“With the Devil’s Help” by Neal Wooten

Neal Wooten’s powerful memoir, With the Devil’s Help (Simon & Schuster 2022), begins with a knock-knock—and it isn’t a joke. The men in black suits have shown up at four-year-old Neal’s door and want to speak to his father. This is Neal’s introduction—and ours—to a family mystery: who are these men? Why are they threatening his father, Travis? Each time the men appear they cast a net of fear over the family. The mystery’s resolution is withheld until the memoir’s startling climax.

Readers who enjoyed Educated and The Glass Castle will also enjoy With the Devil’s Help. There’s something immensely uplifting about stories where a young person overcomes adversity to become a productive adult. This memoir would make a great addition to high school reading lists, offering an inspiring example that where you start out doesn’t have to determine where you end up.

More than just a story with a happy ending, this memoir is also expertly crafted to achieve maximum sustained tension. Wooten tells his family’s story from two perspectives, alternating between his own life and that of his grandfather.

As a child, Neal believes his life is “normal,” as all children do because they lack knowledge of how other families live. His family often lacks electricity because the utility company expects regular payments. They usually don’t have indoor plumbing. They move frequently, splitting just before the rent comes due. When his father half-builds a house for them, Neal’s bedroom “didn’t even have a ceiling,” so he could “see through the joists all the way to the inside of the roof, the knots and grainlines in the flimsy plywood making monstrous faces that would scare [him] to sleep.” The deprivations seem normal to him. But far worse than the poverty is the split personality of his father:

For the most part, Daddy was always laughing and was a very caring person. He doted on me and my sisters like we were sent from heaven. But it only took one little word or one little action, and Daddy would transform into a monster. His temper ruled him with absolute authority, and the transformation was more Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than, well, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Within our close family circle, we walked on eggshells because no one knew what might set him off. If only there had been eggshell-walking classes we could have taken, that might have helped, because Daddy’s demons made several appearances daily.

Gradually, Neal becomes aware that not all men beat their children mercilessly with a belt for simple accidents like spilling milk—or for mistakes the men make themselves but need someone else to blame. Travis also injures Neal emotionally with constant criticism, whether it is playing checkers or throwing horseshoes or unlocking a car door. Nothing he does seems right. Thankfully, a few individuals reach out and convince Neal of his worth, of his potential.

Neal’s mother stands tall as a real hero in his life, holding a steady job in a hosiery mill to keep her family fed. His oldest sister Julene also is outstanding in her steadfast defense of her brother and sisters. And at least one teacher gave him the encouragement he needed to push on.

It will come as no surprise to readers to learn that Travis’s father Pete had many of the same personality traits and anger management issues. Pete always fell for get-rich-quick schemes and dreams but didn’t carry through with the persistent work to make his dreams a reality. Yet no matter how wrong Pete is, Travis will try to help him:

Over the centuries, poor people in the Deep South had learned that there was only one constant in life, one reliable source of support. No matter how many years of words or worse had passed between you, you could always count on blood. . . . this group was always there to have your back. Family.

This is one of many truths Neal nails perfectly in this book. Here is another example: “When you exist in a violent and unstable environment, humor often becomes a refuge. It’s the only thing that makes life bearable.” And then there is this one: “Whether a person goes on to become a senator, a doctor, a teacher, or a waitress, the fact that they endured an abusive environment means everything. Just surviving and getting out is the ultimate triumph.”

In the epilogue, Neal says, “This is my eighteenth book, and the hardest one I’ve ever written. It took me over forty years to be able to tell it. I guess I was too embarrassed.” Readers will be glad he got over the shame to share this poignant story of survival. Neal’s lifetime of impressive achievements exemplifies the triumph of the human spirit.

Neal Wooten

Neal Wooten is the author of eighteen books, including Granny Dollar, Reternity,  Corn Born & Corn Bread and many children’s books. He grew up on a pig farm on Sand Mountain in the northeast corner of Alabama. The first person in the history of his family to graduate from high school, Neal went on to graduate from Auburn University with a B.S. in applied mathematics. He became a math teacher and director of a math school in Milwaukee, winning numerous math awards.  He is now the Managing Editor for Mirror Publishing, a contributor to the Huffington Post, columnist for The Mountain Valley News, curator of the Fort Payne Depot Museum, creator of the popular Facebook comic strip “Brad’s Pit,” and standup comedian. After living in other parts of the country for thirty-five years, he’s now back in northeast Alabama.



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