Book Review: Megan Stielstra’s “The Wrong Way to Save Your Life

By: A.M. Larks

Nothing other than fate can attribute to my review on Megan Stielstra’s book, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, which took place a week after the events in Charlottesville (which occurred on August 12, 2017), when I was supposed to have received it a month prior. During the last week, the fear for our country has increased, it is undeniably pervasive and palpable. This fear is in every conversation, every communication, and every action or reaction. Fear is exactly what Stielstra tackles in her book. Stielstra ties the broad and the specific by examining fear at its roots, fear in her own life, and fear in everybody’s lives. Written before the November 2016 election, she comments on the fear rhetoric building at that time (which seems to have reached a violent pinnacle with Charlottesville), claiming that we must work through fear by confronting that which lies on the other side. Her words are startlingly prophetic:

You might want to move on, to turn it off, watch something else—but wait, look again. Look closer. How was it made? When was it made? What was happening when it was made? What are you going to do about it? And when are you going to start?
Now I think.

Steilstra’s examination of fear begins at the origins of her own fears, her childhood: her fear of heights, fear of wiener dogs, fears that bleed into dreams; like the failure to speak in front of a crowded room or failing at her job. When she writes of her childhood nightmares featuring the 1978 TV series Hulk, she simultaneously conveys the hysterical absurdity and intense emotions of childhood. Hulk was her boogeyman. She feared that he would drag her down, down under the bed, down to the basement (where he, of course, lived). This fear seems less naïve when Stielstra describes Banner (Ferrigno) by the open voiceover, “Until he can control the raging spirit that dwells within him.” The Hulk may have had an unconscious influence on Stielstra’s childhood, but in this book, he serves as a representative of the battler we all face: the one to control our own raging spirit. By reflecting on her fear of the Hulk, she is speaking to every uncontrolled raging monster.

Our fears are irrevocably tied to our experiences, especially those we had as children. As Stielstra points out, we become fearful from being stuck in a tree or watching the scary movie with the evil-minded seaweed. Stielstra shares her idiosyncratic fears, and by doing so, queries ours.

Our adult fears take on a different caliber than those that originate in childhood. Stielstra lets the magical world where “a pile of dead bunny popsicles” arise anew after being commanded, where you can speak to the character on the TV, and where alternative realities are easily envisioned by simply pretending, fall away, which is indicative of the collective experience of growing up. In her adult world, her fears have multiplied, and admitting them and getting to the root is more difficult because those fears are obstructed by anger. “Anger is easier than fear,” Stielstra says, as she explores the complications of this anger in her own life that leads her to yell at loved ones and use the wrong words. Her in-depth reflection causes the reader to reflect on their own life when anger had negative consequences, when the underlying emotion was concern and fear. Stielstra and the audience consider the consequences of failing to live like Bruce Banner and control the rage.

The understanding of the heart is Stielstra’s true aim. It is a universal quest. Dissection of the heart is an effective and gruesome metaphor for her self-exploration. Stielstra literally becomes obsessed with understanding the heart, resulting in a need to surgically dissect and, therefore, understand her loved ones. It is through Stielstra’s confessions that she bonds with her audience, illuminating how easy it is to express ourselves when the emotional stakes are lower. This also reveals how quickly we, as people, bond over tragedies, death, and decaying of bodies. This book is yet another representation of Stielstra reaching out to bond with the reader over death, over the shared fragility of our human bodies, and the inability to cope with those choices that are out of our control.

Among the thematic fears that resonate throughout her book, Stielstra emphasizes the imagination as a part of fear. “[W]e learned to fear our own imagination.” No point is more poignant than Stielstra’s recollection of a school shooting that possibly involved her father, which certainly involved her alma mater, her previous teachers, and people she knew in her small interconnected town. Though her father was spared that day, Steilstra’s rage, stemming from the fear embedded in her by the shooting, is tangible as she argues for stricter gun control: “People are dying. That man should not have had eleven guns. That man should not have had a gun. His right to a gun is not greater than outright to walk through this world, alive and living.” It is a rage propelled by her fears, her inner Hulk bubbling to the surface. While Charlottesville required no gun, Stiestra’s observation about what we say in the wake of tragedy is all the more devastating. “Our hearts are with the families, we say and nothing changes.”

Stielstra deftly reaches out across the generations by pointing out bridging behaviors. She may have listened to a boom box Casey Kasem, and now teenagers listen to their phones and Pandora/Spotify/Jango/Slacker/etc. It’s not just teenagers that haven’t changed. People are still the same, still searching for how to deal with the heart, that powerful and fragile organ. Stielstra banishes the distinctions that often separate us: gender, race generation, political party. Her book is about what affects everyone: fear.

It is her own battle with rage and fear and change that prevails throughout the book. She examines her rage at key junctures, like high school, college, and adult life.

High school was complicated. I imagine that’s the case for most people.
Where do you put the frustration?

In college:

I went off, ending with the typically exasperated: “It doesn’t make sense!”
Patty nodded. She sat her book on the floor. Then she leaned forward and said the simple most important thing I heard in college, if not ever, “You don’t get to hate something just because you don’t understand it.”

As an administrator:

“How do you keep it together?” I demanded. “I want to stand on a chair and scream.”
“I hear you,” he said.
“I agree with you,” he said.
“Will any of that help your students?” he said. I sat.

Stielstra stumbles upon her own answer to channeling rage and changing through this examination and this book. It is an answer everyone should employ and it is an answer the world should hear:

 “I was all guilt and rage, I stood in my kitchen and yelled the
understatement of the century: “IT ISN’T FUCKING KIND.”
“It’s not,” my mother said. “How can we make it right?”
Sometimes kindness means showing up.
Sometimes it’s trying.
We have to try.

For Steilstra, “making right” involves several actions, beginning with and centering around listening to each other:

And I think that’s the most important thing I ever learned from
my grandfather. No matter how set in our ways, we still have much
to learn. We can Listen. We can try. That is possible.

Listening requires a test of fortitude. When was the last time we stopped talking and listened to one another? When was the last time we felt our “true” feelings? Stielstra advocates that the honesty we have with the world begins with the self:

“It’s okay if a story makes you sad,” I told him. “It’s okay if it
makes you angry or afraid. These feelings are real. Let’s live them.”

Stielstra then implores us to be daring and channel those feeling into making art:

I want to be better for him: better mom, better writer, better
human being on this planet. I want the world to be better, too. I
believe art has a place in that. So what am I going to do about it?
What am I going to make?

She further petitions us to utilize our assets to make a difference, even a small one in the world:

It’s made me look very closely at how we use our platforms, whatever the size. The seemingly smallest gestures can mean the world to someone else.

Finally, Stielstra presses upon us the need to be brave by not giving into fear:

“You know what this guy is doing?” Dad says.
He pauses.
He’s a great storyteller- building tension, landing the punch.
“Selling fear.”

Stielstra argues vehemently for a change in perception, and being an educator, she believes this begins and ends in the classroom. While using her own eye-opening experiences as the touchstone, Stielstra’s commentary shakes the reader in a post-Charlottesville world: “Perhaps, it’s idealistic to think that what happens in a classroom can make a dent in identity-based violence and white supremacy.” Perhaps, it is idealistic, but one cannot help but wonder “what if?” Like Stielstra’s teenager self-wonders: “What if [we] jump? What if [we] fly?”

64) Then I had-
65) Let’s call it an epiphany.
66) It doesn’t matter if the work is personal or political.
67) It doesn’t matter if it’s a story or an essay.
68) Some people will come after us no matter what we say.
69) We might as well say things that matter.

Stielstra’s book stands up and confronts the reader, just as she confronted her class: “Everyone sat there, waiting for me to say something, and finally I looked up and asked, ‘Are you afraid?’” So then, let’s start to deal with that.


 AM Larks currently resides in California. She has earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and is currently pursuing her Master of Fine Arts from University of California Riverside Palm Desert’s low-residency program. She reads submissions for The Coachella Review nonfiction, poetry, and drama sections.