Let’s talk about the enemy archetype in memoir. No matter what your memoir topic or sub-theme, there will always be an enemy or shadow aspect who blocks you, causes you pain, challenges you, threatens your survival or causes you to doubt yourself as you’re working to achieve the goal of your story.
Remember that without conflict, there is no story. Scenes with your enemy or the Shadow are the most compelling parts of your story, they’re also the most memorable for the reader. We want to know how and if you will survive. We want to know what you’re capable of, what makes you snap. We want to know if you’ll make it out alive, and we want to know if you’re ‘big’ enough to forgive the enemy the pain, and remember the lesson.
If you don’t identify the enemy or Shadow in your memoir – no matter how happy and positive the topic – it will fall flat, lack depth, and you (as the hero / narrator) will seem un-relatable, one-dimensional, and quite possibly, deluded.
Enemy archetypes as path to wholeness
It’s my firm belief that one of the most valuable side effects (!) of writing your memoir is an integration of all the previously separated or repressed or hidden parts of the self, perhaps memories or primal habitual responses that you’ve never questioned before. But until you look at aspects of your story (and its challenges) from a framework of seeing parts of the self as an Enemy or Shadow, it’s hard to know what is ‘you’ and what is ‘the world reacting to you’.
For example – when I was working on my first memoir, which was a travel memoir, I was confused about the conflict and who or what was the ‘enemy’ – because it was a happy story, a love story, and not an addiction memoir or a memoir of escaping something tough or horrible. But even a self-help or how-to memoir has a ‘shadow’ self that needs to be embraced and healed. Without this contrast: light and dark, superficial and deep, your story will coast along and send everyone to sleep.
The other problem you might have is seeing all enemies as ‘outside forces’. This is part of the reason I LOVE the hero’s journey framework not just for writing memoir, but for analysing the way we tell ourselves stories about our feelings and experiences. The Hero’s Journey runs along the Carl Jung model of psycho-development – ie. that the outer journey is also an inner journey or quest for wholeness and individuation of the inner self. If you can see every enemy, block or challenge in your life as something that ultimately leads to your highest development or becoming whole, you can find meaning in every experience.
Essentially – every story (yes, even the happiest ones) has a person, challenge or inner force that functions as the enemy.
Let me explain.
The function of the enemy in memoir
Understanding each character in your story from the perspective of their FUNCTION (over what they did or didn’t do to you) is a great way to get perspective on your story.
In terms of story-telling, the Enemy / Shadow / Villain’s function is to raise the stakes for the hero, challenge and push them, and ultimately to make them grow, form stronger bonds with others, and overcome some inner ‘imbalance’ that causes conflict. Let’s say your story is about going to boarding school and having a horrendous teacher who would punish and humiliate different students each week. Yes – it’s painful but chances are, having such a terrible teacher helped you form stronger allegiances with your classmates, work harder so you never get pulled up by said teacher, and make some key decisions about who and what YOU will be when you finish school.
This is the ultimate function of any enemy or threatening force in your story (and your life): to help you address imbalances on the path to wholeness. And to push you in your path to growth and transformation.
What’s the difference between the Shadow and the Enemy?
Though both perform the same function in storytelling, the Shadow is the unconscious aspect of the self that we often ignore or keep hidden, and which can manifest as an outside enemy, or sabotage, or accidents, resistance, or simply pain or discomfort or unpleasant behaviour or fear. In Jungian terms – it’s the side of the self that we often reject.
The enemy may not be human – it could be an animal (a bear!) a weather pattern, or even a pandemic. When I’m getting frustrated with all the lockdown rules in Victoria, the drastic change in our lifestyles and how much we are dealing with this year, I like to picture the scientists sweating away on a vaccine and that makes me happy. For some scientist, somewhere in the world right now, this pandemic is going to make them a global hero!
Part of the reason I think writing a memoir is such a beneficial human act is because we examine our Shadow and we’re forced to confront the fact that maybe, just maybe, repetitive antagonistic forces in our lives come from a rejected part of ourselves rather than some random outside enemy, and this helps us stop ‘projecting’ our fears and our anger onto others.
Memoir takes humility, yes, but more than that it takes radical self-honesty.
Identify the enemy or the shadow this way: what blocked my way or made it difficult to fulfil my goal in this part of my life?
The enemy versus the shadow
Perhaps your memoir chronicles an internal journey on an outer pathway – like WILD, by Cheryl Strayed. It could even be a self-help book with aspects of memoir or it could be an addiction memoir. These sorts of memoirs typically have a ‘Shadow’ aspect of the self that functions as the enemy. In WILD it’s her fear. There’s a wonderful line where she decides that to make it through her quest, to make it on the trail, she is going to need to vanquish fear. It returns again and again (as she runs out of water, meets those scary men, hitchhikes, loses her boot etc) and every time there’s a scene where she encounters her fear, we see her grow.
“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.”
In addiction memoirs such as Getting Off by Erica Garza or Girl Walks Out of A Bar by Lisa Smith, the Shadow aspect of the self is the reasons or trauma behind the addiction. It’s the unconscious driver that sabotages the hero’s quest for wholeness or healing. So you can see, it functions in much the same way.
The Villain or Enemy
If you think about typical Villains in true stories – they test us, stretch us to our capacity, hurt us and try to sabotage our good efforts. Much like the Shadow self. But the purpose of the Enemy or Villain – and their function in terms of the storyline of your memoir, is exactly the same: to stretch you to grow, to get you to learn new skills (to conquer said enemy), to build your self-awareness, and to help you make allies to support you in your highest goal. Your enemy may also be a shapeshifting archetype who sometimes acts as your Mentor: Perhaps your enemy sometimes brings you gifts. In The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger, Miranda Priestly is both Villain and Mentor: bestowing a new status with the role she gives Andy, but also sending her on torturous tests and errands (proof copies of JK Rowling’s latest books for the twins, etc), punishing her and putting her down (I love the scene about the origin of her ‘cerulean’ sweater) so that Andy digs deep and finds new resources both within herself (and others!) to grow and become a greater and more whole person (and heroine).
The purpose of the villain or enemy in your story is to challenge you and make you grow. Just like it is in life!
Whether your enemy is an actual person or a shadow aspect of your self, the function in the memoir is to raise the stakes, keep the tension (and question in the reader’s mind) alive of whether or not you will survive or thrive, and to highlight the contrasts as you escape from each encounter bruised, hurt and battered, but ultimately stronger.
If we think of the pandemic as an outside enemy that’s currently fulfilling this ‘role’ in our personal stories, we could say that ultimately it will see us grow in unique ways that fit each of our personal stories. It’s an empowering way to look at our lives from the bigger picture.
What enemy in your life has shown you just what you’re capable of? What would you never have known you could do, if it weren’t for the villain in YOUR story? I love to explore these questions in my memoir courses. Because they ultimately lead to growth and self-honesty. And, to put it simply, it’s a much more empowering belief, to think that everything in your life (even a pandemic and lockdown!) is ultimately working towards your highest good.
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