Madness hits home

The biggest surprise, Virginia Holman’s sister told her, is how funny the book is.

The book in question is Rescuing Patty Hearst: Memories From a Decade Gone Mad (Simon & Schuster, 2003). In it Holman recounts a childhood spent with a schizophrenic mother.

As you’d expect, it’s a harrowing tale — the experience was, as Holman put it in a recent phone interview, “rotten and fraught with excruciating pain.”

As children, Holman and her sister were virtual captives to a woman who, undiagnosed and unmedicated, was often a danger to them: At one point, Holman’s mother awakens her in the middle of the night, blindfolds her, drives her around and leaves her to find her way home. Another time, Holman’s sister, a toddler, is given a glass of Clorox to drink instead of a glass of milk.

So funny? Yes, at times. Holman is a gifted, beautiful writer. Even more than that, she’s a fiercely honest one — which is why, I think, so many readers will enjoy spending time in her company.

“I want to lie,” she writes. “To say that our lives … were awful and horrible all the time. But the truth is that there were days it wasn’t so bad, and even times it was flat-out fun.”

And then there were the days when bad and funny walked hand-in-hand. As when, filled with the righteousness of the elementary-school zealot, Holman campaigns to get her (fully delusional) mother to quit smoking. For the cause, Holman flushes books of matches and tosses packs of her mother’s cigarettes.

“‘Kick the habit’!” I screech, just like the insistent public service announcements on TV,” she writes.

The world is falling down around her, her mother is hearing voices and taking her out on “night maneuvers,” and yet Holman is, after all, a child. And a child of the 1970s, at that — down on smoking, and down on litter. (Looking at a trash-strewn landfill, Holman “can’t imagine what the weeping Indian in the litter commercial would do if he ever saw this place.”)

Likewise, Holman’s mother is a product of her times. “1974 was a bad year to go crazy,” Holman writes at the outset of the memoir. It is then that her mother, at 32, experiences her first psychotic break. Voices start. At first their message is innocuous, telling Holman’s mother to take her husband’s shirts to the cleaner.

But gradually the voices become more insistent, persuasive, stranger, their message and compulsions shaped by the current events of the time: Patty Hearst, Watergate, the fallout of Vietnam.

Holman’s mother comes to believe that she’s been inducted into a secret army. She takes Holman, then 8, and her 1-year-old sister and retreats to a small beachfront cabin in Kechotan, Va. The cabin, she tells her bewildered daughters, is to be prepared as a field hospital for war children, whom she describes as haunted, worn creatures who will soon be arriving by the hundreds from the frontlines. To her husband back at home, she says simply that she and the girls will be spending the summer in Kechotan. He is welcome to join them if he wishes.

“Over five years with active psychosis would pass before [my mother] was seen by a psychiatrist early in 1981, hospitalized for four weeks, diagnosed, medicated, and sent home. But by then, her disease had progressed to a stage of severity that would limit effective treatment,” Holman writes. “Ultimately, this resulted in her permanent institutionalization.”

Over the years, Holman continues, she’s been asked over and over, “How could this happen? Why didn’t anybody do anything?”

This memoir is Holman’s answer. “Here’s how,” she writes. “Sit back. Listen. It could happen to you.”

A portion of Rescuing Patty Hearst first appeared in the magazine DoubleTake in 2001 and received a Pushcart Prize. In our interview, Holman told me she began writing her family’s story soon after she turned 32. Clearly, that age was a marker. In her memoir, Holman talks about her fears that she would inherit her mother’s disease: Hearing a distant conversation, she has to ask her husband if he hears those voices too. Now, at 32, Holman had reached the age that her mother had been when she first became schizophrenic — and she, Holman, was still healthy.

More than that, she was now a mother herself. And with that vantage of parenthood came a growing compassion for the plight of her own mother, as well as the choices her father faced in dealing with the illness. According to the National Advisory Mental Health Council, an estimated 2.2 million Americans suffer from schizophrenia. Yet even today, it’s easier always to believe that madness is what happens to other people and their families.

Now think back to the 1970s — the days before Oprah, before A Beautiful Mind, before Kay Redfield Jamison’s groundbreaking memoir of manic depression, An Unquiet Mind. Litter, smoking, better living through Jonathan Livingston Seagull: Those were the issues on the national consciousness. Not so much mental health.

It’s important to remember this to understand why, at first, Holman’s father doesn’t seem to recognize the extent of his wife’s mental illness nor the danger his children face when left in her care. And Holman’s mother is adept at hiding the signs of her illness from him. At least at first.

Later, when she’s slipped so far into psychosis it’s impossible to hide anymore, he faces an impossible set of decisions. His wife refuses medical help, and the laws protect her right to refuse. Only if she hurts herself or someone else will Social Services intervene. If he leaves, the children will most likely be awarded to their mother’s care.

And if he stays, as he has promised to do in his wedding vows? He becomes, like his daughters, his wife’s captive and caretaker.

This is what he chooses, and as Holman describes it, these years of her mother’s advanced illness are a living nightmare. She, her sister and her father lock themselves into bedrooms as her mother roams the house, muttering and laughing, her words gibberish, her delusions full-blown and violent. In our interview, I suggest to Holman that her father seems to have had only lousy options laid out before him.

“Yeah, lousy,” she seconds. And a thread of her memoir plots her growing awareness of just how lousy her father had it. As a child and a young woman, Holman was angry at his not having saved her from the situation. As an adult, she respects what he endured in staying. It would have been impossible to write this memoir, she adds, without the help of her father and sister.

Now in an institution, Holman’s mother also tried to help with the book, writing Holman a series of letters about what she remembers of the years in the cabin in Kechotan, when she was readying the field hospital for the war children. The letters are a frustrating mix of delusion and reality.

“Sunday evenings I flew you and [your sister] out to a small island where the blood was being stored in case of a fire,” she writes to Holman. But there was no flying.

And the war children? They were already home.

Read on: Memoirs and mental illness

Here are three other memoirs that, like Rescuing Patty Hearst, combine a heart-wrenching, close-up view of mental illness with a brilliant writing style, making them well worth searching out at your local bookstore.

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