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.
“Cherry Blossoms in Twilight”