Turning a Tragedy into a Memoir of Becoming

by Jerry Waxler

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

When I first picked up the memoir Replacement Child by Judy Mandel, I quickly learned from the title and blurb that it was about a girl born into a family that had suffered a trauma. A plane crashed into their house, killed the family’s oldest child, and disfigured the youngest! At first, the shocking nature of the trauma drew me in. That is exactly what every memoir attempts to do, build a bond of curiosity with the reader. And yet, when we start writing our memoirs, few of us know how to achieve this seemingly simple goal.

When you first start to write, you might have no idea of what to call the book or even what it is “about.” Gradually, you construct a story and at some point in your writing journey you begin to wonder how you are going to explain it to readers. Growing attuned to this potential future experience of your readers becomes an important step in completing the work. How can you turn the events of a life into a simple message? That is a wonderful question and answering it will take you on a journey of self-discovery.

By reading Judy Mandel’s memoir, you can imagine how she might have gone through this process. In her childhood, overshadowed by this one horrid event, she had to discover who she was and how she would fit into the world. Despite her normal need to move outside and establish herself as a person, everything in her childhood home wanted to keep collapsing back to the moment when the airplane crashed and her sister burned to death. Considering the power of the moment, it must have been difficult for Judy Mandel to grow up, and even more difficult to tell the story. But in fact she did both. In the memoir, she unpacked all those years and spread them out on the page, allowing us to accompany her through the period of growing up under the shadow of trauma and even giving us the bonus of her struggle to tell the story.

Complex Task of Comprehending Trauma

The family had been devastated by a plane that exploded into their house, a trauma that severely impacted her parents’ ability to enjoy their lives. To try to compensate, they gave birth to Judy, as a “replacement child.” Her presence was supposed to ease their pain about the baby who had been killed. This put her in the strange position of competing for affection with a sibling she never even met. Much later in life, she came across the psychological notion of a Replacement Child and realized that other children grow up under a similar shadow. A child who was attempting to fill a deceased one’s shoes was destined to insecurity.

However, her actual life was far more complex than simply replacing a lost child. The book is about growing up in the aftermath of trauma. I have read memoirs about growing up in all kinds of dysfunctional families, like alcoholism and neglect but this is the first one I can think of about a child who grew up in the shadow of violent trauma. It’s an interesting and powerful topic for millions of children who grew up as second or third generation sufferers of war and persecution, and a haunting consideration for me.

At the end of the 19th century, Russia, like so many host countries before, had turned against the Jews and launched violent attacks and harsh laws designed to force them to convert or get out. About two million of these Jews fled to the United States to build a new life. Every one of those immigrants left after having directly witnessed or heard about Russian soldiers coming into town, rounding up Jews, murdering men and raping women. My grandparents would have been among that group, as would the grandparents of almost everyone I knew. Looking back on my childhood, I replay the faces of my parents and their friends, and in my mind’s eye, I see a people attempting to escape some pain. Perhaps the whole lot of them were suffering from the aftereffects of their immigrant-parents’ trauma.

Judy Mandel’s childhood was overshadowed by yet another wound. Her sister, Linda, had been disfigured by the accident. Growing up with a disfigured sister placed Judy under strange pressures, not to look too pretty, not to make it look too easy. And Judy often had to sit on the sidelines while their parents attended to the enormous ongoing medical needs of the older sister. The worst challenge for Judy was that Linda, with all of her scars and memories was one of the few connections that Dad had with his lost daughter. This difficult situation trapped Judy in a catch-22, wishing to bring some joy ot the family to make up for the pain of that awful event and yet sometimes feeling guilty about being spared that suffering.

So actually there were three family pressures woven into Judy Mandel’s attempt to become a person: her birth as a replacement for a lost sibling; her parents who were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress; and growing up with a sibling who had special needs for attention. These are powerful, important issues, and anyone interested in trying to understand the complexities of growing up could learn by reading this book.

In fact, this is exactly the type of story that started the Memoir Revolution. One of the first, Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life (1989) told his bleak story about trying to grow up, raised by a single mom and an absentee dad. His memoir was one of the first in the wave of Coming of Age stories about children trying to figure out how to become adults under the terrible burden of inadequate parenting. Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes (1996) and Jeanette Walls in Glass Castle (2005) took us further on this path, showing us how hard it can be to turn from child to adult. Judy Mandel’s memoir Replacement Child takes us further still, showing us life in a particular family under very different types of burdens than what we would have expected.

When I studied Family Therapy in graduate school, I was fascinated by the complex interweaving of siblings, parents, and grandparents. Trying to make sense of anyone’s upbringing struck me as being one of the most sophisticated and complex studies anyone could hope to learn. Now, I have found such learning in every Coming of Age memoir. In addition to taking me inside the complexities of individuals, they also show me the intense, intricate interactions of families.

But Judy Mandel’s memoir is hardly a psychology book. In fact, it is a well-told story, with obvious passion for the craft of storytelling. One intriguing demonstration of this devotion to storytelling craft can be found by observing the author’s choices about chronology.

Authorial Control over the Reader’s Sense of Chronology

As the author explains in the book itself, she reconstructed the timeline of all the events. And yet, the book unfolds in an unusual sequence, mixing chapters from at least three periods in her life. One of the dangers of writing outside of chronological order is that the reader will feel lost. But by adding dates to the chapter titles, the author keeps us oriented. Occasionally I wondered why she had chosen to intertwine events the way she had, but in retrospect I can see a wise, insightful artistic decision.

This mix between journalistic authority of the exact chronology, and the intricate interweaving of the story in time, creates an interesting effect. She develops a story arc along a number of lines: the day of the crash; the growing up of the author; the ongoing health of the family; and even her attempt to research and reconstruct the past. Through it all, she builds suspense and understanding, while at the same time keeping us oriented by leading each chapter with the date and in some cases the time of day of the incidents in each chapter.

Her whole life had been consumed, overwhelmed, overshadowed by the events of a few hours on that fateful day. By interspersing the horror of that day, bit by bit, throughout the telling of her memoir, she showed in a creative way how the suspense of that crashing plane kept grinding through her life like a bad dream that she could never escape. In retrospect, it seems like this was the only way to tell the story, one of the subtlest demonstrations I can think of in which the story itself demands to be told in a particular order.

To read my interview with Judy Mandel about writing and publishing Replacement Child, click here.

Notes
For more information about Judy Mandel’s Replacement Child, see her website.

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is another good example of liberties with a timeline being useful in revealing the unfolding story.

Another memoir in which an author attempted to find a diagnosis for his strange childhood was Look Me in the Eye by Jon Robison. He learned late in life that he had Asperger’s which helped him form a better understanding of how his mind works. I believe memoirs in general will help all of us make some of these connections, not necessarily through psychological diagnosis but by sharing our unique stories. For more about this subject read my book Memoir Revolution.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

7 thoughts on “Turning a Tragedy into a Memoir of Becoming

  1. Jerry,
    Thanks for this review. I can not imagine writing through painful experiences. I have women in my Legacy Writing class who are writing through pain; they have found it to be healing. I have read Angela’s Ashes and Glass Castles…horrendous experiences that read like fiction. Both books were page turners. I had life too easy. Had great parents, idyllic childhood. Mine is a feel good story, one that I hope will make people smile.

  2. Hi Judy,

    Thanks for your thanks. I know of many aspiring writers who share you concern that they didn’t suffer enough. So if “hard living makes good reading” does it necessarily follow that “easy living makes bad reading?” Absolutely not. I think we all have a story about becoming who we are, and we owe it to our future readers to make it interesting not by finding the pain but by sharing the dramatic tension. What did we strive for? What forced us to dig deeper? What did we learn? There is even some of this tension taking place during the creative process of writing the memoir, trying to figure out how to tell a good story. All these pressures turn into sagas that make the human condition eternally interesting. (And of course not every memoir is interesting to every reader.)

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  3. My childhood was one of verbal, physical abuse, poverty and molestation. Worst of all those put together was the nickname my (tenement ) house had. It wasn’t a bad name, but I felt shame because of it. Even 50 years later, I hate that word.

  4. Jerry, a most thoughtful and provocative post for those of us still writing our memoir. Many good tips and points of light on what we must be thoughtful of with respect to our readers. Tucking this one away in Evernote for future reference.

  5. Pingback: #Memoir writing, publishing, essays and interviews over the past month - Judy L. Mandel

  6. Pingback: Interview with a Memoir Writer - Childhood with Traumatized Parents | Memory Writers Network

  7. Jerry, your insightful and comprehensive review of Judy’s compelling memoir provides some excellent memoir writing tips–my favorite being your explanation of Judy’s choice of structure and sequence of events. You’ve enticed me to read Judy’s memoir. Thank you.

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