"Nineteen seventy-four was a bad time to go crazy," reads the gripping first line in this thoroughly unique memoir by Virginia Holman, a frequent contributor to magazines such as Redbook
. But despite that sentence and the suggestion of the title (Patty Hearst is a metaphor here, not a character), this work of "creative nonfiction" is extremely personal rather than generational. As with The Liar's Club
by Mary Karr (whose Spartan but poetic prose Holman sometimes recalls), the strength of Rescuing Patty Hearst
is that it finds universality in a very specific situation and story.
One year after the famous heiress's celebrated kidnapping, in the midst of Watergate and the other turbulent events of America's most misunderstood era, the author's mother retreated with her two daughters to a rustic cabin in rural Virginia, thoroughly convinced that the voices in her head were directing her to establish a field hospital in preparation for a cataclysmic war that never came. The book proceeds to chart Holman's mother's extended and heartbreakingly sad battle with schizophrenia, and its impact on her seemingly typical middle-class American family. The author's response progresses from detached bemusement, to horror and revulsion, and to a warm understanding and acceptance without ever becoming callous, maudlin, or romantic. Her recollections make for a consistently riveting story, while leaving the reader with a deep and profound understanding of the true tragedies and frustrating complexities of severe mental illness. --Jim DeRogatis
From Publishers Weekly
One year after the Patty Hearst kidnapping fiasco, in 1975, Holman's mother, Molly, kidnapped her children (who were then ages eight and one) and brought them to live in the family's tiny cottage in Virginia. In her disturbing but luminous memoir of her mother's slow descent into schizophrenia, Holman writes, "My mother believed she had been inducted into a secret army. My mother, my baby sister, Emma, and I were foot soldiers entrusted with setting up a field hospital. We lived in that cottage for over three years." This twisted adventure begins with mother and daughter sanitizing the "hospital" with cut-up underwear soaked in ammonia and painting the cabin's windows black. When curious relatives drop by, Molly (lapsing into an unfamiliar British accent) warns her girls to keep mum: "You cannot talk about the secret war.... Your government has asked you to help. You will do what I say." The family's nightmare unfolds slowly, as Molly's mask of sanity becomes increasingly less convincing to friends and family. Holman's depiction of her young self "feeling trapped behind thick walls of glass" is hair-raisingly poignant. Of course she knows something isn't right with her mother, but years pass before the other adults in her life (including her father) provide a language for speaking about the unspeakable. Idealists should be forewarned: this unforgettable memoir doesn't have a rosy ending. However, Holman's gutsy prose bespeaks her survivor's backbone and hindsight.
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