Heroes of Our Own Stories
Note: This is a personal essay I wrote after teaching a class in memoir at a homeless shelter in Knoxville one summer shortly after graduating from college. Here is the story.
The men at Knox County Homeless Shelter are worn and tired. They have come in from the cold concrete and the crack dealers; they each have a cot and access to soap and a tepid shower. Some of them take advantage of the shower. Most don’t. When I introduce the topic of memoir in my writing class, the men shy like wild things at the hunter’s footfalls. They want to write poetry, poetry about rainbows and dewy fields in the light of dawn that they have never seen, only dreamed about. They only want to write about the hallelujahs—forget the needle-strewn back alleys.
But Jonas is different. Jonas sits bolt upright with hands folded. If he stuck his index fingers up, his hands would make a church and steeple. But he doesn’t. He is distinguished-looking, about 50, skin so dark it almost has a purple sheen, like eggplant. He has a quiet demeanor that belies his words, which spill forth, at first in jerks of sound with intermittent silences, then in a stream. After a while, he loosens those almost-church hands, makes long-fingered gestures lyric with grief. Jonas wants to write about his girlfriend’s suicide.
I had asked my students to write about something close to them, something close to the bone. But I’m not sure how to respond to Jonas. I’m a twenty-something girl who spends her time dreaming about words and fleeing life.
“When you shatter into a million pieces, I won’t be able to put you back together again,” I want to tell Jonas. I want to confess that I am still scrabbling in the frozen ground, like a hapless chicken trying to locate and consume all the shards of an eggshell that was me, my dreams.
“If can’t find me, how can I find you?” I want to ask.
Here in Knoxville—certainly at Knox County Homeless Shelter—I am out of my element. I am out of place, out of time: an invasive species, an anachronism, a sport. I’m a Midwestern WASP, a Michigan native, in Tennessee for the summer because my best friend, who lives in Knoxville, had surgery and needs someone to be with her while she heals.
For several weeks, I stay with my friend at all times, but after that, she can stay on her own for several hours at a time. I decide to volunteer with my free time and contact the United Way of Knoxville. The woman who answers the phone is thrilled to discover that I just graduated from college with a minor in creative writing and have taught a couple community writing classes.
“You could teach a summer writing class!” she says brightly. “I’m just gonna make some calls, honey.”
She suggests that I teach a short autobiographical writing class at the local homeless shelter and offers to contact the director. It would be only the second class I have ever taught. Intrigued, excited, intimidated, I agree.
The shelter sits among burned-out warehouses and weeds—white crowns of Queen Anne’s lace and spires of goldenrod jutting among the broken concrete and gang graffiti. Men drunk at noonday roll down the streets, empty bottles lagging from their fingers. People huddle beneath overpasses, hold up cardboard signs with pleas for help at intersections.
I drive in from the suburbs, from a place of manicured lawns and lacy sprinklers, heat wafted away by my car’s air conditioning. Before entering the city, I stop at Starbuck’s, buy a frothy cappuccino. I listen to music, a singer who croons plaintively, “Your words fall through me/And always fool me.”
Also, “You must have fallen from the sky.”
I spend long periods of time when I’m not actually teaching the class on memoir reading about memoir. Poring over books at the library, I read that a person telling her story should structure it as if she is telling a fairy tale with herself as the main character.
To the men in my class, I translate the concept like this: You are the hero of your narrative. Yes, bad things happen, but you are ultimately the one in control of your own narrative.
I say this, and they walk softly around me. They treat me like an otherworldly creature, like some crystalline ballerina who came pirouetting in amidst the trash and discarded needles. They treat me like I have fallen from the sky. I worry at first when no women join my class, but the men don’t even raise their voices, let alone swear. Their behavior is flawlessly gentlemanlike. They could be carrying off a black-tie affair.
I am out of my element, but I gradually realize that I have something in common with the men who sit in my class. True, almost all of them are addicts, but virtually all of them have diagnoses of severe mental illness as well.
Is it truly possible for them—for us—to be the heroes of our own stories? I wonder. Can we save ourselves, save our stories?
I wonder if I am lying to them; I wonder if I am lying to myself.
Giving birth to your story, if you are weak and broken, is fraught with danger. The story to which you give birth might save you. But you might bleed to death, too.
A soft-spoken man with a solemn face that looks like it were carved out of mahogany, Ben takes my writing prompt—to list the identities you have had during your life—quite seriously.
“Child of God,” Ben prints carefully in round letters at the top of his notebook, capitalizing the phrase as if it were a title. Immediately below that, he writes, “Child of Man.” There he halts.
“Ma’am?” asks Ben. It takes me a second to realize he is calling me that. “Ma’am, I want to write down ‘father’ but I can’t.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“I walked out on my son when he was a kid. Cocaine. I want to list other things. I used to work in a store. But I got fired because I was using.”
I grasp for my role as instructor.
“Can you write about yourself as a child of God?”
The suggestion seems to satisfy him. But the other men in the class struggle, too. They are left cupping their broken identities, trying not to spill them onto the scuffed linoleum of the shelter.
That evening, in a Tennessee dusk of lengthening shadows and swelling humidity, I do the exercise. I watch as the identity “bipolar” cuts across all my other identities, draining them all, even “writer”—down to what should be simple as breathing: “reader,” “twin.”
I know what it is like to be turned inside-out, to lose the things you think define you, to be taken over and dominated by a force that seems both of you and also utterly alien. I used to think of the mental illness as a kind of demon-possession, as if my personality disappeared on holiday to the other side of the world, leaving a dark, shape-shifting creature in her place. My college roommate said to me, “I’ve never seen anyone fall apart so completely so fast.” In those days, I was a different person—angry, raw, ready to do anything or anyone for relief.
Jonas makes his long-fingered gestures. As he explains it in class one day, it is his fault that his girlfriend is dead. If only he had gone over that day instead of leaving a message on her answering machine. If only he had understood her. If only he had given her what she needed. If only—if only—then he wouldn’t have found her, dangling, face contorted almost beyond recognition, dead in the garage.
The words that spring to my lips come instinctually: “I once told my boyfriend that he couldn’t save me.”
Jonas halts, startled. “What do you mean?”
I look down and draw circles with my hand on the surface of the table, seeking to put the story into words. As I do so, I sense the power dynamics in the room shift.
“There was a time when I was suicidal.” I pause. “I was afraid that if I killed myself, my boyfriend would blame himself. I didn’t want him to do that.” I look up at Jonas. “It wasn’t his fault that I felt the way I did, and I was trying—in a stupid way—to tell him that.”
Jonas’ eyes are wide and alert. The men in the class have gone still. What I say next, I have no authority to say. I say it anyway.
“I’ve been where your girlfriend was. And I know she would say that she doesn’t want you to blame yourself.”
I exhale. Jonas passes a slim hand in front of his eyes. He mutters. I turn quickly away, back to the dry-erase board, floating in front of me like a life preserver. I finish scrawling the writing prompt on it.
In the end, after discussing the situation with my friend, I ask the men to write about a time when they were proud of themselves. To do the assignment, to write about a time when he was proud of himself, Jonas reaches way back, about thirty years back, to a memory of surviving hell week as a freshman on the high school football squad. What he writes evokes the grit and the grime, the gleam of sun on helmets, the stink of pads and the stomach-churning crunch when players collide.
As he haltingly reads what he has written, I close my eyes and imagine a young Jonas darting between the blockers, breaking free—wild now—sprinting up the sidelines, legs pumping for glory.
He reads. The rest of the class and I listen. Different as we are, we are giving to each other.
We are giving each other respect.