by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World
Merging yourself in the Other
In my early teens I learned how to lose myself by entering into the minds of detectives and space adventurers. In more recent years, I’ve shifted to actual people, whose memoirs enable me to leave my life for a while and enter theirs.
After years of memoir reading, I am a well-seasoned lifestory traveler, but the variety of human experience is so vast, I continue to encounter surprising, insightful, unique adventures.
I recently completed such a vicarious journey with a young woman named Erica Elliott who, when she was trying to figure out what to do with her life, went to teach school children at the Navajo Reservation.
She quickly fell in love with the indigenous people and their culture, and thanks to an incredible ability to set herself aside, she merged so thoroughly with them that she sometimes actually forgot she was a foreigner. Even more remarkably, they seemed to forget, as well.
Thanks to the magic of memoirs, she took me on that journey with her, showing me things about being Navajo that could only be known by insiders, and helping me more than ever understand the ancient culture that our pioneer forebears were so intent on destroying. Erica Elliott’s memoir opened a portal and let me travel back in time to a people who lived closer to the land.
Coincidentally, Erica Elliott’s memoir intersected with my fascination with mysteries. Her observations about Navajo culture validated everything I learned from the many detective novels I’ve read by Tony Hillerman. It also reminded me of a very different experience of Native American culture. During many hours in my childhood, I sat glued in front of the television, watching the good guys (all white) killing the marauding “Indians.”
Back then, I had no appreciation for the fact that the Indians were fighting in order to protect their own homes. Nor could I have known this seemingly innocent entertainment was conditioning me to see white people as “us” and people of color as “other.” I am so glad that I now live in a time when stories let us see each other, no matter what color, in a more spiritual light. Through Erica Elliott’s eyes, their “otherness” simply disappears.
But this book is actually two stories in one. In addition to an immersion in an ancient culture, it’s also the story of a young woman trying to find her path to adulthood.
Leaving child self to enter adult self – launching
At that time in life when we must go forth from our family of origin, and declare our individual identity, most of us follow the prescribed sequence – get married, get a job, start a family. For Erica Elliott, curiosity burned like lava. The possibilities were endless. The entire world beckoned.
In her state of massive questioning, she let go of all previous assumptions about who she was. It was a daredevil stunt… throwing herself into the unknown… a true hero’s journey.
I have met or read about many people who struggled mightily to reinvent themselves during that transition. In fact, I was one of those people myself.
Fed up with the ills of Western culture, at the end of the 60s, I attempted to become a hippie, which meant I tried to divest myself of all social norms. And once I started down that road, I wanted to keep going. As luck would have it, Jane Goodall showed up in town (Berkeley, California) and praised the innocence of primates. Her message was the sign I’d been looking for. I decided that living like a chimpanzee would be the most noble path. In a sense, I went berserk.
One reason I was willing to throw everything away was the Vietnam war lapping at my doorstep. I couldn’t picture myself entering adulthood holding a gun. But while I was running the other way, many young men were hoping that military service would be a valid, and honorable gateway into adulthood.
Jim McGarrah was just such a recruit. In his memoir A Temporary sort of Peace about his stint as a combat soldier in Vietnam, McGarrah had every right to expect that his experience would be a healthy, ordinary, rite of passage. But on the battlefield, with death all around him, having given up everything, with nowhere else to turn, McGarrah became unraveled. He too went “berserk.” Since he was holding a rifle at the time, berserking turned into a deadly affair.
The thought-leader who helped me find a language for battlefield breakdown was Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who spent his life trying to understand the psychology of war, by treating PTSD in combat veterans, and by interpreting Homer’s classics, The Odyssey and The Iliad. (I was grateful to Shay for finally explaining the point of those obscure stories, which I also read in high school.)
While the psychology of warriors seems off-topic from Erica Elliott’s lyrical journey to serve those in desperate need, it all has the stamp of young people, trying to grow up by throwing away their old selves.
See notes at the foot of this article for more examples of intense, sometimes desperate young people, who tried to destroy their childhood limitations in order to find their adult truths.
Memoirs provide an encyclopedia of life transitions
Memoirs about the transition to grow up are written by people who have gotten to the other side of that turmoil, often many years later, and are looking back on it hoping to make better sense of what took place. (See notes below for a couple of fun exceptions.)
Looking back from that stable position in adulthood, it is really difficult to sort out the memories and explain what happened back then, even to yourself.
This problem of making sense of our younger selves has often left adults speechless about their own younger years. But now, in the twenty-first century, we have the cultural benefit of memoirs to help us shine a beacon on those difficult transitions.
There’s no better way than a memoir to forensically reconstruct who you were and how you became the person you are.
And in addition to writing your own story, you can read many others. Memoirs create a free worldwide university course, (a MOOC or massively open online course) where we can lose ourselves in any number of these journeys, and see how they feel. And after reading, we can close the book, wiser about the way another person’s experience, and a little wiser about our own.
Erica Elliott’s intense journey with the Navajos was often profoundly uncomfortable and at times even dangerous. Her memoir let me accompany her on that entire journey, in only a few hours in the comfort of my home. And yet, despite these vast differences in the scope of our investment, both she and I were attempting to achieve the same goal –we were both trying to give up who we’d been in order to become better, wiser, broader.
How about your transition to adulthood?
Perhaps your own launching was as wildly experimental as Erica’s, mine, Jim McGarrah’s or others that you’ve read about. Or perhaps it was more routine. But whatever your specific path, in order to get from one side of that journey to the other, you had to redefine yourself.
To learn more about your own transition, try writing the sequence of events. A simple ordered list will start you on the journey to remember your past. And if you keep at it, learning to write scenes, and gather them into a narrative, you will be embracing one of the coolest most educational hobbies in the universe. You might discover things about yourself that you had not considered before, adding to your wisdom. And ultimately, you might be able to pass these insights along to others.
The Memoir Revolution is the synergism of two exciting forces in society – on the one side, it is an invitation to those of us who attempt to see our own life journeys through the lens of a story. And on the other side, it is an invitation to those of us who are curious about the lives of others to discover this deep way to enter into (and lose ourselves in) their lives.
When you were trying to find your adult self, what sort of detours or experiments did you make in order to go out of the ordinary life, and try to lose yourself in another?
Notes and Links
Erica Elliott’s memoir website
Buy Medicine and Miracles on Amazon
A really cool interview with the author about the experience which led to this memoir.
A few more examples of memoirs of drastic launchings
An excellent memoir about this impulse to throw away your childhood identity is Unquenchable Thirst, by Mary Johnson. When she sought the best way to become an adult, she attempted to stamp herself out in the service of God and the poor. She defied her parents to become a nun in Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
A very different example of giving up your former identity in order to find a new adult one was explored in the launching memoir the Orchard by Theresa Weir. She was a footloose young woman, with no sense of purpose or direction. Seemingly on a whim, she married into one of the most stable families imaginable, a family of apple growers with deep roots to the land. Instead of leaving some stable life and going into the unknown, Weir left behind her instability and tied herself down.
Berserking was sadly quite common in the 60s, when the normal rhythm of growing up middle-class was disrupted by anti-establishment values. Here’s an intense example of another person who like many of us in those days knew what she was running away from, but was muddled about what to run toward. Pamela Jane’s An Incredible Talent for Existing. See my essay about this memoir by clicking here. https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/is-your-memoir-boomer-lit/
Some more of my essays about launching
(Read more about berserking in my essay about combat and PTSD. https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/homer-iliad-ptsd/
And read another my essay about this launching impulse here: https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/boys-to-men/.
Finding an adult belief system is another challenge of becoming an adult. If the belief system you inherited from your parents does not fulfill your idealistic impression for your own destiny, you must go on a search for a belief system of your own. https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/launching-pt3-beliefs/
Read more memoirs of spiritual launching here: https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/lists-of-two-memoirs-by-same-author/memoirs-about-spiritual-launching/
Another article I wrote about the tasks of launching: https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/launching-memoirs-chronicle-main-tasks-to-grow-to-adulthood/
Another variation: A memoir about Midlife re-launching
In Doreen Orion’s memoir Queen of the Road, she and her husband leave their careers for a year and hit the road. It’s a travel memoir and a midlife relaunching memoir in one: https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/orion-memoir-midlife-crisis/
For a memoir about writing a memoir during the process of launching, read Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book by Stephen Markley about the author’s attempt to find his adult career by writing the very book you are reading. Here’s an essay I wrote about Stephen Markley’s memoir.
A stylistic note about Medicine and Miracles: The infamous pull-out first chapter
At the beginning of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, she famously lost her boot on a mountain top – – perhaps an ironic “cliffhanger” at the very beginning captured enough attention to engage the reader to turn pages to learn how she survived that event.
Erica Elliott’s pull-out first chapter serves a similar purpose, getting us deeply engaged in the character and causing us to turn pages. Astonishingly the pull-out first chapter, which I must admit was one of the best I’ve ever read, actually takes place in a second memoir. I don’t want to give too much away. You should read the book to see what I mean. But if you are considering writing a memoir, figuring out which scene will set the pace for the rest of the story will become one of your most complex puzzles. This book provides a powerful example.
Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.
What a deeply thoughtful writer you are, Jerry. It’s obvious that you experienced your own version of what I l experienced when I went to live with the Navajo People and left my old life behind. From reading your review of my book, it’s clear to me how empathic you are with your amazing ability to stand inside another’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. .I can’t tell you how touched I am by the degree to which you understand me and my story. With much appreciation, Erica.