Memoirs as a journey from blindness to sight

By Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

David Sheff’s memoir “Beautiful Boy” oscillates between the uplifting joy of his son’s Coming of Age, and the tragedy of his son’s tragic fall into addiction to crystal meth. All the ugly stuff is there, how Nic lied, broke in and stole from his own parents and neighbors, slept in alleys and drug houses but refused help. And then there were the drug-free periods when this beautiful boy was back, a delightful human being, full of creative spirit and enormous promise.

Sheff, a professional journalist, recounted his son’s self-destructive journey, starting with the first suspicions. Then came the confrontations, the efforts to control his son’s behavior, and the gut wrenching worry. The horrible fact is that millions of parents ask themselves every day or even every hour, “Where is my child?” “Will this be the call from the police?” “What must I do to stop the downward slide?” “Should I pay for another round of rehab, or is that last relapse a sign that I must write this child out of my life?”

The book has all the elements of a compelling drama. There is the author’s loving second wife, and their two sweet younger children. There is the constant anxiety, and the play by play experience of watching the son grow up, and then fall apart. Sheff applies his journalism skills to report on the special hazards of methamphetamine addiction: the high rate of relapse after rehab; the irrational behavior of the addict when craving the drug or under its influence; the denial and lying. And then, the experience begins to take a toll on David Sheff himself.

It’s no secret that stress undermine health, and sure enough, the author’s extended periods of frantic worry almost kill him. About two thirds of the way through the book David has a life threatening brain hemorrhage. Until then, Nic’s father and step-mother had been going to Al-Anon meetings and hearing that they cannot change the addict. The addict himself is the only one who can do that. Al-Anon’s message is that the people around the addict need to figure out how to take care of themselves. But a parent’s job is to take care of a child. Right? So while hearing the Al-Anon messages they had not yet embraced them. Now, after the hemorrhage, they have no choice. At last, we remember this memoir is by the father, and now the story shifts inward to his own introspective journey.

Nic’s biological mother had played only a minor role through the course of the book. David rarely spoke to her, except to make arrangements to hand Nic back and forth between the two homes, one with dad in northern California during summer and the other with mom in southern California during the school year. When Nic started disappearing, they called each other to get information about where he might be.

Three pages from the end of the book, Nic’s biological parents have their first therapy session together. It turns out that they went through a bitter divorce when Nic was little more than a toddler. I try to understand what it felt like to be Nic, raised by parents who resented each other and who lived hundreds of miles apart.

I don’t know whether to laugh in relief or cry in rage that it has taken this much anguish to force these two people into a therapy session with their son. I, as do most therapists, believe that all the members of a family influence each other. With his two parents split apart, I picture Nic split apart inside himself, too. It must have taken a superhuman effort to hold these warring parts of himself together.

For most of the book, I was sucked into the premise that it was all about Nic. When will he come back? Will he completely resolve the addiction? But that’s the son’s journey. I finally realize this is David Sheff’s’ memoir. I want to understand more about his inner world. Will he awaken psychologically and spiritually, so he can offer his love to his two younger children and his wife, and stay centered, healthy, and supportive himself? David Sheff’s inner journey begins close to the end of the book and runs out of room. After finishing Beautiful Boy, I could see that dad was just getting started.

I felt a little cheated that it took the author so long to start looking within himself. Then I look at my pile of memoirs and realize that most of the authors continue through the darkness for a really long time. Dani Shapiro in “Slow Motion” took forever to realize she was destroying herself. Jeanette Walls in “Glass Castle” took forever to grow up and get away from the clutches of her weird parents. Frank McCourt had to grow up and get away from his destructive father in “Angela’s Ashes.” Jim McGarrah had to fight in a war, and then go home to figure out how to heal in “A Temporary Sort of Peace.” William Manchester in his World War II battle memoir “Goodbye Darkness” first had to show us his demons, before finally coming to terms with them in the final chapters.

Despite the fact that David Sheff’s knowledge of himself remained hidden for so long, it did finally force itself to the surface. This long climb, known as the Character Arc, creates hope, letting me know that through the circumstances of life, the character is becoming a better, smarter, deeper person. This journey the author has taken through the course of his memoir fulfills my faith in the human experience – that if we keep hacking at it we will end up smarter by the time we die than when we started. This faith is one of the unspoken agreements we have with the authors of our books. We conspire together to promote this lovely truth about life, that in living we learn and grow, or as stated more poetically in the lyrics of Amazing Grace, “I once was blind but now I see.”

Writing Prompt – Character Arc
As you look for a structure for your life story, your job is to find a meaningful segment or point of view that will provide the reader with a compelling experience. One way to look for this segment or point of view is to find the lessons contained within it. Of course, your end result does not need to beat the reader over the head with such a lesson but if you can find this Character Arc, and hold it in mind, it can help develop a compelling time frame and structure for your memoir. Name the life lessons you think you have drawn from your experiences. For each one, brainstorm how it might fit as a template for your memoir.

Writing Prompt – Drugs and alcohol
While the horrific downward slide of David Sheff’s son is hopefully a minority experience, millions of people are affected by substances. Often the abuser creates a wall of denial, convincing him or her self that they can handle it and it doesn’t affect anyone else. Write an anecdote about how you or people in your life have been affected by substances. If you have a romantic notion of your own use when you were younger, write the experience from your parents’ or partner’s eyes. If you were deeply affected by someone else’s abuse, write a story seeing what that experience might have looked like from their eyes.

Note

David Sheff’s son Nic also wrote a memoir, called “Tweak” about his experience as an addict. I am just getting started on it. “Tweaked” is the slang term that describes the frantic mental state of a methamphetamine high. From what I have read so far, the book is quite explicit and should be eye opening about the other side of the drama.

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What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Dani Shapiro’s memoir “Slow Motion” is a study in desire. When she enters Sarah Lawrence, one of the top liberal arts schools in the U.S., she is young, beautiful, and rich. Then, a man 20 years older swoops into her life, picks her up in his limousine and showers her with flowers. At first she is disgusted. Then she gives in, and starts taking more and more of his gifts. The problem is he’s the step-dad of her best friend, he’s married, and he’s a liar. Every time he pulls another creepy stunt, I want to scream, “Run!”

I’ve heard plenty of real-life stories of people’s lives being destroyed by love affairs and addiction. Now this book puts me inside the head of someone choosing a self-destructive track, and I find her desires almost incomprehensible. How can a person want something that is going to hurt them? This book gives me a chance to peer into one such person’s path. If I can understand how desire works for Dani Shapiro, I hope to learn more about desire in other memoirs, and in my own life.

For more insight, I turn to one of the great explainers of human nature, the psychologist Abraham Maslow. In the 1940’s, Maslow wanted to push psychology beyond illness, so he studied highly motivated, challenged, and satisfied people. Based on his research, he developed an explanation known as Maslow’s Hierarchy. This famous model says that people satisfy basic needs first and then move up to more sublime ones. I tried to apply the hierarchy to Dani Shapiro’s memoir.

Dani Shapiro on food and drink.
At the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy are the biological needs. You would think hunger and thirst would be the first things that a person with money would satisfy. But when you look closer, you see how Dani distorts these needs. She accompanies her lover to the finest restaurants, orders any food she wants, and then either doesn’t eat it, or eats it and goes to the bathroom to throw it up. She is starving.

Similarly Shapiro’s relationship with drink is far more complex than simply satisfying a biological need. In one restaurant, Lenny, her lover, is disappointed that they don’t stock vintage wine from 1959, so he reluctantly settles for 1961. As he raises his glass, he says to Dani, “This wine is older than you are.” He is using drink as a tool of power and sexuality. As she becomes more dependent on alcohol, she drinks to fog her mind. Over and over, her biological needs are distorted by power and self-destruction.

Dani Shapiro on safety.
After the biological needs are met, Maslow says we try to achieve safety. Dani perverts this need, too. Even though she doesn’t see it, the reader can see that she is consciously moving out of safety and into danger.

Dani Shapiro on social needs.
The next rung up the ladder are social needs, such as friendship, intimacy, and family. Dani’s family, many of them highly successful, ought to be a major source of support. Except for the fact that they hate each other so venomously they had no room in their hearts for Dani. When she seeks satisfaction from her lover, he drains her like a vampire, sucking so much of her energy she doesn’t even have friends. What’s a reader to do? I want her to get this guy out of her life. And yet if she removes him, she might fall for another shallow, powerful man. To satisfy me, she must gain a clearer understanding of her own social needs.

During high school, instead of pursuing drama or writing, her extra-curricular activity is cheer leading. During college she models, seeking to be paid for her beauty. Her goal is to maximize the amount of praise and power she can earn from her looks. From this point of view, her affair with Lenny seems ideal. He shower her with wealth, his perfect trophy mistress. Unfortunately, Dani’s approach to social needs keeps her trapped in the bottom three rungs.

Dani Shapiro on esteem and actualization.
According to Maslow, once the basics are taken care of, people look for esteem, from others as well as from themselves. At the pinnacle are expressions of creativity, excellence, service, and sacrifice. I want Dani to reach the top two rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy, where life starts getting really interesting. These goals turn out to be Dani Shapiro’s saving grace.

When she first enters Sarah Lawrence as a young woman right out of high school, her path seems assured. Then she drops out, throwing away an opportunity. After much suffering, she stops her downward spiral, by rejecting her parasitic lover and overcoming her substance addictions. Ready to reclaim her life, she makes a call to the dean at Sarah Lawrence. “I want to come back.”

In the end, this desire for creative expression sets her back on track. She finds her strength, enters a community of supportive students and teachers, and moves towards safety, social rewards, and esteem. Her memoir provides a beautiful example that despite the many twists and turns of life the desire to create a story leads towards the triumph of the human spirit.

Writing Prompts:
Look for an experience that will help you understand each of Maslow’s five levels in your life. As you look at these needs in your life, look for anecdotes that will illustrate them:

Did you ever starve, or ever look at food as the enemy?

Did you ever feel undermined by your lack of safety, or so safe you felt compelled to find adventure?

Did you ever feel so lonely you reached out to people you would typically avoid, or so glutted with people you wanted to escape?

List some of the ways you have searched for esteem. Write a paragraph or story about how each one succeeded or failed.

What was the most sublime goal you ever reached for? What is the most sublime goal you are reaching for now?

For further work along these lines, look for the intertwining of desires. For example, Dani wanted love, so she starved herself to look thin. She wanted esteem, so she reached towards a guy who treated her like dirt. A high school grad who wants esteem might sign up for the military, putting himself in harm’s way in order to achieve a higher goal. After college, to “find myself” I pushed away from my family, diminishing my social network.

Notes:
Here’s a Wikipedia article about Maslow’s Hierarchy if you would like to know more.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs

Here is a well maintained commercial site which explains Abraham Maslow’s ideas in order to promote management and organizational strategies.
http://www.abraham-maslow.com/m_motivation/Hierarchy_of_Needs.asp

More memoir writing resources

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