by Jerry Waxler
Some of the most popular memoirs of our time have been about the period of life called Coming of Age. In fact stories of childhood and adolescence, such as Jeanette Walls’ Glass Castle and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes arguably ignited the explosive interest in the memoir genre. However, not all Coming of Age stories proceed from childhood in an orderly fashion.
For example, Dani Shapiro started with the advantages of a wealthy upbringing, but her memoir Slow Motion is about her detour into drugs and sex. When she regained her footing, Shapiro headed back to college. Another author, Tim Elhajj, fell off the tracks much earlier in his life. During adolescence, when he should have been learning about dating and trying to keep up his grades, Elhajj was scoring his next hit of heroin. By the age most of us were trying to start a career, he was getting serious about quitting drugs, but unlike Shapiro he couldn’t go back. He needed to start over.
At the beginning of Elhajj’s memoir, Dopefiend: A Father’s Journey from Addiction to Redemption, he is morally, emotionally, and financially bankrupt. He starts adulthood from the very bottom, a moral infant, obsessed as all addicts are by the need for a fix. It’s a powerful place to start a memoir, jolting the reader into the central question: how is this man going to become a full-fledged adult, long after that ship was supposed to have sailed? His story lets me feel the frustration and courage of overcoming his own impulsive behavior.
His saving grace was a close association with the Twelve Step programs, which helped him do more than stop drugs. The program gave him the tools to build the social, ethical, and spiritual foundation he needed to climb, like ivy toward the light. Year after year, he continued to grow more mature, to learn moral values and adult responsibilities. His memoir resonates with my belief that character development is one of the most exciting things about literature and about life.
I too have been on a lifelong journey to make sense of my life. Unlike Elhajj, I did not destroy my youth with heroin. Instead I turned my intellectual prowess to thoroughly tear apart every value I was supposed to live for. By the time I finished college, I too had become a mental and moral infant, with no sense of responsibility to my society and no sense of direction. Only by finding a spiritual path was I able to climb back from chaos and start my rehabilitation.
As a result of decades of personal development, I became fascinated by the potential for adults to keep growing. In my late 40s, I went back to graduate school to became a therapist. When I started talking to therapy clients, I discovered that I’m not so unusual after all. Many people who have achieved adulthood in calendar years, still are looking to achieve maturity in other dimensions of their lives.
In the 21st century, many memoir writers are stepping forward to share the complexities of their long, slow, intricate Coming of Age. Tim Elhajj’s memoir about finding himself later in life has, more clearly than any book I’ve read so far, shared the rewards of continued searching and growing. His project of self-discovery is a perfect example of the adage, “What I am is God’s gift to me. What I become is my gift to God.”
In my next blog posting, I will share a number of writing prompts and lessons I derived from Tim Elhajj’s Dopefiend.
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