Saturday, September 8, 2012

Memoirs of Parental Mental Illness: Six Picks

by Marin Sardy

I spent this summer stuffed into the lamplit corners of various couches, with my nose in some great recommended reading. Now I offer you my take on some books that deal with the topic of psychiatric illness in a parent. These books are examinations of the way parental mental illness ripples through the lives of the daughters and sons—who offer solace, insight, and perhaps even vindication as they take us with them in witnessing it, grappling with it, running from it, trying to fix it, collapsing beneath it, and sometimes, when they’re lucky, finding reasons to celebrate it. Here are six picks in no particular order.

The Liars’ Club (1995)
by Mary Karr
Nothing on either cover of this celebrated book gives away the fact that it is a memoir of parental mental illness. But this vivid recounting of a raucous childhood in east Texas tightly revolves around the three years during Karr’s youth when her mother fell into an episode of serious mental illness, with spectacularly harrowing consequences. Karr’s mother, she understood, was “Nervous” with a capital N—a term that, she writes, “applied with equal accuracy to everything from chronic nail biting to full-blown psychosis.” For her, this amounted to months in bed and then a breakdown that involved tearing the house apart, burning her and her sister’s possessions, brandishing a kitchen knife at them, hallucinating, being taken “Away” to a psychiatric hospital, heavily abusing alcohol, partaking in various ill-begotten hijinks, and, in the climactic scene, determinedly pointing a loaded gun at the girls’ stepfather while they literally shielded him with their bodies. What’s most astonishing about this book may be that, despite the subject matter, it’s a really fun read. Karr’s loving evocation of working-class Texas, her no-bullshit persona, and her appreciation for her parents’ colorful personalities make it so, without sacrificing a sense of sorrow or clear-eyed analysis.

Daughter of the Queen of Sheba (1997)
by Jacki Lyden
Structured more as a series of essays than as a single narrative, this book peers at Lyden’s mother’s bipolar disorder from several vantage points, revealing its effects on the family across decades. Most of the drama involves the mother’s epic manic episodes (during one, she believed she was the Queen of Sheba), with an eye to more than the financial and emotional devastation they wrought. Lyden has a fierce appreciation for the boundless energy and limitless sense of possibility that embraced her mother during those manic times, as well as for the drive and grace with which her mother put her life back on track after lithium brought her back to her senses. Lyden doesn’t shy away from the similarities she sees between her mother and herself, as she too has led a high-octane life, offering few apologies for being brash and bold and at times a bit out of control. This book is a lesson in the value of finding that balance point in the treatment process—a point Lyden’s mother eventually found, where she could manage her illness while still being herself.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (2004)
by Nick Flynn
This is less a tale of healing and redemption than a chronicle of ironies. Flynn’s experimental memoir of coming of age in the wake of a suicide, and floating into a job at a homeless shelter where eventually his deadbeat father turned up in need of a bed—alcoholic, grandiose, delusional, paranoid, and undiagnosed—tracks the young man’s struggles with the emotional forces that threatened to pull him into a similar life. Considering the possibility of offering his own home as a place for his father to stay, he writes, “If I let him in I would become him.” Bearing witness to the frustration, confusion, and agony of watching a parent self-destruct—and the son’s attempts, without guidance, to forestall falling into a parallel path—this book is not widely considered to be “about” mental illness, but it has an important place in the canon of mental health literature.

The Memory Palace (2011)
by Mira Bartok
Bartok’s memoir of her mother’s long, slow descent into schizophrenia reads as a series of impressions, almost like recollections drawn up when someone sifts through snapshots. Lyrical and at times masterfully composed, the book could frustrate a reader too intent on linking cause and effect, but its goals are more poetic than expository. Bartok is interested in finding and illuminating the connections between her formative experiences with a schizophrenic mother and the many relationships in her adult life in which these ripples were inevitably felt. The book’s structure reflects Bartok’s own mental-health challenges and coping skills she has developed in the wake of a car accident that left her with a brain injury that has disrupted her ability to organize sensory input. Taking advantage of this experience, she uses it as a window onto the challenges her mother faced. As an effort to capture the quality of her experiences with schizophrenia, it abounds with resonant moments for daughters and sons.

Mother, Stranger (2012)
by Cris Beam
Published this past winter on, Beam’s ebook is short, and gripping, enough to read in one sitting. The story recounts her memories of her mother’s dissociative identity disorder (DID)—more popularly known as multiple personality disorder—and life with those personalities, from the meek, self-conscious housewife to the brazen prostitute. Revealing the differences between public understanding of the illness and how it actually appears, Beam undermines commonly held assumptions and shows how confusing and disorienting it can be to deal with. Plumbing her long-felt guilt and anger, as well as her profound sympathy for her mother’s suffering, Beam attempts to piece together the mystery of the illness’s origins in her mother, and to make peace with her decision to leave her and live with her father as a young teenager—a move that led to decades of estrangement. (You can buy the ebook for Kindle or other digital formats for $2 at

Swallow the Ocean (2008)
by Laura M. Flynn
Laura Flynn’s memoir is most memorable when she writes of two legal quagmires involving her mother’s illness that took place two decades apart. The first is an extended legal battle in which her father tries to win custody of his daughters, which is frustrated by the 1970s courts’ tendency to heavily favor the mother. Flynn recounts slowly finding herself trapped with a psychotic mother who can’t properly take care of her, afraid that the delusions and paranoia will turn her mother against her at any moment. She writes with graceful directness about toeing a careful line between pleasing her mother and attempting to escape her grip. Twenty years later, Flynn finds herself in a similar stalemate with bureaucracy—this time trying to find appropriate services when her mother is evicted from the apartment she rarely leaves. What I admire most about Flynn’s writing is that she presents with equal conviction the oppositional (and to me entirely familiar) feelings of wanting to flee from her mother and wanting to help her, without forcing them into a false resolution.