In Memoirs, Misery is Simply a Step toward Hope

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

A participant in a recent memoir workshop asked me if all memoirs need to be about misery. I assured her there is no such rule. However, it is true that hard living makes good reading and at the end of a well-told story, the reader feels lifted by the triumph of overcoming hardship.

For example, in the memoir Here I Stand, Jillian Bullock starts as a young girl in a state of innocence with a loving stepfather who adores her, but he has one problem. He works for the mob and occasionally finds it necessary to assassinate friends. Eventually, his mob ties drive the family apart. Without him, Jillian loses her safe place. First, her “boy friend” rapes her. Then her mother gets involved with an abusive man. The young girl runs away, but doesn’t have anywhere to go. Homeless and starving, she ends up at the local brothel where she receives shelter in exchange for services.

When I started reading memoirs, I set limits on the topics I would read. Sex-for-money was definitely not on my list. However, the longer I study, the more I ambitious I become, craving to understand the variety of human experience. My quest has taken me into combat, physical and mental disability, extreme Muslim, Christian, and Jewish childhoods, and even occasionally to the dark side of sexuality. These stories help me untangle my attitude about situations that previously tied me in mental knots.

So I inched my way into Here I Stand, ready to bolt if it didn’t feel authentic or if I felt strangled by helplessness or despair. The deeper into the story I traveled, the more I trusted this author to maintain authorial control, guiding me through difficulties and then back out to safety. She achieves this effect through excellent story telling. Each chapter is paced well, with an enormous sense of tension and drama, and the gradual, tragic deterioration of circumstances.

The book makes this downward slide look easy, but I am in awe of the effort the author must have made in order to convert the overwhelming feelings of betrayal and humiliation into good reading. As Bullock says in the interview I conducted with her, it took years for her to untangle the heavy load of emotions and see events clearly enough to make them worthy of a story. By the time her story reaches readers, it has been transformed through the lens of the storyteller, and through that lens, the misery is only a step along the path.

When she attempts to steer through these initial setbacks, the impulses that appear appropriate to her child-mind lead her deeper into problems. I feel horror at the direction she heads, trying to imagine how she will make it back to solid ground. In the back of my mind, I’m also wondering how any of us survive the dangerous period of adolescence when we have the power to make decisions that will affect us for the rest of our lives.

Jillian’s saving grace is her determination to reclaim her dignity. Despite abysmal poverty and vulnerability, she keeps trying, until finally she claims her own “agency” — that wonderful literary term that means that the character consciously chooses her next step rather than having the next step chosen for her.

For strength in her darkest hours, she reaches out to the vision of her now-deceased stepfather. I love visionary moments in memoirs, because they provide a glimpse into the spiritual dimension, a sort of anti-gravity or pull from above. Somehow the visions give her the strength to keep going. Finally, she returns to her flawed mother, the only family she has.

After so many hardships, she manages to apply herself to school. That impulse to get an education saves her. The book is a tribute to the power of hope, effort, courage, and learning. As a reader, it answers my own prayer that people with determination can escape from hopeless situations. I am grateful to Jillian Bullock for sharing her journey with me.

The book is not just hopeful for the reader. The author also gains surprising benefits. By exposing hidden parts of herself, she magically converts secrets that could have separated her from people into pathways that connect her. Just as the younger Jillian Bullock was bolstered by those who helped her, the adult Jillian Bullock attempts to pay it forward, helping young people find their own high road. Through the memoir and her work in the community, she passes along the lessons and strength she learned on her journey.

Writing Prompt
When did you first realize that you were making choices that would take you in the direction you wanted to go? In other words, when did you assert your right to steer the ship, rather than let it be steered for you?

Notes

More examples of memoirs about falling from the grace of the family into the chaos of the world where they journey through the vulnerable dark side of sexuality and drugs, and find their way home. In all these cases, education plays a role in redemption.

Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum, about a girl like Bullock who runs away. Unlike Bullock, Erlbaum finds a shelter.
Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro. This girl runs away to a rich man who keeps her like a modern-day fallen concubine.

Townie by Andre Debus III about a boy who learns to use his fists to survive the mean streets of a blue-collar town.
Tweak by Nic Sheff about his descent from a privileged home to a drug-infested wasteland. His redemption is only a future promise. This darker version of the fall without a definite rise at the end is humanized by the companion memoir Beautiful Boy by David Sheff about his father who tries to save him.

Another memoir that transforms misery into hope
Diane Ackerman’s 100 Names for Love in which she cares for her husband after a massive stroke.

Click here to read an interview with Jillian Bullock, author of Here I Stand

Jillian Bullock’s Home Page

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

6 thoughts on “In Memoirs, Misery is Simply a Step toward Hope

  1. Jerry,
    This post is a stunning example of the power of memoir to heal and transform both the writer and the reader. The idea of sharing hope through our miseries is a powerful theme with a universal appeal. I appreciate how you share your honest reactions and provide so many specific examples of authors and books. Your interview process is always so thought-provoking and informative. Thank you!

    Kathy

  2. Thanks, Kathy. What a lovely comment! I learn so much from memoirs, and then learn even more by asking authors about the experience of writing. I will share my complete interview with Jillian Bullock in my next post.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  3. On of the things said to make memoirs involving dysfunctional bearable is the writer’s insights from her desk now: what has she learned, how has she grown? This takes the curse off too-raw expression. The subtle qualities of this distanced voice are legion, of course!

  4. It’s interesting that you spoke of giving your trust to the writer. That’s a fascinating concept to me. It makes me wonder if all readers do that, and if they don’t or can’t, maybe they end up not being able to connect with it…thus, don’t like the book? (that wasn’t stated very well) Anyway, very thought provoking! ~Karen

  5. Thanks, Richard. Yes, I noticed this technique most obviously in Boyd Lemon’s “Digging Deep” when he told the stories of his marriages from “his desk now.” Without that mature looking-back, his younger self would have sounded so dense and full of himself, I doubt I would have finished the book. With it the book was infused with the spirit of exploration. In fact, some memoirs are even more specifically about looking back. In Tracy Seely’s Ruby Slippers, she went back to review her childhood. Her book put all the dramatic tension in the present, in the search for truth. But for the vast majority of memoirs, I find that release from tension in the book’s blurb. For example, in Jillian Bullock’s “Here I Stand,” I could see that as an author she is successful. I know that she is capable of writing a memoir. And I know that she reaches out to the community to use her past pain to help others. In essentially *all* memoirs, the reader knows that the author made it past the misery to a place where they could look back. But in most of the stories I’ve read and enjoyed, inside the story, the author tends to keep us in the time frame, letting us suffer in the emotions of the time. (When Janice Erlbaum in Girl Bomb was suffering on the street, she was really alone. So was Jillian Bullock.) This I believe is why we have agreed on the literary convention of a “sensible ending.” We go to the bookstore and buy commercially published books because of our unspoken cultural agreement that by the end of the book, we’ll feel pretty good. It’s what I mean about the trust in authorial control. Bullock honored the convention, both by telling me in her blurb that things turned out okay, and by actually guiding me through the suffering back to a place of safety. In my interview with John Reiner “Man Who Couldn’t Eat” he said he wanted to end with an ironic ending but his editor insisted on an ending that would leave the reader with more hope. Life is hard enough. We turn to stories for hope that things will turn out okay. Thanks for your interest in these issues Best wishes, Jerry

  6. Pingback: Jillian Bullock About Writing Her Long Journey to Adulthood | Memory Writers Network

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