Book Review: “This is How We Leave”

Memoirs have changed so much since Mary Karr made history with the spectacular success of The Liars’ Club in 1995. Before then, memoir was a realm reserved for celebrities of one sort or another: political figures, movie stars, sports stars. In other words, people designated by their wealth, fame and broad influence as having lives interesting enough to deserve writing about.

But with Karr’s telling of her rough youth in East Texas, she broke open the genre so regular people like you and me can tell our stories. Over the last few decades, one memoir after another has been awarded the spotlight in which to show how so many seemingly ordinary lives are, in fact, extraordinary.

Joanne Nelson is one of those people. Over the years, she wrote essays about her youth that were published in a variety of journals. She collected them in a basket and put them forth as This is How We Leave, which will be published Aug. 11, 2020. I feel particularly fond of this book because I grew up in that same region, so her descriptions of neighborhoods and family angst feel spot on.

Here’s my review of her very deserving work:

Author and therapist Joanne Nelson proves through her tender new memoir, This is How We Leave, that writing is indeed the best therapy.

Through a series of essays, the author shows us her youth growing up in a dysfunctional blue-collar family in Milwaukee. Through detailed, sensory-packed prose, we see, listen and feel the violent slaps; the cursing and criticism; and the drunkenness. When the father abandons the family, the two teen sons go off to their lives, leaving Joanne with her alcoholic mother.

“In the working-class neighborhood the indoor swells of our parents’ dissatisfactions and angers were the most dangerous. The problems — broken appliances, disobedient children, and unexpected bills — often played out during supper with raised voices and smacks to the head.”

Such honesty, combined with the many insights the author imparts, are what make this memoir so touching. She’s neither bitter nor forgiving. Instead, she tells of her anger, despair, fear and disappointment. Ultimately, however, she comes to understand that her parents came from an uneducated background and lived during an era where no one was encouraged to share their feelings. Nor did they have the advantage of parenting classes or counseling. The result were people like her parents, who lived with inner demons from which they never escaped.

Most satisfying of all, Nelson shows that though she had a rough start in life — one made easier by her loving grandparents — she went to college, married and created a loving family. Through her training as a therapist and passion for writing, she processed the pain, and while unable to forget, she moved forward, to a place of acceptance and happiness.


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The Rich Inner World of Asperger’s

My sister and I believe my dad, now deceased, had Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), a largely hereditary form of high-functioning autism in which people function within a socially acceptable norm, but have a neurological disconnect that messes with their ability to communicate with others at a fundamental level. In Pretending to be Normal, Liane Holliday Willey describes what it’s like to be AS, and to such a deep degree the reader can’t help but be absorbed into the confusing, perilous world where she fought daily to understand and be understood until coming to terms with who she is.

The memoir takes readers through Willey’s youth, marriage and birth of three daughters. When her six-year-old is diagnosed with AS, the author realizes she’s neurologically atypical, too. Rather than dark, her beautifully-written story is filled with light, insight and encouragement about a condition that affects millions of people worldwide:

No matter the hardships, I do not wish for a cure to Asperger’s Syndrome. What I wish for, is a cure for the common ill that pervades too many lives,; the ill that makes people compare themselves to a normal that is measured in terms of perfect and absolute standards, most of which are impossible for anyone to reach. I thik it would be far more productive and so much more satisfying to live according to a new set of ideals that are anchored in far more subjective criteria, the fluid and the affective domains of life, the stuff of wonder… curiosity…creativity…invention…originality. Perhaps then, we will all find peace and joy in one another.

A professor of psycholinguistics and learning style differences, Willey seeks to educate people who don’t have AS so they’ll be more accepting. The author also includes tips for success for AS when they go to college, look for jobs and establish a home. Then Willey finishes the book with a long list of resources and organizations and a glossary of terms.

For those readers who loved to be pulled into another life, world or universe, this book is for you!

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