by Jerry Waxler
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.
More memoir writing resources
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