There is a sub-genre of memoir that I never really get tired of. And judging by the publishing trends of the last decade or so, I must not be alone. It's not the addiction autobiography -- those get repetitive and boring. It's the "my childhood with crazy parents" narrative that gets me every time. NPR reporter Jacki Lyden's Daughter Of The Queen Of Sheba was probably the first that I read. Clane Hayward's The Hypocrisy of Disco, previously reviewed, is still one of my favorite books from the past year. Criminal Of Poverty by Lisa "Tiny" Gray-Garcia focuses less on her mother's mental illness and more on the prison-industrial complex that kept them in a never-ending downward spiral with no one to turn to for help. I haven't yet read Virginia Holman's Rescuing Patty Hearst: Memories From a Decade Gone Mad or Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle, but I'm sure I'd devour those in one sitting, too. Each family is, like Tolstoy's dictum, unhappy in its own way. Even if your family was normal, you can find something to pull you in. Just like the way a kid from the 20th century suburbs could read a fairy tale like Rapunzel and kind of wish she was an orphan imprisoned in a tower by a witch.
Laura Flynn, author of Swallow The Ocean, was obsessed with the Rapunzel legend for a different reason. For several years, Laura and her sisters were virtual hostages to their mother's schizophrenia. They would braid together their dolls' hair and concoct escape fantasies, hoping for their own rescue.
Flynn is a native San Franciscan. Born the summer before the Summer Of Love, she's a near-exact contemporary of Hypocrisy of Disco author Clane Hayward. But aside from a San Francisco birth, and complicated parental relationships, the similarities end there. Flynn's childhood in the fog-encapsulated Richmond district was a universe away from the goings-on over in the Haight. Flynn paints a vivid portrait of her block's most feared kids, the nine Mulligan brothers, "an endless horde of Patricks, Eddies, and Bobs in toughskin jeans and beefy tees." Laura and her sisters get "drafted" by the Mulligans into a war against the Kittredge family. The Kittredge kids, dirty, lost, and motherless, are "hippies" worthy of scorn. You get a sense that "hippie" was the worst slur an Irish-American Richmond District kid of 1972 could think of.
As the years went on, Laura, Sara, and Amy Flynn came to have more in common with the shunned and lonely Kittredges than they could have ever guessed. Their mother, Sally, developed a particularly 1970's brand of madness. Her delusions and paranoias involved Edgar Cayce, the Del Monte corporation, Richard Nixon, Jesus, Buddha, and her "special partner" in the fight against evil, John F. Kennedy. In one heartbreaking passage, Sally explains that she watches the Lawrence Welk show with her eyes fixed on one little girl in the chorus who resembles Laura. The more people from the "good side" have their eyes on the ersatz Laura, the better chance that the real Laura will escape the devils who control the world and the weather. Somewhere under the madness is an expression of real love.
Rescuing Patty Hearst author Virginia Holman spent three years kidnapped by her mother, sequestered in a vacation cabin with blackened windows, fighting a "secret war." For her own survival, Holman decided to believe that the secret war was real. Sally Flynn, in contrast, didn't actively pull her children into her delusional world in that way -- instead, she pushed them out. Laura Flynn often describes her mother as absent, or behind a closed door. When necessary, she could usually summon up the sanity to keep social workers and nosy neighbors at bay. The kids kept attending school and visiting their father on weekends. Amazingly, Sally Flynn even continued to more or less successfully manage the apartment building they owned and lived in. Meanwhile, old newspapers piled up inside, in stacks along the walls, two and three feet high.
Flynn writes with an adult's lifetime of distance and hindsight, like a journalist. When different family members have conflicting memories of the same incident, she notes the discrepancies. (Did Sally really cover herself in tinfoil armor before she went to sleep? Laura says yes, but her sisters have no memory of this.) Flynn, and the audience, are kept at a bit of a distance from what went on. As a narrative strategy it's less immediate, and less risky, than Clane Hayward's present-tense child's eye view in Hypocrisy of Disco. Laura Flynn has her reasons for this, I imagine. Late in the book she describes years in which she was terrified of following her mother down the rabbit hole. Hyper-vigilant for signs of a crack-up, she once mistook glow-in-the-dark wall paint as the hallucination she always feared would come. As a writer, Flynn's instinct for self-preservation prevents her from being able to fully render, in three dimensions, the inner workings of her mother's psychosis. She peers over the edge but never jumps in -- as a daughter and a survivor, you can't blame her for that.
Laura's father, Russell, emerges as the true hero of Swallow the Ocean. Laura makes it clear that Russell loved Sally very much, and if the disease hadn't stolen her away, he probably never would have left. In the end, rescuing three little girls from Sally Flynn's mental illness required a phalanx of lawyers, judges, social workers, and psychiatrists, took half a decade, and left a dozen or more destroyed lives in its wake. If you've ever had to confront a loved one's schizophrenia, the calm voice of Laura Flynn will be a welcome friend. Even now, schizophrenic people and their families are failed utterly by the courts and by social services. As Flynn makes clear, this is the real tragedy.