Rescuing Patty Hearst: Memories from a Decade Gone Mad
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 schizophreniaone
of the most devastating of mental illnessesand 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
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.