Gender Sensitivity and Wisdom in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

I posted a blog in 2008 in which I realized that by reading memoirs, I was seeing the world through the eyes of female protagonists. Despite the fact that I have never worn a pair of high heels and still refuse to carry my wife’s purse, I didn’t have any problem walking hundreds of pages inside the mind of a woman.

Memoirs extend into every corner of life, and over the years I’ve learned what it’s like to be a male or female parent, teacher, teenager or old person. (Diana Athill was in her late 80s when she wrote Somewhere Towards the End and Harry Bernstein was in his 90s when he wrote Golden Willow.) By reading memoirs, instead of learning general ideas about people, the way I would from a sociology or psychology class, I can experience life through their eyes and draw my own conclusions. Now, four years after the blog in which I made my first observations about the gender awareness raised by memoirs, I cite more examples.

In Crazy Love, Leslie Morgan Steiner tries to make sense of her husband’s violent abuse. This painful situation strains rationality to the breaking point. Seeing it through the eyes of someone in the situation opens my mind to it, through the window of story.

In Unorthodox, Deborah Feldman shows how the rules of her Hasidic family smother her by restricting her within culturally sanctioned roles. The contrast between her daily life and those of us out here in the larger culture provides a reminder of the evolution of western attitudes toward women. Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran also contrasts her liberal attitudes toward women with the fundamentalist regime imposed on Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini. The two memoirs raise my awareness to the fact that still, even in the twenty-first century, some of the most important cultural battles of modernity continue to be fought over the rights and roles of women.

The evolution from tradition to modernity is the topic of the memoir, Nomad, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She grew up in a Moslem village, under the most restrictive rules imaginable, and then ran away to the west where she discovered an entirely different set of possibilities. Through her eyes, the entire evolution of the Enlightenment unfolds in a brilliant exploration of our collective journey toward modernity.

While women continue to grow toward freedom, their partnerships do not always reflect this equivalence. Boyd Lemon’s marriages certainly didn’t. In his memoir Digging Deep, he looks back and tries to make sense of his three failed marriages. By picking through the rise and fall of each relationship, he shows how he follows his beliefs about a man’s limited emotional responsibility. His stereotypical attitudes inevitably led to the dysfunction in each relationship.

In Accidental Lessons, David Berner’s wife says she can’t go on with him anymore. He acknowledges that his own shallowness sinks the marriage. In David Bellavia’s House to House, while the author’s wife and child wait for his visit, he chooses to delay his return so he can spend more time with his battle comrades.

Rarer in my reading experience are books in which the woman creates the rift. I interviewed fiction writer Judi Hendricks about her novel Bread Alone, in which a woman was betrayed by a man. Hendricks said that in real life she was the betrayer, and she chose to write it in fiction with the man being the villain. Go figure.

In Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum, her mother’s choice of boyfriends squeezes the teenage protagonist out of the house and onto the streets of New York. In Live Through This by Debra Gwartney, the author hates her ex so badly that she moves 1,000 miles away. Even then, she continues to turn the kids against their father until they run away and live on the street. She doesn’t exactly blame herself for their rebellion but she doesn’t hide her contribution either.

In Linda Joy Myer’s memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, her mother abandons her, and her father doesn’t fill in the gap. Neither parent behaves nobly, each one placing his or her own needs above the needs of their daughter. (By the way, the book is a stunning example of good storytelling without blame, by an author who could have hated either parent, but instead only sheds compassionate light on their position.)

While I’m learning about genders, I also learn about the extreme possibilities within my own. I grew up as an intellectual and was never exposed to intense masculinity in activities such as battle, football, or construction work. I’m filling in that gap by reading memoirs like the two military combat memoirs, House to House by David Bellavia or Temporary Sort of Peace by Jim McGarrah, and also the blue-collar mean-streets story of Andre Debus III in Townie.

Plenty of stories include quiet, supportive, and responsible male heroes. Two outstanding examples are Laura Shaine Cunningham’s quirky uncles who are her surrogate fathers in Sleeping Arrangements. And then there are the loving male-female partnerships. In Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion tells of the infatuation for language she shares with her husband, with whom she seems to be as close as breath itself. In a similar love affair between two writers, Diane Ackerman cares for her stricken husband in 100 Names for Love. One of the most remarkable partnerships of man and woman is reported in Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Canino and Ronald Cotton, who team up to write a memoir about his false imprisonment which resulted when she wrongly accused him of rape. They are both activists in the Innocence Project.

I love Jon Reiner’s supportive wife in The Man Who Couldn’t Eat. She stood by him while his body and mind fell apart. I love the devotion of Harry Bernstein for his wife of 63 years in Golden Willow, the third memoir he penned in his 90s. And I love the supportive, humorous, and upbeat relationship between Doreen Orion and her husband in her memoir Queen of the Road about traveling through the United States in an RV.

One thought-provoking glimpse into the differences in the genders can be found in two books about a spiritual quest. In Dani Shapiro’s memoir Devotion, she tries to make sense of the contrast between her father’s devotion to Judaism and her own interest in eastern spirituality. As I describe her story, the word feminine comes to mind, with soft, supple curves, and gauzy gentle views. Dinty Moore’s memoir, Accidental Buddhist, is about his journey to Buddhism teachers, during which he tries to wrap his mind around the principles and practice of the religion. His search feels masculine to me, with edgier questions, and a more problem-solving orientation. I didn’t study the two books to find support for my impression of their gender differences, but that’s the way they struck me. Perhaps my reaction says as much about my prejudices as a reader as it does about the writers’.

When you pen your own memoir, you will first look inside yourself and see the thoughts and feelings of your own gender. But memoirs are a conversation between the author and the reader, and as you clarify the story you tell about yourself, you will also be searching for the conversation you want to have with your reader.

To improve this conversation, imagine telling your story to a live audience. (Note: Whenever you imagine writing to an audience, be sure to only allow in members who are supportive and curious and who will send you loving thoughts.) During this imagined session, look at some of the men as well as the women, and see how your tone or words reflect what you want to say to each. What aspect of your memoir might be most interesting to people of your own gender? Why? What aspect might present an interest to those of the other gender? Why?

For discussions and workshops about memoirs, visit National Association of Memoir Writers

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

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

4 thoughts on “Gender Sensitivity and Wisdom in Memoirs

  1. Jerry, in reading this post I get some gender insight: You won’t carry your wife’s purse? LOL!

    You’ve intrigued me with thumbnail reviews of so many titles I have yet to read, and best of all is that suggested imaginary listening group. FASCINATING idea! Yes, I can imagine my teenage self telling the fellows who sat along the radiator in the hallway during breaks whistling or hissing group judgement on the girls who walked past. “Just imagine we switched places and us girls let you all know …” Yeah, the very idea of that feels GREAT! Dang! I wish I’d thought of that when I was at a class reunion a month ago…

  2. I’m glad to hear your visualization, Sharon. Keep in mind those teenagers are your age now, and hopefully considerably wiser. 🙂


  3. Thanks, Jerry, for your insightful treatment of this topic. I especially liked, “Plenty of stories include quiet, supportive, and responsible male heroes.” Sex and violence, roughness and toughness, too often are associated with stories about men, as though men have an exclusive on those activities. The popular men’s magazines cover topics of no interest to me. I’m proud to say that in my nearly fifty years of marriage I have done everything my wife has done except give birth to our children.

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