Jerry Waxler didn’t get women until he started reading their memoirs. Then it all clicked.
I went to an all-boys high school in Philadelphia in the early ’60s. I was glad there were no girls, because I didn’t know how to talk to them anyway. For companionship, I turned to books, at first mainly science fiction, and then moving on to classics by Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett.
In college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, girls surrounded me. Unable to ignore them any longer, I forced myself to confront my shyness, but I had no idea who these mysterious creatures were or what they wanted. At the end of each conversation or date, they looked at me with a disappointed expression that said, “You don’t get me, do you?” And they were right. I didn’t.
After I graduated, I spent years trying to fix whatever was wrong with me. I read self-help books, went to therapy, and kept trying to find a woman who could tolerate my clumsy attempts at communication. Finally, in my early forties, I married a lovely woman who saw something in me that others didn’t. But still, despite all the progress I’d made to get beyond myself and understand other people, something was missing in our marriage. I couldn’t fully empathize, because I had no idea what it felt like to be female.
Determined to keep learning, I went back to Villanova University to earn a master’s degree in counseling psychology. The program enhanced my understanding of people in general, but I didn’t hear a single lecture or read a single chapter that would help a man understand a woman. Shouldn’t that be essential to one’s psychological education? When I became a therapist, if a woman client drifted too close to feminine topics such as motherhood or sexuality, I retreated, feeling like an intruder.
In my late fifties, I looked back on my decades of life and felt a pull to organize my memories. Since books had always taught me about the world, I wanted to shape my own memories into the structure of a story. To research my writing project, I began to read memoirs, some written by women. Inside each story, I entered another person’s life. Suddenly, I was growing up with an alcoholic father in Ireland, experiencing hand-to-hand combat in Vietnam, reaching out to help gang members in LA, or immigrating to the U.S. from Iran. And then it dawned on me. I was learning what it felt like to be a woman.
This hit me hardest when I was reading Enough About Me by Jancee Dunn, in which she described her ordinary life in suburban New Jersey. Preparing to go out on a date, she was in her bedroom, putting her hair up in curlers, bantering with her younger sister. As a reader, I was accustomed to suspending my own mind and entering the story, but this scene felt odd in a way I couldn’t identify. Later, Jancee moved in with her boyfriend who smoked dope and walked around their apartment naked. Her portrayal of his body was not flattering, and I thought about my own body. “Hey wait a minute. I’m not just watching a woman. I’m inside her mind. Is this legal?”
In that burst of recognition, I realized that for the first fifty years of my life, almost every book I had read was written by a man. After a lifelong diet of male thinking, no wonder I didn’t understand women. Reading their memoirs finally gave me a frame of reference for that now less mysterious other gender.
I learned about growing up with a sexually abusive father, shifting from a dating state of mind to a married one, being pregnant, having postpartum depression, having breasts, especially cancerous ones, losing a husband, losing a daughter, raising troubled teenagers, attempting to repress one’s sexuality in order to obey the precepts of a male-dominated religion, growing old and looking back. I even read a collection of short stories by young women who participated in the birth of feminism in the ’60s.
Experiencing life from a woman’s perspective answered questions I never before bothered to ask. Once I knew the female world from inside, I could relate much more personally with all the women in my life. Now, when I speak to a woman, at the end of the conversation, I am much more likely to see a look of recognition that says, “You do get me. Thank you for that.”
To read a list of the memoirs that changed Jerry’s perspective, click here.