Lessons from Kephart: Labels, Definitions, Language

by Jerry Waxler

When Beth Kephart’s son was diagnosed with a vague “disorder” she had to cope with the news. But how do you make sense of information that affects people you love when it is so technical you can barely understand it? You must sort out more than jargon. This is your son, and you must take into account the leanings of your heart. Later, returning to the scene as a memoir writer, you must search for words that will convey these emotional, and sometimes even philosophical struggles. To help you sort out your own story, consider the way Beth Kephart tells hers.

Technical Definition Informs the Story

After many exams and interviews, Jeremy received his diagnosis. He had “Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. (PDDNOS)” Such an obscure, clinical sounding term might seem out of place in a memoir about a child. But Kephart includes it, and even quotes the exact definition in the psychiatric manual, DSM III.

This critical technical diagnosis is so important in the lives of Beth and Jeremy Kephart that the book could have been subtitled, “My son’s PDDNOS, and what I did about it.” I’m glad she didn’t shy away from this technical detail. Now I know one more piece of her puzzle, and if I meet a child afflicted with this condition, I’m better informed.

Writing Prompt
Perhaps at first glance, the technical details of your situation might seem obscure and unimportant to anyone but you. But sometimes, these nonfiction tidbits can be valuable additions that help readers understand you and your world. Perhaps you garden and you worry about the chemical makeup of the soil, or you are a birdwatcher and you had an interaction with a wonderful creature. If it was important to you, it could be important to us. Consider sharing the technical name or description.

Philosophy of everyday life: “I will not confuse my son with a label.”

Sometimes a diagnosis helps you find a treatment. If you know you have appendicitis, you can switch from antacids to surgery. But sometimes a diagnosis confines you in a prison without a door. This is why Beth Kephart rails against the diagnosis “PDDNOS” being applied to her son. She refuses to be limited by this strange-sounding label.

“All those labels? Which one is the one? Which one fits? I turn and look at Jeremy and his radiant beauty, try to side with one or the other of the decrees. All I see is his giftedness, his otherworldly qualities, how even in the fit of a dream, he’s reached for me, grabbed my finger with his hand. I see his black hair and his feathered eyelids and I am reminded about acts of mercy, how God sent him, this saintly creature, into the clutter of my home. As if I deserved anything nearly this gorgeous. As if I would know what to do when he arrived.”

In a sense this is the core of her entire memoir. She strives at every step to see him as a unique, elaborate being, not a simple category. Throughout the book she seems to be making the case that love transcends labels, that when you love someone you see their individuality.

Weirdly, this exact point is what makes memoirs so powerful. Memoirs go deep inside the individual uniqueness of their author’s life. Every memoir is the author’s attempt to transcend labels, and to elaborate on the scope of an entire, complex, unique human being.

Writing Prompt
What label has cornered you, or someone you love? Show a scene in which the label hurt you, and show how you fought against that limitation.

In the next post, I will offer the last of my list of 20 lessons based on “Slant of Sun.”

Visit Beth Kephart’s Blog
Amazon page for “A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage” by Beth Kephart

Here are links to all the parts of my multi-part review of “Slant of Sun” by Beth Kephart and an interview with the author:

Use this memoir as a study guide: lessons 1 to 3

Lessons 4-5 from Beth Kephart’s Memoir, Slant of Sun

Four More Writing Lessons from Reading a Memoir

Memoir Lessons: Mysteries of emerging consciousness

Memoir Lessons: Moms, Quirks, Choices

Lessons from Kephart: Labels, Definitions, Language

Memoir Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond

Interview with Beth Kephart

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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