by Jerry Waxler
I met Robert Waxler online last year when I was reviewing his memoir “Losing Jonathan” about his son’s heroin addiction. During the first half of the book, Robert and his wife Linda tried to stop their son’s downward slide. In the second half, they grieved his passing. I admired his courage to share this journey and was even more impressed by Robert’s second memoir, “Courage to Walk,” about another family tragedy. His surviving son, Jeremy, was stricken with a mysterious, deadly illness and the book is about the family’s journey to stay hopeful and safe.
As an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Robert has been delving into the power of the written word for a lifetime. Now, as he looked for strength to sustain him through his trials, he turned to the deep insights shared by his favorite authors. And then he turned to books again, as the vehicle through which he could pass his story to readers.
In addition to our mutual interest in literature, naturally we were curious about our shared last name. Neither of us had ever met a Waxler to whom we weren’t related. Over the course of the year, we discussed the possibility of giving a joint presentation about memoirs. Recently, I arranged such a talk sponsored by the Philadelphia Writers Conference.
Robert and Linda drove down from Dartmouth, Massachusetts a day early to do some sightseeing. We agreed to meet outside the museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall in Philadelphia; a fitting backdrop, since his ancestors and mine were Russian Jewish immigrants. My sister joined us to extend our greetings, one Waxler clan to another.
We sat in the coffee shop at the museum and talked with energy, jumping enthusiastically from one topic to another. Since our ancestral records no longer exist, we wondered if our easy flow indicated a shared ancestry. A woman walked by and Robert called out her name. She was an old friend of his and his wife’s from Massachusetts who just happened to be in this spot, hundreds of miles from home. My mother had an expression, “coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous.” Was this a sign?
Even though we had agreed for months that we would give a joint presentation, I didn’t know exactly what that meant. How would we interact in a way that would bring value to our audience? The next morning over coffee, I proposed the way we would organize the talk, and he agreed. Then we drove to the lovely campus of Montgomery County Community College to a lecture hall where about 20 people were already seated, including two of my cousins. Linda Waxler, who coauthored “Losing Jonathan” sat in the back of the lecture hall with my sister and her husband. I smiled thinking how fitting it was that a memoir workshop had turned into a family affair.
I introduced the talk with the enthusiasm I always bring to this topic. “In the memoir age, we read books by people who spend years turning their lives into literature. Today we’re going to meet an English professor who turned to the written word to cope with his personal tragedy. Then in the second half, we’ll give you some pointers on how to turn your own lives into literature.”
Robert Waxler stood, radiating the authority that he had gained from a lifetime of teaching. He described how he grappled with his emotions and beliefs during Jonathan’s fall from a lovely, promising childhood into heroin addiction, and how he stood on that precipice between despair and faith. Then, he explained his decision to turn that experience into “Losing Jonathan.” Last year, when I read this memoir, I wrestled with my prejudice that English professors are not free to express this much frank emotion. What would his colleagues and students think? But now, listening to him speak so eloquently about how he placed these precious experiences on the page, it felt so right. As a man of letters, of course he wanted to locate these profoundly human events in the world of literature.
When he started, he seemed to be gathering his thoughts, selecting elements of his memory and intention. By the time he finished, his voice was strong and there was a cadence to his speech. I have always admired the way a good professor can lean into his topic and share not only his information but also his enthusiasm about the subject. Today, the professor enveloped us in his vision, not by speaking about someone else’s writing, but by sharing his own intentions as a writer, a father, and a human being.
Then it was my job to turn the audience’s attention back to their own goals. I realized there wasn’t enough time to conduct a real workshop, but in the small amount of time available, I wanted to convince everyone that the problems of writing a memoir are solvable. “When you look back through your memories, they fly out at you in a variety of bits and pieces, entangled in time, and at first only make sense to you. As you write scenes and accumulate them in sequence, they begin to take shape. As you see the material of your life take shape on the page, you gradually tame the flood of memories and begin to craft them into a story worth reading.”
After my portion of the talk, I opened the floor to questions. Ordinarily in memoir workshops the majority of questions are about how to write about life, but today the audience wanted to pour out their empathy to a couple who lost a child to drugs. One of the raised hands belonged to my cousin. In a shaky voice, she said, “Thank you so much for writing about this.” I could hardly hear her and asked her to say more. She continued, “I was twelve years old before I found that my uncle died. It was a suicide and no one would talk about it.”
I thought, “Oh. That family nightmare.” I was a little boy when my father’s nephew, after graduating medical school, had a mental breakdown and killed himself. The family immediately imposed a silence around the event, and I never understood the emotional impact. Now, I saw the shock in my cousin’s face these many years later.
Linda Waxler, from the back of the room, spoke up with a strong, purposeful voice. Looking directly at my cousin, Linda said, “That’s the reason we wrote “Losing Jonathan.” When he died, people pulled away from us. We wanted to educate people to understand that when someone dies, that’s the time to pull together. Silence is the most painful response.”
Their exchange reminded me that people have a tendency to hide extraordinary things about themselves, even events that cry out for compassion. I have heard the issue expressed in my memoir workshops, where writers express fear and uncertainty about how much of their lives to reveal. To direct the audience’s attention back to their own writing, I said, “We often think we must keep our secrets hidden in order to be accepted, but in fact, the secrets themselves keep us separated. Memoir writing lets us explore and share these parts of ourselves. When hidden material is told in a story, it takes on a universal quality that we can all relate to.”
My other cousin spoke up. “It’s true. We always had secrets. My mother wouldn’t tell any of her friends when I was divorced. No one wanted to talk about that back then.”
I responded, “Times are changing, and memoirs are helping break down these barriers. Jeannette Walls, author of the bestseller “Glass Castle,” said that before she wrote her memoir, she was deeply ashamed of her poor, chaotic childhood. Now, thanks to her book and others like it, we are sharing many things that once were hidden.”
At the end of the meeting, people gathered around to thank us. I love these moments after a talk when people pour back some of the energy that I poured out. I looked at Bob and smiled. If we had been forty years younger, we would have given each other high fives. As we said goodbye, Robert and I promised to do it again. “We can call ourselves the Two Waxlers,” I said, “and give talks about how memoirs matter.” “Yes, a road tour,” he said. “Let’s do it.”
I realized how comfortable I was with all these people, a comfort level that for most of my life had been entirely foreign to me. For decades, I felt distant from my family. Now I was wondering how much of my distance was based on my secret. After I left my childhood neighborhood in Philadelphia to go out into the world, I decided that being part of a minority religion made me an outsider. Writing my memoir has given me more confidence to accept all these parts of myself. Letting go of my secrets feels like letting go of my walls.
As I walked across the parking lot to my car, I thought about my mom’s image of a God who tries to let us know He is there, without really letting us know. I wondered how clever He might be feeling right now, arranging things so that an English professor and his wife could learn hard lessons about life, and then write and speak about what they learned to help other people get in touch with their own secrets. When I give memoir workshops, my focus in on helping other people learn about their own lives, but today I felt the guilty pleasure of having learned something about my own.
To read an essay I wrote about Robert Waxler’s memoir “Courage to Walk” click here.
To read an essay about “Losing Jonathan,” click here.
To read an interview with Robert Waxler about his memoirs, click here.
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.