Memoirs heal the moral injury of rape

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Some memoirs take me so far into the darkness of human experience, I must struggle through my own moral despair in order to read. And yet despite my revulsion, I forge ahead. Why do I or any of us do this? The answer reveals one of the pillars of the modern memoir movement.

Memoir readers trust that in exchange for our willingness to accompany the author through hell, the story will also show positive forces that elevate our spirits. Such qualities as effort, wisdom, compassion, and spirituality carry us back to hope. After reading 100s of memoirs, I have never been disappointed. Every author has maintained his or her part in this implicit bargain.

Take one of the more horrific ones, for example — Lucky, by Alice Sebold. The cops called her “lucky” because her rapist didn’t kill her. Recently I read another memoir, if possible even more terrible than Sebold’s. Leona Stucky in her memoir Fog of Faith was raped, not by a stranger but by her boyfriend. Then, through a series of deadly threats against her and her family, he coerced her into marrying him. Even after she escaped, he continued to hunt her down.

As if the violence itself wasn’t bad enough, the normal avenues of justice and healing were cut off, adding to the author’s despair. For one thing, the laws of the time were so strongly influenced by patriarchal marriage, the police were unable to intervene. And second, Leona Stucky grew up as a devout Mennonite. Her community’s passivism assured her that God would defend the innocent.

One predatory man stole years of her life. His repeated assaults led to PTSD. In addition, he wrecked her faith in God, forcing her into an absurdist fog, where she vacillated crazily between refusing to believe he existed at all to wanting to blame him for all her problems. In a sense, his behavior destroyed her at a moral level.

Stucky’s experience brought her face to face with evil, and forced her into a personal battle with the age-old theological question “How could a loving God permit evil?” Theologians call this the Theodicy Problem and have spent thousands of years trying to answer it. In the last few decades, psychologists have entered the debate, not so much to try to understand why it would happen but rather to help us recover from its ravages.

Moral injury and the betrayal of beliefs

The American psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, after years of working with Vietnam vets concluded that combat damages sanity in part because it destroys trust in a compassionate, well-ordered universe. Shay explained his proposal in the book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.

Since Shay gave Moral Injury a name, psychologists have been using the concept to learn how to help combat soldiers recover from PTSD. But combat is not the only cause for this disruption in moral order. Violent or sexual child abuse, rape, violent crime, terrorism, betrayal, and unexpected, untimely, or unexplainable loss of a loved one can all destroy one’s trust in a sane, safe universe.

At the time of their rapes, neither Alice Sebold or Leona Stucky had much guidance to help them repair the psychic damage of these horrific events. So each author went on a long journey to heal her own damaged soul. Reading their memoirs lets us join these two incredibly gifted intelligent women in their effort to repair themselves.

How could a loving God let this happen?

During Leona Stucky’s attempt to escape her spiritual wilderness, she fell in love with a divinity student. Their hours of debate about God’s purpose and presence continued for years.

Their discussions, and her own desperate longing for a loving God add a fascinating dimension to the story. In the end, she didn’t exactly solve theodicy problem. After all it has defied theologians for thousands of years. So if she didn’t resolve her theological struggle, how did she fulfill her implied promise to her readers to uplift us by the end?

To understand why her story helped her and me make better sense of evil, I turned to Alice Sebold’s memoir for an important clue.

At the time of her rape, Sebold was a student in a creative writing class at Syracuse University taught by Tobias Wolff. Wolff. His memoir This Boy’s Life became one of a handful of bestsellers that launched the modern Memoir Revolution. After she told him what happened, Wolff told Sebold to “remember everything.” His instruction guided her toward the eventual development of her book.

Perhaps that is the real reason Alice Sebold was lucky. In the thick of her suffering, her writing teacher handed her a tool that could help her process her pain. Sebold’s book helped her contain and share her moral injury and demonstrated that memoirs of horrific experiences offer an important tool for the modern mind.

Leona Stucky determination to write about her experience came after decades of wrestling with psychology and theology. In the end, Stucky came to the same conclusion as Alice Sebold. In order to survive the corrosive effects of her soulful wounds, Stucky felt ccompelled to wrap the whole painful ordeal, including a lifetime of heroic seeking for sanity, into a literary container.

The two authors, narrated their horrific traumas, and their long journey back to wholeness, thus revealing a profound psychological truth known to all cultures throughout history. Stories frame and contain our experiences, including suffering and evil, in a way that our minds (in particular the higher cognitive functions of the Prefrontal Cortex) can comprehend.

The Memoir Revolution has given us the opportunity to translate our experiences including ones that shake the very foundations of our emotional stability, into a sensible story. In this form, we can then share ourselves with compassionate readers.

Memoir readers can’t rescue the author from horrific experiences, but we do the next best thing. We use our social awareness, wisdom and love to help the author understand that her memories have now become incorporated into our shared experience. By converting private hells into sharable, socially accessible stories, we develop a language for collective hope and effort.

Leona Stucky’s story demonstrates the psychological struggle many of us face in midlife. Whereas earlier in our lives, in order to say energized, we did everything we could to dismiss or overlook the past, as we grow older, we find an increasing urgency to make sense of that past. And we can only do that through the development of our stories.

By teasing apart our journeys, especially the dark times, and the ensuing compassion and courage, scene by scene and chapter by chapter, we can deeply understand our own intellectual, psychological, and philosophical evolution.

And as memoir readers, we can accompany any number of sufferers of trauma, through their moral injury and then on their long journey to make peace within themselves. Through Story, we join together to release our shaming wounds into the embrace of social acceptance and appreciation.

Notes and Links

Leona Stucky’s Website
Check out Fog of Faith by Leona Stucky on Amazon

More articles on Memoirs and Moral Injury by Jerry Waxler
Alice Sebold and the moral injury of rape
Response to the moral injury of an untimely death of an infant
Repairing self-concept through memoir writing
Kate Braestrup’s solution to the theodicy problem
The moral injury of war
A website that explains  Moral Injury

More resources on moral injury
Recovery from child sexual abuse, Leaving the Saints by Martha Beck 
Documentary movie about combat vets and moral injury
Soul Repair at Brite Divinity School
Awesome interview with Leona Stucky about writing her memoir

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

Parent’s Story: Personal History or Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

In almost every memoir writing class or group, one person says “I really want to write about a parent.” Early in my study of the memoir genre, such a goal seemed off-point. After all, a memoir is a first-person introspect account of the author’s life experience.

However, over the years, by reading an ever-widening selection of memoirs, I have grown to respect the desire to contain all aspects of one’s life journey into the form of a story. Stories of parents run the gamut.

On one extreme are the author’s attempts to ghost write or inhabit their parent’s

Farewell Aleppo

earlier lives. Cherry Blossoms in Twilight by Yaeko Sugama-Weldon and Linda E. Austin captures the first person account of Linda Austin’s mother growing up in pre-war Japan. Andrew X. Pham in Eaves of Heaven  tells the story, through his father’s eyes, of being caught in the cross fire of north and south during the Vietnam war. Both base their stories on intense interviews and the familiarity of a close personal relationship to get inside the perspective of the main character.

Linda Joy Myers, a thought-leader in the memoir movement wrote a whole memoir Song of the Plains, about her sometimes frustrating effort to see inside her ancestors’ points of view. Her story is a tale of reminiscences, speculation, interviews, and research.

Other authors such as Miranda Seymour, author of Thrumpton Hall  and Alexandra Styron, author of Reading my Father  dig into the archival records their father’s left behind, sprinkled with a smattering of the author’s own early memories. Alex’s Wake by Martin Goldsmith  chronicles the author’s maddening search in Europe to trace the tragic journey his uncle and grandfather made on the ill fated St. Louis when they tried and failed to escape Nazi persecution.

Barack Obama shared his insights into the African origins of his father (and by extension other African Americans) in Dreams of Our Fathers . And author Helene Cooper did the same in her memoir of growing up in Liberia, in House on Sugar Beach.

This desire to understand ancestors arises as a natural extension of the same curiosity that drives one to know one’s own story. And so when I come across another example of a child’s attempt to chronicle a parent, I accept it as an honorable and welcome contribution to the memoir literature. Even if such stories are not always able to go inside the protagonist’s inner perspectives, these authors do their best to learn how their ancestor’s history contributed to the author’s psychological evolution.

The latest example of this drive to find a parent’s life is Farewell Aleppo: My Father, My People, and Their Long Journey Home by Claudette Sutton.

A young girl knows her parents come from Syria but she doesn’t know what that means. And the stories she hears from various members are so complicated with various surprising twists and turns, with brothers who move from country to country, and return or don’t return to Syria. As a young woman, she has little hope of being able to sort it out into a coherent story.

Were her grandparents really from Syria? Most of the Jews she meets have ancestors from Europe. Her own family’s stories of middle eastern Jewish communities seem unreal.

As she matures and has kids of her own, she begins to wonder how she can learn more. Eventually she begins to ask questions and gather information. Through interviews and research she constructs the story of her father’s clan.

In gathering her father’s stories, she uncovers amazing features of twentieth century history, including some fascinating insights that are rarely known or discussed in our popular culture. into the cultural cross roads and sanctuary city. In addition to the existence of a large Syrian Jewish community, her father’s story provides insights into the existence of a substantial Jewish community in Shanghai, which swelled during World War II, with Jews looking for safe haven from the Nazis. In Claudette Sutton’s story, we can’t go deep into her father’s emotions as a young man. And yet, even without his internal voice, we can feel the thrill and nervous tension of watching the historic events of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, and other profound events that shaped the journey of this international group of souls who had been wandering for two millennia, looking for a safe home.

Typically a memoir is about the journey of an individual, and the narrative takes us deeply inside the author’s own point of view. Even though Farewell to Aleppo does not sit firmly within the point of view of either author or protagonist, it nevertheless offers a brilliant insightful story of the life of an ancestor. This form at the intersection of personal history and memoir brings alive the journeys of recent ancestors, supplying the author and her family with important information about their heritage and offering the rest of us a vibrant, personal view of the events of recent history.

Writing Prompt

What were your parents doing before you were born? Write down a few stories from family lore. If parents or other older relatives are still alive, ask questions to try to flesh in this folklore and develop the scenes and emotions that will turn them into stories.

Notes

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

A Mormon, Mennonite, and Jew Convert to Spirituality

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

I recently read two smartly-written memoirs that traced their author’s search for spiritual truths. Despite the fact that the two authors grew up in different religions, their paths were remarkably similar to each other. And as it happens, their journeys were remarkably similar to my own.

A Mormon, Mennonite and a Jew. When we reached our teen years, we began to view our parents’ religion more as a bond that connected families than a source of Truth. For answers to the deeper questions of human existence, all three switched allegiance, and viewed school as a place of worship.

But as we attempted to become adults, we ran into problems. While books could feed our intellect, our souls were starving. Eventually we couldn’t tolerate the pain. Something had to give. And so, each one of us was led to love and spirituality. The parallels and differences in our journeys provide three very different examples of how to find a relationship with a loving God, feeling guided by rules without feeling diminished by them.

Martha Beck

Martha Beck’s first memoir Expecting Adam leads readers on the author’s escape from Utah, the home of the Mormon church to Harvard grad school, arguably the Vatican of the Enlightenment.

After she becomes pregnant, she learns her fetus has the genetic code for Down’s Syndrome. Her Harvard colleagues assume the only smart choice is to terminate the pregnancy, leading her to a crisis at the intersection of love and science. She chooses love. But even though she is ready to reject Harvard, she is not yet willing to give up on her religion.

Martha Beck’s second memoir, Leaving the Saints takes place in Utah, where she returned to reclaim her faith and community. Over time she comes to believe that inclusion into her religious community demands intellectual dishonesty. After much soul searching she abandons her religion, turning instead to a belief in spirituality.

Martha Beck’s two memoirs synergize, each adding depth and wonder to the other. And yet each is a good read on its own.

Rhoda Janzen

In Rhoda Janzen’s first memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, a New York Times bestseller, she moves from her intellectually stimulating life in California to her laid back hometown in Michigan. Instead of hating her Midwestern town, she seems grateful for its simplicity. It turns out that even for a smart PhD, there is plenty of food for thought among the common people. The simple premise of “Returning Home,” (or Nostoi as they call it in Greek) drives this lovely story of self re-discovery.

In her second memoir Mennonite Meets Mr. Right, Janzen falls in love with a religious guy, not a restrained and proper Mennonite but a Pentecostal, the most intelligent but least intellectual guy she ever expected to love. She goes to church with him where she finds parishioners celebrating a joyous personal relationship with God. The book brilliantly teases apart the paradoxes between intellect, spirituality and religion.

Rhoda Janzen’s two memoirs, like Martha Beck’s, are each beautiful in their own right, and even better together. I listened to the audio versions, narrated by the author. With Janzen’s quirky, expressive voice and inventive use of language, she hosted one of my all-time favorite book listening experiences.

Jerry Waxler

The third of this trio is my own memoir Thinking My Way to the End of the World, about my journey to the edge of sanity to find a belief system. In my teens, I lost interest in my Jewish upbringing. Growing into my intellectual birthright as a well-educated citizen of the Enlightenment, I thought that humans were completely crazy to have invented such an annoying unprovable concept as God. As far as I was concerned, calculus and physics were sufficient to solve all my problems.

During that crucial time in my life, when I should have been preparing for adulthood, I felt increasingly empty and confused. Maintaining absolute adherence to scientific thinking, I desperately searched for a belief system. Without one, I thought my mind would implode. When the pain became too great to bear, my intellectual rigidity burst and I discovered that the only way to stay sane was to allow in a spiritual dimension.

Memoirs enable us to describe introspective danger and redemption

In later years, when I looked back at my search for truth, I wondered how I would ever be able to describe my terrifying journey. But without any coherent language to explain my internal struggle, I could barely make sense of it myself.

In the early 21st century, what at first looked like a modest, inconsequential shift in book-buying tastes turned into what I call the Memoir Revolution. In this new wave, writing classes offer instruction and bestseller lists provide social context to help anyone turn disjointed memories into a story. That social permission to repackage my life into a story ushered me into a rewarding creative project, and plugged me into one of the most upbeat cultural movements of our time.

To immerse myself in the “Revolution,” I read hundreds of memoirs. From each one, I learned that it is possible to tell the story of one’s deepest hopes and fears.

Among my growing library of human experience, I began to notice other authors who also struggled to find authentic beliefs. For example, Dani Shapiro searched among wisdom traditions in Devotion. Deborah Feldman broke free from the micromanagement and misogyny of her Hasidic sect in Unorthodox. Nuns escaped the suffocating religiosity of their orders in order to find themselves, in The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong and An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson. And two mothers whose loss of a baby almost drove them crazy until they found spirituality: Lorraine Ash in Life Touches Life and Sukey Forbes in Angel in my Pocket.

These and other hints of spirituality showed me that memoirs are allowing us to expose our inner worlds.

My understanding of the power of this literary medium jumped up a notch when I discovered the two fabulous stories by Martha Beck and Rhoda Janzen. Like me, they devoted their precious life energy to find an authentic faith. I finally accepted I had found a real memoir subgenre, in which the search for a belief system was the central theme.

These three authors, Beck, Janzen, and I, agonized over our connection to family, broke free of those traditions in order to connect with the secular power of rationality, and then when that still wasn’t enough, had to agonize again. For each of us, losing our faith in the sacred truths of rationality was every bit as wrenching as losing a religion. The three memoirs end up in three different versions of the modern system of beliefs known as spirituality in which love provides the foundation for everything.

Historically we’ve expected religious leaders to dictate our relationship to a higher power. But in the great dispersal of autonomy in Western society, we continue to evolve from the authority of institutions to the wisdom of individuals. Each of us wants to know these truths on our own. And to learn those truths, we go on a journey. Memoirs enable us to share those journeys.

In high school literature classes I learned that it is possible for an author to encapsulate a whole world in the written narrative. I inhabited those brilliantly conceived fictitious worlds for a few hours. When I closed each book, I slid back into my own hidden inner world.

The Memoir Revolution is ushering in a new era that will help readers and authors solve some of the most profound problems of our times. Memoirs help us accept people who think and live differently from ourselves. These stories across the lifespan help us understand our own and each other’s stages of life. And they dive into the paradox of knowledge which, from a scientific viewpoint is unprovable and yet from a personal viewpoint is undeniably knowable.

The Memoir Revolution offers us a new instrument through which we can observe our own and each other’s inner worlds and find the common ground that unites us in our individuality. This is far more than just a literary movement. It introduces the potential for a new science of the soul.

Writing prompt
What spiritual or “belief system” features of your life are ending up in your published or work-in-progress memoir?

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

Tragedy and courage in memoirs

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Recently I read a terrifying memoir about a mother’s loss of her baby, Losing Malcolm by Carol Henderson. The book takes me on a journey of primal fear.

First, I ride her wave of unbridled hope for the new life growing within her, culminating in the otherworldly surge of love when the baby is born. The wave crashes when he is diagnosed with a life threatening birth defect. The surgeons lift her spirits from the depths of despair by offering hope for a rare risky neonatal open heart surgery.Losing Malcolm Carol Henderson

Long ago, I stopped exposing myself to fictional horror. Stopping monsters just isn’t worth the emotional turmoil. Now I ask myself why am I willing to accompany an author on her real life horror. To answer that question, I compare the two types of emotional journeys.

In both forms of storytelling, the evil is too great to be stopped by ordinary people. Additional help must be recruited. For example, when aliens from another galaxy invade earth, the military mobilizes. Eventually the military wins, the killing stops, and order is restored.

In the tragic memoir, Losing Malcolm, the “villain” at first is death. If the baby’s defective heart cannot be repaired, all hope is lost. The specially-trained heroes are called in. But when the risky heart surgery fails and the baby dies, the enemy instantly shifts. Death is no longer the enemy.

Now, the antagonist in the story is despair. Despair threatens to destroy the main character’s sanity, and disrupt her grip on the very meaning of life. The psychological horror of despair threatens to unravel everything. To defeat despair the hero must journey back to wholeness.

Perhaps reading a grieving memoir is a learned skill. When I started reading memoirs, years ago, I sometimes ran away from a book with too raw and painful a topic. But over the years, as I have grown more acclimated to the genre, I no longer slow down to ask myself “why should I put myself through that experience?”

By now, I have read many grieving memoirs. Throughout each one, I keep turning pages, accepting the hero’s pain as the price I pay for the generous, uplifting ending. The victory at the end of Losing Malcolm is the psychological realignment of the hero’s attitude and direction, so that she is able to absorb that tragedy and move back into a world that once again makes sense. By my willingness to walk hand in hand with an author who has been to the depths, I am also treated to the pleasure of that author leading me back into the light.

The pleasure of reading Losing Malcolm is enhanced by excellent story construction, a compelling writer’s voice, and a sprinkling of powerful inline excerpts from the author’s contemporaneous journals. These passages heighten the sensation of being right there with her. Good writing can’t remove the pain, but it does let the story reach deep into my heart, while I remain safely in my comfortable chair.

Reading memoirs has enhanced my appreciation for the many aspects of being a human being. By learning from each author’s journey, I become a deeper person with a greater range of understanding for the complex experiences my fellow humans must undergo. When I close one of these books, I feel not only wiser about the presence of evil in the world, but also about the uplifting power of courage and hope.

Writing Prompt
What situation in your life brought you so low you felt there was no point in going on, or you didn’t think you had enough sanity to even survive? Write an overview of the situation. Write a scene that shows your despair. Write another that shows your journey back to hope.

Notes

Carol Henderson’s Losing Malcolm page
Amazon link for Losing Malcolm

Other grieving parent memoirs of lost babies:
Angel in my Pocket by Sukey Forbes, Amazon link
Life Touches Life by Lorraine Ash.  Link to my article

Memoirs by grieving parents of young adult children
Leaving the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples Amazon link
Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent, Link to my article:
Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler, Link to my article

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

By reviewing her roots she continues to grow

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

After I finished reading Linda Joy Myers’ first memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother, I did what I always do. I allowed my imagination to retrace the journey. By actively imagining the story, and then finding words to express what I experienced as a reader, I completely absorb the story.

In addition to my immersion in the story itself, I look outside the book, at interviews, Song of the PLains by Linda Joy Myerscorrespondence or blog posts, for insights into the author’s experience of writing it. What motivation sustained her through the long, difficult journey to develop her own story? And by writing the memoir, how has she grown and changed?

In the case of Linda Joy Myers’ Don’t Call Me Mother, the way writing the memoir changed her life has been nothing short of astounding.

By writing the memoir, she discovered the power of turning the pain and confusion of childhood into a good story. The rewards she gained from this process inspired her to pass along the methodology to other people. She became a teacher, coach, thought leader and “connector.” By founding the National Association of Memoir Writers, she has helped thousands of individuals gain insight into their own memoir-writing process.

Linda Joy Myers’ experience demonstrates the powerful notion that writing a memoir can not only change your own life but also the lives of many people who come within its influence.

Now, after reading Linda Joy’s second memoir, Song of the Plains, I again pursue my two-part inquiry.

By allowing my imagination to retrace her steps through this memoir, I see us traveling together on an adult’s journey to understand her earlier self. The memoir is a call to the past, a need for finding the roots of the self, beyond one’s own childhood, into the roots of family and ancestors. The hero engages in a sort of angelic wrestling match between an individual who wants to understand her ancestral roots, and the mystery and unknowability of events that occurred years or even generations before the author was born.

The memoir is a heart-pulling saga, a seemingly never-ending, impossible quest to learn the past, and to reconstruct the story.

Her childhood pain forces her to seek deeper understanding of her parents’ childhood and then their parents. In attempting to see into the past she cries to the universe, begging for insight into the very meaning of human experience and culture!
Multi-generational trauma is the subject of a book by Mark Wolynn, one of the featured speakers on the NAMW webinar recently. In “It Didn’t Start with You” Wolynn speaks of his intense, desperate search to understand the meaning of his life. After years of seeking his inner truth in southeast Asia a guru told him that to heal himself, he needed to go home and heal his relationship with his parents. Linda Joy’s memoir seems to be based on the same insight. She searches for herself by returning to her roots.

Linda Joy Myers’ two memoirs, taken together, offer fascinating insights into the project of understanding one’s self. In the first one, I accompanied her on her hero’s journey trying to move past her childhood and become a full-fledged adult. In Song of the Plains, I returned with her, staring into the wounds of her ancestors, trying to pull all those pieces together too.

The two narratives beautifully illustrate the journey that all Coming of Age memoir writers travel. Like heroes traveling the Hero’s Journey, we must “go forth” and learn how to become actors in the world. Later, when we are ready to find and share the wisdom we have learned, we “return home” (or as the Greeks call it Nostoi), to write the memoir so we can learn what the heck that journey was all about.

By the end of Song of the Plains, I was exhausted. Did she find complete answers? Of course not! Unraveling her ancestors’ tangled emotional complexity would have required going back in time and spending years in therapy with each of them. But even though there were no complete answers, the memoir did offer a meta-message. The memoir affirms that looking back to the past is one of the tools we humans use in order to grow more healthfully and wholly toward the future.

Many of us who search for our stories are grateful that Linda Joy Myers discovered this beautiful technique to heal herself. Based on her experience of memoir as a healing art, she generously supports others on that same journey.

Now, I wonder how this second memoir worked and is continuing to work in Linda Joy’s own life path. To answer those questions, I must turn to Linda Joy, herself. The interview will continue in a separate post.

For more information about the National Association of Memoir Writers, click here:

To read  my interview (2010) with Linda Joy Myers about Don’t Call Me Mother Click here

To view the Amazon page for Don’t Call Me Mother click here

To view the Amazon page for Song of the Plains click here

A book about multi-generational trauma was featured on a recent free webinar, hosted by NAMW. It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn.

For excellent, haunting memoirs to find one’s self by searching within the experiences of an ancestor read these memoirs: Color of Water by James McBride, Alex’s Wake by Martin Goldsmith, The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes, Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood

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

Two Inspiring Memoirs about Suffering

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

I rarely shy away from the hardship portrayed in memoirs. On the contrary, I have come to expect that setbacks are milestones on the road to hope. This uplifting quality of memoirs is summed up nicely in the Latin phrase my older brother penned on his tombstone. “ ,” meaning, “To the Stars through Hardship.” In my favorite memoirs, each author climbs to the best parts of themselves by enduring the hardship they encounter along the way.

However, my admiration for suffering was severely challenged nine years ago, when I began to read Sixty Five Roses by Heather Summerhayes Cariou. It was about the author’s sister, Pam, who had Cystic Fibrosis. Before I picked up this book, I had no idea a child could struggle so hard just to breathe. As I allowed my mind to enter the scene, I gasped for air.

Picturing that family, frantically caring for this suffocating little girl, overloaded my own emotions. It was too much. I set the book aside.

My reluctance to read the book presented me with a terrible dilemma. I would not be able to experience Heather Cariou’s triumph until I was willing to experience her pain. So for years Sixty Five Roses floated near the top of my reading pile, bypassed time after time by books which involved less suffering.

Recently, I grabbed a memoir, Trapped by Fran Macilvey, about a child who grew up with Cerebral Palsy. From earliest childhood, the author coped with her physical limitations. And after she came to terms with the cruel accident that damaged her body, she had to climb above the emotional scars that resulted from all those years she wished she could run, jump, and play with the healthy kids.

Fran Macilvey’s memoir is a journey of courage, of growth and change. Her frustration pushed me out of my comfort zone, where I felt the courageous shift beyond mere acceptance, to a lifelong search for dignity.

I didn’t want the book to end. So after the last page of Trapped, I returned to Heather Summerhayes Cariou’s Sixty Five Roses. This time, I vowed to stick with the pain until it led me to the inevitable conclusion of compassion and courage.

I am so glad I did. This memoir of a young person trying to grow up in the shadow of her sister’s terrible disease was one of the most beautifully written of the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read.

Knowledge of Death inspires life

This book also searches for the highroad hidden within the misery of circumstances. As Heather’s sister, Pam, inches closer to the early death expected for all sufferers of Cystic Fibrosis in those years, the family attempts to thrive. This terrifying situation creates an almost superhuman challenge for the author, of course. It is also terrifying for me, as I wonder with increasing urgency how the author will lead through death toward a strong, hopeful conclusion.

Heather pulls it off, showing how her sister and family looked squarely at death and defied it with a love for life. Thank you for sharing this lovely experience, Heather. You have lifted my heart and given me courage. Death and birth, sorrow and joy, effort and fear are flip sides of the human experience. Your sister showed us how to embrace both sides.

As a result, Sixty Five Roses does more than tell the story of a child’s suffering. It turns that valiant struggle into one of the most lyrical and uplifting memoirs I’ve read, taking me on a fearless journey to the shores of death.

Bonus of reading both memoirs

Because the family in both Trapped and Sixty Five Roses had to work so hard to ease the suffering of one child, the two books together provide a primer on the psychology of families with a special-needs child. In both stories, the healthy siblings learned early that their own problems are less urgent in comparison.

Reading the two books in sequence also taught me a surprising lesson about the influence of first-person versus third-person point of view on the way I was able to relate to the pain.

Even though Fran Macilvey suffered the terrible burden of a body that didn’t work right, one thing that made it easier to read was the fact that the suffering was told through her own eyes. After a lifetime of coping with her physical disability, she had learned how to create some distance from her own struggles. As a result, her own emotional tools allowed me to immerse myself in her situation while also remaining buffered from it.

On the other hand, in Heather Summerhayes Cariou’s story, the author had to witness the suffering of her younger sister. Her heart was ripped to shreds as she attempted to live her own life, and yet at the same time pour her compassion to her sister. Her aching heart completely opened me up to the pain.

Conclusion
I grew up reading science fiction. While standing on a crowded trolley car or subway in Philadelphia, I explored the galaxy. At the time, I didn’t realize that to a large extent I was reading in order to shut out the people around me. Decades later, I extended my exploration to include memoirs. By reading memoirs, I traverse the vast variety of human experience. It is truly the greatest and most exciting frontier, understanding of the people around me by reading their stories from inside their own points of view.

Thanks to frank, gorgeous writing such as Fran Macilvey’s Trapped and Heather Cariou’s Sixty Five Roses I no longer need to keep it outside my realm of experience.

Notes

Link to Sixty Five Roses – Goodreads page
Link to Trapped by Fran Macilvey Goodreads page
Link to Fran Macilvey’s home page

In one of my favorite memoirs, Here if you Need Me, Kate Braestrup faces the death of her husband and ends up proposing an uplifting way to look at good and evil. Tackling these huge topics through Story is one of my favorite things.)

In another one of my favorite memoirs, Gary Presley in Seven Wheelchairs takes his search for adulthood beyond mere acceptance of life in a wheelchair, toward the inexorable search for dignity and self-worth.)

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

Grieving memoirs – a different slant

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Banged Up Heart by Shirley Melis is a memoir about two strong-willed people whose relentless mutual attraction chips away at their individuality. When they discover that they are happier together than apart, their relationship is born. The memoir continues past consummation, into a marriage fueled by an unquenchable thirst to live life to its fullest.

From the beginning, John’s rare form of cancer hung over the marriage like a sword. Instead of slowing them down, the threat egged them on to passionately engage in culture, nature, friendships, and each other.Banged Up Heart by Shirley Melis

Both of them were on the cusp of retirement, anyway. So they seized this opportunity to cut short their successful careers and devote the rest of their lives to each other. Then time ran out. In a breathless chronology, the author leads us blow-by-devastating-blow through her husband’s medical setbacks.

Shirley Melis relies on the skills she honed during her career as a professional writer to pull readers into the details of their bliss together and then their frightening ordeal. She used scenes supported by dialog and contemporaneous material (letters and journal entries) to cut away the distance between reader and writer and allows us to enter her world.

The couple’s care for each other turned John’s downward slide into another chapter in their passionate love story. While their doctors fought his disease with the full weight of medical science, Shirley and John threw their full weight into trust in the future. They were determined to defy mortality and make plans for the next adventure. The power of love transforms the ending of their story into a sort of crescendo.

To satisfy readers, the ending of a memoir must wrap up the entire story in a way that allows the reader a visceral reaction—goosebumps, say, or a smile—that inspires them to recommend it to a friend. Banged-Up Heart achieves those goals in a way that surprised me.

In just about every memoir about loss I can think of, death takes place early enough in the book to allow plenty of time for the author’s recovery. This bridge from death back to life is one of the great gifts that grieving authors give to the rest of us.

Examples are plentiful. Susan Weidener’s memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, is also about a marriage ended prematurely by cancer. Like Banged-Up Heart, Weidener’s memoir shares the entire life span of her relationship to her husband, from the romance, through building a life together, and having children. Then the ripping away of a too early death. Weidener’s memoir, however, goes on to the next stage in her journey, as she tries to rebuild her life.

Rebuilding is the entire focus of Kate Braestrup’s memoir, Here if You Need Me. We barely meet Braestrup’s husband, who was killed in a freak auto accident at the beginning of the book. The lion’s share of the story describes the author’s long journey back, raising her kids and growing as a person. In the end, she offers a lovely perspective on the nature of good and evil, providing readers with the gift of her own hard-earned wisdom.

Memoirs about the death of a child also guide us through death’s aftermath, as the authors strive to cope with their devastating loss. For examples, check out any of these moving memoirs: Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler, Leave the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples, Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent, Life Touches Life by Lorraine Ash, and Angel in my Pocket by Sukey Forbes.

Well-defined story arcs about loss and the subsequent grieving process have earned an important place in my taxonomy of memoir subgenres, because each one provides wisdom regarding this fundamental journey of the heart.

I assumed that Banged-up Heart would similarly explore the arduous climb back to sanity and acceptance. But as I approached the end of the memoir, John was still battling for his life, and both of them were still struggling to visualize their adventures after he recovered. During this period, Shirley was too focused on hope to spend time grieving. As the pages flew by, I began to wonder how she would have room to wrap up the story.

In my impatience, I felt there were many details that didn’t add momentum to the story. Yet I carried on, drawn forward by the compelling writing, and my empathetic connection with this terrifying situation.

Amid so many upheavals and disasters, I wanted to learn as much as possible about Melis’ thoughts. In every other grieving memoir I have read, the nuances of the author’s interior landscape were crucially important. For me, that is the payoff for reading a story about loss. I want to accompany the author on this noble search to reclaim a sense of meaning. But instead of emphasizing her inner landscape, the author focused mainly on what was happening around her.

During this run-up to the end, with John in his deathbed, Shirley beside herself with worry, and me juggling my own expectations about where this was going, the story took a surprising turn. The result dashed my expectations and broke out of the “grieving story arc.” And it did so in a most satisfying way. Like the final moments of the movie The Sixth Sense, which shifted the premise of the entire story, the ending of Banged-up Heart caused me to toss out the expected storyline of a grieving memoir.

Melis’ exquisite, loving description of placing John’s remains in his final resting place helped me understand exactly what she was trying to do and gave me a rush of recognition. “Oh, that’s what the memoir was about.”

By ending the book the way she did — not with feelings of loss, but with admiration and love for her husband — the intent of Melis’ book instantly flipped. This was not the journey of sorrow and recovery, which I had expected, but a book about courage, respect, mutual support, and how two loving people can create life in each other’s eyes.

Although the story structure was unconventional, in the end, the book met my expectations after all, by offering me the two great gifts I expect from all satisfying memoirs: first, the life and mind of the author, and second, deep insight into a universal aspect of human experience.

By letting me into her life she showed me the unique nuances of her situation. She met and fell in love with John while still trying to recover from the death of her first husband, complicating her approach to grief. John was an unusual character, full of complex ideas and extraordinary talents. Their relationship was only a couple of years old. These individual variations gave me a sense of being with a specific person, at a specific time.

These specific features of their love offered me a fresh perspective on the universal experience of loss. The emergence of universal insights out of the cauldron of individual experience is why I love memoirs so much.

Love is one of the great driving forces of human experience. Some even say that love is the primary force and that all other emotions derive from it. And yet in the memoir genre, love is usually neatly tucked behind the thoughts, dreams, and needs of the protagonist. Shirley Melis’ memoir Banged-up Heart brings love out of its supporting role and places it front and center, as the hero of her story.

Memoirs that represent other relevant subgenres

Memoirs that Review multiple relationships

These memoirs review the life of several relationships across the author’s lifespan. Instead of praising one relationship, they lead us on the protagonist’s attempt to make better sense of these crucial features of emotional life:
Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse by Kathy Pooler,
Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers his Marriages by Boyd Lemon
Five Men Who Broke My Heart by Susan Shapiro

Memoirs devoted to loving one other person

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell — Love and loss of a friend.
100 Names for Love by Diane Ackerman — Her tribute to her husband mixed with the caregiving and cognitive rehabilitation after his stroke.

Notes
Shirley Melis’ Home Page

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

Interview With Memoir Editor Brooke Warner

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

After reading Dorit Sasson’s excellent memoir Accidental Soldier I asked the author for insights into her writing process. She gave much of the credit to her editor, Brooke Warner. Her answer confirms a “secret” that has taken me many years to fully appreciate. Good, publishable writing relies on a collaboration between author and editor. To learn more about this creative relationship, I reached out to Brooke Warner,Magic of Memoir by Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers herself, to see what the memoir world looks like from her point of view.

Jerry: One of the things I loved most about Dorit Sasson’s book Accidental Soldier was the exquisite sensitivity to her mental voice. She seemed totally tuned in to her own interior process and exquisitely capable of sharing it. That’s so important n memoirs, because one’s thought-stream gives readers the opportunity to learn how a character thinks.

When I asked Dorit how she learned the subtle skill of writing her thoughts, she said you taught her. How did you learn to inspire and guide authors to pull these introspective realizations out of mind and onto the page?

Brooke: In reading your book, Memoir Revolution, you identify something really important about memoir writing when you write that memoir writers are tapping into psychology and literature without necessarily realizing they are doing so.

My parents are both psychologists, and while I never studied psychology in school, I’ve been exposed to therapy in various contexts my whole life. My mom runs a retreat center, and since I was fairly young I’ve been privy to the power of sharing story, and how self-expression heals and helps us better understand ourselves. This has given me a bedrock for how I hold people in their memoir process. It’s not therapy, but I do have a certain sensibility that leans that way, in addition to compassion for the writers I work with.

Jerry: Wow. I’m so impressed by the way you’ve taken the sensitivity training from your home life and applied it to your working life. Interesting! That explains your insights into the workings of your clients’ minds, but how did you get so knowledgeable and sensitive to the form of memoirs?

Brooke: I make no apologies for the fact that it’s my favorite genre. I’ve probably edited and/or published somewhere around 300 memoirs. My professional background is as an editor for a Seal Press, a women’s press in Berkeley, and I started She Writes Press in 2012, and we publish a lot of memoir as well. I teach a six-month memoir intensive with Linda Joy Myers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers. We’ve co-authored two books together, Breaking Ground on Your Memoir and an anthology The Magic of Memoir. And I wrote an ebook called How to Sell Your Memoir. Finally, Linda Joy and I are co-leading our second annual conference this October in Oakland, also called “Magic of Memoir.” So I’m pretty entrenched in memoir all around.

Jerry: That’s amazing. No wonder you’re good! You have invested a huge portion of your creative life into helping authors shape their life into stories. Cool. What got you into this line in the first place and what keeps you engaged in it with so much commitment?

Brooke: The memoir thing started for me when I started working at Seal Press in 2004. I’d worked in publishing for five years before I started working at Seal, but it wasn’t until Seal Press that my editorial focus became so strongly memoir-focused. During those eight-plus years as an acquiring editor and ultimately Executive Editor, the vast majority of the projects I acquired and edited were memoirs.

I also read tons of memoirs during those years because I was reading the competition. I was learning what made memoir work, and I was reading the best and most famous memoirists—those memoirists who started the revolution, like Caroline Knapp, Mary Karr, Annie Lamott, Joan Didion, Vivian Gornick. (I read almost exclusively women authors during those years, with the exception of James Frey and Augusten Burroughs probably.)

On a more immediate level, I was working with memoirists who were baring their souls. I witnessed firsthand what they went through to get these projects out, and then what they experienced when their memoirs came out in the world. There was often a lot of praise and good reviews, but I also saw and experienced the backlash against memoirists, and specifically women memoirists.

Part of my passion for this genre comes from a kind of Momma Bear instinct. I didn’t actually become a mother until 2010, but for years before that I was a mom of sorts to my authors. In-house editors get very close to their authors, and I’m no exception. I was part-mother, part-therapist, part-friend, part-midwife, part-taskmaster. You wear a lot of hats, and I was well-suited to these roles. I was personally impacted, and oftentimes awed, by what my authors went through to bring their stories into the world. I have been a champion of this genre as a result of walking the path with my authors, and feeling that what memoir writers do is hugely courageous, and one of the most vulnerable acts I know of. I believe memoirists should be celebrated, each and every one of them, and instead they’re so often met by criticism from family and friends, and cultural criticism for the very act of writing personal story. All memoirists need champions, and champions of memoir need to voice their support. Amy Ferris, a Seal author (her memoir is called Marrying George Clooney) and my dear friend, says that memoir saves lives. And I absolutely know this to be true. It saves the lives of the writers who write them as much as the people who need to read them.

Jerry: Because of all the years that Linda Joy Myers has put into building a community of memoir writers, I consider National Association of Memoir Writers to be one of the most important hubs of the Memoir Revolution. What is it like for you, being in a position where so many people come to look for help finding the stories of their lives?

Brooke: I agree, and I love my partnership with Linda Joy Myers. We have a really similar sensibility, and she’s an equally passionate advocate for memoir and memoirists. I feel so lucky to teach alongside her. When we met, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit!

As far as what it’s like to be in my position, it’s wonderful, and sometimes hard. What’s hard about it is that so many people have the dream that their book can be a breakout bestseller. And a lot of people come to me for coaching, or join my classes, and what they want more than anything is validation—that their story is not only worthwhile, but well-written, going to get agented, going to get a big advance, going to sell tons of copies.

Of course most of the memoirs I work on these days don’t go on to get big agents, big advances, or become bestsellers. The publishing climate is the most contracted it’s ever been. The only memoirists who are getting those kinds of agents and advances are people who are already famous, or who have big author platforms, or who have something that’s trending in such a way that the traditional industry sees a project as a risk worth taking.

I love meeting writers. I love hearing that people are working on memoir. I also love hearing that they’ll publish no matter what, because I know how difficult it is out there right now, and in fact the high barriers to publishing is one of the main reasons I started She Writes Press, to provide an alternative to authors who were being met by rejections from the traditional world for really beautifully written books. (Ours is a model in which the sole determinant of whether or not we publish a book is the writing, not author brand or model.)

I’m encouraged because I think there are countless brilliant books whose authors are committed and willing to take them to the finish line, with or without a traditional deal. The new revolution that we’re in the middle of is the Indie Revolution, and a lot of memoirists are riding this wave. And so I love talking to writers of all stripes, but I also try to gently introduce a bit of publishing realism to those who have stars in their eyes about a publishing paradigm that no longer exists.

Jerry: Nicely said.

Interview to Be Continued

Notes and links
See my review of Dorit Sasson’s excellent memoir Accidental Soldier, edited by Brooke Warner
To visit Brooke Warner’s home page, click here.
Green-Light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing by Brooke Warner
The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey by Linda Joy Myers PhD and Brooke Warner
Breaking Ground on Your Memoir: Craft, Inspiration, and Motivation for Memoir Writers by Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers

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

Two Fools at a Party: Serious Side of Humor

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

(This is the second article about Victoria Twead’s memoirs. For the first, click here.)

Despite my enjoyment of Victoria Twead’s memoir, Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools, something didn’t seem right. When the couple moved from dreary England to a

Memoir by Victoria Twead

Memoir by Victoria Twead

fixer-upper in sunny Spain, instead of hating the hardship they laughed. I worried that their frivolous attitude missed the opportunity to make some serious points.

To learn more about this adventuresome couple, I read another of their memoirs. In Two Old Fools on a Camel they moved from their by-now cozy village in Spain to a concrete building in the desert of Bahrain. In their new, barren surroundings, they were to teach kids of edgy, rich parents. They did this to earn money. That’s a scary twist. What happened to the golden years when you could retire to a life of leisure? To add to the discomfort, during their visit, a political uprising briefly shut down the country.

After considering both memoirs, my worry about their serious purpose began to evaporate. I could see that underneath the humor was a willingness to go out on demanding adventures. Their fearless attitude fits perfectly with my understanding of the Hero’s Journey.

I first learned about the mythical basis for modern storytelling from Chris Vogler’s book, Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Once I recognized the universality of the Hero’s Journey, it was easy to see its fingerprints all over my favorite memoirs. (I go into more details of this idea in my book Memoir Revolution.

The Tweads, like so many memoir authors, follow the Hero’s Journey model closely, going forth into the land of adventure. In their case, first into Spain and then into Bahrain. Unlike mythical characters, the heroes of memoirs search for psychological achievements. For the Tweads, the quest was for dignity in midlife. And like heroes in myths, the Tweads were willing to accept major discomfort during their pursuit.

In fiction, our heroes usually deal with discomfort by ignoring it. For example, in John Wayne’s war and western movies, the actor was famous for appearing to simply not care about extraordinary discomfort. In real life, though, the rest of us need to develop coping methods.

This is where the Tweads took me into new territory. They used humor, and even went so far as to pull practical jokes. For example, teaming up with fellow teachers, one of them dressed up in an outlandish costume, and then hid. When an unsuspecting victim entered the room, the trickster jumped out, trying to scare the daylights out of the newcomer.

After reading hundreds of memoirs, I can’t think of another one in which the hero uses practical jokes to break the tension. (See note below) At first, I feared the zaniness of their approach reduced the gravitas of their serious work. Aren’t practical jokes for children? Aren’t we supposed to outgrow that impulse?

My misgivings evaporated after reading a scholarly book on the subject. Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde. Hyde’s book shows how pranksters form an important theme in mythology. Because the Trickster messes around with the values of society, Western civilization has spent centuries trying to suppress this impulse. Despite this effort to stamp out the Trickster, he or she routinely appears in mainstream culture. First of course, are the practical jokes of children. In adult life we see the Trickster alive and well in horror movies, Halloween customs, and slapstick comedy. Victoria Twead’s use of pranks to survive adventure offers a refreshing, upbeat spin on this fundamental notion of trickery and surprise.

Heroes Return to the Community

The final stage of the mythical Hero’s Journey involves the hero’s return to the community to share hard-earned lessons. This is in fact the task of every memoir writer. Each of us invites readers to learn from our experience. Victoria Twead does this as well, and like everything else she does, she goes the extra mile.

In addition to passing her messages to us by writing many books , Victoria Twead shares herself on the Facebook group she co-founded with Alan Parks, (see note)    .

It was in that group that I discovered yet another dimension of Victoria Twead’s commitment to humor. In the Facebook group, she sets a light tone, asking members to leave their serious intentions at the door, before entering. Through these policies, the Facebook group attempts to bring a “party atmosphere” to the internet.

The levity on the Facebook group confused me in a similar way to the levity in the memoirs. “It’s too light,” I worried. “Where are the intense discussions about the meaning of life?” Finally, I accepted that group members have been invited to this gathering, not to ponder but to party.

Celebration!

The Facebook group is devoted to celebrating the joy that memoirs bring to writers and readers. I learned quite a bit about celebration during the sixties, when, in the pauses between anti-war demonstrations, we often got together for parties. Fifty years later, Victoria Twead and her cohorts on We Love Memoirs apply the notion of celebration to the internet.

It turns out that partiers, like tricksters, have roots that extend to the very beginnings of human culture. In the book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (see link below), social historian Barbara Ehrenreich traces celebration from the free-wheeling hoopla of pagan rituals. Similar to the way Western civilization tried to suppress the Trickster, there was a centuries-long effort to stamp out public celebration. In modern times, public revelry has been corralled into special holidays, such as New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras. Perhaps, if Ehrenreich is watching, she might add a chapter in her book on celebration to include We Love Memoirs, and other internet attempts at partying.

Serious points galore

After thinking about the Twead’s memoirs, I’ve discovered plenty of serious lessons. They harnessed the myth of the Hero to charge into life with full vigor. They used the myth of the Trickster to help them survive the discomforts of their adventures. And after they returned they used the ancient system of Story to share their adventures with us “couch warriors.” Finally, they gathered us together on the internet to for public revelry.
Even the Two Fools in the titles of their memoirs raise a serious issue. In ordinary usage, the word “fool” is a put down, but I don’t see the Tweads that way. I think they are more like Shakespearean fools. In Shakespeare’s plays, while most of the characters were caught up in the drama of the moment, the Fool was the one who lightly danced on top of reality and revealed the truth.

If Victoria Twead and her husband are Fools, maybe we would be smart to follow in their footsteps.

Notes and Links

The memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young was laugh-out-loud funny too. In the memoir, he attempted to earn his way into fame, and was willing to be outrageous in order to get into the public eye. But throughout the book, his zany behavior was driven by a serious needs. He occasionally dove into situations that came close to tragic, such as commitment to his relationship, his misgivings about fatherhood and his struggle with alcoholism. Read my 2007 review of that book by clicking here,

Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Chris Vogler

Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde

Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy byBarbara Ehrenreich

We Love Memoirs Facebook Group

Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools
Two Old Fools: Ole! 
Two Old Fools in Spain Again
Two Old Fools on a Camel, a New York Times bestseller.

Victoria keeps publishing  books! For a complete list, see her author page on Amazon.

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

Memoirs Helped Her Conquer Midlife

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

victoria-twead-two-old-fools-coverWhen I was growing up in the 1960s, “midlife crisis” conjured the image of a fifty-year-old guy driving a red convertible sports car accompanied by a giddy twenty-year-old blond. Thanks to the Memoir Revolution, we no longer rely on such clichés. Instead, we can read detailed accounts of the infinitely varied experience of real people.

Take for example, the midlife journey depicted in Victoria Twead’s “Old Fools” memoir series. (The fools in her self-effacing titles refer to the author and her husband.)

In the first memoir of the series, Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools, when Victoria Twead reached midlife, she was itching for a change from dreary English winters. She convinced her husband that they should buy a fixer-upper in a village in southeast Spain. He agreed to a five-year trial. If they still loved it by the end of that period, they would stay. With the clock ticking, they began the laborious project of turning a dilapidated house into a cozy home.

By most measures, that achievement would have been sufficient to declare their approach to midlife a smashing success. But for Victoria Twead it was only the beginning. The next mountain she wanted to climb was a literary one. She wrote a memoir about their move to Spain. Her good-humored writing brightened the dark spots, turning the whole messy experience into Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools.

Their not-so-foolish decision to move to Spain followed by the even less foolish effort to write about it were merely the first couple of steps in what I have come to see as Victoria Twead’s ferocious response to midlife. Following Dylan Thomas exhortation, she was not going gentle into that good night.

But then life in Spain hit a bump more serious than outmoded plumbing and collapsing walls. Their money began to run out. Instead of retreating, they blasted out of their comfort zone into yet another adventure, taking jobs as visiting teachers in the small middle-eastern country of Bahrain. After that crazy year, she had enough material for her next memoir, Two Old Fools on a Camel. (I’ll talk more about it in my next article.)

By this time, the reading public had discovered her books, and in a wonderful example of “art meets life” the income from her memoirs began to sustain her lifestyle.

As if this wasn’t enough to confirm Victoria’s qualification as a ferocious midlife conqueror, she had another mountain to climb. In order to share her books, she forged a relationship with fellow ex-pat Alan Parks, and established a Facebook group called We Love Memoirs.  The group attracts people from all over the world. And unlike other such groups on the internet, the moderators keep this one buzzing. That’s amazing. Isn’t the internet supposed to belong to the young? (I’ll say more about the group in my next article, also.)

Victoria Twead’s relentless climb to higher versions of herself represents an important change in our culture’s view of midlife. Formerly considered the beginning of the end, many of us view the period as the beginning of the next interesting chapter. For a more serious exploration of this trend, read Marc Freedman, MD’s book The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.  In it, Freedman points out that naturally, with our increased life spans, we are going to search for the next great adventure.

This big shift in our thinking about midlife happens to coincide with that time in my own life. Once my age approached a half a century, it raised the possibility that my life was half over. Like Twead, I too wondered how to climb higher rather than sink lower. During my research into that question, I discovered that memoirs are the key, for me and many others in this situation.

For memoir writers, a crucial step for revising life’s timeline is to become the author of one’s own book. By using the ancient template of Story to help make sense of the whole journey, we have discovered a roadmap that lets us know where we’ve been and helps us figure out where we’re going. (I’ve documented the use of Story to help us understand ourselves and each other in my book Memoir Revolution A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire )

Victoria Twead offers a great example of the trend to see midlife as a time to grow. If you decide to follow in her footsteps, to boldly seize the future, to overcome your own limits, and grow toward a better version of yourself, keep in mind all three dimensions of her approach.

First, if you lust for experience, go ahead and bust through your limits. Move to another country or achieve some other difficult or seemingly impossible dream.

Second, whether or not you are inclined to a new round of adventures, turn to memoir writing to explore and share the experiences you’ve already had.

And third, hop onto social media to create and join online communities and “party” with like-minded people from all over the world.

I’ll say more about Victoria Twead’s approach to midlife, to memoirs and to community in my next article.

Notes
Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools
Two Old Fools: Ole! 
Two Old Fools in Spain Again
Two Old Fools on a Camel, a New York Times bestseller.

Victoria keeps publishing  books! For a complete list, see her author page on Amazon.

Facebook group, We Love Memoirs, http://www.facebook.com/groups/welovememoirs

Other memoirs about renewal at midlife
At Home on the Kazakh Steppe by Janet Givens. She and her husband joined the Peace Corps at around 50 years old.

Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed
David W. Berner quit his job as a radio newscaster and became a school teacher

The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife by Marc Freedman,

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