I met Terry Helwig when she brought her amazing Thread Project to The Fetzer Institute several years ago. I could tell then that her passion for peace comes from a deep place. Lanie Tankard’s review of Helwig’s new memoir confirms the resilient transformation that made her mature contribution to peacemaking possible.
Moonlight on Linoleum: A Daughter’s Memoir
by Terry Helwig
Foreword by Sue Monk Kidd
New York: Howard Books/Simon & Schuster, October 2011 (304 pp.).
Available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats.
Reviewed by Lanie Tankard
“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
—Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker
You know you’re in for a bumpy ride from the very first sentence of Terry Helwig’s new book, Moonlight on Linoleum: A Daughter’s Memoir. When an author can’t even locate her mother’s grave because she doesn’t know her last name, the reader’s senses go on alert. Helwig’s mother had married so many times, her daughter lost track of which appellation she was using when she died.
Helwig became a mother herself way too early as a child, long before she ever gave birth to her own daughter as an adult. She spent her formative years taking care of five younger sisters, one of whom was actually a cousin.
Helwig presents her mother, Carola Jean, as a wild rose who married at fourteen — lying about her age to become the wife of a twenty-two-year-old tenant farmer. Helwig was born eleven months later.
Carola Jean knew nothing about how to run a household. By the time Helwig was eighteen, her mother had been married to three different men (one several times) and befriended many others. “Going to Timbuktu” became her mother’s euphemism for carousing in bars.
There is child abandonment and abuse, alcohol and drugs, attempted suicide, a stint in a mental hospital, and finally an overdose on the part of Carola Jean — and yet through it all, Helwig shepherds her siblings to happy adulthoods. Their current close-knit bond began when “we forged an indestructible ring of sisterhood that helped keep all of us afloat.” In fact, Helwig drew upon their collective memories when she wrote this memoir.
During her childhood, she employs varying methods to make it through the tough times. One day, she plays the Car-Counting Game while wondering if her mother will ever come to pick her up. Another day, she tells herself, “I’ll be so glad when I forget this.”
The memoir is reminiscent of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, with less powerful prose. Details are sketchy at times. The book ends somewhat abruptly, with a large chunk of Helwig’s life omitted before the Epilogue. Still, the story presented is testimony to the triumph of the human spirit.
Two people can experience very similar hardships in childhood, yet evolve into very different adults. How does one person use those terrible memories to strengthen the soul while another watches the very life force ground away by them?
Memoir has a way of getting at the heart of this question through the sharing of tales in what ultimately becomes a collective storehouse of insights. The act of placing those painful memories on paper is cathartic for a writer. And Helwig has reached a position of objectivity regarding Carola Jean — assessing the full spectrum of her personality traits, bad as well as good. Still, the various fathers in the book seem to have many more redeeming qualities.
For readers, knowledge of other lives can certainly help us view our own in comparison, and learn coping strategies.
Sue Monk Kidd, in her foreword to Moonlight on Linoleum, uses the word redemption to describe the story told within. That’s a fitting way to characterize someone like Terry Helwig. Her itinerant family barely stays in a town long enough for the girls to finish out a grade level. Over the span of eleven years, Helwig attended twelve different schools. Thus, as a child, she didn’t identify with “one particular school, group of friends, town, or state.” Instead of becoming bitter, however, Helwig associated herself “with something larger, more inclusive, the sum of many parts — like humanity….”
Growing up in this nomadic and unpredictable family, Helwig found her own compass points. “My familiar landmarks had become, by necessity, overarching — the stars, sunsets, and moonrises. These were my constants. I knew the earth as a mountain, field, canyon, desert, and sea. My roots weren’t anchored to a particular neighborhood, yet they sunk deep into the earth….”
Helwig eventually rose above her childhood to become a counselor and create The Thread Project: “Some say our world is hanging by a thread. I say — a thread is all we need,” she states.
I’d call that resilience, which the American Psychological Association defines as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.”
Terry Helwig definitely bounced, and her reverberations are global.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews.
It sounds like an amazing story. I am always inspired by tales of resilience. So different from Gladwell’s Outliers I am reading, which says even geniuses can’t make it big unless they have certain fortunate circumstances. The author has obviously, at the least, transcended her chaotic upbringing.
Yes she has. It would be interesting to see Gladwell tackle the challenge of understanding what makes for transformation when people aren’t lucky to begin with. I love that kind of story also.
I would definitely call Terry Helwig a +5 outlier on the bell curve of life!
I’ve just placed Terry Helwig’s memoir on my “must read soon” list. Thanks for an intriguing review of what appears to be the tale of a life fought well.
Hope you return to post your thoughts after you read Helwig’s memoir!
It’s always inspiring when reviews prompt readers to action! Thanks Sherrey, for reporting your intent, and Lanie for igniting it.
I’m always fascinated by the memoirs of others who escaped chaos and dysfunction. Here is my very abbreviated story:
I call them “Credibility Stats.” It’s numerical shorthand to condense a journey through life that defied statistics. I attended fourteen elementary schools. I never saw a Christmas tree two years in a row in the same house until I turned twenty-six years old. My father married nine times. My mother married four times. They married each other three times. They couldn’t get it right but they couldn’t stop loving each other. I have married five times. My first husband died of complications of multiple sclerosis from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. My second husband died of lung cancer. I married the third and fourth times as ill-considered stabs at finding myself and my place in the world. My current and last husband, my incarnate blessing, treasures the richness of our life together as I do. When I first put these stats together years ago, I showed them to my Mom. Annoyed I had put them on paper, she replied in a flat tone, “Those are quite accurate.”
I can’t wait to read Helwig’s memoir. And, thanks, Lanie, for another great review.
Wow, Brenda. Those are some amazing stats! You have quite a story to tell. Hope Helwig’s journey — as a writer and as a human being — is useful to you.
That took courage to share your own story. I just finished reading the excellent novel GREAT HOUSE by Nicole Krauss, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Two of her eloquent sentences come to mind: “Terrible things befall people, but not all are destroyed. Why is it that the same thing that destroys one does not destroy another?” You, too, must have found resilience.
Lanie, you are so right. Resilience is one of the factors that I talk about in my memoir. Why do some have it and others don’t? That I can’t answer. I told my sisters to choose education, therapy or religion as a route out of our family chaos. Now I know it takes all three and more. Alas, my three younger sisters chose none of the above.
Shirley, I’m chomping at the bit to get to the bookstore or library to get Helwig’s memoir!
Lanie, thanks for reviewing my book “Moonlight on Linoleum: A Daugher’s Memoir.” And, Shirley, thanks for posting it. I appreciate everyone’s comments and am happy to hear that the message of resilience seems to be coming through loud and clear. One of my favorite quotes from the book is: “Life is not without its tragedies, but neither is it without its points of radiance.”
You go, grrrl!
[…] such author is Terry Helwig whose new award-winning memoir was reviewed here by guest blogger Lanie Tankard a few weeks ago. Terry graciously agreed to share her experience of […]