Riddle of the Sphinx – Stand Straight for Dignity

by Jerry Waxler

My brother had a curved spine with the fancy name “scoliosis.” So I knew that Linda Wisniewski’s memoir, “Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage” would have something to do with posture. However, after reading it I wondered if posture played a central enough role in the story to warrant a position in the title. It’s true that when she was diagnosed with this problem, it made her feel like she had a defect, like there was something diminished in her character. Was that enough?

I kept thinking about Linda’s posture, and how it might have affected her life, and soon noticed that my first impression of people was influenced by how straight they stood. This observation provided an insight into something I might have known earlier if I had thought about it, but I didn’t. These signals we send and receive are nonverbal, without words. And therefore, we may find ourselves affected by such things, without necessarily thinking them through. It was only by reading the memoir that I began to wonder what such an experience might feel like.

After thinking about it, it was easy to see for myself that the charisma of a person can be affected by their posture, but what about their self-image? Recently I came across a fascinating observation from an analysis of the ancient drama “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles. In a lecture series “Understanding Literature and Life” Professor Arnold Weinstein recites the famous riddle of the Sphinx. “What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?” The answer is “humans.” Professor Weinstein points out that the riddle is not about legs. It’s about posture. As children, we crawl. To join the world of adults, we stand up. As we grow old, we stoop, using the cane to remain as upright as possible. Humans equate dignity with an upright spine, and when standing up is hard, we try harder.

Another suggestion about posture came from Martin Luther King’s autobiography, which was posthumously crafted from his notes and speeches by Clayborne Carson. King exhorted people to maintain their dignity despite the crushing weight of prejudice and Jim Crow laws. He said, “No one can ride on your back if you stand up straight.”

Throughout the memoir “Off Kilter,” Linda Wisniewski does press forward to find her dignity in the midst of the many social and psychological issues facing women in the twentieth century. And so, while she does not quote Martin Luther King or Sophocles, her tale is definitely about the struggle to achieve dignity, providing personal echoes of this universal principle.

Memoir itself is a triumph of the human spirit

By showing how her curved spine affected her, she helped me think more deeply about this aspect of life. She helped me understand my brother’s condition. Even at his full six feet five, he was, in a sense, unable to stand up straight, and found his dignity in other ways, through serving and healing people. She helped me understand the struggles of the women of the twentieth century, who strived to find their dignity despite old roles that encouraged them to be submissive. And she helped me realize the importance of posture as a general symbol for human dignity.

While nothing could straighten out the curvature of her spine, Linda’s effort has elevated her stature in a different way. She shared a story, and that act creates a dignified connection between us that transcends the shape of her spine. By teasing, tweaking, and perfecting the narrative of her life journey, she has become a woman who stands tall despite the forces of age, culture, and gravity.

Story behind the book

The history behind Linda’s title might reveal something of its sweeping implications. Before she wrote the book, she wrote an essay about her scoliosis that attracted the attention of author Maureen Murdock who praised Linda’s story and encouraged her to extend it. Since Maureen Murdock is famous for her interest in symbolism, perhaps her guidance contributed to the deeper meaning conveyed in Linda Wisniewski’s memoir.


For more about Linda Wisniewski, her memoir and for buying options, visit her home page.

I recommend the audio version of a book about Martin Luther King’s life, “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Martin Luther King, Clayborne Carson assembled from King’s letters, notes and speeches.  I listened to the version from audible.com which includes original recordings of many of his speeches.

To learn more about Maureen Murdock’s work, visit her home page.

Visit the Teaching Company for lectures about literature, philosophy, and other topics of value to memoir writers. For the lecture series mentioned in this essay see: “Understanding Literature and Life” by Professor Arnold Weinstein.

The powerful story of an ordinary woman

by Jerry Waxler

I first met Linda Wisniewski seven years ago at a critique group in Doylestown, PA. Within a few months she announced that one of her essays was going to be broadcast on her local public radio station. I was impressed by her accomplishment, proud to know the author of one of these radio essays. She left the group, and later I heard from a friend that Linda was teaching a course in memoir writing at the Bucks County Community College. Recently, I saw her again, at the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania autographing copies of her memoir, “Off Kilter.” Thanks to her persistent passion for telling her story, I can read her book and ponder the gifts her life has now offered me.

The crisis that drives the book is the author’s relationship to her mother. As Mom slipped towards dementia, their relationship became strained. Mom struggled inconsistently, sometimes accepting her fate and other times bitterly afraid of going into a nursing home. During this disturbing reversal of roles, when a child must care for her parent, problems that have been buried for a lifetime bubble to the surface.

Naturally, Mom raised Linda to be a good girl. The problem was that Mom’s idea of a “good girl” was fashioned from an older world, when girls were supposed to stay invisible and do what they were told. Linda didn’t want to follow this training. She wanted to expand towards the freedom of an American woman in the Twentieth Century. These two opposing views of a woman’s role played out in a million homes, as daughters tried to find their identity in a world drastically different from the one their mothers were trying to teach. The resulting schisms were buried for decades under layers of politeness and other charades.

With Mom’s strength failing, and Linda thinking it was time for a nursing home, the stress reaches a crescendo, and Mom explodes, “You’ve made a mess of my life.” This attack jumped out at me. What a hurtful thing to say! I wondered what the “mess” was. My first interpretation was that Mom was looking for a handy target to blame for the downward slide of old age. Then I realized that Linda’s development as a proud, independent woman did create a mess. It messed up her mother’s goal of raising a submissive daughter.

Mom’s outburst makes me wonder what other hurtful things she said to her daughter through the years. Since Mom has been teaching her daughter the importance of being passive, it seems surprising that she would use such an aggressive outburst. And again, putting myself in Linda’s shoes, I saw another lesson embedded in Mom’s behavior. That is, if you want to manipulate another person, then cause them pain.

Psychology lessons from Off Kilter

When I was in graduate school, I took a course called “Assertiveness.” I had always assumed the assertiveness meant “pushy,” so I was surprised by how much insight the word contained. The professor explained it this way.

When you need something from another person, such as love, or privacy, you must communicate. Consider these two approaches. One option is to express your needs in words, using simple statements to help the other person understand what you are feeling. This style of communication called “assertiveness” leaves people feeling good about themselves and draws them closer to each other. The other option is to convey your displeasure by causing the other person pain, in effect punishing them for not giving you what you wanted. The pain causes the other person to pull away, resulting in isolation. Or else the hurt one fights back, creating a sickening embrace of attack and counter-attack.

Through the years since I took the class, I have often seen this dynamic play out in the behavior of individuals and nations, sometimes using aggression to cause pain, and other times using clear communication to reduce pain and enhance mutual understanding. But seldom have I seen it represented with more exquisite insight than in Linda Wisniewski’s tale of trying to help her mother.

I am not my mother

When Mom lashes out, it would be tempting for Linda to draw on her childhood training and respond in the way her mother taught her. Her choices were limited. She could either become aggressive, like her mother, and lash back. Or she could remain quiet, becoming the victim. Of course, neither course is desirable. The high road was to break away and strive towards clear, patient communication. Linda beautifully portrays the power of these difficult choices, as she tries to respect and love her mother, while not “becoming” her mother.

Lifelong process in this adult Coming of Age story

Using flashbacks, Linda shows her journey from child to adult, striking upward like a climber on a hard scrabble mountain. During the climb she was too young and too caught up in the process of growing to be able to step back and understand her family dynamics. As a result, she entered adulthood with unresolved issues. Now, as Mom is growing old, they struggle for warmth amidst their interpersonal tensions. At first, a cloud of doubt descends upon me, making me feel pessimistic about the possibility of love in such a situation.

As I ponder the memoir Off Kilter, I find another dimension that offers me uplifting hope and optimism. By writing her story, Linda has performed a remarkable service to herself and her readers. She has broken the code of silence, and exposed her family dynamics to the world, where we can all compare notes. In a sense, she has taken the high road of assertiveness, not only in her relationship to her mother, but more broadly, as a responsible neighbor and friend. This assertive book can help readers understand her, and by sharing her experience, she helps us understand ourselves.


“Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage”  by Linda Wisniewski
Linda Wisniewski’s Home Page
Amazon Link for Off Kilter
For another book about a daughter caring for her mother, see Carol O’Dell’s Mothering Mother
To read my essay about Mothering Mother, click here.