How These Memoir Authors Emerged Into Adulthood

by Jerry Waxler

To learn how to write my memoir, I have been reading memoirs. The more I read, the more I learn not just about how to write a memoir, but also how other people’s lives worked, through a variety of situations and stages. And from this research about others, I learn more about myself. In the following list of memoirs, I show a number of examples of how memoir authors experienced this complex transition from childhood into adulthood. By seeing how this period contained so much dramatic tension for these authors, you may gain some insight into the dramatic tension of your own transition into adulthood.

Escaping gangs

Kids in ghettos are pressured from an early age to join gangs and get involved with drugs. It would be easy to stay within this lifestyle. The three men who wrote their story in “The Pact” by Drs. Sampson Davis George Jenkins, and Rameck Hunt, were facing exactly that situation. But they stuck together, using the school system, combined with their mutual respect and support to escape the pull of the ghetto, becoming doctors, and then turning back to their community to inspire others to follow their lead.

Emerging From Foster Care

A child in the foster care system, Ashley Rhodes-Courter, constantly felt disconnected from her caregivers, as she moved from one home to another. Finally adopted as a teenager, she turned her disrupted childhood into a successful young adulthood. After this difficult turnaround, she launched successfully, going to college and becoming a national spokesperson for foster care. Her memoir “Three Little Words” enables her to share her message.

Related Essay: Who protects the children? Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Smashed trying to do the right thing

Jim McGarrah’s childhood in a safe, healthy Midwest town came to a crashing halt, not when he made a terrible mistake, but when he tried to do the right thing. He joined the army, against his veteran father’s advice, and through the course of his launching became demolished by the horrors of war. As portrayed in his recently published memoir “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” the young man at the end of the launching was just a shadow of the hopeful, energetic one who started it.

Related Essay: Storytellers shed light on the horrors of war

Smashed by sex and drugs

Dani Shapiro’s life had all the right ingredients. She came from a wealthy family, attended a top liberal arts school in New York, picking up an occasional job as a model or actress. Then, an affair with her best friend’s father pulled her into the undertow of drugs, alcohol and obsession. She was crashing on the launch pad. A tragic accident involving her parents shook her out of her stupor. She regained her footing, returned to school, and by the end of the memoir “Slow Motion” was ready to reenter society.

Related Essay: What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?
Dani Shapiro Seeks Spirituality Through Memoir

A detour into temporary stardom

Dee Dee Phelps, author of “Vinyl Highway” was an ordinary high school girl who liked to sing. With all the advantages of a middle class girl in the early 60s, her path seemed straight and sure: find a husband, and settle down. But she took a huge detour. A guy she knew asked her if she would join him as a singing partner. They formed a popular duet called Dick and Dee Dee.

She had a meteoric rise to a famous singer who toured the world and appeared regularly on television in the 60s. Over the next few years, musical tastes changed rapidly and her partnership with Dick collapsed. Dropping out of the stars, she returned to her original life, ready for the next step of her delayed path towards a more traditional adulthood.

Related Essay: Fame and Story Structure in Dee Dee’s 60’s memoir
To read the two part interview with the author: Click Here for Part 1 and … Here for Part 2

A perfect career left some questions unanswered

Soon after high school, Jancee Dunn landed a job at the magazine Rolling Stone, interviewing celebrities in print and on camera. Despite these glorious encounters, or perhaps because of them, she still needed to develop her own sense of identity, purpose and relationships. Her memoir, “Enough about me” is an excellent travelogue through this period of self-discovery.

Related Essay: Celebrity interviewer turns the camera on herself

Double-launch, injury forces a second coming

George Brummell, author of the memoir “Shades of Darkness,” grew up in the Jim Crow south. In the early sixties, he escaped into the military. His assignment in Korea seemed like a storybook case of letting the military help him grow up and see the world. It came crashing down in Vietnam when a landmine blinded him and permanently damaged his arm. As a civilian, he successfully found a new path, going to college, and landing a job as an executive in the Blinded Veterans commission.

Related Essay: Blind veteran finds his voice by writing

Double-launch, Failure of first launch hurls Joan Rivers into a second

When Joan Rivers’ first marriage failed, she decided to trade in her promising career at a department store for the shady and uncertain future of a performer. She tried her hand as an actress, and then decided there were more opportunities in stand up comedy. The memoir “Enter Talking” follows her grueling journey from her early dreams to her on-air meeting with Johnny Carson that finally launched her into her second self.

Related Essay: Memoir by Celebrity Joan Rivers Offers Lessons for Aspiring Writers

Ambiguous Launch into the world, but still many questions

Frank McCourt, grew up in Ireland, and from early childhood, he was burdened by a father whose devotion to liquor came first. The chaos and poverty hobbled McCourt’s march to adulthood, dragging him down. The book “Angela’s Ashes” shows McCourt crawling across the finish line of childhood. Geographically he escaped his childhood by traveling from Ireland to the U.S. but emotionally he had not yet come of age, leaving the door open for a sequel in which he could continue to grow up.

Greg Mortenson’s long sputtering journey towards adulthood

Greg Mortenson could not quite find the path into adulthood. Passionate about climbing mountains, he maintained a marginal lifestyle that gave him the freedom to climb in the Himalayas. Lost one day in those mysterious mountains, he literally stumbled on his true mission. He would build schools for the poor people in remote regions of Pakistan. Without even knowing what he was doing, he became a social entrepreneur, raising money and lobbying for his cause. His desire to serve forced him to launch. In “Three Cups of Tea” he describes his long journey from child to fully engaged member of society.

Related Essay: “Find meaning through service” or “Making peace with the peasants of Pakistan”

Mental misfit eventually finds rightful place

John Robison’s launching seemed sluggish. In midlife he was still trying to find his center. After decades of trying to put his life together piece by piece, a casual diagnosis of Asperger’s made him realize he had been carrying an extra load. Armed with this new perspective, he looked back upon his life and understood more about how it worked. He became a more complete human being by turning his newfound wisdom towards raising awareness about Asperger’s through public speaking and writing the memoir “Look Me in the Eye.”

Related essay: John Robison’s Asperger’s gave me permission to write about myself

Trauma that smashes launching in mid-stream

Some launchings are going along well, and then a violent intrusion wrecks the road, turning what was supposed to be ordinary life into a struggle to survive.

“Lucky” by Alice Sebold

Alice Sebold’s “Lucky” portrays a devastating reshaping of a life after she was violently raped during college. The memoir portrays her long search to regain innocence and peace.

Related Essay: Alice Sebold’s Lucky, a searing memoir of trauma

“Picking Cotton” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton

Another young woman’s life was torn to pieces by rape, but her journey back to adulthood was marked by an amazing story. Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton is co-written by the man who was falsely imprisoned for raping her. “That night two lives were destroyed.” The man she accused of the rape turned out to be exonerated, and her second launching has taken place in the social activism of reducing the number of such mistakes in the present.

Related Essay: Mistaken Identification: A memoir of injustice and redemption

“Crazy Love” by Leslie Morgan Steiner
Leslie Morgan Steiner, a Harvard graduate and rising magazine editor was set up for spectacular success. Falling in love with and marrying an abusive man, she quickly found herself struggling for her life. She tells the story in her memoir “Crazy Love.”

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

User’s Guide to the Brain by a Writer Who Lost Half of Hers

by Jerry Waxler

Jill Bolte Taylor, author of the memoir, “My Stroke of Insight” studied brains for a living, a profession she entered to help people like her brother, who suffers from schizophrenia. Taylor, at the age of 37 already respected for her work at Harvard, found another, much more personal involvement with neurology. An artery burst and as blood flooded into her brain, she observed the changes in her thinking and her body. It was like a laboratory experiment taking place within her own skull.

When she awoke the morning of the stroke, she felt strange, increasingly helpless, and at the same time, she felt a surge of oneness with the universe, similar to what you might expect from a religious experience. In fact, she uses the Buddhist term, nirvana, to describe her state of mind.

This short book starts with an overview of anatomy to help readers understand what was taking place. Then, she describes the details of the actual event. Soon afterward she was reduced to the helplessness of a small child, nurtured back to health by her mother. Their loving relationship permeated the book. The real power of “My Stroke of Insight” comes from the lessons that Bolte Taylor learned about her brain.

Years ago, neurological research noted the different functions served by each half of the brain. Broadly speaking, the left half is oriented towards picking things apart. This side is the domain of mathematicians, scientists, and other people who rely on analysis. Scientists credit this side of the brain with civilization’s advance out of the dark ages and into modernity.

Like so many splits these days, fervent advocates on each side see the other side as the enemy. Artists and creative types have adopted the right half of the brain as their own, claiming it tends towards holistic thinking, inspiration, and harmony. And they say that the west’s love affair with the left-brain has created a society that too quickly picks things apart, making way for social ills like prejudice and the western tendency to dominate nature and each other.

The right half of the brain sounds lovely. Who wouldn’t want world peace and inner harmony? Well, it turns out that die hard left-brainers downplay the glory of the right-brain, fearing that such “holistic ideas” are wishy-washy and vague, and lack the discipline required for a proper technical understanding of the world. Until the stroke, Jill Bolte Taylor prided herself on her rigorous thinking, feeling confident in the sharp distinctions, judgments and analyses of her left-brain.

The stroke brought both extremes of this split world into dramatic focus. Instantly deprived of her ability to use her left brain, she felt a blissful state of unity and peace. At the same time, she had lost so much of her analytical firepower she couldn’t figure out how to use the phone. While her life drained away, she had to force herself to remember what a phone number looks like and how to call for help.

She survived, and it took her eight years to fully recover. During the arduous rehabilitation of her left brain, she noticed that whenever her analytical thinking returned, it was accompanied by judgments, anger, and petty annoyance, suggesting a connection between her left-brain and the darker side of her nature. Analysis apparently makes it too easy to put people into compartments, fostering a more arrogant, prejudiced, and aggressive state of mind. She hated these negative feelings and realized that while she adored intellectual pursuits, she now had to take into account their emotional cost.

To hang on to the peace that had been thrust on her by her stroke, she accumulated a repertoire of techniques that helped her balance the two sides of her brain. When she found herself slipping too far into judgment, she used these techniques to bridge back to a sense of peace. Some of the techniques she employed were:
—    Yoga Breathing Exercises
—    Self-soothing statements
—    Walking
—    Meditating

Her new mission, to see how brain balance creates world peace
While all of these methods are available in more detail through other self-help sources, Bolte Taylor’s contribution is to show us how they relate to brain function, and why it’s healthy to learn how to use the whole brain. She contends that the difference between an edgy, combative, and angry state of mind and a mind filled with love and peace is directly related to which side of the brain is in control.

She says, “I continue to work very hard to maintain a healthy relationship between what is going on in my right and left minds. I love knowing that I am simultaneously (depending on which hemisphere you ask) as big as the universe, and yet merely a heap of star dust.”

By reaching out to share her findings through her memoir and her public talks, she is continuing a lifelong trend. As a young woman, she wanted to help her brother’s schizophrenia. So she turned her scientific mind towards the study of brains. She used her left-brain analysis to help her brother. Then as a popularizer of brain research, she reached out to help more and more people. This desire to stretch beyond yourself and help the world is a strong function of the right-brain. In effect, the way she was making use of both sides of her brain was a preview of what she was about to learn.

The stroke sent her on a journey far away from her comfort zone, beyond the world she knew, to gather wisdom at the gates of death. She returned, armed with lessons she learned from her journey, and once again, she wants to use her observations to help others reach their full potential.

The brain is a powerful organ. It can make war or peace, and can lift people to the moon or dash them down into horror. The more I know about this organ between my ears, the more empowered I am to live my life with satisfaction, and effectiveness. So I appreciate Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, which inspires me to think more clearly about her situation and mine, and all the wonderful things we humans can learn from each other to help us live together. I call her book a User’s Guide to the Brain, and I am grateful for the information she has shared with me and wish her well on her quest to use her personal experience to uplift the world.

Writing Prompt
What lessons have you learned through your own experience? Did you learn about weight-loss, surviving divorce, how to stay spiritually balanced in an office environment, how to raise a child with a disability? Did you learn about immigration, or war, or disease, life in a wheelchair, or life in government service? The list of potential lessons is as diverse as human experience itself. Brainstorm about how to turn your knowledge into a message that can help other people. Have fun. Allow yourself to imagine. Some of your ideas, which may seem impossible today, could become tools to connect with and help other people tomorrow.

Note
I recently read a related memoir, Irene Pepperberg’s book “Alex and Me” – Pepperberg is another scientist, who, through a very different route, also arrives at the conclusion that wholeness leads the way towards greater wisdom.

Jill Bolte Taylor’s Home Page
Amazon page for “My Stroke of Insight”

 

 

Kate Braestrup’s memoir transforms grief into love

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

At the beginning of the memoir, “Here If You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup takes us into her home, sharing her romantic, mutually respectful marriage to a state trooper, their love for their children, and their plans for the future. It seems like an ideal relationship. And then bam! In an instant, her partnership is torn asunder by an auto accident. The cereal bowl from which Drew had eaten an hour earlier sits in the sink while his body lies across the front seat of his police cruiser, the life crushed out of it by a broadside collision.

Now that Drew is dead, Braestrup continues to let us into her heart, this time to cry with her, while she learns the ancient lessons of grief. In order to raise her young children and get her life back on track, she enrolls in school to become a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church. After graduating, she works as a chaplain for the State Game Warden Service in Maine. Traipsing around the countryside, she comforts loved ones while the wardens searched for lost children, potential suicides, and accident victims. If the search ends with a death, she offers the survivors condolences, embraces, and support.

On her journey from grief back into full connection with the living, Braestrup sets her sights beyond her personal experience. Through her study to be a minister and her work with the public, she raises huge questions, and then through the magic of storytelling makes me feel that together we can understand it all. As a result, this memoir turns out to be one of the most intelligent, loving, and compassionate books about life and death that I have ever read. It is one of those rare books I feel pulled to read again, and in fact, it was only after my third time that I began to tease it apart to see how such a simple story could carry me so far.

Her job with the game wardens takes her through the woods and across streams. With them she flies through the air, drives across ice, awaits the recovery of swimmers who had fallen 70 feet over a waterfall, stands in frigid silence as divers search for a body beneath the solid surface of a river, holds a mother’s hand as the wardens search the woods for a missing child. Through Braestrup’s eyes, nature becomes a backdrop for life, and also a backdrop for death. A tree grows through the skeleton of a dead body. A bear plays with a skull as if it’s a toy. After the death of her husband, Kate Braestrup dresses his corpse with her own hands, certainly the most affection directed towards a dead body that I have ever considered. Her relationship to his earthly remains expands my notion of death, by embedding it lovingly within the natural order.

Despite her religious training, or perhaps because of it, she treats people with equal tenderness no matter what their affiliation, or even if they have no interest in religion at all. To her, religion is simply one of the ways humans have chosen to explain love. Take for example this incident in which she consoles the brother of a woman who killed herself. The brother asks Braestrup if she thinks a suicide victim can receive a Christian burial. Here’s what she says.

“The game wardens have been walking in the rain all day, walking through the woods in the freezing rain trying to find your sister. They would have walked all day tomorrow, walked in the cold rain the rest of the week, searching for Betsy, so they could bring her home to you. And if there is one thing I am sure of, one thing I am very, very sure of, Dan, it is that God is not less kind, less committed, or less merciful than a Maine game warden.”

At the center of the book lies the great theological question, “How can an all powerful compassionate God allow evil in the world?” Attempting to answer this question is known as “theodicy” and whether we know it has a name or not, many of us grapple with it. If we conclude that suffering proves God cannot exist, we cut ourselves off from a valuable source of hope. For example, after my brother died of cancer, my dad landed on the “God can’t exist” side of theodicy. His choice drained his vitality. My mother responded to Ed’s death by extending her search for truth, a decision that allowed her to become an increasingly generous and spiritual person.

Braestrup steers through the battle of good and evil with exquisite finesse and dignity and comes up with an inspirational message. After a particularly horrifying crime was committed in the woods of Maine, she quotes the devil who threatens all goodness by claiming his forces are legion. In the aftermath of that crime, the community, whose hearts had been broken, stepped forward to care for those who suffered. Through Braestrup’s eyes, I feel this outpouring, and I agree with her that the multitudes of people are basically good. After making this case she throws it back in the devil’s face, asserting that he’s wrong about which side has the real advantage. “No,” she says. “We are legion.”

Guided by her images and explanations, the theodicy problem collapses into a tribute to love. From a psychological standpoint, I suppose grieving might mean simply recovering poise. Her story shifts the focus and shows how grief can extend what it means to be human. In fact, I wonder if this is the central challenge of grieving, to return from the loss that rips apart your soul, while accepting the presence of hope and goodness in the universe.

Writing Prompt: Consider the things, people, or opportunities you have lost. Write a story about that loss, but instead of letting the story lead you towards your pain, start from where it hurts, and move forward from there. Describe how you regained sanity, confidence, and the other things you have needed in order to maintain your healthy connection with life. Take advantage of tips from the Hero’s Journey, and focus on the allies and amulets that helped you proceed on your quest.

Notes

For another memoir of grieving see Joan Didion’s “A Year of Magical Thinking” in which she describes with exquisite insight her relationship with the person who is no longer here, and how her mind works and doesn’t work during the year following her tragic loss.

See also “Losing Jonathan” by Robert and Linda Waxler about recovering from the loss of their son.

More memoir writing resources

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

Barack Obama’s memoir ends with a homecoming

by Jerry Waxler

I finished Barack Obama’s “Dreams from my father.” I had been concerned earlier in the book that his emphasis on ideas might dull the edge of his memoir. So it was with some surprise when I got to the last third of the book, and found him shifting away from ideas, and switching into pure storytelling mode. That is a fascinating literary device. I wonder sometimes how conscious an author is of such stylistic development, transforming from his style in the beginning, a memoir mixed with an essay, into a strictly story telling style at the end. In any case, it worked, and I found that the ending was quite satisfying.

What impressed me about this story was that it was a Homecoming. Homecomings are the classic ending of the Hero’s Journey. This idea of homecoming turns up a lot in stories, but each story has its own spin on what Homecoming means. In the Odyssey, Ulysses really returned to his ancestral home. In the first Star Wars, Luke Skywalker came “home” to Princess Leah, who later turned out to be his sister. So it was a return to his “true home.” Obama’s homecoming also has an interesting twist. It was not the home he was born in, but the place his African father was born. When you have roots in more than one place, where is your home? It’s a question all travelers and transplants face. I think Obama raised this question beautifully, and without answering it, let the story do his work for him, by showing us what it was like for him to visit his African family, and let us feel it, see it, hear it ourselves through the art of storytelling.

In Alex Haley’s famous novel and mini-series, Roots, the author went back to Africa to look for his own roots buried in history, highlighting the longing and the frustration to see backwards through time, through layers of generations, and lost history. This attempt to find deep, ancestral roots has universal elements, as many of us wonder where we came from, and can’t ever quite scratch that itch. Take me for example. My grandparents fled Russia during the pogroms, a horrible period in Jewish history, in which Russian thugs and militia pillaged Jewish towns, a sort of state-sanctioned vigilante movement to terrorize Jews. When my grandparents came over to this country, they went through the Ellis Island immigration process, and some clerk on Ellis Island gave them an English spelling for their Cyrillic name. In their case it was Waxler, in others Wexler, Wachsler, Wechsler. Who knows what the original name was? Over time, the area where they left was subjected to the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s and Hitler’s massacres, and the German invasion, shrouding my ancestry deep in the fog of history. But I still wish I knew what it was like, who those people were, how they lived.

In Obama’s case, unlike the vast majority of African Americans, he had a chance to actually visit the land of his African father. That is fascinating! Obama’s life represents the cross roads of black and white, African and American. What a GREAT story. When he meets his own extended biological family, he acts as a sort of representative to explore the tragedy of black ancestors being kidnapped from African villages, forcibly resettled, and then put in forced labor for a couple of hundred years to help other people succeed. We can’t change the past, but hopefully through the telling and sharing of the story, we can empathize, learn, grow together and heal.

I don’t know Obama’s future as a politician. But I do know that by opening a window into his own experience, he has helped me grow richer in understanding. By sharing his story, he has already fulfilled one of the roles of a leader.

Click here to read the first part of my review of Dreams from My Father.

Finished Memoir: Angela’s Ashes

by Jerry Waxler

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt was supposed to have resurrected the memoir business, and so naturally I wanted to read it to experience the buzz for myself. I found that listening to it was a satisfying, and sometimes disturbing experience. The relentless poverty and pressures of life in Ireland was almost overwhelming. So why did I keep turning the pages (or in my case popping in CD’s?) Answering that question could help me understand what makes a good memoir. All along, I was in McCourt’s shoes and wanted to know what happened. What kept me in his shoes, after crying out at the futility of the umpteenth time his father drank his paycheck and lost his job?

Here are a couple of things I observed in myself as I kept listening to this story:

McCourt the writer is a master of the language. Listening to his voice was almost hypnotic. His use of idioms and conversational voice is spectacular. As a bonus, as he grew from a child, his observations and sentence structure often reflected his age, progressing from a child’s thoughts to a teenagers, and so on. I was able to identify with the character’s Irish culture, his age, and the emotions of the people around him through his use of language.

The book uses events in the world as a way to keep the story moving. So he tells of the coming war in Europe, then the presence of the war, and then its passing to let us know where he is in time, and what is going on around him. Showing us his world helps us feel present in it.

His sharing of the Irish culture kept me engaged. As with any memoir, I can learn about a part of the world that I can’t see by seeing it through his eyes. I was drawn to understanding what it was like growing up in Ireland in the thirties and forties. Irish culture was one slice of the human experience, and also from a cultural and historical perspective plays a significant role in western civilization, and American culture (see the book How the Irish Saved Civilization).

Another feature of a book that kept my attention was that it started with a challenge. This is a basic feature of every good story. The protagonist’s desire sweeps me along. He had many desires. To simply survive, to survive with dignity, to learn about the world, to learn about his relationship with God and people. The book is a classic coming of age story, compounded with overcoming hardships. As a reader, I wanted to share his experience as he grew up and overcame hardships.

The story structure offered an elegant example of one aspect of the Hero’s Journey. He left home at the beginning and returned home at the end. He was born in New York, moved to Ireland as a child, and then returned to New York as a young man. This storytelling feature works at an almost subliminal level to give closure. From the point of view of his development as a person, though, it leaves much to be desired. Still sinning and confessing at the very end of the book, he leaves the door open for a sequel in which he can continue Coming of Age.

There was one more element of the book that caught my attention. He was such a wreck of a person, struggling with the church, struggling with his value system, recognizing the terrible dilemma between his needs for survival and pleasure and that these desires often went against the teachings of his church. He discussed in elaborate exquisite, gut wrenching detail about how he struggled morally, and in his early years found relief through confession, but later stopped going to confession.

Later, in a moment of desperation, a priest coaxed him to simply tell his sins to a statue of St. Francis while the priest sat and listened. It was a stunning moment of storytelling and redemption. While McCourt talks to St. Francis, the priest is listening, and so are we readers. He offers a quick summary of the highlights, or rather I should say the lowlights, of his sinning. And then he feels free. I woke up this morning realizing that the entire book is one gigantic confession. By sharing his story with the world he is finding redemption and a sort of freedom.

And that’s a main “lesson” we learn from Angela’s Ashes. Memoir readers are confessors. And now if we write our memoirs, we can gain this same benefit and let our storytelling set us free.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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