Madeline Sharples, author of Leaving the Hall Light On, reviewed here, has volunteered to review another memoir about mental illness.
White Elephants: A Memoir. Chynna T. Laird, Eagle Wings Press, 2011.
Reviewed By Madeline Sharples
Everyone knew something was terribly wrong with her mother, but nobody did anything about it …that is until Chynna T. Laird wrote White Elephants.
Chynna T. Laird and I met while I was on my WOW – Women on Writers blog tour last June. She graciously hosted me on her “White Elephants” website and later wrote a review of my memoir, Leaving the Hall On, which she posted on one of her blogs, “The Gift Blog.” When my tour was over, I reached out to Chynna because I realized how much we had in common – most notably, that she and I are both survivors. She survived growing up with an abusive and alcoholic mother as a result of her bipolar disorder, and I survived living with an adult son with bipolar disorder and his suicide as a result of his illness.
We both agree how important it is to communicate these kinds of stories in hopes of erasing the stigma of mental illness. Only when the victims as well as their families know the causes and available treatments do we have a chance to save lives.
The meaning of the title of Chynna T. Laird’s heart-wrenching memoir about her life with her bipolar and alcoholic mother, Janet, says it all: “a White Elephant [is something] everyone can see but no one wants to deal with; everyone hopes the problem will just go away on its own.”
Except in Janet’s case, the problem didn’t go away. It became increasingly worse.
Like my son Paul, Janet was a creative genius – so typical of people with bipolar disorder. She was poet and artist, but her greatest gift was music. She earned a living as a piano teacher. And music was the only way she and her daughter, called Tami while she was growing up, could communicate. Tami learned piano and sang in the choir so that she could do something her mother would approve of.
Otherwise Janet resented her daughter – she made it clear she never wanted her, and she blamed her for not having the same musical success as her sister who was a renowned opera singer in Canada.From the very beginning and throughout her life, Tami and Janet did not get along.
Tami was only five years old when she realized that something was desperately wrong with her mother – that the reason she and her brother Cam went to stay with their grandparents was not because their mother was on “vacation” but because she was on an alcoholic binge and not capable of caring for them. And as always, after the binge was over, the children went home with their mother and nobody said or did anything to help her.
When the grandparents finally got fed up and forced Janet to keep her children home with her, both Tami and Cam went downhill fast. Tami was a witness to many of her mother’s affairs in their home, and at age twelve she was raped by one of Janet’s boyfriends, resulting in Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. Janet never even asked her what happened, calling Tami a tramp in front of the doctor who treated her.
In trying to endure the chaos in her life and home, little or no sleep, and the insecurities of puberty, she began cutting herself at age thirteen – soon after Janet remarried a man as much of a drinker as she was. Janet couldn’t even be contained during her two pregnancies during her second marriage.
Tami also drank – she tells about her mother offering her, her first drink at her tenth birthday dinner. Cam, three years younger than Tami, also succumbed to alcohol and drugs. He partied as heavily as their mother and her husband and displayed his ever-increasing anger toward Janet by punching holes into walls and later punching her out. But he didn’t go as far as Tami. She tried to end her life by taking a whole bottle of aspirin. Even then Janet didn’t help her. She called the suicide attempt acting out, so once recovered Tami actually did begin to act out – she became a full-fledged punker.
In her late teens Tami contacted genital warts and later cervical cancer, and finally developed a life-threatening case of anorexia – all because of an abusive and unloving mother who couldn’t get through the day without drinking herself into a stupor. Janet not only caused Tami and Cam to self-destruct, her two younger children still suffer from her drunken abuse of them.
Tami finally began to straighten out her life in her twenties. She lived with her godmother, Auntie Lois, who taught her she had worth as a human being. Later on she lived with her father and although this visit didn’t end successfully, it laid the groundwork for a long-term relationship with the father she hardly saw growing up. Then, needing to return home, she lived with Janet again until she could stand it no longer.
When she finally got a job as a legal assistant, she moved into an apartment of her own – never returning to live with her mother again. Tami took control and began building a healthy life with her husband, Steve, three daughters and one son, and a degree in psychology. As an adult she took on her given first name, Chynna, as a symbol of moving forward and added her mother’s birth name, Arlene, to her name.
In her mother’s memory, Chynna carries on her efforts to help children and families with Sensory Processing Disorder that affects two of her children. She also is committed to help other families living with bipolar disorder.
Although Chynna’s is a horrendous story, it is also a story of survival. Although she admits that she and her brother, Cam, may never get over what they went through as children and teens, she is finally in a place where she can embrace all that has happened to her. She feels fortunate that it has given her an insight into her own children’s problems. And most important, she lives for now – because tomorrow may never happen.
As author Chynna T. Laird says, “Janet Batty [her mother] was a person with mental illness. It doesn’t excuse the things she did or erase the damage done as a result of some of her bad choices. But her story can help others. It might give strength to those who see a mother, sister, daughter, lover, wife, best friend, teacher or acquaintance in need.”
What makes tales of survival succeed in the goal of helping other readers? Have you ever read a memoir that helped you cope with a significant issue in your life?