In 1974, Virginia Holman was kidnapped. RESCUING PATTY HEARST is
her ransom note.
The kidnapping was "custodial", which usually conjures up images of
battery or abuse, or a divorce gone horribly wrong. The perpetrator
here was not Holman's father or mother; instead, it was a disease.
Holman's mother began experiencing delusions related to an
undiagnosed case of schizophrenia. She came to believe that she was
a soldier in a secret war and had to set up the family's vacation
cottage on the Virginia coast as a field hospital to care for
hordes of orphan children. But there were only two children in the
small cottage --- Virginia and her baby sister --- and they were
not being cared for.
Holman tells the story of her childhood experiences on two parallel
tracks; each chapter has a date heading that explains whether a
younger "Gingie" Holman, or her older, wiser contemporary
counterpart is telling the story. We see what happens to Gingie,
what she felt about it at the time, and how it affects her now. The
author constantly evaluates and reevaluates her mother's actions
and her own through the prism of time and experience, rotating back
and forth in time to better understand what happened and why.
The book's subtitle is "Memories From A Decade Gone Mad"; its first
line is "Nineteen seventy-four was a bad time to go crazy." Holman
does not blame the excesses of the 1970's for her mother's illness,
but makes the point that society was so topsy-turvy at that time
that her mother's schizophrenia-induced actions seemed more normal
than they otherwise might have. Holman's role model at that young
age was Patricia Hearst, kidnapped heiress turned domestic
terrorist. She is invoked as a symbol of the times, showing how
stunning reversals in character and action can take place.
RESCUING PATTY HEARST is a beautifully realized portrait of a
seventies childhood set against the backdrop of a devastating
illness. Holman is blessed with both a powerful memory bank and
astonishing skills at reviving the spirit of a lost civilization
from the misty past. Some of this is unavoidably sentimental, but
the areas of the book dealing with her mother's mental illness are
starkly unsentimental. Holman's intimate knowledge of the disease
is tinged with both sympathy and anger, leading to an honest,
non-sensationalized portrayal of the reality of mental illness. Her
memoir covers not only her mother's strange and powerful delusions,
but also the day-to-day struggle that accompanies mental illness.
Early on, Holman discusses an early delusion of her mother's that
results in a stare of disgust from a harried salesman --- "a look,"
Holman writes, "that would become increasingly familiar in the
years to come."
If Virginia Holman's mother had never experienced mental illness,
there still would have been the makings of a memoir here; her
portrayal of a childhood and a time is masterfully written and
affecting. The presence of mental illness lends the book a
wrenching quality, bringing home the reality of mental disability
and the effects that it has on families and lives. Holman succeeds
in describing her childhood; she triumphs in describing her mother,
her illness and her plight. RESCUING PATTY HEARST is an
extraordinary work, putting to shame more conventional or
sentimental portrayals of mental illness.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds (firstname.lastname@example.org), who writes movie reviews at http://www.txreviews.com. on January 23, 2011