Janet Oberholtzer and I have a lot in common. We both grew up Mennonite in Pennsylvania. We are both living lives we never imagined as children.
Janet’s story, as you can see from her memoir book jacket, describes her miraculous recovery from a terrible accident.
I have been gently turning down offers to read and review new memoirs due to the stringent deadlines for my own manuscript. So when Janet contacted me via Twitter to ask if I would review her book, I said I could not, but that if she wanted to send me a copy, I would send questions to her for an interview post.
It’s a tribute to the power of her story that when I opened the book, I couldn’t put it down. I read it all the way through and then wanted to know more. Below are my questions and Janet’s answers.
1. Please begin with a short summary of your memoir story.
From my publisher:
In seconds, a family vacation became a nightmare when a horrific auto accident decimated marathon runner Janet Oberholtzer’s legs and shattered her pelvis. It seemed unlikely she’d even survive, let alone put back any of the pieces of her life. Her determination carried her through the difficult physical recovery but was no match for the depressing emotional and spiritual trauma that followed and proved almost fatal as Janet struggled to come to grips with her new normal. Today this heroic woman is leading a full life and back to running half-marathons. Because I Can is a story that will give you hope … whether you have physical limitations or if your world feels hopeless due to difficult circumstances, unwanted changes or the monotony of life.
2. Growing up Mennonite seems to have been part of the shadow you sometimes experience in your soul. Can you describe how this happened? What kinds of experiences left you feeling fear and judgment in Mennonite community?
The strict traditional Mennonite sect I grew up in placed more emphasis on following the church rules of how one dressed and what activities one could do then on a personal spiritual journey. I began struggling with this during my teen years with the final straw happening as I planned my wedding. To select a wedding date, an engaged couple went to visit the church bishop. I expected this visit to include conversation about the importance of marriage, whether we loved each other and how we could keep our marriage strong, etc.
Instead he talked about what we could or couldn’t do at our wedding. My dress had to be a plain mid-calf length dress with no lace. I had to wear black nylons and black shoes. We couldn’t have flowers, a tier cake or anything fancy. The list went on and on.
We had a traditional Mennonite wedding because I knew my dad wouldn’t pay for any other wedding, but soon after that time, we pulled away from the traditional Mennonite culture and church.
In my 20’s, as I figured out who I was outside of that culture, I disliked everything Mennonite, but with time my pendulum has reached a more balanced place as I’ve become more aware of the myriad of other Mennonite sects that provide a more positive experience and that do amazingly good things locally and around the world.
3. Your terrible accident came at a time in your life when you were very vibrant and active–a mother, business woman, church member, and runner. You went from vivid life to muddled memory, forced inactivity, spiritual doubts, and fears so strong you occasionally even considered suicide.
Yes, exactly … that sums it up well. And I didn’t have the skills to process all the changes. About half of Because I Can is how I discovered that to process the changes, my mind and spirit had to go through a time of renewal.
4. Please share how you came to tell your story. What got you started as a writer? What has kept you going? What is the Rhizome Cultivate Contest? How and when did you enter?
I was an active kid, but I was also the kid who often had a pen and paper in her hand. At age 15, I read Julie by Catherine Marshall. As I finished the book, I decided I’d like to be a writer someday. While many Mennonite groups value a college education, the strict sect I grew up in did not. So I didn’t have the option of pursuing my desire at that time. I married at age 20 … three boys and a business soon followed. During that time, the only writing I had time for was business plans, marketing material and a seasonal column in a local paper.
After being injured, I wanted (and friends/family encouraged me) to write a memoir. I began writing while also learning more about the craft of writing. I attended writing seminars, took classes and went to writing conferences. After five years of many stops and starts I finished the rough draft and was ready for the next step. The publishing world is tough, so I hired a freelance editor. Her first review almost made me want to give up the idea of publishing, because some sections of my manuscript only needed minor changes, but others needed a complete rewrite. After picking myself up off the floor, I locked myself in a motel room for a week and tackled the needed changes. My editor declared it successful and ready for publication.
I looked into the options from traditional publishing to self-publishing. I queried some agents, then heard about a contest at Rhizome Publishing, where they were giving away a publishing contract for one manuscript. I love winning things, so I tweaked it some more and finally sent it in the day before the deadline. It won the contest. And as they say, the rest is history … it was released on September 20, 2011.
5. Please tell what you have learned about book publishing and book marketing from you experience of writing and selling your book.
It’s hard work. Harder than I ever anticipated! But it’s also rewarding. I’ve begun hearing from people all over the country. Some are struggling with their own physical challenges, others identify with my struggle with depression or with the spiritual doubts and questions I have. Plus I heard from amazing people like former college presidents who read my book 🙂
6. What has happened to you and your family since the end of the book?
We are doing well. We’ve moved about ten miles from my hometown of Morgantown to a house my husband remodeled. He works in construction, sometimes with a local builder and other times remodeling houses he buys/sells. The boys are in various stages of college, internships and finding their dream jobs.
7. Are you planning to write another book?
I would like to … I’m considering a few options now. I have a few friends who have amazing stories to tell, but they aren’t writers, so maybe I’ll write their stores. And someday I’d like to try fiction.
8. What gives you joy right now?
Running, being outdoors (in warm weather), reading and having meaningful conversations where I learn more about the other person, myself and/or something I’ve had questions about.
9. One of my own themes in telling the story of what it is like to grow up Mennonite is pride v. humility. Do you think a culture can enforce a humility ethic? Is it a good thing or a bad thing to try to do that? What have you learned about pride and humility by writing your memoir?
This are great questions … but I’m not sure I have answers for you right now, I’ll have to think about that for a time.
Thanks, Janet, for this glimpse into your life and your new life as a published memoirist. Congratulations on your book. Those interested, can order the book and/or connect with Janet by following these links: You can order paperback copies of Because I Can at Janet’s website and on Amazon. Or order for your Kindle or Nook. You can connect with Janet on her blog, on Twitter and on Facebook.
But first, please offer your questions and comments in the space below. Janet will respond and so will I.
[…] Janet Oberholtzer: Because I Can […]
Thank you Shirley! I appreciate this post and I’m thrilled that you read my memoir.
Due to my past Mennonite anti-pride culture, it was hard for me to type that sentence above … because saying I’m thrilled could mean I’m proud.
See the whole pride v. humility issue still affects me and has me confused. I’m looking forward to learning more about that from you and your memoir.
I think you just answered question #9 above. 🙂
Thanks for sharing your avid audience with me. I have much to learn from you!
Think of it this way — suppose you randomly found something wonderful and lovely and decided that you couldn’t keep it to yourself, that it was so great you had to share it with someone. That would be a wonderful act of selflessness, right? Why would it be any different if the wonderful, lovely thing was something YOU created? Pride is when you do something wonderful and use that as a weapon to put others down. You’ve done something wonderful and are using it to help others.
Thank you, thank you! That is such a great way of explaining it … I think I’ll copy and paste that onto my desktop.
Thank you, fireandair. I agree with Janet that your explanation is liberating. Those of us who grew up with fear that we would be seen as pride-ful thank you for this distinction.
Janet – What was the “breaking point” or moment for you when you realized you not only had a right to live again and be happy post-accident and post-mennonite?
I don’t think it was a moment for either one of them … it was more of a slow process of discovering who I am and the beauty life contains.
As for being post-Mennonite… since the majority of my experience as a Mennonite was not a good one, plus I’ve found that most labels mean different things to different people, I tend to stay away from labels.
And post-accident, I realized that I only have one life to live and I didn’t want to miserable for the rest of it. So I changed what I could (had additional surgeries, did new exercises like yoga to help my beat-up body stay flexible) and I made peace with what I couldn’t change.
So now I will eat, drink and be merry 🙂
I just finished reading Because I Can last night and something that struck me is that while Janet and I come very different backgrounds in terms of religion (her’s being strict and controlled and mine being on-again, off-again WASP), we have travelled a similar path in terms of spirituality and how we view God. That said, although my family was not what I would consider religious, it certainly was strict and controlling so I guess that’s why I relate to a lot of what Janet writes about. To me, that’s the sign of an excellent writer: readers may not share the same experience, but they are able to relate.
This comment is very encouraging to me, since I am writing a memoir about growing up Mennonite (unlike Janet, I am still Mennonite), and I want other people to be able to relate to the story. You remind me that every child experiences constrictions and so can identify with the idea if not with the specifics of a Mennonite life story.
Readers who want to know more about Janet will enjoy this interview with Shawn Smucker, also published today! http://shawnsmucker.com/2011/11/10/six-questions-with-author-janet-oberholtzer/
Having read your book, Janet, I was more focused on your experience through the accident and how you and your family dealt with the challenges and healing. Now I think I want to know way more on your Mennonite roots.
Wow! So were both you and your husband part of the same Mennonite church? And you decided as a couple to do things different? In the “more balanced place” you’ve found with your Mennonite upbringing, has that been for the whole family or mostly within you?
My husband and I were both raised in the same Mennonite conference, though we lived about 40 miles apart, so we attended different church buildings. But generally all the youth did events together, so we met as teenagers through my cousin who played baseball with him.
Soon after we were married, we both knew we didn’t want to stay in the sheltered culture our families were in, so we left. None of us pressured the other one, it was a joint decision. And our sons are so thankful we didn’t stay there, because that would mean no TV, Xbox or movies for them 🙂
Both of our families are still in that world (I’m from a family of 7 children and he’s from a family of 10 children) Mennonites do not shun like Amish do, so though we have major lifestyle differences, we have a good relationship with them.
This memoir reminds me of Lucy Grealy’s ‘Autobiography of a face’. How one individual copes with devastating bodily trauma. Though it sounds as though Janet whose trauma struck later in life and clearly did not hurt her face, unlike Lucy Grealy – who suffered her trauma as a child and to her face – is perhaps the more successful in her recovery.
Thanks for reading and thanks for the book suggestion.
I have not heard of “Autobiography of a face” but it looks like a book I would enjoy, so I will add it to my reading list.
I enjoyed reading this blog and the ensuing comments, and can’t wait to read Janet’s book. Shirley’s will be interesting to me as well, as I have had my own unusual passage in and out of Mennonite culture. Though born and raised in L.A., in middle age I moved to Lancaster County and put on a cape dress and covering. I helped start two Mennonite churches that are still thriving, though after six years I returned to something more like my own faith tradition.
The discussion about pride is notable, as I did feel during those Mennonite years that almost every sermon had to decry the (almost) unpardonable sin of pride. I never quite figured out why! Kudos to both of you for examining your life, making sense of it, and then sharing it to inspire others.
Lynne, I am absolutely fascinated by your story and hope you will tell more of it. Come back often. I hope you do buy Janet’s book. I’m sure you will devour it the way I did. And I’d love for you to be part of the community we are building here. It takes a village to write a book!
Thanks, Shirley. I’ve told bits of my story for years through counseling and speaking, and hear all the time that I should write a book. So maybe I’ll become part of the village in a different way one of these days. 🙂
Shirley and Janet,
Your wrestling with “pride” is interesting to me because I did not grow up with that. My Low German Mennonite family had absolutely no trouble with “crowing.” They laughed and joked, had absolutely no fear about being the center of attention. As child, I not only wanted to be part of that fun, I wanted to be right in front with all eyes on me. That attention seeking prompted no censure at all, only amused and tolerant smiles.
It was with a sense of “Ah hah!” then when I came across Theron Schlabach’s comment about Mennonites and Amish in the US making “humility … the central test of faithfulness.” He says this only happened during the nineteenth century. Before then “the test of faithfulness was still the old Anabaptist one of suffering.” He adds, “No doubt lack of suffering helped bring the change. Suffering as the test of self-giving, self-yielding discipleship just did not fit the American experience.” (Peace, Faith Nation: Mennonites and Amish in Nineteenth-Century America, p. 30).
Very perceptive, Loretta. I might invite Theron to comment here sometime or to write a guest post, because, as his colleague and then president at Goshen College, I am quite familiar with his thesis. He spent most of his distinguished career as an historian pondering this question.
Part of my confusion as a child was over feeling encouraged to “crow” while at home but then feeling all the rules change at church and with my father’s family, where what the Amish call “Demut” was an expected style if not inner reality.
From the website wiseGeek, describing the Amish (and the most conservative Mennonite groups, such as Janet’s? I’ll let her decide it this fits.):
“Demut is the Amish term for humility and submission to God, which they value highly. To achieve this humility and live the way they believe that God wills, the Amish emphasize the value of community, cooperation, fellowship, and brotherhood in the group. Self discipline is also very important to the Amish.
Hochmut refers to the rejection of vanity, pride, and individualism. The Amish believe that many of the modern conveniences that others enjoy promote these transgressions in some way. It is against Amish belief to take photographs or to be photographed, because the practice promotes vanity. The use of technology, such as automobiles, electricity, and labor saving machinery, can create competition between members of a community, encouraging pride, arrogance, and rivalry. The Amish also forbid education after the equivalent of the eighth grade, suggesting that higher education contributes to a feeling of self importance. They feel that education up to the eighth grade is all that is necessary to effectively contribute to the Amish community.”
Interestingly, I never heard the word “Demut” until I got to Goshen College. But I felt the influence of the idea. My own families of origin do not have an Amish connection, and the PA Dutch/German language was lost almost completely in my generation. Even my grandparents and greatgrandparents used English (heavily accented and with odd syntax) almost completely.
Keep coming back! I want to hear more of your story!
I’ve never heard the word “Demut” before … but most of it does describe the Mennonite sect I grew up in. Unlike the Amish, they use automobiles, electricity, and labor saving machinery, but the thoughts about the value of community, cooperation, fellowship, and brotherhood, self discipline and higher education are similar.
It’s interesting at the difference within families and/or groups. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do in my life … decipher the difference between what was/is certain family traits and what’s more general Mennonite traits.
Yes, keep sorting, but don’t be surprised if not all of it unwinds. 🙂
When I spent a year among Lutherans, I was surprised to find some traits I thought were Mennonite were actually German.
Congrats Janet on the publication of your memoir. It looks like an important and enjoyable read. Interestingly I grew up with no direction or spiritual teachings whatsoever so in my early adulthood I went seeking. Unfortunately I was too willing to adhere to other people’s rules and it’s taken a number of years to find my own way. I think it’s interesting that no matter what our history we’re all basically looking for the same things–a sense of purpose, how we fit in with humanity and how we can understand things greater than ourselves. I’ll add your book to my GoodReads queue.
You’ve peaked my interested with that glimpse into your life. Because of the pronounced influence of religion in my life, I’ve wondered what it would feel like to grow up without any… so I hope to hear more of your story someday. I look forward to exploring your blog soon.
Thanks for this comment, Grace. You remind me that there are many paths — and many obstacles and guides — on the spiritual journey.