by Jerry Waxler
Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.
Martha Stettinius’ life shifted rapidly from the ordinary challenges of raising a family to the extraordinary and disturbing responsibility of caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s. Martha scrambled to adapt, reaching outward to the mental healthcare community and inward toward deeper understanding. Thanks to the changes taking place in the literary landscape of the twenty-first century, Stettinius also took advantage of an ancient method to help her maintain her courage. The method, handed down in an unbroken chain since the dawn of civilization, is called Story.
I first learned about the importance of stories from a series of televised interviews that journalist Bill Moyers conducted with scholar Joseph Campbell. According to Campbell, every society in history has relied on a type of story he called the Hero’s Journey. When I first heard these ideas, they seemed quaint and archaic. The examples I knew, such as the Greek gods on Mount Olympus and the wolves and witches of Grimm’s Fairy Tales seemed out of step with modern life. I assumed Campbell’s observations had nothing to do with me.
However, when I began reading and analyzing memoirs, I discovered that Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey sheds light on the story structure used by contemporary memoir writers. Even though the details change from person to person and era to era, their underlying structure remains the same. The Hero’s Journey throughout human history has allowed us to discover that when facing difficult situations, we can rise to our higher selves.
Take for example the courageous work of Martha Stettinius, who had to care for her mother. In the following synopsis I show how her experience as a caregiver, as described in Inside the Dementia Epidemic, mirrors the Hero’s Journey. By discovering the structure within her memoir, you might get some good ideas about to turn your own heroic struggles into a story.
Caregiving for Her Mother as a Hero’s Journey
Stettinius’ journey starts in the familiar world of her home, taking care of her family, going to work, and getting through each day. Life goes on normally until her mother’s neighbors call with bad news. When her mother’s mental health deteriorates far enough, Stettinius is booted out of her normal life and in the terminology of the Hero’s Journey model, she is “called to adventure.”
A dementia ward is a radical departure from every day life. She has to challenge herself to enter their world. What do you say these people? How do you love them? Who are these caregivers and how can you participate with them to serve your mother?
The shocking transition from the ordinary world to the world of the adventure is summed up by the famous line in Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy emerges into colorful land of Oz, and looks around at dancing munchkins, the good witch says, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”
To fit into this new land, Stettinius has to slow the pace of her own mind. By listening to the silences between words and tuning into her mother’s body language, she seeks a new basis for communication. She searches for the best people and institutions, learning how each one works, and striving to find ones that can help the most. Throughout the long middle, she overcomes discomfort and fears, and works diligently to partner with the staff who take care of her mother.
As a result of her heroic response, she grows more knowledgeable and confident, developing into a deeper, more mature version of herself. By the end of the journey she has also grown closer to her mother. The story that began with pride of independence when the two women were apart ends in the pride of inter-dependence now that they have come together.
Telling the story is a heroic journey, too
After the story of Stettinus caring for her mother ends, another chapter begins. To become important to others, the story must be told. So Stettinius switches roles from the adventurer inside the story to the writer-hero sitting at her keyboard. By striving to tell her story in compelling scenes, she lets us release our grip on our own reality and enter hers.
Her instinct to share her wisdom fits perfectly with Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey. According to him, after the hero finishes the adventure, he or she returns home to offer lessons. In Native American stories, at the end of the adventure the hero returns with some magic ellixir or ritual that will help the tribe. In Lord of the Rings, the whole purpose of Frodo’s mission is to save the world from annihilation.
However, not all heroes return home to deliver wisdom. Ever since I read Homer’s Odyssey in high school, I wondered why the Greeks held Ulysses in such high regard. He was often self-serving and impulsive and when he finally arrived home, his own townspeople turned against him. What was I supposed to learn?
Now that I’m studying memoirs, I realize that there were two journeys represented in the Odyssey, and the second one was at least as important as the first. After Ulysses returned home, the next Hero’s Journey was traveled by Homer. Thanks to tireless composition, and then a lifetime of promotion, Homer turned the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, the Lotus Eaters and a houseful of predatory suitors into cautionary tales, appreciated by readers for thousands of years.
Memoirs blur the lines between these two principle players. In memoirs, the protagonist-hero goes on adventures not to slay monsters, but rather to slay inner demons. Despite our falls and failings we strive to climb the mountains of dignity and mutual respect. After we return from our adventures and think about what we have been through, we shift roles from adventurer to bard.
By telling the story, Homer transformed a life of suffering and adventure into shared wisdom. Martha Stettinius did the same thing when she chose to write Inside the Dementia Epidemic. Her willingness to share this story with others reflects this underlying desire of human nature. After our years of experience, we are drawn to find the story.
I can see Martha Stettinius’ heroism in both roles. As the protagonist she had to go forth and take care of her mother. Then as the storywriter, she had to endure the discomfort, expense and hard work of sharing her wisdom with her readers.
When memoir writers share experience with readers, everyone wins. The author gains wisdom by turning apparently haphazard events into a meaningful story. And readers take advantage of that work. Through the hypnotic experience of reading a good story, readers enter into the author’s world. Then they take away the gift, the magic elixir. Memoir readers apply the courage and lessons of the Hero’s Journey to their own lives and build up their own reservoir of hope.
Inside the Dementia Epidemic on Amazon
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This is a lovely post, full of insights and inspiration. I need to read it again and again to take it all in. I’ll also share it with my memoir group. By the way, I just bought your book, Memoir Revolution, and look forward to mining all those gems inside.
Thanks for the high praise, Linda. I’m so glad you find my words helpful. I see from your website you have found a connection between spirituality and memoirs – that’s a connection that fascinates me (and I wrote about it in Memoir Revolution.) I am looking forward to learning more about your view.
I’m very touched, Jerry, by your thoughtful series here about my book. I remember well your suggestion several years ago that an early draft of my book reflected the “hero’s journey.” You were so generous with your insights, then and now. I will always be grateful that we “met” through one of your teleclasses on the art of memoir, and that you served as one of my early readers. Thank you again so much for these posts.
My pleasure, Martha!! It has been wonderful getting to know you (in the new internet sense!) Even though we have not met, we are members of the same community. I love that. Your hard work to share your story about your mother serves as an inspiration to other “hero writers” who have a story to tell.