In Memoirs, Changing Thoughts Reveal the Wisdom of a Lifetime

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

This is the third part of my essay about Dawn Novotny’s memoir, “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.” Click here to read part one

Dawn Novotny’s memoir “Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe” satisfies the requirement for any good story. The end relieves the tension set in motion at the beginning. This central tension is summarized in the book’s title. As a child, Novotny was a “ragdoll” who had been used and abused. By the end of the book, she was redeemed by a life well-lived.

Wisdom requires thoughtful understanding

As a child, Novotny suffers at the hands of adults, who neglect and mistreat her. When she is old enough she begins to make mistakes of her own. By her second marriage, she becomes convinced she is worthless. Finally, so empty she has nothing left to lose, she begins to look for wisdom.

One of her important steps in that direction is her participation in the seventies self-development movement. I’m fascinated by that time when a vast number of people attempted to peer into the workings of their minds and search for new perspectives that could help them escape self-destructive patterns. She experienced one of the most famous elements of that movement, the long weekends called “est” (Erhard Seminar Training). Her stories of how those seminars help her grow give me a glimpse not only into her development, but also into the cultural shift of the times.

Out of those explorations, Novotny shares two of the best life-changing ah-has! I have read in a memoir. First she describes the moment she realizes she is responsible for her own actions and their results. She repeats the phrase “cause and effect” to herself over and over as if it’s the first time it occurred to her that her decisions affect the quality of her life. The realization changed her forever.

Second, she shares an equally important realization that she is caught in an infinite loop. As a young woman she becomes convinced that men objectify her. She hates them for that, until she realizes with a shock that by rigidly assuming all men have this attitude, she is unconsciously objectifying them. Once she realizes her part in the vicious circle, she shifts to directly perceive of individuals, rather than her objectified fantasy of them. The realization marks another crucial transition.

Typically, publishable stories are supposed to focus on external events. By describing what happens in the room, our stories are supposed to let the reader see what happens inside the character. But too extreme an emphasis on external action could hobble our ability to tell our most powerful stories.

The field of Existential Psychology reveals the enormous power our beliefs have over our sense of emotional well being. And so, the changes and impact of core beliefs can be an important, even central element of an authentic life story. I believe the memoir revolution has expanded our collective appreciation for the psychological dimension of storytelling. Because memoirs are seen through the eyes of the protagonist, the mental “action” becomes as knowable as the physical. By developing the dramatic tension within the protagonist’s mind, we begin to see each other more authentically, and learn about the rich developments of our inner journey.

I remember the first time I became aware of the importance of a changing belief in a memoir. It was in “Colored People” by Henry Louis Gates. The young boy, who grew up  in a small town in Jim Crow south, had to be rushed to a hospital in a nearby city where a kind hospital chaplain befriended him. They were playing chess when the elder man told the boy that there were larger ideas than the ones he learned in his small town. The revelation lifted the lid off of his restricted way of looking at the world and changed his life, providing a stepping stone. Gates is now a professor at Harvard University. Another life redeemed by ideas.

Writing Prompt
What shift in your beliefs changed your decisions or feelings. If you remember where you were when such a shift occurred, write the scene.

Dawn Novotny, RagDoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe

Dawn Novotny’s blog and home page

Click here to for the surprisingly readable textbook on Existential Psychotherapy by famous psychotherapy author Irvin Yalom

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

5 thoughts on “In Memoirs, Changing Thoughts Reveal the Wisdom of a Lifetime

  1. Pingback: If this memoir author is famous, maybe you are too | Memory Writers Network

  2. Thank you, Jerry, for this eloquent and meaningful article on memoir writing. I’ve just completed my memoir, and I struggled with how much internal musing to include, but I so agree with you that writing about the inner transformation is equally important to the expression of the outer journey. it often uplifts and informs the reader. I’m a big fan of inner journeys and adore the underpinnings they bring to the overall story, so, again, I thank you!

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