The powerful story of an ordinary woman

by Jerry Waxler

I first met Linda Wisniewski seven years ago at a critique group in Doylestown, PA. Within a few months she announced that one of her essays was going to be broadcast on her local public radio station. I was impressed by her accomplishment, proud to know the author of one of these radio essays. She left the group, and later I heard from a friend that Linda was teaching a course in memoir writing at the Bucks County Community College. Recently, I saw her again, at the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania autographing copies of her memoir, “Off Kilter.” Thanks to her persistent passion for telling her story, I can read her book and ponder the gifts her life has now offered me.

The crisis that drives the book is the author’s relationship to her mother. As Mom slipped towards dementia, their relationship became strained. Mom struggled inconsistently, sometimes accepting her fate and other times bitterly afraid of going into a nursing home. During this disturbing reversal of roles, when a child must care for her parent, problems that have been buried for a lifetime bubble to the surface.

Naturally, Mom raised Linda to be a good girl. The problem was that Mom’s idea of a “good girl” was fashioned from an older world, when girls were supposed to stay invisible and do what they were told. Linda didn’t want to follow this training. She wanted to expand towards the freedom of an American woman in the Twentieth Century. These two opposing views of a woman’s role played out in a million homes, as daughters tried to find their identity in a world drastically different from the one their mothers were trying to teach. The resulting schisms were buried for decades under layers of politeness and other charades.

With Mom’s strength failing, and Linda thinking it was time for a nursing home, the stress reaches a crescendo, and Mom explodes, “You’ve made a mess of my life.” This attack jumped out at me. What a hurtful thing to say! I wondered what the “mess” was. My first interpretation was that Mom was looking for a handy target to blame for the downward slide of old age. Then I realized that Linda’s development as a proud, independent woman did create a mess. It messed up her mother’s goal of raising a submissive daughter.

Mom’s outburst makes me wonder what other hurtful things she said to her daughter through the years. Since Mom has been teaching her daughter the importance of being passive, it seems surprising that she would use such an aggressive outburst. And again, putting myself in Linda’s shoes, I saw another lesson embedded in Mom’s behavior. That is, if you want to manipulate another person, then cause them pain.

Psychology lessons from Off Kilter

When I was in graduate school, I took a course called “Assertiveness.” I had always assumed the assertiveness meant “pushy,” so I was surprised by how much insight the word contained. The professor explained it this way.

When you need something from another person, such as love, or privacy, you must communicate. Consider these two approaches. One option is to express your needs in words, using simple statements to help the other person understand what you are feeling. This style of communication called “assertiveness” leaves people feeling good about themselves and draws them closer to each other. The other option is to convey your displeasure by causing the other person pain, in effect punishing them for not giving you what you wanted. The pain causes the other person to pull away, resulting in isolation. Or else the hurt one fights back, creating a sickening embrace of attack and counter-attack.

Through the years since I took the class, I have often seen this dynamic play out in the behavior of individuals and nations, sometimes using aggression to cause pain, and other times using clear communication to reduce pain and enhance mutual understanding. But seldom have I seen it represented with more exquisite insight than in Linda Wisniewski’s tale of trying to help her mother.

I am not my mother

When Mom lashes out, it would be tempting for Linda to draw on her childhood training and respond in the way her mother taught her. Her choices were limited. She could either become aggressive, like her mother, and lash back. Or she could remain quiet, becoming the victim. Of course, neither course is desirable. The high road was to break away and strive towards clear, patient communication. Linda beautifully portrays the power of these difficult choices, as she tries to respect and love her mother, while not “becoming” her mother.

Lifelong process in this adult Coming of Age story

Using flashbacks, Linda shows her journey from child to adult, striking upward like a climber on a hard scrabble mountain. During the climb she was too young and too caught up in the process of growing to be able to step back and understand her family dynamics. As a result, she entered adulthood with unresolved issues. Now, as Mom is growing old, they struggle for warmth amidst their interpersonal tensions. At first, a cloud of doubt descends upon me, making me feel pessimistic about the possibility of love in such a situation.

As I ponder the memoir Off Kilter, I find another dimension that offers me uplifting hope and optimism. By writing her story, Linda has performed a remarkable service to herself and her readers. She has broken the code of silence, and exposed her family dynamics to the world, where we can all compare notes. In a sense, she has taken the high road of assertiveness, not only in her relationship to her mother, but more broadly, as a responsible neighbor and friend. This assertive book can help readers understand her, and by sharing her experience, she helps us understand ourselves.

Links

“Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage”  by Linda Wisniewski
Linda Wisniewski’s Home Page
Amazon Link for Off Kilter
For another book about a daughter caring for her mother, see Carol O’Dell’s Mothering Mother
To read my essay about Mothering Mother, click here.

Mothers and Daughters Don’t Always Mix

by Jerry Waxler

Linda Joy Myers’ mother wanted to have fun, so she abandoned her little girl and moved from the Great Plains to the big city of Chicago. Linda Joy was raised by her grandmother, an erratic woman given to harsh rules enforced by rage. Linda Joy grew up with a heavy load of disheartening memories.

After years of therapy, trying to sort out her feelings about her self-involved and mentally abusive caregivers, she began to write it all down. That first attempt turned out to be the beginning of a long journey. She tried again and again, and with each iteration, her story became more readable and less toxic than the one before. It took fifteen years from her first attempt to the publication of her memoir, “Don’t Call Me Mother.”

This book demonstrates the power of persistence. By crafting the story until she got it right, Linda Joy Myers discovered amidst the wreckage of that little girl’s childhood an intact human being, complete with courage, confidence, and dreams. Storytelling transformed her heartbreaking childhood into one stage in a much longer saga. Her suffering and then her healing provide both a tragedy and an inspiration about the wisdom a human can achieve in one life time.

In the preface of “Don’t Call Me Mother” she says, “Wrestling with words and images, putting myself into the story as a character, in the first person, present tense, forced me to integrate the self that I was with the witness I have become. This memoir has given me a profound sense of completion with the past, and a wonderful freedom. As I healed through the writing of this book, it too has evolved into a love song… The women who had once been my curses — my eccentric, wild, emotion-wracked mother and grandmother-became my teachers.”

Click here for Linda Joy Myers’ home page:
Click here for the Amazon page for her book:

I joined the author on her healing journey
Even if she had not told me that writing the book helped her heal, I can feel it for myself. I join this little girl, cringing with her during Grandma’s rages, and feeling relieved when they go on their annual trip to visit great grandmother, her mother’s mother’s mother, the most stable figure in Linda Joy’s childhood. Looking for sighs of relief, of beauty and pride, I pour my heart into each moment of pleasure – her passion for cello playing; the encouragement of her music teacher; her first boy friend, a fellow musician; the wheat fields, like golden oceans, that offer a sense of unlimited space.

As she begins to plan for college I lean forward into the future with her, straining towards escape from her stifling childhood, and longing for the day when she will be old enough and balanced enough to write the book I hold in my hands. Imagining that day converts horror to hope, knowing that the little girl grew up to write this story.

Breaking the code of silence

In addition to rejection by her mother and erratic and often abusive behavior of her grandmother, Linda Joy also fended off inappropriate sexual advances from her father during his annual visit. The people who gave her life used their power to confuse and undermine her. And like most abused kids, she learned the code of silence.

I have heard many people in memoir workshops struggle with such memories, explaining, “I wouldn’t want to talk about my family in that way. It would be disrespectful.” Their reticence followed them into adulthood and continues to foster their shame.

Linda Joy’s mastery over her secrets, provides an inspiring example for any writer who longs to create a whole story from disturbing raw material. Such a journey towards openness takes you across treacherous internal terrain, overcoming the fears and confusion that have always protected these secrets.  Then, you face additional challenges from people who don’t want to hear about child abuse. “Who wants to know things like that?” “That can’t be true.” “You’re exaggerating.” “You’re making excuses.” Only gradually do the walls of shame and secrecy break down. Through experimentation, the stories make sense, expose wounds, let in light, and integrate the past in one continuous whole that brings you to a healthier present and increases your enthusiasm for the future.

The reader and writer look for common ground

When you pick up a book, any book, you naturally ask yourself, “Why should I share my time and energy walking in this author’s shoes on this particular journey?” Of course, all readable books contain some crucial elements. They use polished prose, create dramatic tension, and then successfully resolve that tension. “Don’t Call Me Mother” succeeds in all these standard areas. In addition to generic qualities, each book has particular virtues. For me, the virtue of “Don’t Call Me Mother” is that through the magic of storytelling she brings her childhood to life, and then transforms it in front of my eyes. I share the story of her abuse, and then as she grows, I share the triumph of her eventual self-understanding.

The writer also asks questions. “How do I find and please my audience?” Another way to ask this question is “Who will want to read my book, and why?” The writer’s questions turn out to be mirrors of the ones asked by readers. When the writer’s answer matches the reader’s, two people who have never met are ready to spend hours in each other’s company.

Writing Prompt
Discovering why someone will read your story becomes part your quest as you try to open your life to the reading public. Describe the person who will read your book, and what questions or curiosities would your book address?

Another question, perhaps less obvious but just as important is, “Who will not want to read this book?” Since most of us would like to be loved by everyone, it might be hard to admit that not everyone is going to become a fan. By working out in advance who is not going to be one of your readers, you can focus more on pleasing the people who like you and letting the others read some other book.

Out of triumph, the desire to help others
In addition to helping herself, Linda Joy’s passion for finding the story of her own life has evolved into a passion to help others do the same. She offers individual counseling in the Berkeley area, teaches workshops, and has founded The National Association of Memoir Writers, an internet organization, that brings memoir writers together, and offers instruction and programs to help people take the journey of developing their own memoir.

For many years, Linda Joy dropped the “Joy” from her name, feeling it didn’t accurately reflect her character. Recently she has reintroduced it, choosing to allow the quality of happiness back into her name. While her memoir contains many deep and painful moments, her book reminds me of John Kennedy who said, “The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” According to this definition, Linda Joy’s life offers all of us cause for joyful celebration.

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

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

In his poem, “Second Coming,” W. B. Yeats made an incredibly discouraging statement. “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” It seems fair for a European continent ripped apart by war in 1920, but does it foretell the state of the world as it exists today? I hope not, and that’s why I was so encouraged by Greg Mortenson’s memoir “Three Cups of Tea.” In it, Mortenson is the guest of honor at a fund raiser, where he is introduced by Jon Krakauer, the mountain climbing author of “Into Thin Air.” Krakauer said “Yeats may be right that the worst are full of passionate intensity but he was wrong about the best lacking all conviction. As proof, I present Greg Mortenson.”

Greg Mortenson started out his life of public service by narrowly missing the peak of K2. On his way down, he lost his way and was taken in by villagers in the Pakistani mountains. Mortenson fell in love with the poor people who protected him. He loved their deep values, their willingness to care for strangers, their loyalty to each other, and above all, their desire for learning. To the people who cared for him that night, he vowed to return to build a school for their children. Serving these children became his life’s work.

This was in the early 90’s when climbers were the only westerners interested in the villages of Pakistan. In the following years, while Mortenson struggled to raise money to build schools for poor children, radical Islamicists also noticed the poverty in this area. Men with suitcases filled with cash came to fund a different kind of institution, which included curricula in automatic weapons, bombmaking, and the virtues of suicide. While Mortenson was striving on the basis of a few donations to develop their minds, oil money was pouring in to harvest these same kids as soldiers in the coming war against the west.

“Three Cups of Tea” is a book about the struggle of one man, and also a passion play about the struggle of civilization in the twenty first century. The great powers square off. One side attacks villages in hopes of killing villains, while the other side harvests the sons and brothers of the dead, anointing their revenge with the seductive promise of martyrdom. Meanwhile, Greg Mortenson pours his life into educating the children, seeking to convert them from human fodder into citizens of the world.

Inspirational – Uphill, against all odds
After returning to the States, he earned a living as a nurse in Berkeley, California, while writing hundreds of letters to philanthropists, one by one on a typewriter. Pakistan was literally on the other side of the world and it would be easy to imagine him becoming discouraged and forgetting his promise. But his tenacity turned into obsession, and he continued to fight to achieve not what was easy but what was right.

Growing up in Africa, with a father who started a hospital and a mother who started a school, Greg accepted in his bones the value of devoting his life to serving others. His hero was Mother Theresa whose mission was to care for the poorest of the poor. Greg Mortenson seems to have found his stride in fulfilling that ideal. While he didn’t reach the top of K2, his journey comes close to the pinnacle of what one human can achieve, and renews my faith in the potential goodness of humanity.

War stinks, “collateral damage” equals human tragedy
In his book “Achilles in Vietnam,” about the trauma of war, author Jonathan Shay said, “Demonize the enemy at your peril. It’s bad for your strategy, and bad for your own moral fiber.” Forty years after the Vietnam war, we are demonizing the enemy once again, portraying terrorists as dupes and soulless fools. Mortenson’s book is filled with deeper insights into the culture wars of the 21st century. When we look at the villagers of Pakistan and Afghanistan through Mortenson’s eyes we see multi-dimensional human beings with hearts, families, and dreams.

When he stumbled into the village the day he was lost, he was a stranger in a strange world. Perhaps because of his childhood in Africa, his first instinct was to meet them on their own terms. There is a saying in those mountains. “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time, you are an honored guest. The third time you become family.” Greg Mortenson shared far more than three cups of tea with these people.

Mortenson’s situation was not without danger. He asked his tailor to teach him how to pray to Mecca. Later, in a village mosque he discovered the tailor had taught him the Sunni way and these were Shiites. He thought, “people have been killed for less.” But these villagers knew him, and their friendship gave him all the protection he needed.

Things were riskier when he ventured into a remote area of the country without an introduction from an insider. He was kidnapped for 8 days by a local warlord, until they verified that he was indeed the infidel who built schools for Pakistani children. When they released him, they gave him money towards his building fund.

On two occasions, he was the target of a fatwa issued by a local mullah, making it a blessing to assassinate him. The only apparent way to reverse the ruling would be to pay a substantial sum of money. Instead of surrendering to this extortion, he appealed for protection from the top clerics of the Shiite religion. With the help of several village leaders, he asked these Iranian religious authorities to sanction his effort. After investigating his work, they sent back a ruling that said there was nothing in Muslim law that forbade an infidel from helping Muslim children. The top Shiite leaders formally gave him their blessing.

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, Mortenson was in Pakistan. He was swarmed by village women who offered tearful condolences for the loss of American lives, and was surrounded by men who offered to protect him. According to Mortenson the local villagers expressed disgust for bin Laden, seeing him as a troublemaker who had no interest in their welfare, and only cared about his own twisted agenda.

Mortenson, feeling more urgency then ever, decided to stay in Pakistan long enough to oversee details of his charity work. But when he went to the American embassy about a passport problem, he was ushered into a room and interrogated by the CIA. Their insinuating line of questioning made me wonder how easy it might be for them to lock him up with the other detainees in Guantanamo. He really did look like he was consorting with “terrorist types” if by “terrorist” you mean “Muslim peasant.” When the interrogators realized Mortenson knew the Pakistani mountains, they asked him where bin Laden was hiding. I guess it didn’t hurt to ask, but to a reader of “Three Cups of Tea,” their inquiry seemed desperately out of touch with the possibilities Mortenson was offering.

I thought how sad that the CIA operatives interrogating him could not see the whole picture. The man in front of them, full of passionate intensity, had developed and was carrying out a plan for world peace, at least one of the best potentials for it that I’ve heard. Instead of asking him to teach them what he knew, they asked him where they should drop a bomb. I guess this might be what W. B. Yeats wrote about in his poem. Now I wonder, as we move into the twenty first century, which side will win.

Writing Prompt
List peak experiences of your life, such as joy, accomplishment, or overcoming fear. Portray your approach to these peaks as if you were climbing a mountain, and recount the journey to the top. Were there moments when it seemed you would never make it, or you wanted to give up? Consider times when a positive outcome seemed impossible. Such moments add depth and texture to the story, and create a more meaningful experience for your readers.

Writing prompt
Consider the goal of writing your memoir. Like a long mountain road, that winds and climbs upward, look at the journey now as a step along the way to your final outcome. Imagine you just published your memoir. Get into it. Read the acceptance letter. Go to the bank and deposit the check. Attend your first book signing. What would you tell the audience member who asked you how you overcame the obstacles and completed your book.

Writing Prompt
When did you visit some other neighborhood or country and feel like a foreigner? What was it like? What did you do to try to feel more included?

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