by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World
Banged Up Heart by Shirley Melis is a memoir about two strong-willed people whose relentless mutual attraction chips away at their individuality. When they discover that they are happier together than apart, their relationship is born. The memoir continues past consummation, into a marriage fueled by an unquenchable thirst to live life to its fullest.
From the beginning, John’s rare form of cancer hung over the marriage like a sword. Instead of slowing them down, the threat egged them on to passionately engage in culture, nature, friendships, and each other.
Both of them were on the cusp of retirement, anyway. So they seized this opportunity to cut short their successful careers and devote the rest of their lives to each other. Then time ran out. In a breathless chronology, the author leads us blow-by-devastating-blow through her husband’s medical setbacks.
Shirley Melis relies on the skills she honed during her career as a professional writer to pull readers into the details of their bliss together and then their frightening ordeal. She used scenes supported by dialog and contemporaneous material (letters and journal entries) to cut away the distance between reader and writer and allows us to enter her world.
The couple’s care for each other turned John’s downward slide into another chapter in their passionate love story. While their doctors fought his disease with the full weight of medical science, Shirley and John threw their full weight into trust in the future. They were determined to defy mortality and make plans for the next adventure. The power of love transforms the ending of their story into a sort of crescendo.
To satisfy readers, the ending of a memoir must wrap up the entire story in a way that allows the reader a visceral reaction—goosebumps, say, or a smile—that inspires them to recommend it to a friend. Banged-Up Heart achieves those goals in a way that surprised me.
In just about every memoir about loss I can think of, death takes place early enough in the book to allow plenty of time for the author’s recovery. This bridge from death back to life is one of the great gifts that grieving authors give to the rest of us.
Examples are plentiful. Susan Weidener’s memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, is also about a marriage ended prematurely by cancer. Like Banged-Up Heart, Weidener’s memoir shares the entire life span of her relationship to her husband, from the romance, through building a life together, and having children. Then the ripping away of a too early death. Weidener’s memoir, however, goes on to the next stage in her journey, as she tries to rebuild her life.
Rebuilding is the entire focus of Kate Braestrup’s memoir, Here if You Need Me. We barely meet Braestrup’s husband, who was killed in a freak auto accident at the beginning of the book. The lion’s share of the story describes the author’s long journey back, raising her kids and growing as a person. In the end, she offers a lovely perspective on the nature of good and evil, providing readers with the gift of her own hard-earned wisdom.
Memoirs about the death of a child also guide us through death’s aftermath, as the authors strive to cope with their devastating loss. For examples, check out any of these moving memoirs: Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler, Leave the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples, Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent, Life Touches Life by Lorraine Ash, and Angel in my Pocket by Sukey Forbes.
Well-defined story arcs about loss and the subsequent grieving process have earned an important place in my taxonomy of memoir subgenres, because each one provides wisdom regarding this fundamental journey of the heart.
I assumed that Banged-up Heart would similarly explore the arduous climb back to sanity and acceptance. But as I approached the end of the memoir, John was still battling for his life, and both of them were still struggling to visualize their adventures after he recovered. During this period, Shirley was too focused on hope to spend time grieving. As the pages flew by, I began to wonder how she would have room to wrap up the story.
In my impatience, I felt there were many details that didn’t add momentum to the story. Yet I carried on, drawn forward by the compelling writing, and my empathetic connection with this terrifying situation.
Amid so many upheavals and disasters, I wanted to learn as much as possible about Melis’ thoughts. In every other grieving memoir I have read, the nuances of the author’s interior landscape were crucially important. For me, that is the payoff for reading a story about loss. I want to accompany the author on this noble search to reclaim a sense of meaning. But instead of emphasizing her inner landscape, the author focused mainly on what was happening around her.
During this run-up to the end, with John in his deathbed, Shirley beside herself with worry, and me juggling my own expectations about where this was going, the story took a surprising turn. The result dashed my expectations and broke out of the “grieving story arc.” And it did so in a most satisfying way. Like the final moments of the movie The Sixth Sense, which shifted the premise of the entire story, the ending of Banged-up Heart caused me to toss out the expected storyline of a grieving memoir.
Melis’ exquisite, loving description of placing John’s remains in his final resting place helped me understand exactly what she was trying to do and gave me a rush of recognition. “Oh, that’s what the memoir was about.”
By ending the book the way she did — not with feelings of loss, but with admiration and love for her husband — the intent of Melis’ book instantly flipped. This was not the journey of sorrow and recovery, which I had expected, but a book about courage, respect, mutual support, and how two loving people can create life in each other’s eyes.
Although the story structure was unconventional, in the end, the book met my expectations after all, by offering me the two great gifts I expect from all satisfying memoirs: first, the life and mind of the author, and second, deep insight into a universal aspect of human experience.
By letting me into her life she showed me the unique nuances of her situation. She met and fell in love with John while still trying to recover from the death of her first husband, complicating her approach to grief. John was an unusual character, full of complex ideas and extraordinary talents. Their relationship was only a couple of years old. These individual variations gave me a sense of being with a specific person, at a specific time.
These specific features of their love offered me a fresh perspective on the universal experience of loss. The emergence of universal insights out of the cauldron of individual experience is why I love memoirs so much.
Love is one of the great driving forces of human experience. Some even say that love is the primary force and that all other emotions derive from it. And yet in the memoir genre, love is usually neatly tucked behind the thoughts, dreams, and needs of the protagonist. Shirley Melis’ memoir Banged-up Heart brings love out of its supporting role and places it front and center, as the hero of her story.
Memoirs that represent other relevant subgenres
Memoirs that Review multiple relationships
These memoirs review the life of several relationships across the author’s lifespan. Instead of praising one relationship, they lead us on the protagonist’s attempt to make better sense of these crucial features of emotional life:
Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse by Kathy Pooler,
Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers his Marriages by Boyd Lemon
Five Men Who Broke My Heart by Susan Shapiro
Memoirs devoted to loving one other person
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell — Love and loss of a friend.
100 Names for Love by Diane Ackerman — Her tribute to her husband mixed with the caregiving and cognitive rehabilitation after his stroke.
Shirley Melis’ Home Page
For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.