Baptism by Toilet Water: a memoir of overcoming child abuse

A few days ago, I attended James F. Winter’s book talk and signing for Baptism by Toilet Water. This sounds like a humorous story, but it’s actually a memoir of abuse by an alcoholic dad whose parents were the epitome of Christian good-heartedness – and they lived next door. I’ve got to read how they handled listening to the yelling and seeing their grandchildren with bruises. Jim is no longer bitter, though, and this book is his journey away from anger, a memorial to his siblings who died too young, and a legacy for his own children, all behind a cover of a cute little boy with a wet curl on top of his head. Just a little disarming! Jim explained the title as referring to the ironic extremes of his upbringing.

Baptism by Toilet Water covers the complexities of love: love of children for a caring mother who was not strong enough to take her brood away from abuse, love of kind and generous grandparents who nevertheless had favorites, love bonding brothers and sisters through illness and death. Jim said he has heard from many people how the book helped move them through their own demons, and was especially touched by a woman able to break through the wall of suffering the loss of her child by reading the book. Interestingly, he said the two people who told him they did not like his book were suspected to be alcoholics who said he was too hard on the father! The book is from his perspective, he told them, not his father’s – always two sides of a story.

It took four years to write this book, and Jim interviewed his father’s successful and well-adapted brothers (one a historian who provided family documents and reviewed for historical accuracy) about their childhood and what they thought triggered his father’s behavior. Sadly, his grandparents, parents and all siblings but one had died by the time Jim began writing, so he didn’t have many people left to confer with. Reliving the past was difficult, but therapeutic, he said.

The company Jim used to publish was enthusiastic about his manuscript, but the editor insisted that the dark and gripping chapter 6 become chapter 1 to catch reader interest and hold it tightly. This meant Jim had to rework his whole manuscript! He was skeptical about the move and unsure of his ability to adapt the original work, but the editorwas adamant and encouraging. Jim did it, though, and readers have enjoyed how conversational and smooth the writing is. Not bad for someone who had neverwritten a book before.

After the first chapter, the story flashes back to “Humble Beginnings” and becomes chronological, with subheadings to introduce topics and events, all listed in the table of contents for easy reference. Included are details of childhood games from the 1960s. Hidden inthe middle of the book is a series of old photos, some in color, which did add to the price of the book, in case you wonder why it’s a little high for a slim paperback. Internal formatting, front and back covers are nicely done. A lovely touch is the inclusion of a couple poems his grandmother wrote.

One point of particular interest for memoir writers: There is a religious aspect to this story, but it is not prominent. Skimming through, I didn’t even notice any reference to religion. The final chapter, however, is very Christian, which can be off-putting to non-Christians, and even Christians uncomfortable with seeing their faith pushed. Personally, I would have used the last chapter as an afterword, or not at all. The second-to-last chapter actually ends very nicely with a “soft” message, although I see why Jim wanted a concluding chapter. Writers need to know who the audience is for their book. Is it only Christians? The back cover does say at the bottom “he comes to realize that Jesus Christ is illuminating the way through it all,” so hopefully readers will heed the warning sign. Feel free to leave your comments about this.

Linda Austin
“Cherry Blossoms in Twilight”


About moonbridgebooks

Co-author of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a WWII Japan memoir of her mother's childhood; author of Poems That Come to Mind, for caregivers of dementia patients; Co-author/Editor of Battlefield Doc, a medic's memoir of combat duty during the Korean War; life writing enthusiast; loves history and culture (especially Japan), poetry, and cats
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6 Responses to Baptism by Toilet Water: a memoir of overcoming child abuse

  1. I have not read the book so I will weigh in to what you said the chapter/s where like. You are right as writers we need to know whom our target audience is and what it is we are trying to say in the book. Sometimes it is just for fun, however many times there is a message–even if it is hidden in the pages. As writers I believe each of us what the reader to have a take home message from our writings. I am working on a non-fiction book "It's All About…LOVE" It is about God's unfailing love for His creation humankind. The true meaning of Love and what it is we are all seeking to fill an empty void in our lives. As I got near the finish-line of this book and started to work on the book proposal I found out that according to the world I really did not qualify to write this book. Publisher will be hesitant to buy it due to not enough of a platform. Therefore, I have started to work on platforming and work on a novel. My novel target audience will be everyone. Therefore I have to be careful on the wording I am planning on doing to not offend but to create interest. By helping the reader to grow in a faith and belief in a Creator and then hopefully they (the reader) will be interested in reading the non-fiction about who the Creator is, God. Hopefully doing it this way I can reach more people and help them come into a close relationship with God their Creator, Jesus Christ who is not only the Son, but also the mediator and the Holy Spirit our counselor. Anyway, that is my thoughts.

  2. Linda Austin says:

    Thanks for your comment, Linda Jo. You said it well about watching wording so as "not to offend but to create interest." If your target audience is not necessarily those of a particular religion, then coming on too strong can be a turn-off. I think this story already is a nicely subtle testament to Christian faith without the final chapter telling us about it. Writing tip: Let your readers think for themselves.PS: You're right, Christian publishers are very picky about who they take on. Makes a good arguement for self-publishing.

  3. James Winter says:

    Thanks for the review Linda! It was a pleasure meeting you at Left Bank the other night. I appreciate you taking an interest in the book. I joined your blog and will look forward to hearing more about books you've read. I thought I'd try to shed some light on the "target audience" point. My intention was to reach both Christians and non-Christians alike. Linda Jo was correct when she eluded to a hidden message. The hidden message in my book is faith. Faith in God can overcome anything. My journey through life has proven this. Whether it be child abuse, or coming to terms with the death of a loved one, or understanding why someone who is good is pitted with an incurable disease, faith can and will deliver you. I was fortunate to have a set of Christian grandparents who lived next door. They gave me a glimpse of that faith. What I took from them did not prevent what happened to me but it did provide a way through it all. Had they not given me a glimpse I'm certain I would never have found the way. I wanted to give everyone that same glimpse whether they be a believer or a non-believer. Even good Christians struggle with their faith from time to time, so in testifying my faith I not only hoped to reinforce theirs but also open the door for those who've not found their faith. Professing my faith in the final chapter was essential for I wanted to leave no doubt as to the true source of my salvation. Trust me, I recognized the risks of making a strong confession at the end of my book. The last thing I wanted to do was force feed religion to my reader. But one must also remember that this is not fiction. A true story demands honesty. I didn't want my final chapter to end with a message of just surviving from what I had endured. It was much more than just surviving. I wanted it to reveal that I had reached the ultimate destination despite a very long, tough, journey.

  4. Linda Austin says:

    Thanks so much for responding, James! Religion (and politics) is such a touchy subject, so lifewriters would be interested in how this was handled and your thoughts about it. It was a pleasure meeting you, too, and hope to see you again sometime.

  5. As a survivor of childhood abuse and with a memoir waiting for a publisher, I am intrigued by other memoirs on the subject. Thank you for this review. I've added the book to my GoodReads queue.

  6. Linda Austin says:

    Thank you for stopping by, Grace, and I hope you have found some kind of peace after your tramatic childhood. If you would like to guest post here about your experience writing your memoir, even though it isn't published, let me know. Or if you have any questions about publishing. I'm at moonbridge-at-earthlink-dot-com. I'll be posting Amazon and Goodreads reviews of Baptism probably in a few weeks.

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