by Guest Reviewer Dr. Jason M.Dew.
Madeline Sharples accomplishes in Leaving the Hall Light On what no mother or parent, for that matter, would ever want to accomplish: an eloquent, honest recounting of events before and after the suicide of her oldest son, Paul. Three months shy of his twenty-eighth birthday, Paul, a sufferer of rapid-cycle Bipolar I disorder, locked himself into a bathroom and slit his wrists and throat with a box cutter. The discovery by his father the next morning and the subsequent pronouncement of his death was the starting gun for a maniacal onslaught of answerless questions and flimsy conjectures. The power of Sharples’ memoir, however, lies in the fact that she allows the reader to see her desperation, her madness at having lost a son, her grasping for any kind of perspective that would offer her a moment of peace. Sharples delivers, ultimately, a memoir that is oftentimes painful to read, but in the end, one that compels the reader to see that mental illness, in the case bipolar disorder, has a face, was once a chubby child who loved the “really back” of the station wagon, is able to fall in love, have a broken heart, is a friend, a brother, a beloved son.
Sharples spares no detail and is not one to mince words. She freely admits that Paul became a “pain in the ass” after he became ill, pacing the halls at night, never able to sit still, living “selfishly” by asking for money or refusing to take his medication on the grounds that it stymied his creativity at the piano. Leaving the Hall Light On does not sentimentalize her relationship with her oldest son (an easy pitfall given the circumstances), but it does, I think, offer something more authentic in terms of how real individuals, a mother and a son, the latter with a mental illness, related to one another, amiably or not. Though Sharples expresses some guilt connected with her not saying the right things to her son – words that could have prevented the tragedy – she does not take the blame for Paul’s death. It was his doing – to be sure, an act prompted by an illness – but it was his act nonetheless. The fortitude to make this assertion is a testament to Sharples’ sense of her role as Paul’s mother to the extent that she recognizes that there were limitations to what she could and could not do and that, in the end, Paul was his own man, broken though he was.
Were these pointed conclusions all there were in the memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On would be an angry word assault on a son who was too cowardly to stick around to answer her many questions; however, what presides throughout the book – and this is really important to note – is the broken-heartedness only a mother could feel as a result of such a betrayal. Sharples is understandably angry, confused, and hurt by Paul’s suicide, but these feelings do nothing to overshadow or otherwise diminish the abiding love she had for her son. She writes often of his ability to play the piano and repair computers. She muses over the connection he had with children and of his meticulous nature. But the choice of photographs included in the memoir, I think, really speak to her mother’s love and, more importantly, her approach to dealing with his suicide. The reader is not presented with photographs of a teenager standing darkly aloof or a young man staring angrily into the camera. Instead, the reader sees a photograph of a cute and happy toddler sitting at his grandparents’ piano and, later, more pictures of Paul, at different ages, smiling by himself or next to relatives. The sense is that Sharples has pulled the family photo album off the shelf and is proudly showing photographs of her son, not to display his illness but, rather, to show that he was loved like other sons are loved and that bipolar disorder can infiltrate and affect even the most “normal” of families. Sharples’ use of this uneasy juxtaposition between the story she tells and the photographs she shows communicates her own unsettled feelings about her son’s death and captures between the covers, to be sure, the fact that she will never get over his suicide. What mother could? The technique with the photographs and the narrative perfectly symbolizes the conflict.
Sharples divulges to the reader that she does not wholly subscribe to the explanations of death afforded by her professed religion, Judaism, and that she does not believe in prayer or the afterlife. In her words, Paul is “gone,” plain and simple. Her choice, then, to dabble in activities such as Native American cleansing rituals and magical thinking in the form of leaving the hall light on in hopes that Paul might return might leave readers baffled or with the feeling that Sharples has, perhaps, understandably slipped into flaky ways of coping. I believe those who would make such conclusions would be in error, however, because they would miss the fundamental question that is being begged by her inclusion of these experiences in her memoir about the loss of her son to suicide: How might you, the reader, react if you, the reader, suffered a similar loss? It is, naturally, a difficult, perhaps impossible question to answer, but the fact that Sharples freely gives her answer speaks to how bare she is really laying herself in this work. She undoubtedly deserves our thanks.
Leaving the Hall Light On might be seen as a reincarnation of a son as his mother would like the world to see him: troubled, yes, but essentially a good guy. Sharples deftly pulls together the shattered pieces that were the result of Paul’s suicide and presents them to her audience, re-organized for effect, appearance, and coherence. And it is the latter of the three, I believe, that would benefit those unlucky to be in similar shoes the most.
In the end, though, Sharples shows that such an experience as the loss of a child can be survived. She soldiers on by sticking to a regimen of working, writing, and exercising; she refuses to quit, lie down, hole up like her mother did after the death of her father. Sharples routinely confesses that pressing on despite the heavy weight in her heart was difficult, still is difficult, but after such confessions, the reader sees that there are more pages to turn and that Sharples, in effect, continues to turn her own pages, seeing what tomorrow might bring, how her own survivor’s story might turn out.
About the reviewer: Jason M. Dew earned his BA in English from Lock Haven University and his MA and PhD in Literature and Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is an Associate Professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College where he is also the Honor Program Coordinator for the Dunwoody campus. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and three daughters.