When Michele Weldon’s husband walked out on her family after years of physical and emotional abuse, their three boys were just six, four and one. While Weldon was never able to fix or fully make up for her husband’s absence and brutal behavior, she spent years juggling single motherhood—and, later, breast cancer—with her flourishing career as a journalist and professor. In her new memoir Escape Points, she writes a wry, honest and highly readable recollection of her years spent proving that children and families can succeed even in the face of abandonment and unexpected challenges. Bestselling author Elizabeth Berg says it best: “I don’t know how Michele Weldon made wrestling, breast cancer, and single parenting tie together so naturally, so beautifully, but in fact each is a perfect metaphor for this book’s message of soulful triumph.”
We sat down with Michele to get her take on the catharsis of memoir writing.
Escape Points isn’t your first memoir. Can you tell us about the progression of your memoirs—what ties them together and what makes each of them stand alone as different points in your life?
I have written two other books plus an e-book in between the publication of my first memoir, I Closed My Eyes, in 1999, and this updated memoir. Also there is a span of 16 years between the publications of those two memoirs. A lot has happened that I felt would be fodder for an update. I am an essayist and journalist and I have been using my life as a story source for more than three decades. Not exclusively, but a source for my essays. I started to report and write content for what I believed would eventually be a book about my sons and their youth and high school wrestling because I found it so fascinating and rich a community. I was thinking about Joyce Carol Oates and her book, On Boxing, that I loved. I also have been receiving letters and e-mails from readers since 1999 asking about my sons. So I wanted to do an update. I was living this book as I was writing it, so it was extremely fresh and urgent. Both books are from my point of view—the first how I came to be in that relationship and how I got out, and this book on how I am still managing the fallout and the shadows of that relationship. I hope readers see that both are essentially quite uplifting—it is possible to create outcomes that you dream from circumstances that are far from ideal.
How would you describe your writing process for this book, having to dig back into the memories of your divorce and your battle with breast cancer?
This book was a bit different in that way, as I was writing as events were unfolding in real time. Because I am a journalist, I take notes on conversations and write down my observations in notebooks either as I am witnessing them or immediately after. I would write in the waiting rooms looking around and taking notes of what I saw and capturing real conversations. This book was reported, rather than recalled. My first book was written with some of it very fresh, but other pieces from memory. This book has very little from memory. I think it has an urgency to it because of that. Because I see the world as a writer, I use writing as a tool to understand situations I am in or have been in. I unwrap complicated transactions and try to decipher meaning through writing about them. I wrote nearly 1,000 pages of what eventually became this book as it is today. It transformed certainly from the first draft, and I rewrote, edited, cut and added. I think I ended the book about six times. And then something new would happen and I would think no, here, this is it. I think the end of the book now is absolutely perfect and when it happened, I knew it was time to stop. I discarded about 12 chapters. No worries, they will show up as essays or live storytelling somewhere.
You have three sons—Weldon, Brendan and Colin—and you talk in your book about the “otherness” you feel as a mother of boys. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Yes, certainly. There is a lot of conversation now about the inherent inequality of how gendered toys harm girls and boys and how girls need not be relegated to the pink ghettos of toy stores and be forced into narrow stereotypes for play, careers and role models. And how boys should not be forced into the superhero roles. We are necessarily being educated as a culture about transgender importance to acknowledge the fluidity of gender and the need to be open-minded and flexible in how we assign roles and the physical definitions to gender. I agree, and a great deal of my career has been about gender fairness in media and the culture. But that is a different notion than accepting and understanding the otherness that gender identities create. As a single parent, I felt acutely the differences between my boys and myself right from the very start—without any intervention or bias. And yes, they each have a different personality and life approach, but automatically they were more daring, more physical, more transparent, more bold, more energetic than I have ever been, that I see any of my nieces being or I ever remember any of my sisters being. There is an openness and freedom about how my sons move in the world and how they automatically hold expectations that I do not. Yes, some of that comes from the culture and how men—particularly white men—have assumptions about the world. But I must say some of it was right from the very beginning as infants before any cultural assignation occurred. Some mothers have taken issue with this with me, but so many other mothers of sons agree wholeheartedly. This is my experience.
Although they grew up without their father, your sons were lucky to have an amazing mentor, their high school wrestling coach Mike Powell. What has it meant to you as their mother that they have Powell in their lives?
I am extraordinarily grateful. Who would have known that this high school wrestling coach would have such an enormous influence on who they would be as men? What I love and respect about Coach Powell is that he does this for many hundreds of young boys and men. My sons are by no means the only ones who have benefited from his direct intervention. He has changed many lives. And he is a role model for integrity and strength, transparency and love. I wanted the world to know more about him. I also wanted to be sure to capture the blessing that is support that arrives from unlikely sources just when you need it.
A big part of your book takes place within the high school wrestling culture. You had a steep learning curve when you first became a wrestling mom—it’s intense! What has that community come to mean to you and your boys?
Yes, as I say in the book, I felt like a complete outsider at first. My boys from preschool through middle school were in all the predictable youth community sports—baseball, basketball, football, soccer. But then Weldon decided he wanted to wrestle in sixth grade. Eventually, the other two caught the wrestling bug. I had dated a wrestler in high school and another wrestler in college, so I knew a little bit about the sport, but not much. And I admit I had no idea how grueling and intense it is to watch your son on a mat for six minutes. Hopefully it is six minutes. It could be much less than that if he gets pinned. But wrestling offers a community of parents unlike any other I have known. I think it is the understanding that our sons—and some daughters—dare to go out there unmasked and alone to face an opponent with skill, strength and cunning in front of an audience who will see every move and every mistake. And then to win or lose with grace and humility is inspiring. The parents can be embracing and confronting when your son loses and also supportive when he wins. There are also some very scary, competitive parents who pick fights in the stands. I am no shrinking violet and a few times if parents would jeer, mock or scream at us about our team, I would say something back. Sometimes really loudly.
Describe for us the wrestling metaphor behind the title, Escape Points.
I have to credit my good friend, Elizabeth Berg, with the title. And it makes so much sense. Escape points are what you earn as a wrestler if you get out of a hold. You earn a point for escaping. So it is a literal definition and you can earn only those in a match and still score. You won’t win, because a takedown is more points than an escape, but you can score. I also was lucky to escape cancer, and after nine years am still cancer free, so that is one piece of it. The disappearance of their father is another escape—a literal escape from responsibility and a point of reference throughout the book. So it has three meanings—in wrestling, in health and in family.
—compiled by Caitlin Eck
Escape Points: A Memoir officially pubbed September 1, 2015 and is available wherever books (and e-books) are sold, including our website.