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10 Questions with Virginia Holman
Heather McLeod probes the depths of RESCUING PATTY HEARST author Virginia Holman...
Heather McLeod: To be honest, when I first began reading RESCUING PATTY HEARST I was afraid it was going to be one of those self-absorbed memoirs that pop up all too often. I was ready for the predictably tragic childhood and the triumphant ending. But this book isn't that at all. Certainly the childhood portrayed in the pages is horrific in many ways, but you describe it in a way that doesn't beg for our sympathy, and the ending is real life, not air-brushed. Did you write with this in mind? How do you think of your book in relation to other memoirs out there?
Virginia Holman: I tried very hard to write an honest account of some very difficult years when my mother's schizophrenia went untreated. I come from a family and a culture of people that don't allow for much wallowing in self-pity, so I suppose that's why there's not much in the book.
I wrote this book for the usual reasons writers write memoirs: to figure out a difficult time and order it somehow that makes sense. The process has been of tremendous use to me and seems to be of use to others-which I suppose makes it more than a simple exercise in narcissism.
HM: Did you ever discover whether any other members of your mother's family exhibited signs of schizophrenia?
VH: No. My mother's family comes from a remote fishing village that is very closed to discussion of such matters. Since schizophrenia is generally considered to be genetic, in all likelihood there was probably someone who also had it somewhere down the line, but I haven't been privvy to such information.
HM: One of the most painful, frustrating parts of this book came later in the story, when you describe how difficult it was for you and your family to get help for your mom. Do you know if it's any easier these days to get help for a psychotic person? Or is the law often still the biggest roadblock?
VH: These well-intentioned but poorly written and executed laws still exist in many states. The way many read is that someone who is psychotic who is to be hospitalized against their will must prove to be a danger to themselves or others. What happens is that this is interpreted in a way that someone whose family requests intervention is told that it is not enough for their psychotic loved one to merely threaten violence, that the impulse must be acted upon in a suicidal or homicidal fashion before even basic medical treatment can begin. (i.e. "it's not enough for your Mama to wave a knife at you, she's gotta cut flesh.")
So many people are left to the ravages of untreated psychosis and become at risk for all sort of abuse and crime against them, while others (sometimes the lucky ones) finally act on a violent impulse and get treatment. It's a sorry state of affairs when there's not some eloquent legislation that both protects patient rights and yet recognizes when a loved one or family member is trying to care for a desperately ill person.
HM: I couldn't help wanting your school nurse (or someone) to realize that something was terribly wrong and to step up to the plate. Does the child (or parent) in you ever look back and wonder where the hell all the other adults were and why they didn't help you?
VH: Frankly, there were other adults who were kind. And-this is hard for nice people to deal with-no one could have intervened to our satisfaction or who could have made a real positive difference given the laws requiring danger to oneself or others from the ill family member. Think on this: the laws still make it easier to remove a child or children from a household like mine (which would have been very upsetting to me or my sister) than to remove and treat my mother (who was the problem) and leave the rest of the family intact and functional. As my eight-year-old would say, "What's up with that?"
HM: Does your mom know about the book? Has she seen it? If so, what did she say?
VH: When I told my mother about the book (and she is still very ill) I was very nervous, but she said "I think that's good. People need to know how bad this is, this schizophrenia." I thought, OK-I have my father's sister's and mother's permission to tell this story. I don't think I could have published it without their love and support. After all, it is nice to go home for the holidays.
HM: How are your dad and sister? (I understand if that's too personal of a question; it's just that one gets very fond of them. I guess I'm hoping for a miniature epilogue here to see what everyone in the book is up to!)
VH: My father is wonderful. He's retired and married to a lovely woman and is very happy. My sister is a successful professional. My mother is as stable as she is likely to ever be and is in a good facility. We are very close as a family and the book has been a real proving ground in that regard. It has taken us all a long time to believe that life could dish out more than just misery and suffering. But, lo and behold, right now we're all in good places. We have some hard-won happy endings.
HM: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did that come about?
VH: Oh, I thought I would write some poetry in college and then got stuck in a prose writing class that I couldn't get out of because I needed the credit. I got a B and was so mad that two of my classmates dared me to take another class, so I did, by then I had a full-blown addiction.
HM: What kinds of responses have you received from the people who've
RESCUING PATTY HEARST?
VH: The responses from people have been immensely kind and generous. Bookclubs are coming out of the woodwork, it seems. It's really wonderful! We were so isolated as a family with this illness and for many years we were ashamed of it. At every reading and on my website, people write and tell me their stories. It is deeply moving to know that so many others have suffered as we did. It's like retroactively having the community of support that I didn't have as a kid.
HM: Do you still worry about "going crazy" yourself? Do you worry about your son developing schizophrenia later?
VH: No. I used to worry about it all the time, but time and writing has helped settle that particular fear. As far as my son is concerned, it would break my heart to see him inherit this disease, but I also know that there are new drugs every day and that he would have two helluva supporters in his Mama and Daddy. We definitely know the ropes. The fear of him developing schizophrenia isn't strong, though.
HM: What are you working on now?VH: I've got my fingers to two pies at the moment. I'm working on a Western (a big stretch for a gal who hadn't been past Missouri until her book tour!) but that's been on hold for a couple of months since I heard a voice (the kind fiction writers hear--not the kind my mother hears) and I've been working on a second novel that is still too tender a bud to say much more other than I am having far too much fun.