Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Following the Whispers - Creating a life of inner peace and acceptance from the depths of despair by Karen Walker - 172 pgs

Book CoverIn this unflinching memoir, Karen Walker exposes the inner struggles and turmoil she faced throughout her childhood and adult life. She describes growing up in a hostile and unloving home with parents who were ill-equipped to raise a child, her traumatization after being molested by a stranger, and the eventual loss of custody of her young child. Walker painfully describes her downward spiral of shame and self-recrimination when her life not only doesn't turn out as expected, but continues to degenerate into unmanagability. Spanning many years and seasons of her life, this is an intimate and potent story of a woman who must fight the destructive tides of cruel familial opposition while still trying to hold on to her self worth.

I am having a hard time reconciling myself with this book. I found the writing to be both cogent and involving, and felt that the narrative power in this book was excellent. Walker surely knows how to weave the events of her life into a story that is both hard to put down and clearly resonates with the reader, but essentially, I had a very hard time understanding the point of this book. The book used a winding technique of narrative that slowly unfolded all of the pertinent facts and information, and the author portrayed her story in a confessional and penetrating way that left me feeling both sympathetic and moved by her plights. The problem came after I had a few days to digest the book. I started to become annoyed that throughout the book she seemed to constantly victimize herself and vilify everyone that she came into contact with. Only her current husband escaped the scoundrel label that she seemed to place on everyone. Her parents, friends, ex-husband and, even more shocking, her young son seemed to be food and fuel to the great blame game that she played. She didn't seem to understand that human interaction has a great potential to be redemptive and healing instead of singularly bleak and distressing. It bothered me that she painted everyone with the "monster" paintbrush and maintained an attitude of helplessness and self woe that I found unhealthy.

When she decided to basically give up the fight for custody of her son in order to have time to grow into a better person, it made me angry. The real world is not like that. In the real world, parents are overwhelmed and confused and sometimes feel taken for granted, but they don't run away from their children and their responsibilities in order to heal themselves. They continue with the daily struggle to raise and nurture their offspring, in the hopes that one day their children will lead happy and safe lives.

Another thing that bothered me was the way she used her episode of molestation as a crutch in which to remain emotionally unhealthy. Several times she related that she was unable to accept happiness, or love, or feelings of adequacy due to this event. It was tiring to see her constantly use this as a means to reject other people and stubbornly remain in emotional stasis throughout the book. She had many years of therapy, yet she was never able to resolve these issues within herself, never able to forgive herself and her offender in order to heal and move on in peace. Instead she seemed to pull this episode out of the past whenever she didn't want to deal with new or uncomfortable situations. Everyone has been a victim at some time in their lives, but to constantly sit in that role and seem to relish it doesn't really impress me as creating a life of inner peace and acceptance at all.

And that brings me to my next point. As a reader, I never really understood how the author grew into having a life of inner peace. Her situations eventually resolved themselves, as most do, but she never really seemed to grow or change in any way that was significant. Mostly this story struck me as a "woe is me, look how I have been wronged" tale, something that many people could tell, but something that failed to inspire the author into any self healing behaviors. I know this reaction may seem harsh, but it is hard to find compassion for a woman who abandons her child to a cruel and unloving father and constantly places herself in damaging and destructive relationships time and time again.

In the end, I ultimately felt a little bad about being so engrossed in reading about someone else's unhappy life. While I was reading the book, it was almost like having a train-wreck kind of mentality, where I could not look away from all the heartache and unhappiness spreading over the pages. Later, I mused to myself that perhaps the point that the author was trying to make with the writing of this book was to gain sympathy from her audience, maybe replacing those who didn't give it to her in her real life. While I sympathize with the author's struggles, I was disappointed with her apparent lack of growth. The book's title promised an outcome which was never realized.


Steph said...

Great review. I feel like this memoir would really bother me for all of the reasons you listed being frustrated with it. Lately I've been very unsympathetic to characters in books I've read where I've felt they were being unforgivably selfish or unwilling to get the help they need. I understand that everyone deals with things in their own way, but that doesn't mean we can't feel frustrated when others don't do what we would. Also, I'm not a parent, but I'm not sure I could understand essentially giving up the fight for your kid either.

Ana S. said...

Excellent review. I think the things that put you off would definitely bother me as well.

Gwendolyn B. said...

Great review - you really articulated your feelings about this book well. I would only want to read about a person's difficulties if there was some message of hope and goodness - something that shows how the author rose above sad circumstances. It sounds as though this author is still a very sad and despairing person.

Marie Cloutier said...

sounds like a bummer of a book. Sorry it's not what you were hoping for.

Jules said...

Hi, just stopping by to let you know I have an award for you in my blog. I forgot to let you know I awarded you it. :)

Sharon Lippincott said...

I'm so sorry that you understood Karen Walker's book, Following the Whispers the way you did. To me it's an exemplary model of a deeply honest person who made some fundamentally flawed decisions early in her life. Nothing is new about that. What is new about Karen Walker is that she had the courage to seek healing and wholeness. She looked under every rock and in countless nooks and crannies. She spent untold sums of money on various types of therapy. She fulfilled her lifelong dream of earning a college degree as she learned to write this story honestly, yet with compassion.

It took time, but Karen not only reconciled with her parents, she developed a deeply loving relationship with her father (did you actually read the book?). She now has a deeply loving relationship with her son, who verifies (in the book) that he realizes now that his father went to considerable lengths to turn him against his mother.

In my view, Karen went out of her way to view the friends who betrayed her with compassion.

Karen was a victim in her early life, and she did make some terrible mistakes. And she overcame them to whatever extent possible. I find this book full of optimism, and compassion, a remarkable example of the ability to heal even from deep childhood scars, and totally endorse it.

I'm sad that you have been unable to see it this way and cast Karen in such a negative light for the mistakes she made (and was brave enough to disclose) rather than applauding her courage and persistence in overcoming them. It's one thing to like or dislike a book, and quite another to speculate about (judge) someone's character or personality.

I'm sad that you have negatively influenced other women, presumably young, who may have found tremendous hope and inspiration in this story for overcoming their own secret sources of guilt or shame.

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