Q&A With Laurada Byers

Thank you to  everyone who has helped Laurada on her trek.

While Looking for Peace, I Found Purpose

What was your motivation for writing Wild Wisdom—A Warthog’s Tale?

LAURADA BYERS: For one, I’m not getting any younger. So it’s an opportunity to raise some additional funds for the school that my family helped establish, the Russell Byers Charter School, on an ongoing basis.

I also like to give myself birthday presents on big birthdays, and I turned 70 in December, so publishing Wild Wisdom is my gift to myself.

The last part of my motivation is the school’s curriculum, which is based on a design framework called Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound. And one of the principles of the expeditionary part is that students need to show evidence of their learning and share it with the community. So this book is my attempt to do that. It also satisfies another principle, this one for the outward bound part, which says that if you want to grow in life, you need to leave your comfort zone. As someone who’s learned to value her privacy, her anonymity, disclosing such personal aspects of my life certainly counts as getting outside my comfort zone.

It’s interesting that you considered your anonymity.

The evening my husband, Russell Byers, was murdered, I lost my anonymity. It’s how a lot of people, even today, identify me. One of the more informative aspects of that experience was realizing that most people really don’t know how to respond to tragedy, especially one that traumatic, or someone with post-traumatic stress disorder. Literally, for a couple of years, I had people move to the other side of the street when they spotted me.

Is there anything to be read into the use of the warthog as the central character?

I’ve spent a lot of time in Africa, and the more I came to know warthogs, the more I grew to love them. The author Alan Moorehead described the warthog as being elegant, sort of like Audrey Hepburn with warts. That resonates with me, too. It’s such a perfect description. And for that reason, it influenced my perception of them.

This is a graphic memoir, but it’s homed in on the last 20 years, with good reason. It’s been an eventful two decades for you. Would you have been as motivated to write Wild Wisdom if they hadn’t been?

No. One of my favorite quotes is “Wisdom is earned.” Mine was earned largely over the last 20 years. And believe me, every word of that wisdom was forged through personal experience. I reference my bout with anal cancer, for example. Widespread as cancer has become today, I felt pretty isolated while I was undergoing treatment because of the stigma attached to anal cancer. It’s also pretty rare. So, my hope is this book alleviates some of those feelings in others, reminds them that, wherever they are, they’re not alone, and they shouldn’t be embarrassed.

I also bring up my Parkinson’s, which is fairly mild. I have a dystonic foot that makes me walk like a crab. It’s hardly the end of the world. But I also experience a slew of internal effects from the disease—constipation, insomnia, anxiety, depression—that are more crippling. They deserve to be discussed more openly than they are, and I’ll help facilitate those conversations, but my memoir just isn’t the appropriate place for it. Here, I can do more good by sharing what I’ve learned in coping with all of that. For more information on Parkinson’s please visit the Panorama Patient Network.

Your hope is that by sharing your wisdom, it’ll help validate the experience of countless others who’ve endured similar challenges. What, then, did you get out of writing the book?

I remembered a lot of things that I had forgotten. On one level, that’s a bad thing because there were a lot of awful things that I wanted to forget and worked very hard to forget. But on another, it’s important to not lose touch with what I felt in those moments. Painful as it may be, they’re an integral part of me. Writing this book was also cathartic. I’m not sure I was prepared to grieve in the moment. But with some separation, Wild Wisdom became my outlet to finally do so.

Many of the quotes were borne from having found your way through those moments. At the time, was that ever in doubt?

I don’t get into it in the book, but post-traumatic stress ground my life to a halt in the aftermath of Russell’s death. For almost a year, I couldn’t watch TV, I couldn’t read the paper. I had no short-term memory. And all the while, I was attempting to open the charter school.

A friend reviewed an early draft of the book and said, “This won’t work. It’s too bleak.” So a lot of the revisions that followed were made with a single thought in mind: How can I make this book more positive? It may still come off as a little depressing, and that makes me sad because I intended to have the opposite effect from the start. I truly feel blessed.

I included a quote in the acknowledgements, “While looking for peace, I found purpose.” In the beginning, I had an obsession: Why did God do this to me? And, was this predestined? Do I have no free will? I met a monk and asked him. He said, “No, Laurada. It was not predestined because that would mean that God was cruel. What it probably means is that, given who you are, this was a likely way you might respond to tragedy.”

From there, I became aware that the search for peace wasn’t really what this whole experience was about, and whether I found it or not didn’t really matter. I found purpose instead, and that really does matter. At the end of the day, that’s what saved me.

There’s more than meets the eye here. Behind each of the quotes is an anecdote.

Yes. Here’s an example: “Only boring people get bored.” That was something my mother told me when I was very young and it really frightened me because I was bored all the time. I thought, I’m doomed. No one’s ever going to care about me because I’m too boring. So a lot of the things that I’ve done in my life have been in avoidance of boredom.

In fact, that’s been one of my primary motivators for experiencing so much of the world. I graduated from college with a degree in urban planning and applied to a student-run program called AIESEC that would enable me to work abroad. And then I tried out for a TV game show with the hope of winning the funding I’d need to do it—which I did.

So, at 20—in 1968, mind you—I bought a Pan Am around-the-world ticket and headed to Nairobi for several months, where I worked as an animal husbandry officer, before I arrived in Perth, Australia, my assigned destination.

Over the five decades since, I’ve visited somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 countries. Travel and adventure-seeking have always been a part of my life. And those experiences have empowered me to be the independent thinker and, some would say, risk taker that I am.

Another, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” That’s one of the things they tell you in Alcoholics Anonymous, and I’ve never understood why. After Russell died, I decided to go to AA meetings because you can be anonymous there but still be a part of something. So at 7 a.m. every Sunday for about a year, I’d go to an AA meeting and just cry. I didn’t feel that I could cry anywhere else, one, because I couldn’t show weakness while I was trying to open the school, but also, I was terrified that if I started crying, I might not stop because I was that unsure of myself, my life at that point, and my ability to open a school.

You confronted Russell’s murderer, Javier Goode. What was that experience like?

I did. By the school’s 10th anniversary, I felt stable enough emotionally to start wondering if there was something I could learn from him. The only thing I was allowed to take in with me was a single sheet of paper, so I wrote down a million questions. That way, I thought, I’d never get flummoxed.

I started out with very easy questions, like, “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” “Where did you go to school?” And then I asked more difficult things. The conversation lasted about two hours, and he had questions for me. His first was “Are you mad at me?” I said to him, “No, I’m not mad at you. I never think of you. You’re a bug, a roach I would just step on; I’m totally indifferent to you.”

Now, that’s not true, but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of saying,” Yes, I’m angry at you.”

Did you interact with him at all prior to that day?

There’s a portion of the trial where the victims and the defendant are permitted to read prepared statements. I didn’t say anything, but he addressed me. We were separated by only a couple of feet and he said, “A thousand Javier Goodes would never equal one Russell Byers.” I didn’t say anything in return, but that really upset me. What I figured out before I confronted the media waiting outside the courthouse was that if he’d had a good education, he would have had a sense of self-worth and it never would have occurred to him to murder somebody.

That thought stayed with me in the sense that everybody in the world is truly equal. And the Russell Byers Charter School became a vehicle for that. What we’re trying to do is level the playing field and give students who come from impoverished parts of the city a better chance to get a good start on their lives.