Review by Julia Brown.
Megan Stielstra’s collection of essays The Wrong Way to Save Your Life (Harper Perennial, 2017) sets out to document personal stories of fear across the span of the author’s life. She writes about being a child, having a child, and postpartum depression. She writes about being a college student, teaching college students, and teaching college faculty. She writes about gun violence, fires, and the political climate. She writes about deer hearts and the human heart. Expertly weaving together a series of interconnected stories, Stielstra, a creative nonfiction professor at Northwestern University and author of Once I Was Cool, captures readers’ attention with vivid details, relatable narratives, and a raw honesty that permeates the entire collection.
Stielstra opens with a short essay that explains how this collection came to be, and introduces some of the stories to come. From the beginning, Stielstra remains hopeful, saying, “I want to believe we’re moving forward as a society and this surge of bigotry and violence is the final kick and scream, a last-ditch effort to hang onto the white patriarchal systems that favor the privileged. If we’re going to make it we have to look at the fear” (10). She examines this fear through her own experiences as a young woman who dealt with objectifying employers, her conversations about race with her best friend, her journey of learning that her writing is political, and the human heart.
In exploring the human condition, Stielstra asks her father, a retired school administrator and a hunter, to send her deer hearts to dissect-something she had only done in a high school science course. By learning about the heart physically, Stielstra posits that she might learn something about the heart metaphorically. She details text message and Facebook conversations about the hearts, conversations began over drinks with friends, and admits that she is unsure of the significance of the hearts and what questions the dissections will answer. Stielstra does gain insight from the self-admittedly odd endeavor, stating, “Ever since I started this thing with the deer hearts, everyone wants to talk about meat. About butchers. About dissection and hunting and organ donation and blocked arteries and invasive surgery—our battered aging bodies, so beautiful and mortal. I love these stories, how one opens the door for another” (46). The deer hearts open doors to Stielstra’s accounts of her father’s heart disease and her fears surrounding his health, as well as doors to difficult discussions of gun violence and gun laws. While Stielstra was in college, her high school science teacher brought a gun to school and murdered an administrator, whom she feared might be her father. Though Stielstra’s father was not on campus at the time of the shooting, her initial fear leaves her questioning her own general safety and the safety of her loved ones.
Stielstra brings this question of violence and fear to the forefront when one of her students writes numerous particularly disturbing fictional accounts of Stielstra’s death, and tries to get her home address from the university. The student does not cause Stielstra to fear teaching, but does once again force her to examine questions and provide statistics about guns on school grounds urging her readers and colleagues to protest open-carry on campuses, saying “this essay is done feeling helpless” (124). At times, Stielstra weighs her responsibility to publish political essays with her fears of retaliation. Like many women writers, Stielstra faces threats of violence in comments when she publishes her writing online. Again, she decides to quit feeling helpless and remain hopeful through her fears.
Stielstra also writes honestly about her experiences having a child and suffering from postpartum depression. Unable to leave the house or properly take of herself, Stielstra is afraid that she is unable to take care of her child. Luckily, Stielstra has the strong support of women — both friends and strangers –who urge her to help herself and provide tough love, forcing her to resume her hobbies, when she needs it the most. When she emerges from the fog of depression, Stielstra again decides to not remain helpless and to use her writing to support other mothers with postpartum depression by letting them know they are not alone.
I strongly recommend The Wrong Way to all women, higher-ed employees, and parents, but also to anyone who has ever been afraid. Perhaps because, like Stielstra, I am a woman originally from the Midwest, and a writer and an adjunct lecturer, so many of these stories feel familiar to me; perhaps they will feel familiar to everyone. Stielstra possesses the ability to get to the universal fears we all experience throughout our lives and the hopeful, sometimes humorous and always human, ways we overcome them.