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Sense of the Mother 

Virginia Holman revisits a childhood of mental abandon.

Mothers are always organizing impromptu "treasure hunts" for their kids; it's a fun activity that's sure to bring a smile to a child's face and a flush of excitement to their cheeks. When Virginia Holman was an 8-year-old girl growing up in Virginia Beach in 1974, her mother greeted her one day after school with the announcement that they were going on just such a hunt. They grabbed Virginia's infant sister and got into the car, whence her mother proceeded to let the voices in her head guide her and her daughters somewhat erratically through the city. "We need to follow the color red," her mother instructed. "It will lead us there." They ended up at a new housing development festooned with red balloons: a cryptic sign that they had arrived precisely where the voices had been directing them.

It would take a few more years--and many more instances of highly bizarre behavior--before Virginia Holman would learn that her mother wasn't merely an eccentric Southern belle, but was actually suffering from profound schizophrenia. The story of how she and her family discovered and came to terms with her mother's condition is recounted in Rescuing Patty Hearst: Memories from a Decade Gone Mad (Simon & Schuster), Holman's just-published memoir, which begins with the aforementioned adventure and ends a quarter-century later with a bittersweet coda at a nursing facility.

Shortly after the manic treasure hunt, Holman's mother put her daughters in the car once again and drove them to what would become their home during the author's formative years: a ramshackle Tidewater cabin inhabited chiefly by spiders and birds, and rotting with the detritus of regular flooding. A very secret but very bloody war--her mother believed--was about to take place, and the Holman women had been charged with setting up a field hospital that would minister to the thousands of children orphaned in the melee. Not much thought had been given to the fact that Virginia was enrolled in school--or, for that matter, that Mr. Holman hadn't accompanied them on their mission. These details would be dealt with later, after the windows had been painted completely black and the spying, treacherous television thoroughly dismantled.

"Even though it was evident that something was terribly wrong, the only thing that any 9-year-old can reasonably do is go along with things, at least for a while," says Holman from Durham, which she's called home for the last decade. "And in a way, it was even kind of fun to think that we were privy to this big thing. There was an exciting aspect to it: 'Wow--there's a secret war! We get to be a part of it!'"

It's true that 9-year-olds don't typically have sophisticated understandings of brain chemistry or mental illness. It's also true that, in the pre-rebellion years at least, they tend to be of the unshakeable belief that their parents are always right on the decidedly grown-up matters of world affairs, invisible perils and the infrastructure of family safety--things no child should be expected to grasp. Holman's chronicle of her time in the cabin is as much a record of a girl's accelerated education in the mysterious and complicated world of adult dynamics as it is an account of her mother's madness. Little Virginia, like most children, is reflexively loyal to her mother, even to the point of accepting their new lifestyle as secret operatives. But with each day, her burgeoning analytical and intellectual self is beginning to wonder which of them is still clinging to childlike fantasies and delusions, and which of them has moved on.

When her father, in a desperate effort to salvage what he can of his world, reluctantly leaves his job in Virginia Beach to join his wife and daughters at the decrepit cabin, the Holmans make every effort to live as a normal family. There are outings and sleepovers and visits with the relatives who live in the area. But as Virginia's mother begins to slip deeper into psychosis, the scales fall from her oldest daughter's eyes.

"I had told myself that maybe all of what my mother was saying was true," Holman remembers. "And if you can accept that something like that is true, it's easy to think, well, maybe anything is possible. But then, at some point, you simply realize it isn't true, it can't be, and then you become aware that you're just a kid being held hostage by your parents," she continues. "Though all kids, really, are being held hostage by their parents, there's nothing special about that. Still, I knew I was stuck in a situation that was really wrong somehow, and I wasn't going to get out of it until I grew out of it. The only way out was through."

Which isn't to say that Holman didn't dream of deliverance. At one particularly excruciating moment in Rescuing, she recounts how she resolved to turn her heart and soul over to Jesus Christ, preparing herself psychologically for a born-again baptism that, once it comes, doesn't take. Later, the failed Christian locks herself in a closet and tries to administer a self-brainwashing, in hopes that she'll emerge changed in much the same way that Patty Hearst was changed into the revolutionary "Tania" by her radical kidnappers. Once again, Virginia is heartbroken when she realizes that she's the same lonely girl, in the same forlorn circumstances, as she was before her attempts at instant transformation.

Moments like these are the stuff of great fiction. "I had actually been trying to write this story for a very long time as a novel, thinking that if I kept the veil of fiction around me it would somehow be easier to write," she says. "But that proved not to be the case at all. I wound up writing a pretty bad fictional account. It was suggested to me at various times by people: Why don't you try to write this as nonfiction? Which to me was just very frightening. So much of it was just too painful to remember."

About six years ago, Holman wrote an article for The Independent that dealt with this most private aspect of her family history. "It was one of the first times I'd written about it in a nonfiction format, and the first time I'd ever come out publicly about any of this," she says. A similar article in DoubleTake magazine followed, which earned its fledgling author a coveted Pushcart Prize. It was then that people started encouraging her to turn her story into some kind of a book.

Holman is quiet and reflective, almost pensive, when discussing her painful childhood and the decision she made to relive it in a memoir. But get her going on the way that schizophrenia is addressed--or, more accurately, not addressed--at the public policy level, and her voice speeds up, grows louder and more strident.

"This illness is just so incredibly pernicious, and unfortunately the way that the laws are structured, prevents families from getting help," she says. "We would never treat people with Alzheimer's the way we treat people with schizophrenia. It's a large-scale health problem. We're talking about one percent of the world population suffering just from schizophrenia alone. That's a massive number when you stop to think about it. And if you then factor in the suffering of the families, the number of people affected goes up exponentially."

"Certainly there have been incredible pharmacological advances since my mother first manifested her symptoms," she continues. "There are much better drugs. Some people can actually go out and lead lives that are OK, especially if it's caught early on. But too many people are allowed to remain untreated in terms of hospitalization or community care. The fallback, of course, is the family. And frankly, not every family is capable of taking care of someone who's actively psychotic." For things to get better, she says, "it's going to take a lot more time, effort and money."

But Holman claims she won't be picking up the cause for her next project. The one-time freelance editor and former writer-in-residence at Duke Medical Center, who is married and has a son the same age she was during her years at the cabin, is turning her attention once again to fiction. "I'm actually at work on two different novels--neither of which have to do with mental health issues," she stipulates. And then, in a subtle acknowledgment of fiction writing's stubborn unpredictability, she qualifies her statement. "At least not yet they don't." EndBlock

  • Virginia Holman revisits a childhood of mental abandon.

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