The Book of Katerina by Auguste Corteau

I’ve no idea how it is to lose your mind, but never in my life have I feared anything more: the mere thought, the energetic verb to go insane is worse than death and to die, its black vortex more horrifying than nonexistence.

This isn’t a happy book, in fact the generations of the family living in the Greek city of Thessaloniki have suffered through serious miseries, to which there seems no end. Katerina may not endear many readers, but if you are paying close attention, every incident in her life (much of it tragic, despite her social standing) has led to her disturbing, sad end. In fact, none of her siblings really escape the viciousness of their fate, their family malady. The tale does jump about, and usually choppy writing and such timelines drive me nuts, but it relays to me, in a sense, the state of Katerina’s troubled mind. She never makes you feel sorry for her and for some reason that made the character study far more riveting. Is the family genetics to blame for the mental health issues, the environment, the neglect, the family pecking order? More like a disorder.

There are many truths silenced within this family, even before Katerina is born. Her grandmother was Jewish, but that ‘shame’ had to be disguised, hence her name was changed. She had three children, all girls. The eldest Irene “Irini” is Katerina’s weak and self-indulgent mother. With her first child, a son, born with a condition that didn’t make itself known until he was five, one that wasn’t diagnosed correctly back in those times, he is sent to a children’s institution- one she never visits, as there are other children that follow. He is the first defect, but he won’t be the last. How can a woman who clings to the exquisiteness of her youth, the former grandeur, the social privilege bear the stigma of a defective child? Are the times to blame for such rejection? The second may be challenged in other ways, but she will have her favorites. More offspring follow, some die, some are born with their own stigmas while youngest, Katerina is the “accident” and the jealous sister before her makes life hell. But who is the real devil? Irini cannot cope raising her brood, and brings her niece Zoë into the household, an angel, a source of never-ending love and the only mothering the children will know. A protector and an unlikely one whose own unfortunate origins should be reason enough to be as maladjusted as the family she becomes a part of, Zoë is like a saint but has her own irrational fears. Irini can be brutal when facing her children’s weaknesses, her reaction when Katerina suffers a mental disturbance is to shut up, keep it to yourself, likely out of fear and half out of shame. This is a defining moment, one that makes the monster in Katerina’s mind grow far bigger, chaining itself to her future. Despite life going against all her wishes, Katerina’s mother has high ambitions. Even if fate deals her cross eyed children and a lackluster love life. A life without romance can always be filled by cheap junk.

Katerina and her siblings want for nothing but it cannot save the Horianos from ruin, which will follow them into adulthood. Even a cousin is wrecked by the ravings of the family, born to a beautiful mother and fated to be plain. Back we go into Katerina’s past, learning all the distorted happenings. A mother who cries behind closed doors, unable to attend to her parental duties, what sort of mark does this leave on Katerina, what sort of mother does she herself become? Madness is always nesting in this family. What is to be done with frayed nerves, mental torment? The church has an answer, beg Jesus for mercy. It doesn’t help. Neither does her last resort, a medical doctor, who violates her. This violation forges Katerina’s distrust of the very people who should be helping her manage her bipolar disorder. Is it this unforgiveable act that set the stage for her final scene so many years later?

Ill advised love, miscarriages, marriage, political upheaval, pregnancy and an earthquake… then Katerina’s beloved son, the child she carries to term, Petros, is born. He is the light in the darkness of her depressions, even able to transfix his mean grandfather. The old man’s heart is hooked, earning Petros adoration, allowing the dark episodes of Katerina’s life to subside for a time. Hypersensitivity arises, breakdowns occur, she becomes a suspicious, jealous wife and at times an inept mother. Her love is diseased and she fears her son may be a lover of goats and that’s a whole other tale. Her rough edges are never smoothed, she has spent her life dealing with the horrors of others and the horrors in her own mind. She has many faults and confronts them all. She is a force until the very end, and this book will tear her apart from the moment she gives birth to her son until he finds her body on sad display.

Her brain turned against her and she was tired of fighting. Here, her beloved son speaks for his mother, in a retelling of her life and intimate thoughts. Katerina was a product of her time clinging to old fashioned views, but that’s how people were, blunt, callous, narrow minded about different lifestyles and choices. She isn’t always likeable, certainly her own parents aren’t either, knowing they sent a child away to an institution. Mental illness is not new and if you consider today’s treatment, you can see how impossible getting things right had to have been then. She is arrogant and yet deeply insecure and damaged. How can her son not be affected by her clinical depression? Maybe not for every reader but I was engaged and moved, thinking of the reasons the author must have decided to write about his mother. Maybe by bringing her to life he can put her to rest.

Publication Date: June 1, 2021

Parthian Books

Everything Is Fine: A Memoir by Vince Granata

I imagine Tim’s psychosis, his nocturnal madness, and remember all the hours my mother spent at the piano trying to soothe the raging nightscape that howled in his head.

Vince Granata’s mother was murdered at the hands of his mentally ill brother, this is a brutal fact, but what makes this memoir important for society and keeps it from sensationalizing his family’s tragedy, is the exploration of what brought them to this point. We read the headlines, horrified, make assumptions but most people never go much further than judgement. Claudia Granata was a victim of her son’s psychosis but that doesn’t tell the story of everything that became before and after. That doesn’t inform anyone that Tim, too, was a victim of his own psychosis. Such headlines seem to exist in a manner that erases the dedicated, loving mother who did everything she could to keep her son’s world safe. Yes, Claudia was a highly educated medical doctor, as is her surviving husband Attilio, but even with their means and education their son’s illness couldn’t be managed, and they did try. The day before her death, she spoke to a therapist who warned her to make her son feel safe and ‘be wary’. Their fear was that he would harm himself, as he had threatened to before when the noise in his head became too much to bear. Sadly, she couldn’t have imagined what was coming.

Vince writes about the signs they all neglected to see far earlier than his illness began presenting, and his shame at missed opportunities as a big brother and son. Just as any of us would rake over our own fears of guilt in the aftermath of tragedy, he attempts to pinpoint the pivotal moment when one step in the right direction could have changed the outcome. By sharing his brother Tim’s mental decline, it may well help other families going through similar struggles. The reality is, there is so much we do not understand about mental illness in all its forms, especially schizophrenia, which in Tim’s case went unchecked. What can be done when a patient refuses their meds, because they think they don’t need them, because that’s how the disease presents itself? You think you’re fine, better, cured. What is a person to do who lives each day with a distorted reality? We don’t think about how our perception, yes all of us, creates our world- it’s easier to draw a line from the ‘healthy’ and the ‘ill’ instead of thinking we could ever have any commonalities. All of us base our reality on what our inner voice tells us, what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears, we just happen to have the clear functioning, for the most part, of measuring ourselves against others, which keeps us grounded. How differently would we behave, think, feel if we had voices howling at us that someone has abused us, or were demons? How would we react during hallucinations others don’t see but are real for us? Even if it presents in less threatening ways, the fact remains the such illnesses push the patient further away from others, even distrusting our own devoted, worried mothers. Much of the time others push those coping with mental illness away to the fringes of our world, out of fear or ignorance of the condition. Is it really a shock that isolation feels like the only safe haven? It is often in self isolation that the disease grows stronger, overtaking what grasp on reality still remains. Loved ones best efforts sometimes aren’t enough, it’s truly being between a rock and a hard place if a patient is an adult. You cannot force treatment, and the illness can cause paranoia, distrust of even those who truly have nothing but your best interest at heart. Vince’s memoir is not intended as medical research but aside from the patient themselves, who better than those who have been witness to the slow creep of the disease to give testimony?

Granata knows that mental illness still has a stigma, and that we can’t move forward shaming people who carry the burden of the disease. Why are we kinder to people who have visible illnesses? Why don’t we, as a society, understand that mental illness, though complicated and not fully understood, is not any more shameful than any other disease? Even people with the best resources, medical education are lost at sea in trying to help their loved one learn how to treat and manage their mental illness. With memories and stories of Tim we see him not as the monster his horrific act (while suffering psychosis, we must keep in mind) makes him appear to be but as a beloved son and brother who had athletic gifts and promise of his own. I read this as a mother would, there was never a point Claudia gave up. How do you arrive at justice in such a case, when everyone loses? This is not the future she wanted for her son, nor can anyone imagine she would want to see him demonized for the horrors of that ill fated day. What about the healing, how does Vince’s family and yes, Tim included, move forward from here? How does Vince remember the beautiful woman his mother was without the savagery of her final moments poisoning the past? It’s a question he had to ask himself. He cannot honor his mother’s memory without shedding light on who his brother Tim really is when not in the grips of psychosis because he was her heart as much as Vince and his siblings. I don’t have enough words to describe how much this memoir touched me. I know I drone on in this review, but that’s how moving I found it to be, and very relatable. My own son was diagnosed with autism at a young age and anything that’s ‘different’ changes how people treat you, I saw this first hand, even when people try to fit in. It is a daily struggle for him more than any of us. I also understand the scope of a mother’s love, the reach of her heart, her fears and hopes and that she is willing to sacrifice anything to help her children. I think of how my own grandmother had to navigate her son’s schizophrenia, he never stayed on his meds for long past release from hospitalizations. It affected the entire makeup of the family, it could just as easily be a story that could have happened to them. Today there have been more advances, but not leaps. Family has front row seats to the constant fight, it is a helpless, heartbreaking feeling. Vince’s brother was a collegiate heavyweight wrestler, but his fiercest opponent has been his own mind. Vince’s story does not minimize the enormity of Tim’s act, but it’s not a simple case. This memoir is about family bonds, grief, the realities and struggles of mental health, and tragedy but most of all it about about love and forgiveness. I don’t believe the description of Claudia’s end will be what remains with me, but the vision of a loving mother playing the piano to calm the storm in her son’s mind. Yes read it!

Publication Date: April 27, 2021

Atria Books

Born Under The Gaslight: A Memoir of My Descent Into Borderline Personality Disorder by Cindy Collins

I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in my twenties. I never understood the extent to which it ran my life or the degree of dysfunction that it entailed. Only in my forties did I start to work on getting help managing it.

Cindy Collins opens up about her struggle of living with Borderline Personality Disorder, trying to understand and manage it. It is a harrowing experience, particularly throughout her childhood when she had no support and was deemed ‘the crazy one’ within her family. Add the gaslighting (a form of emotional abuse that causes a person to question their every thought, experience, memories and doubt their own sanity) that Cindy was subject to makes for a heartbreaking reality. It’s no mystery that children need structure, basic care, love, nurturing, and guidance but a child who has any challenge (be it physical or mental) requires that much more from their parents. There is, too, the bigger question of what caused her BPD, with all signs pointing to her traumatic childhood and abuse. Cindy Collins had the misfortune of being in a home where the adults were more concerned with selfish endeavors, leaving she and her brother (7 years older) to fend for themselves while they were away on trips. Sometimes they left their lonely children with other family members, who had no business having access to little girls. With no protection, traumatic incidents took place, violations that have left their mark on her body, soul and mind.

Cindy’s relationship with her mother was a toxin pumped daily into her psyche, a woman who invalidated her feelings and smothered her self-confidence leaving no wonder to the reason why she began to revolt. When BPD began to color her thinking, her home life was a sinking ship, leading her to self destruct. Cindy could abandon the wreckage, but being without love and hungry for it, she discovered fast that the damage her parents did had already set in. We can be stripped of every possession and survive, it is when we are stripped of our truths, our very stories that we crumble. To be invalidated by those meant to love and protect you often leads a person to seek out those human needs in anyone willing to give us so much as a crumb. Creating a healthy relationship when you’ve grown up with dysfunction as your ‘norm’ would be nothing short of a miracle and for Cindy her attempts are filled with landmines. Cindy’s journey is about the disharmony of the heart and mind. With a mother whose slogan was “What will the neighbors think”, it’s a hard truth that the only chance Cindy has is to figure out how to rescue herself. Her mother would rather bury her daughter’s trauma, sexual abuse, and mental illness (that she certainly exacerbated if not caused outright) than help her heal. It is nothing less than criminal.

Seeking help is vital, but there is never a guarantee fix, nor a doctor that even understands a particular diagnosis. How is a person meant to corral the extremes of their mental health when the treating physician isn’t fully qualified or worse, when the patient is made to feel like an anomaly rather than a human being? As Cindy tells us, she spends most of her time hitting a wall. The fact is there is no one size fits all to treating trauma, no magical pill no magical thinking that makes everything ‘all better’. We are bombarded by disinformation about mental illness, either made to fear it, minimize it, or dismiss it altogether. Factor in victims of abuse and society politely turns a blind eye. This memoir is for the neighbors that wonder what living in suppression feels like and exposes the truth of what happens behind closed doors. This is what it costs to ‘fit in’, hiding the violations to body and soul, as not to disturb the peace.

Cindy finds light at the end of her tunnel in adulthood with a promising new therapy but if you ever wondered why so many people struggling with mental illness give up on treatment, she provides insight. It takes validation to help her navigate her past and find hope for the future. This is Cindy’s account of what it is like to live with BPD, particularly undiagnosed and in a destructive family. Raw and unflinchingly honest.

Published April 2020

Indomitable Publishing

The Butterfly Lampshade: A Novel by Aimee Bender

The scrim of meaning had floated off of everything.

First, I am a fan of Aimee Bender and this book isn’t without beauty and deeper meaning. There were times I felt it entered a time freeze, slowing down too much for me and I lost interest but I would pick it up again at night and settle in. The silently beating wings of the butterflies are in the mental breakdown eight-year-old Francie’s mother Elaine suffers. Right away, the reader is scared for Francie as Elaine sinks into psychosis, terrified of her daughter, sure there is something wrong with her. With the sound mind of her Aunt Minn via telephone, her mother is calmed for the moment and a plan laid. Francie will stay with her much loved babysitter until Elaine’s sister’s husband (Stan) can get a flight to Portland. But by morning, her mother swears she is fine… nothing could be further from the truth.

In a bizarre turn of events, her mother’s accusation that Francie has a bug in her feels more like a premonition when, at babysitter Shrina’s, she finds and swallows her ‘fated bug’. From there the reader learns the history of her mother’s mental illness and the signs that haunt Francie’s own life. The stay with her Aunt’s budding family in Los Angeles, California becomes permanent, as her mother’s mind takes much longer to mend. She comes to love her baby cousin Vicky deeply, the two share a bond that grows stronger as Vicky is on the verge of adulthood. But her Aunt Minn worries about the state of Francie’s being, her actions, particularly when she and Vicky construct a tent on the balcony of her apartment.

Working in a frame store, it is her online business of selling ‘interesting items’ that she finds at yard-sales that is taking off and when she quits her job it sets off alarms in her aunt. Vicky wants promises that she is okay, not planning to do anything crazy so she can ease her own mind and her mother’s. But what if Francie is losing her grasp? How can she trust herself to even know when she is sick or well when her own mother lived with the confusion of those states, ending up institutionalized. How can she explain what it is, exactly, that she is going inside of the tent?

Through the years, she is sometimes afraid of herself, what she might do. The echo of her mother’s illness rings in her ears, instilling fear. From the moment she drank that bug, to the strange happenings thereafter, Francie must retreat within herself to sort reality from fantasy. The mind is a powerful creature.

The mental illness aspect is beautifully expressed, there were such heartbreaking moments from the very start when Francie’s mother breaks down, imagining it all with a child’s mind, the pain of separation, starting anew much like an orphan even though her aunt welcomes her into her home without hesitation. There is an isolation in the fear of an unstable mind, despite having an aunt who grew up with her own sister’s waxing and waning grasp on reality. The only thing I wish is that it dragged a bit less. I was hooked by the first pages, then lost interest but kept reading and was happy I did, but it’s not what I expected. Aimee Bender is a wonderful writer, I just didn’t feel it kept a hold of my attention the entire time although, I did care about the characters. It is a novel that takes it’s time with you.

Publication Date: July 28th, 2020

Doubleday Books

Hollywood Park: A Memoir by Mikel Jollett

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She would tell me we were safe here, all of us here in Synanon, living together, a great big family, a tribe of humans who love each other and love the world and love the little babies most of all.

In his painfully moving memoir Hollywood Park, the reader is plunged into Mikel Jollett’s eccentric childhood growing up in a California drug rehab- turned commune that morphed into the infamously dangerous cult called the Church of Synanon. For as long as his young mind can recall, his parents have solely been visitors in his life- a child closed off from society, nurtured by young women who oversee the youngest children of Synanon rather than by his own mom and dad. It comes as a brutal shock, followed by long standing confusion when his mother comes for him and his older brother Tony, who he doesn’t really know that well either as children are separated by age. Like escaped prisoners, they flee the compound into the alien world that their mother and father had willingly turned their backs on. He is meant to trust this woman, his real mother, but nothing makes sense! Why does he have to leave his friends behind and the sweet woman who has been the only maternal source he has come to love? Worse, why are they leaving his dad behind and who is the old man waiting in the running car?

So opens an emotional memoir where the mysteries of the adult world and the innocence of childhood collide. How much harder is it to understand life, other people, when you don’t quite comprehend where you’ve been? What you are? When you look upon the rest of the world with wild eyes, like an alien landed on earth for the first time? When your mother uses words you don’t understand about your Dad, like “drug addict”? Mikel’s brother is a mass of energy so different from himself, so angry all the time. Suddenly, he feels like he has no one, despite being in such close proximity to his actual blood family, he misses the children at Synanon. His mother is sad all the time, and goes places inside of herself that neither he, nor his brother Tony can reach. His grandparents keep saying that unfamiliar word “cult” like it’s a bad thing whose meaning he can’t comprehend. He overhears their accusatory raised voices, declaring that he and Tony were in an orphanage, whatever that means. No one explains anything!

It only gets more confusing when his mother finds work in Oregon, where he and his brother stick out among the other children, and bullies pay special attention to them. Here their mother teaches them how to care for themselves never without reminding him that she saved them from that bad place. In between bouts of falling apart and expecting them to fend for themselves, she bemoans her troubles as a single mom and the unfairness of it all. Too, there are men in his mother’s life- stand in fathers who are just as lost as the people who needed saving in Synanon. His real father is brighter than the sun when he pops up but never an easy man to emulate and certainly not a constant presence. Unable to describe how he himself feels with the sudden force of his mother in his life, never taught how to navigate the ‘real’ world which feels so much harsher, colder than the one he knew at Synanon full of songs, dance, attention and children to play with, he doesn’t understand his own emotional states. Now he is weighted down with a debt he owes her for saving he and Tony. This depression thing, whatever it is, consumes her and it’s his job to be the little man, to obey whatever character building skills she wants her children to have. No one protects him from monsters, real or imagined, not even his big brother who seems to hate him and deeply resent their mother. Their time at Synanon left them with wildly different experiences, making brotherhood impossible.

He grows up in a dysfunctional household, with a mother whose deep depressions eclipse her children’s very real struggles and a father too tough and footloose to be of much guidance. Overcome by anxiety and fear after leaving Synanon, and reeling over their father’s betrayals their mother doesn’t have room for optimism nor tender mothering. Clinging to the idea of self-sufficiency  more often than not leads to psychological torment for her sons. Before long it is Mikel who is behaving like the adult, or worse, like an AA sponsor offering the comforting phrase “let go and let God.” His teen years don’t get any easier, especially the complicated relationship between he and Tony who is more often lost in anything that numbs the mind and body.  Neither make it into adulthood untouched by the seeds of their parents idealistic past that began in Synanon.

Mikel makes his dizzying way into adulthood but the trauma of the past is never far behind. This memoir encompasses more than growing up in a cult, as Mikel was only a little boy when they escaped. It reveals how it infected their lives long after they left and fractured every bond in his family from grandparents to his own sibling. We learn why his parents fell under Synanon’s spell to begin with. It’s not all sad endings, though there are quite a few.  Mikel Jollett finds a place for himself in this unfamiliar territory we call life, but what a trek!

Publication Date: May 26, 2020

Celadon Books

 

 

Ferment: A Memoir of Mental Illness, Redemption, and Winemaking in the Mosel by Patrick Dobson

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Others are impressions, contemplations. But the journals always remind me of who I was and what I was thinking.

Ferment is a travel memoir of sorts, a journey through mental illness and Germany. It is a return to memories, people of the past who helped pull him through and how depression both hinders and guides a life. With his dearest friend dying in another country, it added to the usual turmoil that comes and goes, it is the very thing that pushes him into a bottomless depression and a suicide attempt with his little boy in the next room. So begins a stay at a psychiatric facility, self imposed, and a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder.  Understanding dawns of all the erratic emotions, the difficult relationships, the highs and the lows of his life. The jobs he ditched, the journeys he took that altered his life and forged deep friendships like the one, more like a brotherhood, with his friend Joachim Frick whom he met while traveling through Germany.

Years pass, sobriety follows his stay in the facility and the past weighs on him. He decides it is time to return to the place he created a life for himself, Germany, with his partner Virginia and son Nick. Through this quest, he wants to understand the choices he made as a young man, the relationships he established particularly his friendship with Joachim and what drove him to attempt a fresh new life at the age of 22 in 1985, while in the grip of depression. It is now an “attempt to set his mental illness into context’. He will write his way through it all, try to set memory into place and take stock of who he was and has become. Reunion is long overdue, with his German friends and his former selves.

Mania is a creeping companion, always threatening at the edge of Patrick’s days. Through physical labor and mental activity he presently does his best to keep it from breaking through. But it wasn’t always that way, with his eyes on the past he sheds light on his “incredible flights of mind”, and his drinking problem. The drama, the erratic behavior and strained friendships of those days. His brush with the law, during manic episodes, the grandiose schemes, his ability to continue to function, keep a job and fancy himself a winemaker. Long ago, fully entrenched in the idea of wine-making, his friend convinced him to go where the vineyards are- Germany. That was how he found himself in the Old Country.

Past to present, Patrick carries his journals with him, relying on ‘impressions of the man I once was’ through accounts of his friends and his own scribbling in the journals, often presenting like a stranger to his older, hopefully wiser self. Here is where it’s a bit difficult to follow, one minute the reader is in the present, the next we are in 1985 or thereabouts and then we’re with him on the current journey. It’s understandable he himself is doing just that, sifting through the past with the eyes of the present, but it can be hard to keep track. The one constant is his ability to inform the reader of his emotional states, which is vital to the purpose of the memoir. He certainly expresses how he learns coping techniques and how in the past the mania or crashing after it effected every moment. His days of internship in Tier was often lonely, taking him from cellar to the vineyard, the work outdoors always helping him through the manias. He meets a man named Ivo (a man apprenticed at a stained glass restoration firm) by chance when he is ready to throw in the towel. This chance meeting is his salvation and means of making friends with others, just the interactions he needs to sustain himself. Then there is his romance with Monique, which tests his maturity but it is Sabine who is emotional, possibly unstable. Neither relationship is intensely explored here.

During his time working in Tier, he becomes incredibly close with the Fricks, with Josef  (a winemaker) and Marlies treating him like one of their own children. Here he meets the best friend he will ever have, their son Joachim, who is home from his semester exchange with a University in Massachusetts. There is an immediate bond between Patrick and Joachim from the first moment of their meeting. “Our rapport never knew the separation of time and distance,” a man who acts as an anchor, who even in his deepest struggles (brain cancer) teaches that one must live everyday as if it were their last. To take what they can from each moment.

One thing is certain, he has been blessed with a life full of good people who have become family, blood related or not. It is through these friends he has tried to make sense of himself, with their attention and love to keep him anchored. Seeing the loss, the grief, trials and tribulations the Fricks face with grace helps him cope with his own difficulties.

Writing has also been a means to corral his fears and worries, to face his own selfish demands, not medication alone. I have mixed feelings about this memoir because it got away from me at times. There were moments I felt the writing was engaging, particularly the beautiful bond between Patrick and Joachim, but then I would be distracted by memories out of order. He declares himself to be selfish at times, and he can come off that way, but then you feel he is redeemed as well. After-all, he can’t be a bad guy, taking his sister’s son in as his own child. I feel like the problem is we’re introduced to his past that comes in bits and pieces. Some of the writing could be left out and the focus would have been better on filling in the gaps. There is quite a bit of wandering, as one does in Europe. He handles plans that go awry far better than one would expect, which I suppose is how his life often felt, like something gone awry.

He seems to have come to terms with his illness, finding there can be fruitfulness in all things, even in Bipolar Disorder. It did, when all is said and done, push him on the journey that led him to beautiful friendships with fascinating people and help form the man he is today. I just wish the book was in a bit of better order. I would have liked to know more about his childhood that felt skimmed over and his relationship with Sabine felt like a blink. I have read a lot of memoirs, so it could just be that I have high expectations when dealing with sharing one’s past. I think were it a bit more cohesive I could have had an easier time following along and keeping things straight. I wanted to get to know his daughter and wife more. It could well be that maybe it’s a protective thing, and he just wanted to focus on friendships, still…

Publication Date: June 16, 2020

Skyhorse Publishing

 

 

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

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Mary’s mother is well practiced at laughing off moments like these, behaving as if nothing is strange. To do anything else would be the same as admitting that she lacks any real control over the situation- that she cannot understand what is happening in her house, much less how to stop it.

Hidden Valley Road is the story of a family, created by Don and Mimi Galvin (ten boys and two girls) picked apart by the ravages of schizophrenia, a disease that takes the foundation of the family and ‘permanently tilted it in the direction of the sick family member’.  What happens when it appears in several family members? When, like the fear of it’s contagion, the parents aim a laser focus on each child afraid they may be next? How does this attention harm every sibling? How can the parents possibly dodge the terror of, ‘who will be next’ ? Is it any surprise that fear of odd behavior in their own children will follow the siblings later in life?

In the beginning, Mimi and Don envisioned a life full of ‘limitless hope and confidence’. Don was ambitious, and war bound after joining the Marine Corp Reserves, before heading out near Okinawa where he was to be stationed during the war in 1945, he married Mimi. While he was away, Mimi gave birth to their firstborn son. Soon followed more children, born while her husband  came and went for his career, at times he was home from Georgetown (finishing his degree) and Rhode Island to the Navy’s General Line School. Focused always on his career, which came first, Mimi was left either trailing after him with the children or awaiting his return alone with their offspring. She with dreams of a lawyer husband and a life where she could raise their brood alongside their family in New York, bided time until the war was over. Don was using the military as a means to his end, a career in law or better yet, political science. The end of his service came but he reneged on their plan and instead joined the Air Force, which lead them surprisingly to Colorado Springs.

Despite Mimi’s disappointment and after many shed tears, she began to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings. Together, she and Don discovered a passion for falconry, one which they shared with their boys, coming of age in the 1950’s. (I found this fascinating). Mimi rushed headfirst into raising her children all on her own without the help of nannies, family anyone. She would raise her boys to be cultured through art, music, nature and as more children came (if Don had his way Mimi would be pregnant forever) she worked even harder at being the best mother anyone could be; their clan would be the ‘model’ American family. Her passion for motherhood knew no bounds! It fed her ego, there was a special pride in ‘being known as a mother would could easily accomplish such a thing’, raising such a brood with unwavering determination and love. Why such a large family, well if it made Don happy, it was her joy to provide more offspring. Personally, as a mother with two children I found her enthusiasm and energy incredible, I get tired just thinking about it.

The dynamic in the couples marriage changed, Don’s career in intelligence yet another thing to keep Mimi at a distance, while she remained the rock for the children through the years, the one left to supervise, a ‘happy warrior’. But her dream of perfect children, everyone in line, the ‘model American family’ was about to shatter. Battling the common childhood illnesses like chicken pox, everyone knowing their chores, cooking, cleaning, for a large family is a mean feat but battling a little understood mental illness in a time where there wasn’t much compassion to be found in anyone straying from the social norms was a terrible mark against you. When the cracks first appeared in the eldest, most adored son (the namesake Don Jr.) who often watched his siblings, bullying them, setting them up against each other, it was largely ignored. The busy family didn’t have time for squabbles, the father’s favorite was believed. Even when he would smash dishes, and act out with violence, Don and Mimi behaved as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening, confusing and horrifying the other children. Something was wrong, no one knew it more than Donald himself. He would take the mental disturbances with him away to college, where it would soon show itself.

With the two older boys eventually out of the house, and Don Sr’s professional prospects, order had to be maintained, there could be no admittance of anything being off kilter. Such a thing is a stain that could ruin Don’s career and the Galvin’s social standing. Maybe the boys wreaked havoc, ending in bruises when they were home visiting, but ‘boys will be boys’ and need to become men and stand on their own. Then Don Jr fell apart, again and again, and it was no longer easy to deny something was wrong, not when it could no longer be hidden from the public too. He would never climb out of his illness, despite medicine, science, doctors best efforts. Worse, the abuse their daughters suffered in silences, denial. The embarrassment of their brother’s illness a thing they felt ashamed about and resentful of.

I can’t do justice in a review, it’s hard to summarize what the entire Galvin family went through, the hope, the fear, the denial and sexual abuse. I think about those decades, where mothers were often blamed for any sign of mental decline, where shame was all that mental illness bought you. When turning to doctors often did more harm than good, even now medication that is meant to help navigate mental illnesses do the body, all it’s organs so much harm, but there aren’t many alternatives beyond avoiding medication altogether and that leaves you exactly in the same abyss you started from. It victimizes the person coping with the illness, but you can’t ignore the voices of the family members that are forced to cope with the illness too. Children that are neglected because the illness consumes so much energy within the family, the physicality of it. Science isn’t moving fast enough, despite leaps like studying the Galvins and why schizophrenia claimed some of the children and not others. It feels too late for the Galvins in many ways. As much as we make judgments about Mimi and Don’s attempt to pretend everything is normal, how can we not empathize, imagining being in their place. Parenting is difficult enough, much of what we deny is fear motivated, comes form a place of love, and sure sometimes our own egos.

I’m always drawn to stories and studies about mental illness. I have a schizophrenic uncle, my own son is on the autism spectrum (he isn’t the only one in our extended family)… but for my uncle, I have seen how people fear mental illness, the hopelessness of my grandmother (when she was still alive) and yet immense love and support for her son who would not take his medication, and lives the life of a loner, often taken advantage of and there is nothing anyone can do. There is so much we do not know, and it’s hard for many to trust doctors when some of their treatments have done more harm than good. It can feel overwhelming and hopeless, your choices limited. Of course we aim to fix things, who wants to watch their family member suffer. It is reality still that with diseases people often find public support, compassion yet where there is mental illness most reactions are fear based and the public often judges those coping with it a ‘lost cause’. It’s the terrible result of little education. Doctors can only treat as well as the scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, but behind the illness are very real human beings.

This book is heartbreaking, and I have great admiration for all the Galvin children  (those still alive are full grown adults now, of course). This is really their story. They own it, they live in the aftermath and each makes choices based on their own emotional compass. Their story broke my heart and it will stay with me. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Doubleday Books

 

 

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World: A Novel by Elif Shafak

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The possibility of an immediate and wholesale decimation of civilization was not as frightening as the simple realization that our individual passing had no impact on the order of things, and life would go on just the same with or without us. Now that, she had always thought, was terrifying.

We begin at the end for Tequila Leila, ‘as she was known to her friends and her clients.’ Working, before her sorry death, at one of the oldest licensed brothels in Istanbul she is no longer in her apartment, now she lays dead, vanishing further away from the here and now, ‘inside a metal rubbish bin with rusty handles and flaking paint.’ How did she end up discarded like trash, less than trash? Her group of misfits and best friends  Sinan, Nalan , Zaynab , Humeyra  and Jameelah don’t know yet what has happened, they intend to find out. Her friends, nothing more than garbage themselves according to the country and times they live in, the sole family she has left-at least that will acknowledge her, are the ones left behind to care about what has happened to her, just another dead prostitute to the citizens, but so much more to them. They don’t have rights, they must find a way (of course it’s a crime) to give her a proper burial, they may be her true family, but not legally.

How did you get here Leila? The mind sticks around and soon there is an influx of memories, the earliest is her birth and through that ‘slippery passage’ the transgression that followed against her own mother is recalled. In fact, though this novel is about outcasts, and many will focus most on the transvestite Nostalgia Nalan and Zaynab the dwarf, whose stories are very engaging, it is Leila’s mother, aunt and uncle’s sordid tale that clutched at me. It is here that everything went awry, where the hope for a different sort of life, one free of ‘shame’ was made impossible. Here lies the wreckage, and how my heart broke for Lelia’s mother, all the lies that darkened the family. We learn who truly bears the mark of shame, and it isn’t in Lelia’s decomposing body.

Her first mistake was being born a girl to her father’s second wife, and what are women if not vessels to deliver cherished sons? And if they cannot, well the elders assured Leila’s father that the Qur’an allows a man to have up to four wives. What good are wives who have only miscarriages? God help you, woman, if you are a flawed. This time Binnaz (second wife) took care to heed old wives tales and superstitions, leaving nothing to chance. Yet it is the shock of how she is rewarded for her efforts that has lasting effects on Lelia, who has two mothers. What rights does a second wife have? None. She must be an obedient wife, who is she to complain? No one, nothing, just a mere woman. All Leila’s father Houran wants is for his baby girl (though he desires a perfect son) to one day make him proud, “true to your religion, true to your nation, true to your father.”  But how do you measure loyalty, pride, obedience, and chastity when others are bent on fouling the waters? Just who truly is a shame to their religion, to Allah? Rather than an example of piety, she is a challenge to her father, a thing to be cast away and disowned and surely through no fault of her own.

As her heart ceases to beat she recalls only the lonely child she was. The severity of her father, the odd behavior of her deeply trouble, sad, mentally unstable aunt and the complex relationship her mother had with her. It was a house of whispers, the women controlled by her father’s beliefs, and the simmering anger a confusion to Lelia who is sheltered from the truth.  After a terrible abuse, Leila loses both her family and love….

The streets are mean, it is in the brothels where hustlers bring her to find refuge and here Leila loses all hope of ever being a proper Muslim woman. It is also in this life where she finds her true family, and so begins their heavy stories, no lighter nor happier than Leila’s. These are the people tourists don’t see, and the ones the citizens would rather ignore or use, the disposable women. What happens to Leila is brutal, meant to expose the violence against women, but if you go back, isn’t what happened to Leila’s powerless mother just as violent in it’s own godless way? There is hypocrisy particularly in religious fervor, in the existence of these sinful places that are denied, and her friends lives are heavy, take “Osman” Nalan’s transformation, it is hard to contemplate in a time, place against women. Imagine trying to survive in her shoes.

It’s not solely those born native to the soil who face being subjugated by men. Some arrive there through trickery, as Jameelah’s story has her forced into our modern form of slavery. If you’re not forced into marriage, another brand of slavery for some as Humeyra can attest to , then you’re trafficked like Jameelah. Too, women subjugate each other as much as they uplift. We see this in the hatred between Jameelah’s stepmother and the cruelty Suzan heaps upon Binnaz, because I can’t think of a crueler thing. So while the tight bond and love Leila and her friends have, even despite death, there is shame too between women within this tale.

This is a world where fathers seek spiritual masters, where women are defeated, and being an outcast can end in brutal murder. Where unless you have family, you are buried like a pauper, trash. It’s an interesting blend of family, abuse, mental illness, politics, religion, feminism, society, poverty, wealth -there is a hell of a lot happening here. It’s hard for those of us living in the Western World to comprehend being punished for crimes against us, living in fear of religion. I hate to say this too, but in how men are teased by their elders it certainly fuels the fire, that man feels a push to punish his women… Women still have a long way to go when it comes to feminism, but in other parts of the world, you die for your dissension towards those in power. The filth upon you, put there by rape, is your fault and can never be washed clean. It’s unconscionable. These are places you do not speak up, as you see when Leila tries, look how that ends.

Her friends stories are told, and in fleeting memories Leila speaks but I was far more interested in her as a child. I felt I lost her when she grew up, however her friends fill that hole. They make up the ‘immodest sinners’ of these ‘immoral times’. Still, what they are forced to do is a freedom from where they escaped, lives among the ruins. Elif Shafak gives voice to those never heard, after-all, they don’t exist right?

Publication Date: September 24, 2019

Bloomsbury USA

Ordinary Girls: A Memoir by Jaquira Díaz

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And the girls I ran with? Half of them I was secretly in love with. Street girls, who were escaping their own lives, trading the chaos of home for the chaos of the streets.

In Jaquira Díaz’s memoir, Ordinary Girls, readers dig into the influences that shape the life of a young juvenile delinquent. She is more than that, she is first a confused, lonely, little girl who lives with a mother whose mental illness is spiraling into a deeper, darker place. As she grows up, she escapes her broken home or the ‘chaos of home’ and takes it out on the streets, with her tough as nails approach. She finds a sisterhood of girls who have suffered as much, or worse, and makes them family of the heart. It is all about escapism, what else is there in poverty and abuse then reckless abandon? What else is there for them to do but get high, drunk, fight til they draw blood or find themselves knocked out?

Living with a parent that suffers from schizophrenia is difficult even when you have extended family and friends, doctors willing to help, but imagine when the children are left to wonder at their mother’s strange paranoia, behaviors, rages? When a mother’s delusions are real to a child, and no one explains or fixes anything, what is to become of you? Worse, one who is a drug addict on top of it all. How can there be stability when the rest of the adults have fled? From her early childhood in Puerto Rico to their move to Miami, Florida- Jaquira is subject to very adult situations, and always leaving behind the love and support of her beloved abuela, the one person who loves and cares for her. At a young age the shock of what her father sells (drugs) makes no sense to her. Naturally with the people who come around, the children are exposed to the foulest of behavior. She doesn’t know any better about how poor they are, everyone seems to be just as bad off. The shock of violence in the streets is even more horrific, how can anyone maintain their innocence in such a place? Government housing projects full of shootings, stabbings, drug raids, and mouths full of stories that plant the seeds of terror in any child. You toughen up or you don’t make it out alive. You learn fast.

Her parents destructive love, her mother is a woman who ‘obsessively, violently’ loves Jaquira’s Papi (father) who is nothing short of a womanizer, seems fated to ruin. Was it his disinterest in her mother, the crack or coke that caused her to hear voices, or was it this very love that destroyed her? Certainly it was a catalyst, and it made life for Díaz nothing short of hell. Can kids get used to mugs flying over their heads during their parents jealous rages, fights? Doesn’t it follow then that maybe her brother’s bullying and meanness might be born through it too? Like it or not, we learn from our families, and our environment. It’s hard to imagine a softer world if yours is loud, painful. It’s hard to serve kindness when all you have been served is bitter, spitting hatred while your belly and heart rumble for sustenance.

Split between families she has one loving, accepting abuela and another grandmother, the white one, who made  feel ashamed of her ethnicity, using her hair as a means to punish her for being ‘other than’. She made sure Jaquira knew she would never be as beautiful as her mother’s side. Strange to think there was more violence in that than all the ugliness she is submerged in, but that really cut me to read. This woman who should lift her grandchild up, make her proud of every cell of her body instead is the first to really make her feel that who she is supposed to be is shameful, low. It’s the same with fear, the adults are supposed to assuage a child’s deepest terrors, not become the monster.

Then Mami begins to see a man, lurking, looming like a murder waiting to happen. Her terror hums inside of Jaquira, all she wants is her parents to be together again, for her to be safe and loved with her abuela but god or the universe doesn’t seem to listen to the cries of a child like her.  Just like everything else not meant for children such as she and her siblings, wishes and prayers are ignored. Her father comes and goes, and they behave as if he had never left. “The five of us were the kind of poor you could feel in your bones, in your teeth, in your stomach.” You can only imagine such a poor, if it’s never been your reality.

She is never happy nor in a stable environment for long, her mother steals her back and forces her madness on them- worse, Papi doesn’t seem to care, no one is ever coming to save them. It’s only a matter of time before she grows up, much too fast, and as a teenager becomes a hood rat. Then it was a desire for a violence she could never come back from, because she and her friends would never be ordinary girls who make their sadness seen through “sleeping pills and slit wrists”, if she is going to self-destruct it’s going to be a wild explosion! Beat downs, drugs, gangbangers, court dates, this is how someone will finally take notice, maybe her papi? This is how she lets her age out of it’s cage.

Must Jaquira remain in this state and either end up imprisoned or one day as mad as her mother? Or worse, dead? This is a tale of sadness so dark and overflowing that it becomes rage. This isn’t who she wants to be, she isn’t going to accept this battered, beaten down version of a girl. She will have the last word in who she is! She will fight and make it out, but not without mourning for those who didn’t. Through writing this very book she is reaching those who need to hear that someone has been there, she is a voice in the dark shouting alongside you, someone who wants to see all the girls, who are anything but ordinary, crawl out of the ruins.

A heavy, brutal journey.

Publication Date: October 29, 2019

Algonquin Books

The Distance Between High and Low by Kaye Park Hinckley

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Peck and I were twins, too. In the darkest of watery wombs, we waited for the voice of our father, and heard silence.

In their old house in Highlow, Alabama on land that has been in their family for generations Lizzie and Peck (twins) struggle with more than just teenage angst. Their mother Lila holds the secret to who their father is, and how they long for him, no one more than sensitive Peck but how can anyone make sense of their mother’s world, what is true, what’s fiction? Peck has his beliefs, and he thinks their dad is an artist (just like their mother) living in Cincinnati, the very place Mamma once ran off to art school in her younger years! Finding a stand in daddy of sorts at the McSwain house next door, Peck hangs around Hobart (a transplant adoptee who isn’t a true native and never will be, despite how desperately he longs to fit in). Hobart has always been sweet on their mother though he has a meanness brewing inside of him and schemes. The cloud of his dark past keeps his heart in shadow, all he wants is what he feels should be his! Lila is as unreachable as the stars, holed up in her room painting portraits on her china, oblivious of her children and the rest of the world. Lila has always had a particular mental fragility that drug addiction and heartbreak exacerbated, returning home pregnant with twins years ago and broken from the wounds of the world. Pearl runs the family with the help of Half-Cheroke Indian, and protector, Izear carrying his own secret history but as much as son as can be. Lizzie and Peck want answers, they want a father but Lila is ‘deluded’, something even Hobart has known since he followed her as a young boy, even then a love-struck fool. Lizzie thinks Hobart is nothing but an intruder in their lives, but she has no idea just how deeply he is embedded in their stories.

Lizzie tolerates the presence of  seven-year old Little Benedict, sadder than all of them put together. He wants nothing more than to burrow into Lizzie and Peck’s family, for Pearl to be his own Grandma and Lila his mamma, but he already has one and she has whiskey to drink and his daddy as an enabler. The people are all watched over by Pearl’s cousin The Judge, contained in notes tracking the rich history of Highlow.  Peck discovers a secret that his family would be shocked to learn, one that forces Hobart to do his bidding and help him capture the Osprey he has been burning to own! No one is as good a hunter of wild things than Hobart. Sometimes what we desire can be our downfall.

No one will tell Lizzie anything, like who the blind man is that showed up to their open house. Peck too can’t tell her truths. Some things that are revealed do nothing but upset one’s entire world. “Knowing a circumstance and accepting it, are two distant things from each other as high is from low.” Knowledge isn’t necessarily power, more often than not it’s a burden. Lizzie will know Peck’s longing for that dangerous bird is more about filling the hole not having a daddy has made. Knowing things hurts!

Hobart has proof he belongs here, but a mean twist of fate fills him with shame and changes everything. It’s not just Pearl’s family whose desires are on loan! When tragedy consumes them all, Lizzie strikes out to fill the hole in her own heart only to learn she isn’t the only one who is devastated. Soon, she will understand her family’s history at Pearl’s telling and all the sorrowful ways history repeats itself. Everything is changing so fast, even Benedict “Benny” has a new sort of family, but there is still longing for vengeance inside of Lizzie as she watches Hobart, Mama’s answer is a gun, her way of coping! Hatred can get “pretty tiring” but forgiveness asks far too much, even if it’s Pearl’s way it seems diluted in Lila and Lizzie’s blood. So much confusion all just for the longing of a father’s love, not so easily replaced.

This is a book full of Highlow secrets, a family with a heavy history that challenges forgiveness and reminds us all that the whims of fate cannot be controlled, not even when one’s intentions are for the greater good. A sad tale.

Available Now from author Kaye Park Hinckley Finalist: William Faulkner/William Wisdom Competition. Finalist: Tuscany Prize for Fiction

Prytania Publishing