by Jerry Waxler
Linda Joy Myers’ mother wanted to have fun, so she abandoned her little girl and moved from the Great Plains to the big city of Chicago. Linda Joy was raised by her grandmother, an erratic woman given to harsh rules enforced by rage. Linda Joy grew up with a heavy load of disheartening memories.
After years of therapy, trying to sort out her feelings about her self-involved and mentally abusive caregivers, she began to write it all down. That first attempt turned out to be the beginning of a long journey. She tried again and again, and with each iteration, her story became more readable and less toxic than the one before. It took fifteen years from her first attempt to the publication of her memoir, “Don’t Call Me Mother.”
This book demonstrates the power of persistence. By crafting the story until she got it right, Linda Joy Myers discovered amidst the wreckage of that little girl’s childhood an intact human being, complete with courage, confidence, and dreams. Storytelling transformed her heartbreaking childhood into one stage in a much longer saga. Her suffering and then her healing provide both a tragedy and an inspiration about the wisdom a human can achieve in one life time.
In the preface of “Don’t Call Me Mother” she says, “Wrestling with words and images, putting myself into the story as a character, in the first person, present tense, forced me to integrate the self that I was with the witness I have become. This memoir has given me a profound sense of completion with the past, and a wonderful freedom. As I healed through the writing of this book, it too has evolved into a love song… The women who had once been my curses — my eccentric, wild, emotion-wracked mother and grandmother-became my teachers.”
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I joined the author on her healing journey
Even if she had not told me that writing the book helped her heal, I can feel it for myself. I join this little girl, cringing with her during Grandma’s rages, and feeling relieved when they go on their annual trip to visit great grandmother, her mother’s mother’s mother, the most stable figure in Linda Joy’s childhood. Looking for sighs of relief, of beauty and pride, I pour my heart into each moment of pleasure – her passion for cello playing; the encouragement of her music teacher; her first boy friend, a fellow musician; the wheat fields, like golden oceans, that offer a sense of unlimited space.
As she begins to plan for college I lean forward into the future with her, straining towards escape from her stifling childhood, and longing for the day when she will be old enough and balanced enough to write the book I hold in my hands. Imagining that day converts horror to hope, knowing that the little girl grew up to write this story.
Breaking the code of silence
In addition to rejection by her mother and erratic and often abusive behavior of her grandmother, Linda Joy also fended off inappropriate sexual advances from her father during his annual visit. The people who gave her life used their power to confuse and undermine her. And like most abused kids, she learned the code of silence.
I have heard many people in memoir workshops struggle with such memories, explaining, “I wouldn’t want to talk about my family in that way. It would be disrespectful.” Their reticence followed them into adulthood and continues to foster their shame.
Linda Joy’s mastery over her secrets, provides an inspiring example for any writer who longs to create a whole story from disturbing raw material. Such a journey towards openness takes you across treacherous internal terrain, overcoming the fears and confusion that have always protected these secrets. Then, you face additional challenges from people who don’t want to hear about child abuse. “Who wants to know things like that?” “That can’t be true.” “You’re exaggerating.” “You’re making excuses.” Only gradually do the walls of shame and secrecy break down. Through experimentation, the stories make sense, expose wounds, let in light, and integrate the past in one continuous whole that brings you to a healthier present and increases your enthusiasm for the future.
The reader and writer look for common ground
When you pick up a book, any book, you naturally ask yourself, “Why should I share my time and energy walking in this author’s shoes on this particular journey?” Of course, all readable books contain some crucial elements. They use polished prose, create dramatic tension, and then successfully resolve that tension. “Don’t Call Me Mother” succeeds in all these standard areas. In addition to generic qualities, each book has particular virtues. For me, the virtue of “Don’t Call Me Mother” is that through the magic of storytelling she brings her childhood to life, and then transforms it in front of my eyes. I share the story of her abuse, and then as she grows, I share the triumph of her eventual self-understanding.
The writer also asks questions. “How do I find and please my audience?” Another way to ask this question is “Who will want to read my book, and why?” The writer’s questions turn out to be mirrors of the ones asked by readers. When the writer’s answer matches the reader’s, two people who have never met are ready to spend hours in each other’s company.
Discovering why someone will read your story becomes part your quest as you try to open your life to the reading public. Describe the person who will read your book, and what questions or curiosities would your book address?
Another question, perhaps less obvious but just as important is, “Who will not want to read this book?” Since most of us would like to be loved by everyone, it might be hard to admit that not everyone is going to become a fan. By working out in advance who is not going to be one of your readers, you can focus more on pleasing the people who like you and letting the others read some other book.
Out of triumph, the desire to help others
In addition to helping herself, Linda Joy’s passion for finding the story of her own life has evolved into a passion to help others do the same. She offers individual counseling in the Berkeley area, teaches workshops, and has founded The National Association of Memoir Writers, an internet organization, that brings memoir writers together, and offers instruction and programs to help people take the journey of developing their own memoir.
For many years, Linda Joy dropped the “Joy” from her name, feeling it didn’t accurately reflect her character. Recently she has reintroduced it, choosing to allow the quality of happiness back into her name. While her memoir contains many deep and painful moments, her book reminds me of John Kennedy who said, “The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” According to this definition, Linda Joy’s life offers all of us cause for joyful celebration.