The Crazy Streak
As the winter holidays approach, I find myself comparing notes with friends—who is traveling, who will stay home, and how many will come for dinner? Although the Christmas tradition calls for making room in our hearts and room at our own versions of the proverbial inn, we sometimes find ourselves sharing a roll of the eyes, a sigh, and a groan, confessing wishes that some kin would emulate the Holy Family and find shelter in a stable rather than under our own roofs.
The books I’ve read recently support the theory that every family has its representatives of the crazy, sometimes whole lunatic arms, and it’s a theory that resonates with my own experience. If the word “crazy” is an insensitive choice in describing various gradations of personality disorders and mental illness, surely the behaviors of certain relatives can still be described as “crazy making” without too much harm done. But it’s complicated—a sense of strain or even dread at the prospect of prolonged contact doesn’t mean the “eccentric” person or branch of the family isn’t loved. And if love is there in some form, we often do make some room during the holiday season. We must find a way to coexist or at least visit with those very people who make us weigh the pros and cons of our gene pool, our upbringing, and the tendencies that surface among the clan on every occasion for reunion.
A Twisted Ladder, a debut novel by Rhodi Hawk, is a New Orleans-based thriller about psychologist Madeleine LeBlanc and her family. Madeleine has a deeply vested interest in psychology. Her father is a schizophrenic with a history of drug abuse, a man she loves despite the emotional harm and paroxysms of violence he’s inflicted over the years. She and her brother were left to fend for themselves for long periods of their childhoods, while Daddy Blank wrestled, often unsuccessfully, with inner demons. But Daddy Blank submits to medication that, despite its side effects, really makes a difference, and he can be smart, charming, and loving, sometimes even when he’s off the medication. He inspires both utter exasperation and dogged loyalty from his only daughter.
The novel tells a complex and haunting story that flits between generations, and what seems at first glance to be textbook mental illness could actually be more of a psychic connection to a paranormal realm. Where the voodoo vibe leaves off and schizophrenia and addiction begin is not 100% clear, but either way the tale makes a good argument for the inherited nature of some forms of mental torment, while also acknowledging some power on the part of the tormented to tame the weird experiences that encroach on a sense of sanity. In the tradition of good thrillers, the end of the book implies that the darkest elements of this family may ultimately have the last word. But the unsettled feeling at the close also speaks to how families forever struggle with the strange power exerted by prodigal relatives.
Twisted as A Twisted Ladder is, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is a fine argument for truth being much, much stranger than fiction. The memoir of the second-oldest daughter of the Walls family is hard to fathom and hard to put down. The Walls children are born of a free-spirited artist mother and a clearly brilliant father who, at the same time, manage to be hapless, selfish, poster children for addiction and codependence. Mom is a self-proclaimed excitement addict and Dad’s a severe binge drinker.
While Jeannette’s parents show signs of affection at times, neither one seems to have developed any appreciable protective feelings toward their brood. The children are put in harm’s way, physically and emotionally, on countless occasions. Mom and Dad create situations that leave thirteen-year-old Jeannette to battle the advances of a home invader and, later, a drunken older man. Mom fails to tell Jeannette that her beloved grandmother died—“there didn’t seem to be any point.” Both parents steal money from the kids. They fail at every opportunity for employment and hang fiercely onto possessions that could be sold to stave off the intense, nagging hunger experienced by every child. The family lives in a series of places fit to be condemned, and no one feels compelled to bathe regularly or do anything about the inevitable infestations that follow them from hovel to hovel.
You have to hand it to the kids in The Glass Castle. You can see clues early on that the youngest child will suffer the most damage, but all three older children seem determined to find their way to a better life. They take on a patchwork of odd jobs very young and support each other in plans to leave West Virginia for New York City before high school graduation. Jeannette documents her struggle to create a comfortable existence while wrestling with how she feels about her parents, who come to New York and for a while choose to be homeless while she’s residing on Park Avenue. I got the sense that Jeannette gave her parents every possible chance to redeem themselves on many levels, and they continued to disappoint her at nearly every turn, with little awareness of the impact of their failings. There’s bitterness in some of her words, but Jeannette also describes a feeling of love that manages to survive years of continual neglect.
Both reads had me wondering how many generations of dysfunction must come together to create existences so fraught with instability, and how those tornado-like cycles of chaos come to finally be broken. They also showed how perhaps in many families there is some silver lining alongside the lunatic fringe—both the fictional and the real daughter have strong and wise characters and thoughtfully chosen vocations that were influenced by the hardships they faced so early. A measured dose of lunacy might not be without value, and it’s a never-boring source of material for my eventual memoir—something to remember as I make plans with my own eccentric, extended clan this Christmas.