by Jerry Waxler
When I started reading memoirs, I eagerly turned the pages to watch individuals transform. Children grew from childhood innocence to youthful rebellion, and young adults continued to come of age, learning lessons about themselves through midlife and beyond. In fact, this is one of the reasons the genre fills me with so much hope. I love watching people grow and change, adapting to new situations and developing deeper insights into old ones.
However, I had been so caught up in my fascination with individual development I missed another lesson about the human condition hidden in plain sight. After reading Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh, I realized the genre has also been showing me how families grow and change as well.
In Sonia Marsh’s story, her family is in the midst of a crisis. The older teenage boy is acting out, and this creates enormous stress on the rest of the family. As the kids are growing older, so are the parents. Dad is not sure how long he can tolerate the pressure of his corporate life. Mom, too, is looking for the next step. Suddenly, I see Sonia Marsh’s family from a different perspective. The family itself is going through a midlife crisis and shows some of the same angst and longing for rejuvenation that an individual does during this period.
Midlife of a Family
It’s easy to find stories about the birth of the family. The Romance genre offers endless fantasies about the way two people become one. However, to read about young marrieds trying to raise kids, or older families in trouble, I would skip the fiction shelves and proceed to self help and psychology.
Now, thanks to the Memoir Revolution, stories take us into intimate relationship with families in all stages. We join families across the entire life cycle, from the hopeful, romantic beginning to the many challenges in the middle, including the betrayed family, the family under crisis from illness, the empty nest, old age, and death.
Once I saw how the tension inside the group affected its members, I was able to see a new dimension of the genre. For example, in Freeways to Flipflops the interplay of individual lives with the collective swirl of the family provides all sorts of unexpected surprises. Now, in addition to her individual character arc – she grows as a person throughout the story – I watch the parallel emotional evolution of her family.
Aging parents and growing kids
When we grow old enough to move beyond our family of origin and create lives in partnership with significant others, the notion of family becomes even more complex. No longer living as individuals trying to escape our childhood, we are now connected above and below, providing even more opportunities for dramatic tension in our lives, and in our memoirs.
For example, in Freeways to Flipflops Sonia Marsh’s parents visit her in Belize. They are incredibly uncomfortable there, and as a reader, I feel miserable, trying to imagine how to please these two people, who are in a sense the most important people in her life. Now, they wish they could be anywhere else.
Self in Relationship to the Group
I am currently reading Orange is the New Black, My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman. The dramatic tension in the story covers her disastrous involvement with a yuppified drug ring and then her experiences in jail. And yet, mixed in with the protagonist’s own character arc, we also see her in relationship to two families. She longs to be out of prison and back with her fiancé, providing drama with the family she is trying to start. And she worries about her parents, knowing they would have helped to prevent her freefall and are now horrified by her time in jail. Her involvement with these two important families adds a powerful dimension to her individual experience.
When I started working on my own memoir, I assumed the story would be about me. As the writing journey unfolds, I discover many overlaps between myself and my family. At key points in my life, I interact with my father, mother, siblings and spouse. As I review my “life as story”, I discover that with a slight shift, I can expand the definition of family to include the group of people with whom I lived for many years, in a commune-type situation, developing a warm, trusting mutually supportive relationship without contract or biological links.
Other tightknit groups of mutually dependent individuals include members of a combat unit or members of a band, and residents of an ashram or a monastery. In Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black, her fellow prisoners are forced to share showers, meals and favors, in a level of intimacy often associated with a family.
When Sonia Marsh moves to Belize, she attempts to reach out to fellow expats, hoping to turn them into ad hoc family members. For various reasons, her neighbors reject the proposal, creating a frightening counter-example. Instead of mutual support, they become the group that pushes her away.
Before I list a selection of memoirs that include interactions with family, take a few minutes to consider how your life intersects with groups. They might include your family of origin, the family you are creating, or some other group that felt like a family.
In your own memoir, consider the groups that influence you. Are you starting a new family? Watching your family fall apart or arise from the ashes? Does your family embrace you, or reject you? Are you reaching out to them or running away?
Describe a scene when you left home. What sort of tension or nostalgia or longing did leaving create between you and your parents? Write a scene that portrays a strong ah-ha about the relationship, such as when you realize they think you are still a child, or further along when you realize you’re all adults.
During the period in your memoir, what was your relationship with your parents? Write a scene of going to visit them. Or a scene when the whole family gathered for a holiday. Write some dialog. How did you feel about being a member of this tribe?
Don’t require yourself to rigidly follow writing prompts. Use them as magical amulets that reveal material your memory wants to tell you. Once unleashed, let your free writing flow where it will. If you want to share the (short) results or tell us about them, please leave your musings in the comments below.
Sonia Marsh’s Home Page Author of Freeways to Flipflops
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