by Jerry Waxler
Writing your memoir? Memoir Revolution provides many examples and insights into how to authors are translating life into story.
In a previous post, Family Psychology Lessons in Memoirs, I showed how Sonia Marsh’s Freeways to Flipflops is an excellent example of a family in midlife crisis, and in another post The Many Roles of Family In Your Memoir, I showed how that book demonstrates a type of do-it-yourself family therapy.
Her memoir started me thinking about the complexities of adding families to life stories. Their influence on us is important, and yet it adds an additional layer of complexity to an already-complex task. To help you organize your ideas about how to include your family or group experience into your memoir here are a number of books that include the author’s involvement with this important group.
Beginnings of the Family
We must undergo many profound emotional adjustments on the journey from a single person, to a married one, to a married person with children. My favorite book for learning about the transition from single to married is the memoir Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Feinberg Cook in which the author offers a terrific rendition of a young wife’s initial insights into the shift from free-agent to committed partner.
The transformation from a married guy to a married guy with a child is explored nicely in the quirky memoir Sound of No Hands Clapping by Toby Young and also in a memoir called Man Made by Joel Stein about his fear that he won’t be masculine enough to impress his new son. A less humorous book about a woman’s transition to motherhood is Down Came the Rain by Brooke Shields about her postpartum depression.
Another story about a young couple with a baby is Ten Points by Bill Strickland. As a young father, he attempts to overcome the anger and dark memories of his own abusive childhood. He uses his own desperation to outgrow the mistakes of his own father, in order to support the innocence of his tiny daughter. This echo of trauma from one generation to another offers powerful emotional themes that could help you awaken the internal power of your story.
Self-involved parents who forget to raise kids
The memoir She Got Up off the Couch by Haven Kimmel is about how her mother went back to school and her father had an affair. It’s a fascinating look at the way the innocence of a child is distorted by the adult dreams and confusions of parents who are trying to find themselves.
Another memoir about a child whose innocence was overlooked is In Spite of Everything by Susan Gregory Thomas, and another even more outrageous book in which self-involved parents forget to protect a child’s innocence is Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.
At the extreme are memoirs of the dark side of families, for example the devastating sexual abuse of Sue William Silverman in Because I Remember Terror, Father I Remember You, and the horrific alcoholism and neglect of Frank McCourt’s father in Angela’s Ashes.
When two parents divorce and go their separate ways, their lack of grace often undermines the kids’ ability to grow up, In Dani Shapiro’s Slow Motion, the author has a horrific launching into adulthood. As she retraces her past she exposes the nightmare that results from her father’s family hating her mother. The influence of an angry split is evidenced also in the memoir Tweak by Nic Sheff whose parents lived hundreds of miles apart. He found his solace in crystal meth. In Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love by Debra Gwartney, Mom hated Dad’s immaturity and decided she needed to get 1,000 miles away from him. Two of her young daughters took their upbringing into their own hands, running away and living on the street.
Changing Family after the Empty Nest
The family enters another phase when the kids move out. This back end of family life rarely makes it into adventure or hero stories. In the modern era, with longer life spans and more complex, varied goals, this later period turns up in many memoirs. How will the parents find fulfillment?
An extreme version of the empty nest is the death of a child. Madeline Sharples’ in Leaving the Hall Light On, struggles to keep her bipolar son sane and alive. After he commits suicide, she must keep her family together, for the sake of her own sanity, as well as for her husband and other son. She grieves and then must go on. Over the course of the following years, she relentlessly pursues creativity and self-healing.
In Robert Waxler’s first memoir Losing Jonathan, his eldest son loses the battle with addiction. The memoir, co-authored with his wife, is a book of grieving and healing. In his second memoir, Courage to Walk, Waxler’s younger son, by this time a professional with a vibrant independent life of his own, is stricken by a mysterious, crippling illness. The possible death of his second son awakens echoes of the loss of his first.
Trying to understand your parents
Memoir writers often return to their family of origin to try to make sense of growing up. Many of these memoirs concentrate only on one parent, reflecting the often slanted relationship we have with these powerful individuals in our lives.
Learning about mom’s younger years
Cherry Blossoms in Twilight by Linda Austen, is about a mother who grew up in pre-war Japan.
Caregiving for Alzheimer’s Moms
When our parents grow old, they often raise intense emotions. As caregivers for our parents we reverse our roles, and find ourselves in an impossible tug of war trying to care about others in our lives at the same time. Two excellent memoirs, Mothering Mother by Carol O’Dell and Dementia Epidemic by Martha Stettinius are especially poignant because of the extra complexity of Alzheimer’s, tearing apart not just the body but the mind. These two women, at the height of their capacity to give and provide, must turn toward the women who raised them in a profound, poignant new relationship.
Joel Stein’s humorous book Man Made makes a joke about a man who is afraid he won’t be masculine enough for his son. A less humorous question arises for many boys who don’t feel masculine enough for their dads. Here are a few memoirs about guys trying to make sense of their fathers.
Drama by John Lithgow, traces his own life in theater in relationship to his father’s. This is another one of my favorite celebrity memoirs. Andre Agassi’s Open covers similar ground, showing how his father imposed his obsessions on the boy, who as a result became a world champion. What a complex conflict! He must juggle resentment at his father’s manipulation with appreciation for the glamorous, complex life that resulted.
Chasing the Hawk: Looking for My Father, Finding Myself by Andrew Sheehan, a wonderful exploration not only of his father’s life but of the lifespan of the whole extended family. This is one of the best “extended family over time” stories I have read.
Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family by Qui Duc Nguyen, reconstructing his father’s life during a brutal captivity by the Viet Cong
Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham, tells of his father’s life across war torn Vietnam.
The Tender Bar by J. R. Moehringer is a sort of ode to the absent dad. The star of his life is a placeholder for a guy who never shows up.
Women too, wonder what makes Dad tick. Here are memoirs about that search.
Breaking the Code by Karen Alaniz is about a father who experienced emotional trauma while fighting in the Pacific during WWII.
Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour is about her father who inherited an English country manor. He felt so connected with the place his identity merged into it at around the same time as country manors throughout Great Britain were being demolished and dismantled.
Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron by the daughter of the famous novelist, William Styron
The Impact of Early Death of a Spouse
The whole span of a marriage, from courtship to the end is hastened by the untimely death of a husband. Adapting and finding one’s self anew is the subject of powerful memoirs.
Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener, is about her courtship, young relationship, and early death of her husband, and her subsequent journey to find herself.
Here if you Need Me by Kate Braestrup. The death of her husband forces her to figure out her own career, and figure out how to overcome grief. The journey of an individual is actually the journey of a family.
Impact of Illness: Caregiving for a Spouse
100 Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, caregiving for a spouse after he suffers a severe stroke. Includes some of the best spouse-as-buddy writing I have seen.
When a child grows up with adopted parents, it raises the challenge: which one is my “real” family. Two memoirs handle this question with profound inquiry and insight. Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood tells about a girl raised in the Midwest who goes to China to meet her biological family. Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes investigates the mysteries of her biological parents, whose only relationship to each other was in a surreptitious affair.
Akin to the Truth by Paige Strickland
Twice Born by Betty Jean Lifton
Additional mentions of family
In Tim Elhajj’s Dope Fiend, as a recovering addict he makes desperate attempts to repair the damage his drug use had created in his relationship to his mother.
Family that Includes a Dog
Marley and Me by John Grogan and Oogy, the Dog Only a Family Could Love, by Larry Levin, two excellent stories about how the love for a dog becomes part of the fabric of the family.
Couple as Buddies
Some famous buddy stories in movies, like Thelma and Louise, or Bonnie and Clyde, show how two people bounce off each other in friendship and enterprise. Couples in real life sometimes do the same. I have read a few memoirs that highlight the delightful partnership of the partners.
When Sonia Marsh and her husband moved to Belize, the two adults had become partners in the family adventure. In Freeways to Flipflops, they fight, they work together, in an excellent story of a partnership under duress.
Queen of the Road, Doreen Orion about her taking a year off to travel in an RV. Her interaction with her husband provides humor, mutual respect and support. When I visualize them riding together in the front two seats of their decked-out RV, I think it would make an excellent movie about a couple with an empty nest.
Cancer, fading away of a parent
Kids are All Right by Diana Welch about siblings who gather like a flock, as their mother suffers the wasting of cancer.
Chasing the Hawk: Looking for My Father, Finding Myself by Andrew Sheehan, already mentioned for its portraiture of Dad, also recounts the ending of his father’s life due to cancer.
In some memoirs, a group of people form an ensemble cast that resembles a chosen family, people who turn toward each other for companionship, understanding, and support.
An Unquenchable Thirst, by Mary Johnson, about a young woman who chooses to join Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
The Path by Donald Walters (Swami Kyriyananda), about a member of a group of devotees of Paramahansa Yogananda
Father Joe: The Man Who Saved my Soul by Tony Hendra, about his relationship to his mentor, a sort of chosen father.
In Fugitive Days, Bill Ayers portrays the members of his fellow war protestors as a chosen family.
In the combat memoir House to House by David Bellavia, the author chooses his life-and-death responsibility to his fellow soldiers over a commitment he made to his wife.
In Mentor by Tom Grimes, the author’s relationship to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop resembles a loosely knit chosen family.
In Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, the women with whom she shared her year in prison became like family to each other.
How will your family figure in as a “character” in your memoir? List and describe the members of the group. Write a scene that demonstrates the way they interact with each other. Write a scene that demonstrates the way they supported you. Write another one that shows you wanting to hide from them or break out of their influence.
Sonia Marsh’s Home Page Author of Freeways to Flipflops
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