blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Review | Rescuing Patty Hearst: Memories from a Decade Gone Mad
                  by Virginia Holman (Simon & Shuster, 2003)

Memoirs arrive in all shapes and sizes these days, but trying to find a thread to follow through the labyrinth of a family narrative seems to be the driving force behind the vast majority of these stories. One of the primary challenges for the writers of these books is to use the techniques of fiction to navigate the uncertain territory of memory while not letting us forget that the stories are real. Rescuing Patty Hearst asks us to enter this territory with an open mind for its method and an open heart for its people.

When Virginia Holman was nine years old, her mother packed her and her two-year old sister into the car and drove away from their home in Virginia Beach to a family summer cottage in Kechotan, near the shore. They were on a mission, she told them. Voices that the children could not hear were speaking to their mother, telling her to set up a field hospital for children who will escape the "secret war." She painted all the glass in the windows black so that no one would know they were there. They stayed at the cottage for more than three years.

Thus began their mother's descent into schizophrenia—one of the most devastating of mental illnesses—and the frightening mystery that deprived Holman of her childhood. "Every time I ask Mom a question it feels like I fall a little deeper into a hole," she recalls. Why didn't her father do something? The answer: he didn't know what to do. Neither did the rest of us in those days, the mid-1970s and early 80s. Families and physicians struggled for answers. What caused it? Bad mothering, bad genes? What medicine is best, Lithium, Haldol? Lock the patient up in a psych ward for life? Holman writes: "I discover that schizophrenia is bad news. As far as mental illness goes, it's wilderness." Her father visited, loyally paid attention, savored the good moments. Finally, after four years, he took his wife to a psychiatrist who hospitalized her immediately.

What does one do with a storehouse of childhood memories like this one? Virginia Holman has set her memory box down on a solid floor, opened it and sorted the pieces bit by bit into a beautifully crafted work of art, a mosaic of her own remembered images placed among those recalled later by her father and sister. With lively but grounded prose she takes us back and forth in time, from the present where she visits her mother in a nursing home, back to the early days when her mother could be normal for a few minutes, then suddenly launch into a tirade or give her youngest child a glass of Clorox to drink. She confronts her own guilt: "Why didn't I scream and shout?" Her childhood was taken from her and now she brings it back, relives the best of it without the unanswered questions that gnawed through her. She confronts the worst with knowledge acquired later, knowledge that her mother was ill and could not help herself. In one short section she imagines herself as her mother, coping with a teen-age daughter and a younger one while the voices in her head continue their monstrous rattle.

Along the way she lets us savor the details of the landscape as she saw it: "In Kechotan there are no streetlights. When the sun goes down the spiders come out and spin their sticky nets between the pines." We see her playing with her cousins nearby, going to school, engaging in pre-teen conversations and escapades, and reading voraciously. She steals small things from people she knows, and books from the library which she hides in her aunt's compost heap. At a Baptist church she asks to be baptized, thinking that God will rescue her immediately, and after immersion in the font, "I walk up the stairs of the ladies', expecting to be flying, but I'm soaking wet and having a hard time even moving in the heavy dress. It keeps sticking to my thighs and slurps as I try to pull it away from my skin." God may save her soul but he isn't going to rescue her. "That," she says, "is my job."

She has written this extraordinary book to rescue herself, we acknowledge, but more than that, she has given us a finely constructed story, full of metaphor that lets us see and take part and join her. There is no self-pity here, only a longing to relive, and to understand: "Life with Mom and the secret war made me a keen listener and observer." Yes, and now a generous writer who has made a gift out of a season in hell.  

return to top