by Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
When I started the blog Memory Writers Network, I assumed that memoirs are only about the author. Over time, I have read a number of excellent books that reflect their author’s powerful curiosity toward parents and grandparents. Recently I read about a daughter who desperately wants to understand her father. In Breaking the Code Karen Fisher-Alaniz tries to break open the code of her father’s silence and make sense of his experience as a soldier in World War II.
The story starts when her father hands her a binder with hundreds of letters he sent home from Hawaii six decades earlier. Before that moment, she knows very little about his military service and doesn’t even know the letters exist. She attempts to grasp the significance of what he has just given her. What secrets might they contain? But when she expresses her intention to read every one, he pulls away. “Why would you want to do that? Those are just some old letters.” The story tugs back and forth between the daughter’s search for understanding and the father’s conflicted feelings about whether he could or even should remember what went on.
Storyline 1: A daughter searches for her father’s military past
Karen’s search begins with the letters themselves. They are hard to read, and soon she realizes they are missing important details. During the war, U.S. military censors blacked out any phrase that could compromise security, so letters from most soldiers were sanitized, giving the letters a superficial quality. She is not going to learn as much from the letters as she hoped.
When Karen interviews her father for more information, she quickly realizes how troubled he is about those events. Why was he guarding his memories so jealously? This is the central tension of the book – between the curiosity that links people together and the secrets that keep them apart.
In addition to satisfying her own curiosity she also wants to help him. Over the years, he has had nightmares and she wonders if sharing his secrets will relieve the burden that he has been carrying alone for so long. And yet, she is torn, afraid that by asking him too many questions, she will stir up the pain and make it worse. She wakes up in a panic, worried about how to get inside his head without upsetting him. These emotions that pull her in opposite directions create the tension in this storyline.
Her quest raises issues that are important to many aspiring memoir writers. As we try to understand the forces that influenced our early life, we sometimes bump into situations that our parents would prefer to forget. Millions of our parents have experienced combat and other traumas, such as abuse, neglect, or deprivation. Going back another generation or two, we might run into other horrors such as extermination camps and lynchings. If we pry into those buried memories, how do we know whether we’ll increase the pain or relieve it? Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s memoir has brought this question into sharp focus.
James McBride’s Color of Water is another memoir in which a child attempts to storm the gates of a parent’s well-defended memories. In this memoir about coming of age in a mixed-race family, his attempt to understand his mother’s world brings him into conflict with her desire to keep secrets. Click here for my essay on Color of Water.
Ordinary life as a backdrop for suspense
For those aspiring memoir writers who think their lives are too normal or don’t contain unique elements, Breaking the Code provides an excellent example of the drama that might be hidden just out of sight. Interspersed with research into the deadly time in her father’s life, she has to drop her kids off at school and meet her friends for a cup of coffee. Her ordinary life was just one step away from his extraordinary past.
What intense human drama is represented in your memories? Often, we spend years actively wishing they never happened. As a result, these powerful memories might be buried in the cave of forgetfulness. If you feel safe and brave, write a brief synopsis of the situation, giving it the full impact it might have if you were to write about it thoroughly and openly. Even if you decide to put it back in the cave, the exercise will give it a little more light and perhaps a glimmer of possibility that you can accept it, even if you don’t love it.
Try the same exercise for family history. These memories might be difficult to fill in, but for the purposes of this exercise, imagine that you could penetrate the mystery of a parent’s humiliation, escape, persecution, or other difficult memory. What do you wish you know? How much might you actually be able to guess or reconstruct?
Storyline 2: A soldier’s life during World War II
The other story frame is about her father. We try to peer into his experience during the war and his development as a young man. I have not read many stories of soldiers during WWII so I was curious to learn about life in a tent city. He had plenty of spare time to write letters home, as he watched group after group of men shipping out to the front.
His evasive conversation and struggles to remember are fairly common in post-combat veterans who have become accustomed to sheltering their families from the horrors they have seen. After years of not talking about these memories, many veterans tend to seem quiet or distant.
However, Alaniz’s father had been put into a situation that cruelly exaggerated this need for silence. He was involved in code breaking and was told that because of his top-secret mission, if he revealed anything that compromised security, he would be executed without a court martial. That threat must have been terrifying to the young man, but looking back, he can only remember small glimpses of it. Eventually he dredges a frightening example of this excessive security. He was in the hospital and the doctor asked him what he had been doing when he was injured. Armed guards who had been stationed at the door of his room rushed in with guns drawn to stop the conversation. Because of his situation, despite the death that surrounds him on all sides as soldiers ship out to kill and be killed, his letters maintain a cheerful innocence.
In Carlos Eire’s Learning to Die in Miami, letters between the boy and his parents were censored by Castro’s agents, so they too created a surreal lack of honesty about the suffering in his life just as Alaniz’s father was forced to only report pleasantries in his.
The letters link two timeframes
In the movie Titanic, an old woman looks at a necklace and remembers her youthful voyage on the ill-fated ocean liner. The necklace acted as a sort of magical amulet that links the former time with the present one. In Breaking the Code, the packet of letters plays a similar role. In some scenes, the daughter handles the letters in the present, and in others I picture the father writing them sixty years earlier. The letters draw our attention back and forth between the two stories. Her time-travel technique perfectly suits the charter of every memoir writer who is essentially attempting to unite past to present through the pages of a written story.
What prop, symbol, or document can usher your reader smoothly across time?
PTSD, Suppressed Memories and Unresolved Grief in Later Life
Her father buried his memories so effectively over the years that the nightmares finally stopped. Then they were awakened by the terrifying events of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. This is one of the important aspects of this memoir. Even though his trauma occurred more than a half of a century earlier, it was still lurking under the surface.
The book provides a testimony to society’s responsibility first to avoid sending soldiers into harm’s way, and second, to help care for those who return. As the saga of Breaking the Code continues, Alaniz offers some lovely insights into the ways she and her father attempted to bring closure to these deep psychic wounds.
In the spirit that “listening is an act of love,” Karen Alaniz’s profound, deep listening offered her father the opportunity to turn the isolated and fragmented memories of his experience in war into a story that we can all share in peace.
Here are a few memoirs in which the author tried to make sense of an ancestor’s life:
Andrew X. Pham’s Eaves of Heaven, a ghost-written account of his father’s experience in war-torn Vietnam
Alexandra Styron’s, Reading my Father about her father’s life as a literary giant
Amanda Seymour’s Thrumpton Hall about her father’s passion for his English country house, and the fall of the British class system
Linda Austin’s Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a ghost-written account of her mother’s childhood in Japan and subsequent move to the United States.
Barack Obama’s Dreams of Our Fathers in which he visits the African village where his father was born
Mei Ling Hopgood’s Lucky Girl. She travels to China to meet her biological family
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.
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