Family Psychology Lessons in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Why are memoirs so popular? Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn the reasons for this important cultural trend.

Despite the incredible importance of the family as the social unit that ushers us into the world, our public dialog is mainly confined to examples that fit into half-hour television sitcoms. The Memoir Revolution has taken us beyond those shallow waters. Memoirs take us deep into profound explorations of real families, allowing ordinary readers to see complexities that until now were only visible to the members of one’s own family.

By reading memoirs, anyone can experience childhood development with parents who are drunk, (Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt), parents who are crazy (Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls), or parents reeling from the disturbing events of their own past. (Replacement Child by Judy Mandel and Breaking the Code by Karen Fisher-Alaniz).

Memoirs show families ripped apart by war (Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham, Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filopovic, Learning to Die in Miami by Carlos Eire. )

They show families ripped apart by runaway teenagers, (Live Through This by Debra Gwartney and Beautiful Boy by David Sheff), kids undermined by parents who supply them with drugs (With You or Without You by Niki Ruta) and parents who love their kids but are too self-involved to raise them (In Spite of Everything by Susan Gregory Thomas).

In some families, the parents simply don’t have the time or skill to lead their children toward adulthood. (Dawn Novotny in Ragdoll Redeemed, Andre Dubus III in Townie), and some families are so torn apart, their kids are thrown into foster care. (Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter.)

Intuitive Family Therapy in Action

The memoir Freeways to Flipflops, by Sonia Marsh provides a fascinating example of an important, specific type of family problem. In the Marsh family, one troubled teenager exerted enormous disruptive pressure on the family system, threatening to drag the rest of the family down with him.

In family-therapy parlance, the troublemaker is called the “identified patient” and most families quite naturally try to “fix” the offending member. Some try therapy, others ship the troubled one off to military school, or kick him out of the house. Identifying the patient might save the family at the expense of the member. But according to family therapists, to resolve the roots of the problem, the family system itself must change.

The memoir Freeways to Flipflops demonstrates just such a solution applied to the entire family system. Surprisingly, the sophisticated intervention is not administered by a trained family therapist but through the intuitive intelligence and courage of the mother. The family intervention she administers is as bold and far reaching an example of family systems therapy as any I can think of in literature.

When Mom sees her oldest son sliding toward danger, instead of trying to “fix him” or passively watching his train wreck destroy them all, she responds in a radical intervention that completely changes the rules of the game. She moves to a third world country.

The gamble pays off, resulting in an improvement in everyone’s life. So in addition to an excellent example of a family in trouble, Freeways to Flipflops provides an excellent example of a family that solved a systemic problem. Sonia Marsh turns her family’s psychological problems around, and in the process offers practically a textbook case of healing a family system.

Reenergizing the family by going through tough times together

When they move from Los Angeles to Belize, they certainly shake things up. Without their old friends and old patterns, they have to figure everything out anew. How to pass the time? How to find a store, or even get to the store? The Marsh’s use the unfamiliar environment of Belize to break out of old patterns, similar to the way wilderness rehabs help kids quit drugs. And like the wilderness rehab, it wasn’t always easy.

In this unfamiliar environment, Sonia snipes at her husband bitterly, asking him when he is going to get off the couch and find a job. Her nagging seems to have a reverse effect, apparently convincing him to dig in deeper. After this approach fails, Sonia decides she is being too edgy and combative. Similar to her attempt to resolve her son’s problems by changing the rules of the game she does the same thing with her husband. She tries an experiment, behaving toward him with more support, compassion. Before long, he too shifts gears, taking more responsibility and searching for his next step.

In my Family Systems therapy class, we learned that when one member of a family achieves a higher level of maturity, their increased level of functioning positively influences the rest of the family. Sonia Marsh’s approach offers a fascinating example of this principle.

For a memoir that provides a perfect counter-example of this approach, consider Boyd Lemon’s memoir Digging Deep. In this memoir, the author looks back on his three failed marriages, trying to understand what went wrong, and finding in each case that his own immature and self-involved approach to his spouse created the dynamics that ended in failure. Many of us learn lessons about ourselves after the fact.

Now that the Memoir Revolution is underway, more of us are writing about our real life experiences, and learning from each others’, offering examples of family dynamics that were formerly only available in academic textbooks. As these real-world lessons increasingly seep into our collective consciousness, they can help us improve our own situations through mature, informed action. And by learning to see our lives individually and together through the lens of our own memoirs, we are gaining an increasingly sophisticated tool to understand how our Stories all intertwine.

Writing Prompt
Write about a time when you did the same thing over and over, and kept getting the same results. Write a scene from one of those times, perhaps when you realized you were repeating a pattern, or simply when you felt the results of it.

Writing Prompt
Write about a time when you attempted to break out of a pattern. Write a scene in which you felt the courage, or unfamiliarity of trying something new. Perhaps you recognized you needed to change something, or you were desperate and ran away. In your writing assignment, include your feelings about this unfamiliar break in the pattern.

Another example of an author who broke a pattern is Cheryl Strayed. In her  memoir Wild, she goes for a hike in the wilderness to turn her life around. This breaks her out of her patterns with boys, friends, and drugs. It’s not about family change but illustrates a similar intervention. And it’s a great story.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

13 thoughts on “Family Psychology Lessons in Memoirs

  1. Jerry, I enjoy how you bring your background as psychologist into your work as author and blogger. You see that memoir has the power to heal and reveal new layers of understanding. I love how you applied family systems therapy to Sonia Marsh’s memoir. Your insight help others see ways they can access her story for practical use in their own lives.

  2. Hi Shirley,

    Thanks for your comment. I am so grateful to memoir writers for bringing the deep lessons of life out into the open. Our pop-culture, that is our bestselling and highly readable literature has begun to educate the rest of us about the information that has been hidden in textbooks. We need this information in order to live well, and live in healthy societies.

    Best wishes

  3. I tried to be the catalyst for deep-rooted change in my family. Perhaps as the daughter, rather than a parent, it didn’t turn out as well. I, myself have been through therapy (several types & several times). It was kind of unconscious for many years and perhaps that helped because no one, not even I, knew what I was doing.
    Unfortunately, most of my family sees me as “the bank.” And the only “help” they want is financial.
    My father, brother and one niece are the three people in the family who seem to have “gotten me.” My dad and I talk for hours on many subjects and since my mother died, we are looking at her family dynamics in order to understand her better. My sister seems to be following in her footsteps. I am afraid she may die at an earlier age than my mom as she just burrows deeper into the depression rather than look around and see how much love there is around her.
    I still think my life story will be about my mother, but I can see it taking a different turn after reading this post.
    Thanks, Jerry, for that!

  4. Sherrie,

    I really appreciate the multi-dimensional struggle you describe. When looked at your life as a cauldron of memory and emotion, it contains so much complexity! How could anyone sort it all out? I can “hear” in my mind’s ear, you and your father trying to make sense of it all. As you develop your memoir you will stretch the scenes out across time, and see how they are bound together by the dramatic tension of human emotion. Just as all this living took time to accumulate, it will take time to sort back out into the structure of a story. I’m so glad that the lessons I’ve learned from other memoir can feed back (or forward) to help you write yours!

    As to where I find the time, it really helps to be obsessed! That way at any given time, I’d rather be writing.

    Also I didn’t mean to give the impression that I’m a family therapist. When I took a Family Therapy course in graduate school around 1999, the Mental Health system was already just a shadow of its former self – in the 70s and 80s, when family therapy was in its glory, there were large mental health institutions and vibrant programs of research. Now, with funding being cut to a fraction of those periods, I am so very glad to see that the information we all vitally need is finally being disseminated to popular awareness not through graduate training but through the stories of every day life.

    Best wishes,

  5. My heart went out to you, Sherrie, when I read your comments. I can relate and empathize. I launched my memoir, Battered Hope, in June and am blown away by the reviews. I wrote it to be an encouragement to people, women in particular, who have been broken, beaten, depressed, oppressed, you name it. But what has happened in addition to that is that it is being read as a captivating novel, consequently appealing to a much larger audience. If you want to connect with me and if I can help in any way, please do not hesitate to contact me.

  6. Thank you, Jerry. I didn’t confirm the follow since I am already following. Anyway, I really appreciate all that you do for the memoir writers and to help people look at their lives and make sense of it. You are also a big help with fiction. I know because that is what I have been focusing on. I am making sense of the host family that my protagonist lives with in El Salvador, as well as making sense of her own family. I think my story will be better because of what I learn from you (& Sharon).
    Carol, thank you so much for your empathy. Yes, I would like to learn more from you and talk to you about editing, publishing and “life after publishing.”
    You can write to me at
    Peace & blessings to you all!

  7. Sorry I’m so late in reading all your comments. I wanted to mention that while writing my first draft, I brought up a therapist that my husband and I sought help from during the difficult times with our oldest son. When the therapist told us that Orange County, CA, is one of those difficult places to raise teenagers, he then said, “Move to Vermont. That’s where I’d raise my teenagers.” So I replied, “How about Belize?” and the therapist said, “Go for it.” So that’s when I knew we were doing the right thing.

  8. I appreciated your comment re the therapist and related. Was writing a blog today on how people, who have not experienced a lot of trauma in their lives, react to those who go through so much. You can be a winner but go through something traumatic and you can easily be labeled a loser. Those of us who can empathize have so much to offer those that hurt.

  9. Hi Carol, Thanks for this comment. You’ve put your finger on the power of memoirs to allow others to take advantage of our own life experience. We do have so much to offer each other, across the spectrum of human experience, from the terrifying descents into abuse, as you experienced, to the far subtler pain of a parent watching a child descend into a hell of their own making as Sonia experienced. Whether we want to share horrible stories, or lyrical ones, or adventurous ones, or for that matter ones of a search for personal excellence, memoirs offer us a new way to see each other and ourselves. Jerry

  10. Oh, how interesting!!! Now that raises another lesson. You can write powerful stories without spelling out every detail. Thanks for sharing this.

    Best wishes,

  11. I wrote one of those stories in “Losing a Child – the Pain Never Goes Away” My emotions are raw right now so writing too many details would be too difficult but it is uplifting to get comments back from others who have experienced the same thing. We can support one another without exposing too much.

  12. Pingback: List of Memoirs that Show Various Aspects of Family | Memory Writers Network

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