Myths and Memoirs – am I a victim?

by Jerry Waxler

I’m reading a book by journalism professor, Jack Lule about using myth to find story. I recommend his book Daily News, Eternal Stories to anyone who is looking to find a structure for their story. Lule wrote it to explain why some news stories jump into the headlines, while others don’t. My purpose in reading it is to pass along ideas that can help you structure your memoir.

His first myth is “The Victim.” In his example, a man on a cruise was murdered by terrorists, and elevated by the news media to the status of a hero. Since the man was in a wheelchair, the only reason the terrorists could possibly have for killing him was that he was an American. They used him as a symbol, killing him out of hatred for the nation. The news media accepted the terrorist’s symbolic message, allowing the man to stand in as proxy for all Americans. And once the victim became accepted as a symbol, he could be used for an additional purpose. The media and politicians used his story to send a message back to the terrorists. It’s as if the terrorists were saying “we hate you and we’re going to kill this guy to prove it,” and the American media responded by saying, “Oh yeah. Well we are strong anyway, and you don’t scare us, and we’re going to admire this man to prove it.” Many people who have been elevated throughout history from victim to hero were used in this symbolic way to represent their group. The murderers hated the group and used the victim as a symbol, and the admirers showed love for this victim, and rallied around in order to strengthen their identity and defy the murderers. For example, many of the Christian martyrs are remembered because of the way they were singled out.

While this myth is powerful in news and history, it is not an easy myth to apply in memoir. I believe one reason this is difficult to use in memoir is because to be elevated from victim to hero, your story must be told by others. If the news media declares that you have been singled out as a representative, then you can be elevated. It doesn’t work as well if you declare yourself a victim. On the contrary, you look like a complainer if you come forward and say “I’m a victim.” It loses its mythological power. In fact, “I’m a victim” can deflate a story, taking the energy out of it.

In scanning my experience with memoirs, I can think of one effective tale of a victim, Nien Chang’s “Life and Death in Shanghai.“ Her daughter was “arrested” or more accurately “disappeared” by the Red Guard during the infamous Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s. It’s a beautiful tale, carried not so much by tragedy of the daughter’s victimization but by the mom’s strength, and her struggle to hold up and maintain her poise despite persecution. The crime that Chang’s family was being persecuted for was their western education. As western readers, we can identify with their victimization. In the same manner as Lule’s mythical victim, the hatred that was being directed at that family was symbolically directed at us!

In most memoirs, even if the author has undergone horrific suffering, the energy that moves the reader is not the suffering but the courage required to cope with it. For example, in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, he never complains about being the victim of his father’s abandonment. On the contrary the whole book is a sort of celebration of survival. The reading public didn’t canonize McCourt for being a victim, but rather placed him on their shoulders for surviving.

For memoirists, the victim myth is a cautionary tale. Be careful about declaring yourself a victim. It probably won’t help your heroic image. Consider the dynamics of Tommie Smith’s memoir, a Silent Gesture. The reason I went to see Smith at a book signing this year, and bought his book, was because I wanted to understand the greatness of a man. He came from a poor black family in the segregated south, went on to set world records as a runner, won Olympic Gold in 1968. Then on live television in front of millions of people, he raised his fist in the Silent Gesture. In the tumultuous 60’s this was seen by blacks as courageous. From the media’s standpoint, it was defiant. Smith was blacklisted. He went on to teach and coach, but without the fanfare or success he deserved. See my previous post about Smith on this blog.

As a reader, and a student of history, I ought to be loving every minute of this memoir. But it doesn’t turn out to be a page turner. I think one problem with the telling of this powerful story is that he became entangled in the dark side of the myth making process. Instead of being adored by the media as a Gold Medalist, Smith was turned into an ingrate who abused his privileged position. No advertising contracts, television spots, or fancy coaching jobs resulted from his spectacular athletic achievement. He should have been singled out as a hero, but because of one wildly audacious act, from the glory of victory he slid away into anonymity, or perhaps more accurately like Nien Chang’s daughter, he “disappeared.”

His story is messier than the one Lule singled out in his section on the Victim. Smith was not a guy in a wheel chair, murdered outright. He was at the time, the fastest man alive, and then after he stepped off the podium, he was just a guy, trying to raise a family. It becomes a difficult story to tell. If you are stripped of your glory by the media, who then will tell the story of your courage and survival? It’s a fascinating question. Probably the only credible answer is in a memoir.

I recommend Smith’s memoir for anyone who wants to get inside his experience, whether you are curious about those events and the man behind them, want to learn more about memoirs, or are curious about the workings of the myths that drive our public stories. The book offers lessons for memoirists. How fame doesn’t guarantee success. How the public is fickle, and seems to have a mind of its own. And how myths of heroes and victims play out in Smith’s life.

As you read it, embrace what you like, and consider what you would do differently. From such an interesting life, he ought to be able to shape a compelling story that would again grab the attention of the world. He had the podium, and used it for a silent gesture. A memoir gives him a chance to tell it in words.

What approach would you use? Leave a comment here and let me know.

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