What goes into a memoir that's written, not by a pop singer or former president, but by residents of a shelter for homeless women?
If you're Sara Casteel, it's Easter egg hunts, riding a horse for the first time and getting your first hit of morphine in eighth grade.
If you're Diane Fields, it's a joyous wedding with the love of your life, a divorce, a son with mental illness, a lost job, repossessed car, eviction, depression, attempted suicide and divine intervention.
If you're Chandiss Harvey, it's going to Disney World for your 10th birthday, getting raped the same year, and becoming a mother who loses and regains her son.
If you're Breana Rothrock, it's an adolescence of varsity sports and charity work mixed with marijuana and methamphetamines, leading to a young adulthood of near-fatal needle dependence and an astonishing turn onto the path of recovery.
If you're Jessica Shearer, it's a "Dear John" letter to a lover named Heroin: "After all you've done to me, I still love you and that needle. I'm writing to let you know you no longer control my life."
For these women and nine others, the common denominator and destination has been the Wheeler Mission Ministries Center for Women and Children. Told in prose, verse and lists, their stories comprise in the latest book from the Writers' Center of Indiana's long-running Memoir Project, Where Mercy and Truth Meet: Homeless Women of Wheeler Speak.
Darolyn "Lyn" Jones, a Ball State University professor and director of the Memoir Project, compiled the book this summer along with a squad of volunteers who shared with her a learning experience they hope will spread to public policy and public hearts.
"I've been in the Memoir Project 10 years and have done five books," she says, "and this is the one most of all that's both captivating on the literary level -- you can't wait to turn the page and see what happens next -- and can also raise awareness of the humanity of those involved."
The fullness of the persons who exposed their lives -- the joys and resourcefulness as well as the failings and catastrophes -- was a non-negotiable condition if Jones and her team wished to breach the Wheeler sanctuary.
There was no way leaders of the venerable social service provider were going to allow their clients to be paraded about as victims. The leaders read the proofs pre-publication, and were more than pleased.
Some of the writers had their own trepidations as well; but in the end, only two chose anonymity. The basic impulse to proclaim one's existence helped break the ice, and so did the desire to praise Wheeler's transitional programs. So did the insistence by Jones and her helpers that hard realities be balanced with happy times. The volunteers wrote reflections on the memoirists, interspersed throughout the book.
"I was raised that you didn't put your life on the street," says Jean Arnold. "But then I started writing. And crying. And I wrote some more. And I cried some more. I wanted people to know Wheeler helped me."
Arnold is not an addict, not a fugitive from domestic abuse. She fell apart with grief after her son, a college student, was killed last June in a car accident. She invites folks carrying "stereotypes about the homeless" to take note of her sudden landing at Wheeler.
Some of these are success stories. Some are other kinds. Most of the writers have scattered, and mostly not from having completed the drug rehabilitation, job preparation or other rebuilding programs offered by the facility at 3208 E. Michigan St.
"Heartbreaking," Jones says. Still, five of them got together with Jones, Writers' Center director Barbara Shoup and volunteer editor Barbara McLaughlin recently to savor copies of their book fresh off the presses. The organizers hope to gather more for a release event Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. at Wheeler.
Readings will be held at venues around the city and perhaps beyond, but that will depend on results of a fund-raising effort. Those wishing to donate may click here. The book will be available soon at the Writers' Center site, and at Amazon and elsewhere after Oct. 15.
Coming off "the hardest project I've ever done," Jones feels a special urgency to gain mileage for Where Mercy and Truth Meet.
"A lot of memoirs have been written by individual homeless people," she says, "but I've never seen anything like a compilation. The policy impact should be huge. I want it to go all the way around."
In other words, says Debra Barnes, former legal secretary, survivor of car wreck injuries, a violent crime, a stroke and a year on the waiting list for Section 8 housing: "I just hope the book makes people treat people better."