Writing Your Messy Teen Memories Could Save the World

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

This article continues the series inspired by Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness about raising her daughter through a maddening cycle of rebellion. For the first article in the series, click here

When a baby is born, the network of mommies buzzes with information about how to solve problems and raise healthy kids. A decade and a half later, when the kids are teenagers, problems become more complex, and the mommy network grows silent. As a result, parents often feel they are facing the troubled teen years alone.

Fortunately, an untapped source of information about these years hides within reach. All of us experienced the challenges of being teenagers. We had to navigate hormonal changes, on our journey from dependence to self-reliance.

During that period we tested rules, stumbled into the vortex of sex, rode in cars driven by drunks, or engaged in other risky behavior during the high-wire walk between childhood and adulthood.

As adults, we’re so grateful to be past those times, we try to forget them, or make light of them, telling them at parties to provoke a laugh. Our parents were probably not laughing though, and most of us hope our worst experiments will remain buried. Our silence seems harmless enough. We can’t undo the past. But without conversations, we also can’t bring our adult awareness to those mistakes, nor can we reap their wisdom.

The Memoir Revolution offers a way to pull those memories out of storage. By writing about the embarrassing or illegal events in our own lives, we transform them from secrets and jokes into lessons, cautionary tales, and a clearer vision of the journey from child to adult.

An excellent example of a story about raising a troubled child is Rachel Pruchno’s memoir, Surrounded by Madness. Like other parents, when her daughter acted out, Mom maintained the family’s privacy, protecting them from judgment and embarrassment. Now that those years are past, she is taking advantage of the Memoir Revolution to break that silence.

Her book is much more than the story of one couple trying to hold back the chaos that was enveloping their daughter. It is also the courageous attempt to share that situation with others. By sharing what ordinarily would be a very private story, Pruchno is challenging us to develop wisdom about the teen years.

Rachel Pruchno’s experience was an extreme example of a passion play repeated in varying degrees in millions of homes. Her suffering was not unique, but her willingness to talk about it is groundbreaking. Surrounded by Madness provides a model that could elevate our whole culture’s attitude toward the teen years. If we share these private stories, we can support each other through this difficult transition. By courageously sharing her story, Pruchno is inviting the mommy network to include support for the full fury of adolescent rebellion.

Getting in touch with the craziness of adolescence
Rachel Pruchno’s daughter kept crossing lines, but instead of reeling herself back to normal behavior, she defended her bad choices with lies and manipulation. Pruchno’s daughter used her intelligence, not to learn how to become an adult, but to thwart adult guidance. Inside her delusional bubble she believed she knew what was best for herself and traveled further and further down a course of self destruction.

Despite the dire implications of her behavior, her attitude bears a striking resemblance to ordinary adolescent rebellion. I recall entering my own delusional bubble between the ages of 18 to 24. During that period, I sneered at the rules created by shallow, hollow adults and insisted on racing toward chaos.

After I grew up, I wanted to pretend those years were a bad dream. Even during years of talk therapy, I managed to avoid the whole period. Only after I began to write a memoir did I explore the sequence of events. At first, my foolishness horrified me. Gradually, I allowed myself to gather the memories and craft them into stories.

The Memoir Revolution is causing many of us to reclaim memories that had been hidden behind a curtain of shame and forgetfulness. By developing and sharing stories, we can help new generations. Our memoirs might possibly help the kids themselves. And they will certainly help the parents, by providing social support and a broader foundation for communication.

Rachel Pruchno’s story offers a sobering illustration of how the transition from child to adult brings us dangerously close to the limits of sanity. Surrounded by Madness raises the intriguing possibility that no matter where you fell on the spectrum, the desire to grow up was simply human, and the not-yet-competent experiments were part of the process.

Writing Prompt
When you were growing up, what rules or laws did you break? Did you ever steal, vandalize, drive drunk, speed, cheat, have sex that didn’t align with your own ethical beliefs? Write a scene showing your internal debate to do drugs or not, to go to a party instead of study, to lie to parents and authorities.

Instead of laughing these memories off or suppressing them, write them as authentic scenes. Try to capture the delusion that you knew what you were doing, and the internal debate in which there was a glimmer of awareness that this wasn’t quite right.

In your scenes, watch yourself flaunt parents and institutions. When consequences occurred, did you place the blame on everyone but yourself? What happened next? When did you start to effectively challenge your own impulses and pull yourself back over the line? A well-crafted story about your poor judgment, the resulting consequences, and the lessons you eventually learned could make fascinating reading.

Even if you never show these scenes to anyone, you can benefit from seeing them on paper. By turning them into scenes and stories, you will understand how they fit into the context of your life. The exercise could give you more compassion for your own younger self, and provide a kinder, more patient view of young people who must go through the process now.

To take an incredible leap forward on this project of self-acceptance, join a compassionate group of memoir writers and share your awkward scene. You will probably be surprised, as I was, when your listeners nod in understanding and praise you for being willing to share.

Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Who protects the children? Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

by Jerry Waxler

When parents and extended family are unable to take care of a child, “society” is supposed to pick up the burden. I hope that happens, but I didn’t know the details until I read Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s beautifully written memoir, “Three Little Words.” Ashley is qualified to speak authoritatively about the fate of kids without caregivers because she was in the system from the time she was 2-years-old until she was 12. Shuffled from home to home, she was subjected to a variety of parenting skills, some compassionate, others incompetent, while some were outright mean.

Click here for Ashley’s Home Page
Click here for the Amazon page for her book Three Little Words

After running out of in-home placements, she reached the end of the road, an orphanage, where families came by to shop for an adopted child. She found herself literally auditioning for prospective parents. When she was finally adopted at the age of 12, it was such a relief, my eyes leaked for a whole chapter. But the journey was not over yet.

Opposite of tough-love
When Gay and Phil Courter adopted Ashley, they didn’t see her as a reject. They saw her as their daughter. However, to become part of their family, she had to make significant inner changes, and it wasn’t easy. After years of being arbitrarily moved, punished, and robbed by adults, it seems healthy that she would turn defiant, relying on her own willfulness rather than trusting their love.

For example, Ashley was raised on cheap foods like macaroni and cheese so her new family’s sushi and sprouts seemed too weird. She refused to eat what they served. What started as a food preference escalated to a battle of wills, and Ashley assumed the Courters were going to “send her back.” Instead, Gay Courter found a loving way to steer through it, bending her own will to accommodate Ashley.

Gay and Phil told her, over and over, “We love you no matter what.” The unconditional love these two people showered on their daughter, despite her rebellion take parental forgiveness to new levels, enough to drive a tough-love advocate to the nearest therapist. Apparently forgiving worked. Ashley vowed to do better next time, and lo and behold, she did.

The transition from rebellious kid to loving daughter makes the memoir “Three Little Words” not just about the foster system. By revealing her own thoughts and emotions, Ashley has created one of the most psychologically insightful, frank, and revealing Coming of Age stories I have read.

Insight into a child’s mind
Memoirs take the reader deep into the mystery of another person’s mind. For example, Temple Grandin’s breakthrough book, “Thinking in Pictures” provided an inside view of growing up with autism and John Robison’s memoir “Look me in the eye” shows what it was like to have Asperger’s. Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s book provides a similar service, taking us not just into her circumstances but into her mind, where she reveals rebellion and fear, outrage and hope.

Ashley isn’t just any foster kid. She is a unique person with an interesting twist. Despite her frequent changes in schools, and inconsistent parental guidance, she is placed in classrooms for gifted students, writes prize-winning essays, and performs in school plays. Now she is an author and public speaker with a remarkable list of credits, including keynote speeches at large conferences.

How can a child be surrounded by poverty and rise to remarkable success? It’s a puzzle that I find delicious, with every example leading to a counterexample, always implying some underlying truth without ever promising a satisfying answer. Consider Oprah Winfrey’s journey from a dirt poor background, or the four boys who grew up in the gang-infested streets of New Jersey, became doctors and wrote a memoir called “The Pact.” Ashley’s chaotic childhood in the foster care system adds another example of this mysterious transformation.

Secrets – what happens behind these walls
We all grow up with an insider’s view of our particular household, and whether we are conscious of it or not, our own house is unique. We generally don’t appreciate that uniqueness though because we are so immersed in it. The very things we don’t like to talk about as children, later turn out  to add an enormous amount of interesting color.

I’ve rarely described the Jewish traditions we followed in my home. Because bread products were not allowed during Passover, we performed a prayer ritual to cleanse the bread crumbs from the house and switch to a special set of dishes. During Yom Kippur each year, there was always the nervous energy of feeling hungry during the 24 hour fast. Cheating created a weird mix of bodily relief and ethical guilt.

As long as they remain hidden, such details make us feel slightly separate from other people. Once we share them, they become an opportunity for others to get to know us. Popular storytellers have created entire careers out of turning ordinary childhood into compelling tales. When I was a child, trying to fall asleep, my brother who was seven years older came into our bedroom and tuned the radio in to a talk show on WOR. I lay in bed laughing, as radio personality Jean Shepherd made life seem so interesting by simply sharing the experiences of childhood.

Other secrets are dark and sinister. Take Ashley’s experiences in one particularly harsh foster home. As punishment she was starved, forced to stoop in an awkward position, and her brother was forced to eat Tabasco sauce. When she tried to tell adults about her treatment, they accused her of lying, and she got into even worse trouble. She learned the hard way to stay silent about what happens inside her home. Later, by writing about it in her memoir, she finally relieves the pressure of isolation.

Writing Prompt
What sort of family behaviors did you naturally hide from your friends?  As you organize thoughts about your own life, what special insights into religion, family relationships, mental conditions, parts of the world, types of families, can you bring into the open by writing about them?

Writing Prompt
Sometimes the private, unique parts of your life aren’t secret events but characters at home are different than the ones you expect to see or talk about out in the world. A cousin had a psychotic break, for example, or disfiguring acne, or grandmom lived at home and never got out of bed. If you can describe the people you grew up around, you will bridge the gap between your private memories and your public memoir. List a few quirky characteristics about the people in your family that might add vivid detail to your childhood or the period you want to write about.

Memoir is a calling card for advocacy
“Three Little Words” has become Ashley’s calling card, supporting her authority as a nationally recognized speaker about the foster care system. She even provides a valuable resource to legislators and other public policy makers, who look to her for information about the theory of foster care as well as the actual practice.

By publishing her memoir, Ashley brought her audience another turn around the cultural spiral, offering them the opportunity to learn from her experience. When writing your own memoir, see what you can learn from Ashley. What sort of message could you share that would provide greater connection with your audience, offering them your hard earned wisdom in return for their empathy. What can your readers learn by walking arm in arm with you through the pages of your life?

Here are some of the memoirs that contribute to advocacy or deliver a message:

Jim McGarrah “A Temporary Sort of Peace” — Combat vets and PTSD
Doreen Orion, “I know you really love me” — Stalking
Brooke Shields, “Down came the rain” — Postpartum Depression
A.M. Homes, “Mistress’s Daughter” — Genealogy, adoption, family roots
Greg Mortenson, “Three Cups of Tea” — international understanding, world peace
Carol O’Dell, “Mothering Mother” — Caregiving, Alzheimer’s
Dee Dee Phelps, “Vinyl Highway” — 60’s nostalgia
David Sheff, “Beautiful Boy” — Addiction
Jon Robison, Look me in the eye — Asperger’s
Jamie Blyth and Jenna Glatzer, “Fear is no longer my enemy” — social anxiety

Writing Prompt
If you have a topic or area that you want to publicize, whether abuse, or special insider information of any kind, writing a book about your experience is an excellent way to build a connection to your audience. What group might be interested in your story?

Note: Excerpt from an interview with Ashley

I spent 10 years in the foster care system. I had 14 different placements before being adopted at the age of 12. Many of them were very abusive, and later we found out that 25 percent of my foster parents became convicted felons.

The National CASA, which are court appointed special advocates, or guardian ad litems in some states, asked me to speak at their national conference when I was 14. So that was my first big kind of motivational speech. Since then I’ve spoken personally to over 15,000 people and shared my story with them.

Note: Tough versus Unconditional Love
There are many conflicting notions of how and when to discipline kids. For example, once drugs and alcohol enter the picture, most experts agree that hard consequences seem to be the only valid course. However, even in that extreme case, tough love doesn’t provide perfect answers. Ashley’s experience with her adopted family might not apply to everyone, but it offers one experience worth considering in the mix of this complex debate.

For another, more complex example of this painful dilemma between tough and unconditional love, see David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy, about a father’s journey through his son’s addiction.

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