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A Reading List of Memoirs on Mothers Impacted by Mental Illness

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In the late 1980s, my mother, a brilliant artist, seamstress and interior decorator had her first (known) episode of psychosis. I was halfway between my 10th and 11th years, not quite a child, not quite a teenager, a vulnerable time for any child. I needed a mother. Instead, I watched as she devolved into a strange brew of auditory and visual hallucinations, paranoia, hypersexuality and more. Her behavior was confusing and odd and frightening. As a child—as a daughter—I found myself alone in a dark, uncertain world, one in which mothers are supposed to take care of their children.

At first, I felt isolated, ashamed. How could this have happened? My beautiful talented mother? I had no resources to draw from; I didn’t know how to feel. No one’s mother [I knew] had devolved into psychosis.

All along, I made no effort to hide the fact that my mother was living with mental illness. Maybe not right away, but slowly, I shared this strange corner of my life. My mother’s mental illness wasn’t—couldn’t—be a secret. Secrets will eat you alive.

There’s something about the confessional nature of the memoir that bring out the best stories. This collection of 16 past, current and forthcoming memoirs suggest a broad range of human experience and emotion. They are, however, all focused on some aspect of motherhood, mental illness, estrangement or a combination of all.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and it’s also quite likely, the same month my mother took her own life. In the U.S., May is when we celebrate Mother’s Day. That makes for a loaded month, collectively. But you are not alone. One in five American adults live with mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Each of those adults have family members who are affected—mothers and brothers, sisters and fathers. And while these individuals laugh and create and contribute to society, they may be struggling. Awareness is key to building acceptance and understanding.

My motherhood, mental illness memoir recommendations:

“A Room with a Darker View: Chronicles of my Mother & Schizophrenia” by Claire Phillips (Doppelhouse Books, 2020).

A daughter breaks the family silence about her mother’s paranoid schizophrenia, which is diagnosed in mid-life. Here, the author reframes hospitalizations, paranoia, illness and caregiving through fragments in a feminist light.

“The Art of Mis-Diagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide” by Gayle Brandeis (Beacon, 2017).

Gayle’s mother took her own life days after Gayle gave birth to her youngest child. This wrenching and viscerally thorough memoir examines a complicated family history, as well as an (im)perfect completion of the life cycle.

“Asylum” by Jill Bialosky (Knopf, 2020).

Jill’s youngest sister took her life at just 19 years of age, which stunned and alarmed the entire family. They struggled with “why couldn’t we have seen the signs?” Told in 103 lyric sections, but intended to be read as a whole, this poetic collection reveals personal and historical traumas, and how we continue to search for meaning, as a mother, as a sister.

“Everything is Fine: A Memoir” by Vince Granta (Atria, April 2021).

Vince recalls standing in front of his suburban home the day his mother and father returned from the hospital with his new siblings—triplets. Years later, and thousands of miles away, he receives a call: his mother has been killed at the hands of one of his brothers, who struggled with schizophrenia. Here, we delve into the tragedy of this violent death and explore the nuances of grief, mental illness and the bonds of family.

“He Came With It: A Portrait of Motherhood & Madness” by Miriam Feldman (Turner, 2020).

Miriam and Craig are both artists and their four children are equally gifted. They might be a little unconventional in their leafy Los Angeles neighborhood, but well-liked. When their teenage son, Nick begins acting strange and then violent, a tumultuous decade-plus ensues. He’s diagnosed with schizophrenia, and Miriam must keep it together, for his sake and hers.

“Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family” by Robert Kolker (Doubleday, 2020).

Here, we devolve into a heart-wrenching story of a midcentury American family with 12 children, six of whom are diagnosed with schizophrenia. This isn’t exactly memoir, nor entirely mother-focused, but it’s impeccably researched and told with sensitivity and empathy in a traditional narrative style, sprinkled with scientific research, dispelling the schizophrenogenic mother theory.

“Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter” by Elizabeth Garber (SWP, 2018).

What could be cooler than to live in a glass house in the 1960s designed by your renown architect father? That’s what young Elizabeth thought when her father proposed a mid-century modern home, but soon his moods rage, his narcissism destroys relationships and the family splits; glass is shattered. Elizabeth becomes a mother herself, a healer, and has written about this profound experience.

“Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood & Madness” by Catherine Cho (Henry Holt, 2020).

When Catherine Cho and her husband set off from London, they hope to introduce their newborn son to family scattered across the U.S. The trip is intended to be fun. Before the trip is over, Catherine develops a severe break from reality and loses all sense of time and place, landing her in a psychiatric institution. This story is masterfully—and darkly told encompassing cultural taboos, family history and more.

“My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward: A Memoir” by Mark Luckach
(HarperWave, 2018).

A heart-wrenching, yet hopeful story of a young marriage redefined by mental illness. Mark and Giulia fell in love at 18, married at 24; all was well until Giulia turned 27, when she experienced a terrifying and unpredictable psychotic break, landing her in a psych ward. Eventually, she recovers, they have a son, it happens again. This is a story of young love, a marriage that binds together, in “sickness and health.”

“Running with Scissors: A Memoir” by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin’s Press, 2002).

This is a classic mental illness memoir, and while it’s been around for years, it’s worth mentioning. This is a true story of a boy whose mother (a poet with delusions of Anne Sexton) gives him away to be raised by her psychiatrist. This story is bold and colorful, and speaks to family dysfunction, unusual mother behavior, an unconventional childhood complicated by the author’s sexuality.

“Seeing Ghosts: A Memoir” by Kat Chow (Grand Central Publishing,
August 2021).

Kat has always been fixated on death. She is especially worried about her mother dying. When she dies unexpectedly from cancer, Kat and her siblings and father are understandably grief-stricken. Kat’s mother once made an off-handed comment that when she dies, they should stuff her and have her keep watch. Kat becomes haunted by this concept. Here, we discover what it really means to tell one’s story, encapsulating grief, motherhood and cultural connections.

“The Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement” by Harriet Brown (DaCapo Press, 2018)

On the day of her mother’s funeral, Harriet is 5,000 miles away hiking in Hawaii. For years, they had cycled through estrangement and connection. Here, she is seeking answers and healing to guilt and trauma, rage, betrayal, grief, and the idea that there’s a reason one is estranged, sometimes it’s self-preservation. Told in an alternating style of narrative non-fiction and memoir, this is provocative look at motherhood, akin to “Motherless
Daughters: The Legacy of Loss” by Hope Edelman.

“What We Carry: A Memoir” by Maya Shanbhag Lang (Dial Press, 2020).

Maya grew up idolizing her physician mother, a psychiatrist originally from India. She raised her children, kept a culturally-Indian home, had a successful career. How did she do it all? Maya grows up, marries, has a child of her own, and then her world spins out of control. She’s struggling with
postpartum depression, common enough after the birth of a child, but when her psychiatrist mother refuses to help, this is crushing. Part-discovery, part-family history, and all about love, this is a moving tale hinging on mothers and daughters and cultural expectations.

“Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, & Me” by Adrienne Brodeur (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019)

Adrienne is 14 when her mother starts seeing a married man, a family friend. She’s told to keep quiet—but she does more: she chaperones and orchestrates their meetings. I was struck by the frank narcissism of this mother, the chilling complicity. This is a highly dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship culminating in a twist of events.

“Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy” by Caitlin Myer (Arcade, 2020).

This viscerally engrossing memoir will gut you. Caitlin is 36 when she is ready to start a family with her husband, but it’s a challenge. The restrictive confines of her Mormon upbringing are behind here, but now, she’s experienced her mother’s death and requires a hysterectomy. Early sexual trauma haunts her; she struggles with what constitutes a “good wife.” Told in lyrical and perceptive prose, this is the story of womanhood, religion and sex, trauma and love, and mental illness, too.  

Honorable Mention:

While not a straight memoir, “Where Madness Lies: A Novel” by Sylvia True (Top Hat Books, 2021) is based on a true story of the author’s family, tracing her maternal line to WWII Germany, Switzerland and to the U.S. The author writes herself into the story, recollecting a dark time in her adulthood following the birth of her daughter, in which she is hospitalized at McLean Psychiatric Institution for three months. Here, layers of family secrets are revealed, a troubling history of eugenics, the Holocaust and more.

Bio: Leslie Lindsay is an author, book reviewer and photographer. Her memoir, “MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory” is currently on-submission. She resides in the greater Chicago area with her family. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @leslielindsay1.

Image via contributor

Originally published: April 26, 2021
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