find the implications, and then integrate the past into the complete picture of who you are and how you got here. This self-knowledge strengthens your ability to move more confidently into the present and future, and opens channels of compassion and connection with the people in your life.

The Twelve Step Programs started from inspired revelation, a seed planted by people desperate to find something more powerful than their addiction. In the following half a century, tens of thousands of people harvested the results of that inspiration. And as each generation learns, they arm themselves to help the next. To rescue their fallen comrades from the cauldron of addiction, perhaps one of the most selfish tendencies of human nature, these people have discovered within themselves one of the generous tendencies of human nature – the desire to help each other overcome challenges.

Memoir writers don’t belong to an elaborate step-by-step system of guidance and mutual support. When we take our moral inventory, we do it hunkered down alone at our desk. It sounds isolated. However, memoir writers turn towards another powerful resource. Our mentors are those writers who have gone before us, placing their lives on paper and leaving it for us in books. Reading memoir after memoir we witness the story, discovering lessons not just about the author’s lifetime but about their willingness to write it. Following their lead, we arrange and rearrange our own conglomeration of memories, until we too arrive at that system known as Story, a system as old as civilization itself.

When we tell about our history, when we hurt people or they hurt us, or resented, or misunderstood, or all the thousands of interactions we have with people, storytelling goes beyond initial emotions. We expand our thinking, and more clearly see all the characters in our lives, who they are and what the world looks like from their point of view.

Memoir writing is a powerful Step for anyone who wants to grow more resilient to face those things over which they have no control. As you write, you transform the past from a collection of memories into a path that goes from sin to redemption, from tragedy to grieving, from one step to the next step and the next. Stories are large enough to contain great mistakes and even evil, and their power goes beyond the individual. Through reading and writing, our stories intertwine, healing ourselves and our relationships, and leaving behind a map that can help others find their own way through the journey of life.

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