The whole journey is indescribably moving.
by Bethany Russell
Do you ever look at someone, whether they be your best friend or a complete stranger passing you by on the street, and wonder “What is their story? What’s it like to be them?”
I find it to be a great mystery. Everyone experiences their own version of life, perceiving everything from their unique first-person point of view. Imagine how much a novel would change if told from the perspective of a “main” character who owns the dog versus the “side” character that works as the vet tech versus the unnamed driver that cuts the dog owner off on the way to the vet. The possibilities are near endless . . .
Memoirs are a window into that mystery. Assuming that the authors are, to the best of their knowledge, writing honestly and authentically (we can thank the strong editorial departments of publishers for their fact-checking), readers can learn about and, in a way, experience part of someone else’s life that would have otherwise remained unknown.
This, of course, is not to discount the influence of breathtaking fiction, but there’s something about a memoir in that it actually happened. Put plainly, it’s largely the difference between theory and fact. With a novel, the story is the result of an author’s imagination. With a memoir, the story is the result of a Higher Sovereignty. That’s quite significant.
It should be concurrently noted that not all memoirs are of the same class. Like many other forms of literature, some pieces are poorly executed, shallow, insincere, etc. However, those memoirs which rise to a class of their own are the ones with heart. The author wrote the memoir because he or she endured something great, and as a result, has been transformed into someone who’s extraordinary, down-to-earth, and oftentimes, very wise. One of these kinds of memoirs is Joni: An Unforgettable Story. The author, Joni Eareckson Tada, is the CEO and founder of Joni and Friends, a ministry serving those who are disabled as well as their loved ones. I listened to the audio book version, which, as it is read by Joni herself, made it feel as though I were there in her art studio, listening as she shared her life story with me. In a sense, her memoir is a coming-of-age story. She recounts the diving accident that caused her quadriplegia and goes into the details of the hospital experience, her expectations, and God’s divine presence in the midst of pain. The whole journey is indescribably moving.
Memoirs are fascinating because you can sometimes pick up on nuances and traits about the writer that they may or may not have realized they have woven into their story. One example is Abby Johnson’s Unplanned. Carrying the same title as the 2019 pro-life box office phenomenon, her memoir published in 2010 tells of how she came to be a director of a Planned Parenthood clinic but later, upon witnessing the surgical abortion procedure, abandoned her job to join the Coalition for Life. Personally, I was not particularly interested by a film adaptation, but I was curious to hear the perspective of someone who is closely associated with this issue. Abby is very pro-life, yet she critiques the ineffective and aggressive methods of some pro-life protesters and also shares about the compassion that some of her coworkers, albeit misled, showed for the women in crisis who were coming to the Planned Parenthood clinic. What is especially interesting about this book is how Abby repeats the policies and terminology of Planned Parenthood over and over. Even after leaving the clinic, she is still rehearsing the standard answers of Planned Parenthood throughout the pages. It was a startling lesson in the power of words and repetition.
Narratives of heavy subject matter can be intense, so it’s nice to balance one’s literary endeavors with some lighter, cheerier reads. One memoir I’ve found to be both soothing and thought-provoking is Beyond the Castle: A Guide to Discovering Your Happily Ever After by Jody Jean Dreyer. A clear classic for Disney fans and alumni of Disney University, Jody’s book, which is peppered with photographs and memories, exudes warmth, joy, and magical nostalgia as she takes readers along her thirty-year journey at Disney and her experiences with its legendary leadership. Encountering someone so passionate about the place they work is a rare delight, and it’s captivating to see how intentionally things are done at Disney.
As I continue making my way through the inspiring adventure of Beyond the Castle, I’m also going to be reading War Story. This powerful memoir examines the sheer depth of tragedy and grief in the aftermath of the death of an American hero by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan when Steven Elliott and fellow soldiers mistook an ally for the enemy. I had the opportunity to hear Steven Elliott speak in person, and it was unbelievably profound. Nothing I could say would be an adequate response to his heart-wrenching rawness. Knowing that one of the best things a person can do for an author is to read their book, I plan to show deep respect to Steven by wandering into his grief, agony, and eventual renewal as narrated and conveyed within War Story.
But after I finish War Story, then what? (See Bethany’s thoughts upon reading War Story here.)
Here’s a sneak peek of my memoir reading list:
Blind Descent: Surviving Alone and Blind on Mount Everest by Brian Dickinson—All alone at 29,035 feet, low on oxygen, and stricken with snow blindness, Brian Dickinson was forced to inch his way back down Mount Everest relying only on his Navy survival training, instincts, and faith.
13 Days in Ferguson by Ron Johnson and Alan Eisenstock—On August 14, 2014, five days after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown ignited race riots throughout the city of Ferguson, Missouri, the nation found an unlikely hero in Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol. In 13 Days in Ferguson, Johnson shares, for the first time, his view of what happened during the thirteen turbulent days he spent stabilizing the city of Ferguson and the extraordinary impact those two historic weeks had on his faith, his approach to leadership, and on what he perceives to be the most viable solution to the issues of racism and prejudice in America.
Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler—One fateful starless night, 17-year-old Ira Wagler got up at 2 a.m., left a scribbled note under his pillow, packed all of his earthly belongings into a little black duffel bag, and walked away from his home in the Amish settlement of Bloomfield, Iowa. Now, in this heartwarming memoir, Ira paints a vivid portrait of Amish life—from his childhood days on the family farm and his Rumspringa rite of passage at age sixteen to his ultimate decision to leave the Amish Church for good at age twenty-six. Readers will laugh, cry, and be inspired by this charming yet poignant coming of age story set amidst the backdrop of one of the most enigmatic cultures in America today—the Old Order Amish.
What Is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics by Rachael Denhollander—The first victim to publicly accuse Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor who abused hundreds of young athletes, Rachael now reveals her full story for the first time. This deeply personal and compelling narrative shines a spotlight on the physical and emotional impact of abuse, why so many survivors are reluctant to speak out, what it means to be believed, the extraordinary power of faith and forgiveness, and how we can learn to do what’s right in the moments that matter most.
The Missing Matisse by Pierre H. Matisse—The man he knew as his grandfather, legendary artist Henri Matisse, encouraged Pierre from a young age, creating a strong desire in him to become a great artist in his own right. Spanning the insider art world of 1930s Paris, the battles of WWII, the occupation of France by the Nazis, Pierre’s involvement with the French resistance, his postwar work restoring art and historical monuments, and his eventual decision to create a new life in North America, The Missing Matisse is a story of intrigue, faith, and drama as Pierre journeys to discover the truth―before it’s too late.
Have you read any good memoirs? Comment below! We’d love to hear about them!