Book Reviews, Literary

Review: RESCUING PATTY HEARST, by Virginia Holman

A daughter of a schizophrenic mother recounts how she and her sister were held hostage for four years while their mother gave way to psychosis and how the medical system of the 1980s inhibited patient progress and victimized their families.

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.