by Jerry Waxler
Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.
I wrestled with the decision to read Eleanor Vincent’s memoir, Swimming With Maya about losing her college-age daughter. Did I really want to experience so much pain? However, memoirs about suffering also offer the author’s courage and personal growth, two of my favorite features of memoirs. After I previewed the writing style and assured myself of its quality, I dove in. By the end, I felt fulfilled and inspired by the author’s journey through heart-breaking tragedy to find meaning and dignity.
Early in the book, the author’s daughter Maya dies from a freak accident and as a result, the mother can’t face life. Stuck in agony about her lost daughter, she herself is lost. The quest to find herself carries me through the book like a rafter on rapids. On every page, I wonder, “how she is going to learn to live again?”
Jumping into the memoir Swimming with Maya feels like an immersion in love and longing. The author’s love for her lost daughter is nearly overwhelming, larger than life, larger and deeper than everything. Eleanor Vincent spends every waking minute torn between the past and her own need to figure out how to move on. The love story of a child who is gone forever vibrates with authenticity and power.
During this long period of grief she grabs onto every possible technique to reduce her pain. She attempts to keep her daughter alive by savoring every moment they had together. And since she believes in life after life, she even talks to Maya and feels her presence. In an unusual twist, Maya also lives in the chest of a man who received a heart transplant supplied by the dying girl. Caught by her fixation on her daughter, Eleanor establishes a relationship with this organ recipient and his family.
Eleanor Vincent’s grief is made more complicated by fears that she caused her daughter’s accident. Was she a bad mother? What could she have done differently? She feels trapped by these questions. Her obsessive guilt is yet another way she keeps Maya alive, turning their relationship over and over in her mind. She rips herself apart to get to the bottom of why she raised Maya so poorly.
This period of self-examination reveals many unattractive aspects of her own life. Her impulses to leave men for no particular reason, to betray men, to move on a whim, put me in an awkward position. I feel judgment rise in my throat. I don’t like these choices. She should have provided a more stable environment for her children. At the same time, I admire her for exploring herself, looking for meaning and answers.
This strange bittersweet mix of criticizing her actions and admiring her willingness to examine them provides one of the most profound gifts of reading memoirs. Rather than looking at this clumsy mothering from outside and clucking my tongue in disapproval, I’m inside her mind, with her, trying to figure it all out.
To overcome her obsessive guilt, she talks to her therapist about her own childhood. She grew up in an environment as chaotic as the one she gave Maya. Her own history gives her clues about her own bad mothering decisions. Then she dives one level deeper and pieces together her own mother’s story. Her mother too had a chaotic childhood.
The story of Eleanor Vincent’s inquiry into her past reveals another profound truth about reading and writing the stories of our lives. Behind each of our stories, are more stories, and as we peel them back and watch the layers fold and unfold, we become wiser about the way life works. This is therapy at its best and soul-searching memoir-writing at its best.
The way she peels back the layers of generations puts her in the same category as Linda Joy Myers, Don’t Call Me Mother. Both memoirs offer insight into the multi-generational cause of family behavior.
Long Middle Gives Room to Grow and Change
During an epic story such as Lord of the Rings the hero must go through many trials and lessons over a long period. The sheer length of this long middle provides the hero with enough time to incorporate lessons into the fiber of his being. By the end of the story, he is essentially a different person than he was at the beginning.
Eleanor Vincent’s journey works in a similar way. She starts out with nothing but the pain and memories of a lost daughter. Then she gradually fills in blanks, while attempting to become a more accepting, wiser person. Her memoir is not only about gathering information. It’s about growing over time. A book with such a profound character arc fills me with hope about the human condition.
Some of my favorite memoirs achieve this goal, of growing over time, deeper and deeper, until the character at the end of the story thinks differently than at the beginning. Many of these are grieving stories, perhaps because grieving forces us to rethink ourselves in such profound ways. *
At the end of Swimming with Maya, I look back across the ground we’ve covered. From gut-wrenching sorrow, the exploration of many bad choices, and the search for new ways of growing, Eleanor Vincent relentlessly, courageously seeks comfort and insight. In gripping page after gripping page, her self-examination raises many intricate responses in my heart and mind. Judgments… compassion… wishing for a better past… working with her toward a better future. Watching her reactions and my own helps me grow wiser about this profound challenge of living gracefully despite death.
Amazon link to Swimming with Maya:
* Memoirs about the Long Journey to Maturity and Wisdom
Madeline Sharples, Leaving the Hall Light On about her survival of her son’s gruesome suicide, and many years of effort to move on.
Dawn Novotny, Ragdoll Redeemed about a woman who was sick of being limited by her passive self-image. Living in the shadow of her step-mother-in-law Marilyn Monroe. , She grew psychologically through the course of the book
Susan Richards, Saddled is a fascinating journey of a woman trying to find herself. A horse helped her grow.
Mary Johnson, Unquenchable Thirst showing her long journey into and through Mother Theresa’s religious organization, Missionaries of Charity.
John Robison, Look Me in the Eye shows a deeper understanding of self despite Asperger’s
Slash Coleman, Bohemian Love Diaries is about his attempt to find a deeper self. By the end of the book, he is wiser but reveals that he has not completed the journey.
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Thank you Jerry for your detailed review. So often, we blame ourselves for not being a good mother when our children don’t follow the path we’d hoped for them in life. You said Maya’s death was a “freak accident,” so my first thought was drowning as a young child. I have not read the memoir. As a therapist, do you have fathers in your practice who blame themselves for being a “bad father,” or this not as common?
Hi Sonia, Thank you for your comment. The accident really was quintessentially “freak” – some friends on a dare hopped onto a horse. The horse reared. Sonia died and her friend stood up and brushed herself off. These mysteries crash into a person’s world and naturally one wants to make sense. That’s an interesting question about fathers versus mothers. Across almost every area I can think (except maybe football LOL) women in our culture do far more soul searching than men. I am hoping this will change with the boomers, who grew up in a climate of self-exploration. And I’m hoping that memoirs will provide a path for personal insight. Boyd Lemon’s excellent memoir Digging Deep is perhaps unique in its willingness to look back across his life and ask what his role was in failed marriages. My whole life I have tried to make sense of who I am, and what caused me to be this way. It has been a grueling journey but I hope I am a better person for it, and also hope others in my life benefitted from my attempts to grow. Best wishes, Jerry
Jerry and Sonia,
This is such a great question – women and men grieve very differently in my experience. Jerry is right that women do tend to do more soul searching. In addition, in our culture mothers are seen as “responsible” for their children in a way most men are not. The epithet “bad mother” is thrown about pretty freely. As I look back from the vantage point of 21 years since Maya’s death, I now see what a fundamental part guilt and remorse play in the grieving process. It was E.M. Forster, I believe, who wrote, “One never loves enough.” When a beloved one dies, the finality causes us to see all the ways we fell short. Happily, over time, we can also see all the ways our love was enough. I never saw myself as a bad mother. I did see myself as a flawed, wounded human being doing the best she could under tough circumstances. Being a mother helped me grow and Swimming with Maya attempts to capture that journey. Jerry is absolutely right about it’s being a love story!
Hi Eleanor, Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts! I’m sure your journey from brokenness to wholeness will inspire many readers. Just for the record, it was obvious to me from the beginning of the book that even though Maya had done something a little risky, this was nothing more than a minor youthful prank and had nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not you were a good or bad mother. The way I read the book (and this is just me), your soul-searching journey was an expression of your cry to make sense out of a senseless situation. I think your fearless, far-reaching inquiry provides a model for how hard one must work to overcome profound grief. Kate Braestrup’s Here if You Need Me, and Robert Waxler’s Losing Jonathan provide two more.
Excellent suggestions, Jerry. I will look for these two books. Is Robert related to you?
Hi Eleanor, I was going to say that this would be a good topic for a blog post and then I noticed I already wrote one in 2011. I need to update it to include Swimming with Maya as well as Madeline Sharple’s Leaving the Hall Light On, both of which I read more recently.
Bob Waxler and I met online and have corresponded for a number of years and even have given a couple of talks together. We are related by our shared passion for the value of literature in life. He’s a professor at University of Massachusetts and wrote two memoirs. Here’s a link to the article I wrote on Losing Jonathan.
Dear Jerry, As always you have written a beautiful tribute to Eleanor’s book Swimming with Maya, where you offer so much compassion and space from which to look at life, love, and tragedy. I admire your big heart and thoughtful layered views on the memoirs you review. Thank you for mentioning my book as well about the generational issues that we try to heal in our books. I have to add it was so great to meet you in person after our long 5 year friendship on line. Your warmth and big heart come through here AND in person! I look forward to more memoir writing events and ways to celebrate the importance of story to understand and honor the lives we live.
I saw this book on another blog. I love memoirs, but am glad to read this more detailed review. Like you, I sometimes hesitate to explore the morose too deeply, but it sounds like she did a good job bringing lessons and points for thought to the surface. What a sad story though– breaks my mother’s heart.
Hi Linda Joy,
Thanks for your wonderful words. And thanks so much for “getting” me. I am definitely here to support and encourage. My mission is to figure out how to do that. Yes, it was terrific meeting you “in person” – although I have to put quotes around “in person.” I think that over time, through various connections in blogs, phone, classes, hangouts, working on projects, reading memoirs, and so on, we already knew each other. This feeling of closeness across a distance is one of the surprising benefits of the memoir revolution. I had walked a couple of 100 pages in your shoes, so meeting you seemed like simply “another medium.” 🙂 Yes, more events indeed. The Memoir Revolution is just getting started.
I have skipped over some memoirs because I was afraid that immersing myself in the author’s experience might exceed my ability to stay balanced. That’s a healthy consideration, and one that I don’t mean to override altogether. However, when selecting a book it also helps to know that the author continues to climb the mountain toward enlightenment. I would never recommend a despairing memoir unless it led toward hope.