The Journal Keeper: A Memoir
by Phyllis Theroux


Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-802-11897-4.
Reviewed by Susan Schoch
Posted on 05/25/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Creative Life

When Phyllis Theroux began keeping a journal, she was a wounded and struggling, young and single mother of three. Under plenty of stress, she began as many journalers do, by filling pages full of her complaints and troubles. A notebook was a place to unload. But after some experience, she "learned not to immortalize the darkness." With discipline, she began to use her journal differently. It became a place "to collect the light."

That cumulative light shines warmly in The Journal Keeper: A Memoir. This series of pieces from Theroux's mature journal spans six years. She is sixty-one when the book begins. Her children are grown and gone. She has built a writing career that supports her, if erratically. Her mother, at eighty-two, is going blind and has been living with Theroux for several years in the small town of Ashland, Virginia. As the journal unfolds, so do the characters of Theroux and her mother and children, and many of her friends and neighbors, though the glimpses are tantalizingly small.

Theroux is a skilled and talented writer who has carefully selected these journal entries to follow strong lines of growth and change. Her experiences—aging parent, career insecurity, making a home, relationships of all sorts—are ones most of us share. And like all of us, she is discovering her life story as she goes along. Yet Theroux has refined and deepened the work of such a personal record. This is not just self-charting. It is spiritual exercise. Keeping a journal is another technique by which she grows and opens her heart.

Kathleen Adams, a leader in the field of therapeutic writing, suggests that such use of a journal teaches the skill of self-reflection. "This skill, when carefully applied, leads to the process of integration and ultimately to the art of graceful change. Healing happens." Adams seems to be describing perfectly what Theroux demonstrates here. Her journal is a thoughtful probing of her responses to life, creating a path to new clarity with regard to her home, family, community, and work. (As a longtime teacher of writing, Theroux kindly offers an addendum with advice to others who want to use a journal in this way.)

Even as she gains insight, life brings her grief, insecurity, hurt and physical decline. It also brings her comfort, validation, creative energy and a great love. Theroux chooses to write about, and selects to share with us, what she thinks "has some merit or lasting value." This includes much about her writing life, the demands of caregiving, and the fearful challenge of giving herself to love. She is brave enough to reveal the arc of her personal experience with a gracious candor, though friends and family are shielded so much that they are sometimes too thinly sketched. Nonetheless, as a small-town, sixty-something woman myself, Theroux's memoir has resonance for me.

Especially touching is a cumulative paean to the kind souls who have taken her in and made her a part of the place where she lives. Whether it is through daily interaction or crisis support, her neighbors, like mine, create a hopeful picture of humanity. Even the unfailingly morose grocery clerk can make a day shine, because Theroux is paying close attention, noticing any illumination, using her journal as "a wise friend who helps you create your own enlightenment." For any of us, Theroux may be that wise friend, in a generous voice passing on the light she's collected, and in her being modeling a way to generate it for ourselves.


Essayist, columnist, teacher and author, Phyllis Theroux is the critically acclaimed creator of many books, including another memoir, California and Other States of Grace, as well as an anthology and several essay collections, among them Nightlights: Bedtime Stories for Parents in the Dark. The writing of her novella, Giovanni's Light, is chronicled in this memoir. Originally from San Francisco, now her home is Ashland, Virginia. Read more on her website.

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