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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