by Jerry Waxler
I picked Brooke Shields’ book “Down came the rain” off the shelf. The dust jacket gave me reason to believe it was deeper than just another name-dropping celebrity puff piece. Flipping through it convinced me it genuinely focused on her issues of having a baby, and so I decided to give it a chance. Now that I’ve finished it, I can say that I liked it. It was a decent read, not because of literary genius. But even though I wouldn’t read this just for the beauty of the sentences, there is a sort of straightforward genuineness about the way it is written. It feels authentic, and I think that’s one of the most important qualities of any memoir.
In addition to a genuine voice, I also found other reasons to enjoy and recommend this memoir as a good read and a teaching tool for aspiring memoir writers. Just as the cover promised, its central function was a story about a mommy. I believe it does a lovely job of showing how a young, first time mother deals with some of the issues of having a baby. By reading this story I gained insights into what it’s like to be a troubled mom. In fact there are so many bits about how she overcame obstacles, it reads almost like an instruction book for moms, addressing the question, “how to get over the hump if your baby doesn’t feel like the best thing that ever happened to you.”
People are so saturated with the expectation that the moment of seeing the baby will be the best moment of a lifetime. But in about 10% of women, this experience is very different. Moments after the powerful physical act of childbirth, it’s possible a woman may not feel emotionally receptive to the baby, and for Brooke this lack of connection was an extremely disturbing experience, as she watched in horror at her own less than spectacular response. She does a terrific job of helping us understand this situation. Her focus on this issue kept the book interesting, tying her experiences together into a coherent whole. Here are some of the topics she covers:
- When she felt depressed, she denied she had a problem, blamed herself and refused to rely on medication.
- She didn’t want any help from anyone.
- She spends a fair amount of time showing how breast feeding saved her from her depression and created a bond with her baby. (No it’s not titillating. Despite the celebrity value of those particular body parts, this discussion really is for moms.)
- She offers a fascinating insight into the fact that having a baby changes her relationship to her own mother. Now she’s bumped up a notch in the hierarchy, no longer just a child, but now a mom as well.
I think the most psychologically insightful material was the contrast between her grandiose expectations of a perfect connection with her baby, and the real feelings she experienced, as a tired, somewhat overwhelmed and flawed human being, who does not respond in such a storybook manner.
Teaching turns out to be a lovely dimension of memoirs. Adding a teaching element to your story will help hold it together. It potentially can make your book interesting to a special-interest audience. And by binding the story into a unified whole, it gives the reader an additional incentive for turning to the next page. As you work on your own memoir, consider what sort of lessons you would share. Did you learn to garden as a method to cope while your mother was sick? Did you learn to fly an airplane, while you struggled for a job after getting out of the military? Or like Brooke, were your lessons more emotional? Explain how you and your child coped with bullying while he grew up with Down’s Syndrome. Or even more abstract still, are your lessons spiritual, like Anne Lamott’s lessons in Traveling Mercies?
As you look for teaching moments to share with your readers, stay true to the central power of memoir writing. Share your authentic experience, and as the lessons unfold, let the readers watch. Like Brooke Shields’ memoir, combine the force of your authentic voice with the unifying principles of the lessons you want to teach. So as you read “Down Came the Rain,” you could be enjoying and learning about the following aspects of memoir writing:
You may be enjoying hearing deeper background about an “old friend.” (That’s what the star system is about. While most of us have at most a few hundred people in our social network, she has a few hundred million. I don’t understand it, but there it is.)
You could be learning about how to relate to a child, especially if you feel disconnected. This information about postpartum depression could even be life saving if you’re in that situation and need tips about how to handle it.
You could be enjoying an interesting story, opening a window into the lives of people you don’t know, nor will ever experience firsthand. Since I’m not a mommy, nor a celebrity. If I want to understand what either of those experiences is like, I have to read stories about them. This expands my horizon as a human being, lets me relate more genuinely to people who are different from me, and makes my world a richer, friendlier place.
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