Linda Wisniewski's Off Kilter is a gem of a memoir. She writes about the painful experience of going through life with scoliosis—a curvature or imbalance of the spine, which made her look like she was slouching and made her feel as though she might tip over at any moment. The author writes that she lost two inches in height and faced daily questions from teachers and playmates about why she was slouching. The physical pain of scoliosis becomes a metaphor for the equally painful emotional hurts she endured for much of her life.
Wisniewski begins her memoir, "My mother was unconscious at the moment I was born and I longed all my life to make her see me." She describes her mother as a woman bullied by her husband, overwhelmed by life, who chose to hide, to ignore her daughter (or, still worse, put her down), and to escape into silence and passivity. Having had an emotionally cold mother myself, I have boundless admiration for this author's ability and willingness to confront a painful relationship. With her exceptional sensibilities, she excavates her memories with courage and tenacity. Her words are sometimes painful to read. At the same time, I feel a kind of healing power emanating from her honest recollections, a healing power perhaps for both writer and reader.
This mother-daughter relationship, seminal though it was, is by no means the singular focus of this memoir. Wisniewski honors all the members of the family into which she was born, in spite of its often dysfunctional dynamics. She honors the past, her Polish heritage. She writes about her Catholic education, the insensitivity of the nuns, her failed marriages, and so much more. She writes of her life spent pleasing "teachers, employers, parents, boyfriends, husbands, twisting myself into someone I can't be. I hurt when I do this, because it's not natural." She relates her journey moving away from this futile way of being. The path she chose was to become herself, accept her emotional and physical handicaps, stretch herself, and take bigger and bigger risks despite her shyness.
Ultimately, the author comes to a place of inner peace: "The good memories return, like a tide that has been out for decades. Freed from some long-forgotten dam, they return to me, washing me in their healing waters. More and more often, I remember a golden day. I hear my people laughing, I am supported and surrounded by love."
And again, a few pages later: "Today I finished looking back. Like the serpent shedding a too-tight skin, I leave the past behind. I will always carry the shape of my spine, the S-curve like the serpent's, my lifelong reminder that life is never a straight line from here to there." A reminder I need as much as she.
I admire Linda Wisniewski's poetic writing skills and courage. If she lived next door to me, I would call her and read her the words of Rebecca McClanahan: "To tell your own story is an act of authority and power. When you write, you are saying, in effect 'I have a voice. I have a story. This is what I have to say.'" Wisniewski has indeed found her voice and written the story that is uniquely hers. I hope she continues to share her story with us; I know I shall be on the lookout for it.
Linda C. Wisniewski lives with her husband and son in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where she is a librarian. She writes for a weekly newspaper and teaches memoir workshops. Her memoirs, essays, and articles have been published nationally, and she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Visit her website.
(See another review of this book, here)
Check out our interview with the author of Off Kilter.
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