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Daughter of the Queen of Sheba: A Memoir [NOOK Book]


As a foreign correspondent for NPR, Jacki Lyden has spent her adult life on the frontlines in some of the most dangerous war zones in the world. Her childhood was a war zone of a different kind. Her mother suffered from what we now call manic depression; when Jacki was a child in a small Wisconsin town, her mother was simply called crazy. In her delusions, she was a woman with power: Marie Antoinette or the Queen of Sheba. In her real life, she had married the nefarious local doctor, who drugged her to check her ...
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Daughter of the Queen of Sheba: A Memoir

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As a foreign correspondent for NPR, Jacki Lyden has spent her adult life on the frontlines in some of the most dangerous war zones in the world. Her childhood was a war zone of a different kind. Her mother suffered from what we now call manic depression; when Jacki was a child in a small Wisconsin town, her mother was simply called crazy. In her delusions, she was a woman with power: Marie Antoinette or the Queen of Sheba. In her real life, she had married the nefarious local doctor, who drugged her to check her moods and terrorized the children to keep them quiet. Holding their lives together was Jacki's hardscrabble Irish grandmother, a woman who had her first child at the age of fourteen and lost her husband in a barroom brawl. Lyden vividly captures the seductive energy of her mother's delusions, which were both an inspiration and a threat as she set out on her own impassioned journey. In her twenties she joined a traveling rodeo. Later, as a radio journalist, she interviewed Arafat and maneuvered her way through Baghdad at the height of the Persian Gulf War. Always, her mother's exotic fantasies were an irresistible lure. Like Mary Karr in THE LIAR'S CLUB and Tobias Wolff in THIS BOY'S LIFE, Jacki Lyden portrays her unstable mother with a child's aching regret and an adult's keen wisdom. In DAUGHTER OF THE QUEEN OF SHEBA, three remarkable women -- mother, daughter, and grandmother -- reveal their obstinate devotion to each other against all odds, and their scrappy genius for survival.
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Editorial Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
Dreamypoetic prose. . .
Chicago Tribune
The great strength of Lyden's memoir lies. . .in the poetic power and virtuosity of her language. . .a beautiful family testament.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
One day in 1966, when the author was 12, she returned home from school to find her mother, Dolores, garishly made up and convinced that she was the Queen of Sheba. For the next 20 years, Lyden and her two younger sisters were subjected to their delusional parent's frequent episodes of manic-depressive behavior. In vivid and gripping prose, the author describes how her childhood was disrupted when her beloved father became deaf and was later divorced by Dolores, who then married an abusive physician. Lyden's stepfather institutionalized Dolores and prescribed inappropriate drugs for her. He also beat his stepdaughters until he and Dolores divorced. The author, a correspondent for National Public Radio, conveys her feelings of helplessness during these years, when her mother struggled to support them by working as a waitress between periods of mental illness. She also clearly expresses her love and empathy for Dolores, who now functions on Lithium. Lyden provides as well a sharply etched portrait of her eccentric grandmother.
Library Journal
In this colorful memoir, Lyden, senior correspondent for National Public Radio, describes her early life as the daughter of a mother suffering from manic depression. In her manic states, Dolores Lyden had delusions of power and acted on them. She was the Queen of Sheba, a hostess of bizarre dinner parties, a promoter of outrageous business ventures. Dolores' imaginative escapades inspired Lyden in her career as a journalist covering the Persian Gulf War, taking risks, rising to challenges, and facing unforeseen danger. As her illness progressed, Dolores defied every attempt made by her daughters to force her to seek treatment until she was finally arrested for assaulting a judge at a court hearing. Lyden has written a brilliantly descriptive, fast-moving tribute to her mother's vanquished eccentric alter ego. -- Lucille M. Boone, San Jose Public Library, California
Library Journal
In this colorful memoir, Lyden, senior correspondent for National Public Radio, describes her early life as the daughter of a mother suffering from manic depression. In her manic states, Dolores Lyden had delusions of power and acted on them. She was the Queen of Sheba, a hostess of bizarre dinner parties, a promoter of outrageous business ventures. Dolores' imaginative escapades inspired Lyden in her career as a journalist covering the Persian Gulf War, taking risks, rising to challenges, and facing unforeseen danger. As her illness progressed, Dolores defied every attempt made by her daughters to force her to seek treatment until she was finally arrested for assaulting a judge at a court hearing. Lyden has written a brilliantly descriptive, fast-moving tribute to her mother's vanquished eccentric alter ego. -- Lucille M. Boone, San Jose Public Library, California
In this memoir, Lyden (foreign correspondent for National Public Radio) writes about her past, in particular her relationship with her mother, who was manic-depressive (though her small midwestern community simply saw her as 'crazy') and married to a villainous local doctor.
Entertainment Weekly
Dreamy, poetic prose. . .
Chicago Tribune
The great strength of Lyden's memoir lies. . .in the poetic power and virtuosity of her language. . .a beautiful family testament.
Kirkus Reviews
Three powerful women form the backbone of this beautifully written narrative about the wish, both rational and not, to be elsewhere: crusty, earthy Mabel; her daughter Dolores, the self-styled Queen of Sheba in her manic visions; and the author, Dolores's daughter, a reporter for NPR. Anyone who has heard Lyden's crisp journalistic voice on the radio will be surprised by the lush (at times overly lush) imagery and riptides of emotion that characterize her writing in this memoir of her mother's madness. Compassion, fury, love, hatred—all battle within Lyden during three decades in which Dolores's periodic bouts of mania disrupt her and her two sisters' lives. Her rage with Dolores's refusal to accept treatment jostles with her wonder at the rich fantasies her mother creates and admiration for the sensual vitality and sheer force of will that keep her alive. In one of the tragicomic scenes related here, Lyden brings some friends home to her small Wisconsin town for a local celebration, only to find a mother who fancies herself Marie Antoinette, dressed only in 'a black bustier with garters, which dangle over a transparent lilac half-slip.' With each manic outburst, Mabel, who has a mouth like a sewer and a spine of steel, calls Lyden with her plaintive refrain, 'Cantcha come up, Jack? Cantcha come up?' With her education and artistic gift frustrated by her father, a first husband who became deaf after falling off a roof, a second husband who was wealthy and abusive (the click in Lyden's jaw is a permanent reminder of the time he smashed her head against a wall)—Dolores' life gives her good reason to flee. Lyden links her own journalist's wanderlust to her mother's escapeinto madness, and finds herself in places like Iraq and northern Ireland, where the whole world seems crazier than Dolores. Lyden memorably illuminates both the alluring fantasy and the shocking reality of madness in a volume filled with poetry and awe.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547745718
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/1/1997
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 807,019
  • File size: 258 KB

Meet the Author

Jacki Lyden is a senior correspondent for Nation Public Radio and a regular substitute host for NPR's "Weekend Edition" and "Weekend All Things Considered." An expert in the Middle East, she was a part of the award-winning NPR team that covered the Persian Gulf War. Her other journalism awards include the 1990 National Mental Heath Association Media Award for investigative reporting on mental health care. She currently lives in Washington, D.C..
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Read an Excerpt

"I am the Queen of Sheba, my mother announced to me in a regal voice. She had taken the silky yellow sheets from her voluptuous bed and twisted them around and around her torso like a toga, leaving one shoulder, as white as a gardenia, bare except for her bra strap. The sheets were hooked together with heirloom antique pins. On her arms she'd drawn hieroglyphics in eyeliner. My mother's long auburn hair was swept up and crowned with an old tiara that we girls had played with as little children, pretending to be lost princesses . . . I was alone in the house with her, but she might have been on another continent. I could not follow her. I went to phone my grandmother at her bungalow. She didn't believe me for a moment, she said. Then she told me not to tell anyone and to stay in my bedroom until she arrived. . . Sheba was a vision, and she vanished that afternoon into the twilight. I have been watching wearily for her ever since, but never so hard as when my mother slips off into the caverns where the past and present and future play the triple bill. You can say that my life as her daughter, the life of my imagination, began with my mother's visions."
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Table of Contents

November 1997

As an award-winning foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, Jacki Lyden has spent her adult life on the front lines in some of the world's most dangerous hot spots and war zones, from Baghdad at the height of the Gulf War to Belfast.

Her childhood was a war zone of a different kind. In 1966, when Lyden was only 12, her mother suffered a nervous breakdown. It was the start of her mother's 20-year struggle with what we now call manic depression. But in a less enlightened era, in small-town Wisconsin, she was simply called crazy. In her delusions, she was a woman with power: the president and CEO of a major corporation, Marie Antoinette, the Queen of Sheba. In real life she was nearly powerless -- married to a local doctor who drugged her to control her moods and terrorized her children to keep them quiet.

In Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, Lyden chronicles the brilliant facts and fables that went along with her mother's illness and the impact it had on her life and the lives of her sister. A witness to her mother's madness -- and forever haunted by its cause and by the visions her mother sees -- Lyden ultimately understands and respects the powerful figure her mother became when sick. "Her sense of power was in such stark contrast to her sense of disempowerment as a pretty housewife that it fascinated my sisters and me," Lyden writes. "In her manic life, she got revenge for all the disappointments in her worldly life. If she felt wronged, she could literally take her destiny into her own hands, and she did...she could be as free and unfettered by cares as possible."

A deeply moving testimony to devotion and love in the face of a bewildering illness, Daughter of the Queen of Sheba also chronicles the parallels between the inner life of Lyden's mother and Lyden's own wanderlust. In her 20s, Lyden joined a traveling rodeo. Later, as a foreign correspondent, Lyden's reports from faraway cities -- Baghdad, Beirut, Jerusalem, Amman, Tel Aviv, Tehran -- strangely echoed her mother's journeys of the mind. "It is a story," says Lyden, "that looks at how we become our fantasies, and how powerful fantasy is as a force to hold on to when there is not much else to believe in."

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Interviews & Essays

On Saturday, November 1, welcomed Jacki Lyden, author of DAUGHTER OF THE QUEEN OF SHEBA.

Moderator: Welcome, Ms. Lyden. Thanks for joining us online to discuss DAUGHTER OF THE QUEEN OF SHEBA.

Jacki Lyden: Thank you. I'm pleased to be here.

Sarah from Ballston Spa: Why did you decide to write this book now? Also, how is your mother doing, and has she read DAUGHTER OF THE QUEEN OF SHEBA yet?

Jacki Lyden: I decided to write the book now before I forgot some of the details. I realized that they had an exquisite amount of details in them and represented our own Homerian epic in the character of my mother. By the way, she's doing extremely well. She's been stable for almost a decade on lithium, and she's read some of the book. She's proud of it, but it makes her uncomfortable to read too much of it.

Patrick from Metairie, LA: In DAUGHTER OF THE QUEEN OF SHEBA you make a connection between where your mom traveled in the mind and where you traveled as a foreign correspondent. Could you explain?

Jacki Lyden: My mother in her imagination inhabited a lot of different guises -- she could be a Fortune 500 executive, a Queen of Sheba, Marie Antoinette. And where I traveled as a journalist was often surprising to me -- whether it was the farthest reaches of the Middle East, such as Iraq, or a small farm town I would never have expected to visit. In one of her delusions, my mother did appear to me as the Queen of Sheba and bequeathed me Mesopotamia, which is the ancient name of Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates meet. I thought it ironic that I actually traveled there. But I'm not so much trying to match a piece of geography to every one of my mother's fantasies. What I meant is that without leaving home, she inhabited a lot of different worlds. I did leave home, and inhabited very dramatic worlds of my own -- be it the Souk in Baghdad or the Citadel in Aleppo or the Gulf War or a maximum-security penitentiary in southern Illinois or a war zone in Northern Ireland.

Songster from Valley Forge, PA: In much of your dealings with your mother, you write you were "looking for clues." Did this resourcefulness stem from your journalism background, or do you think it's a trait that developed in dealing with your mother and has assisted you in your career?

Jacki Lyden: I thing it's a trait that I developed in observing my mother and my family as things began to unravel -- a lot of attention to detail and a sort of obsession with things not as they should be but as they go off the rails. Later I knew how to organize this material better, because by then I'd become a journalist and knew more about how to tell stories.

Matt Liebert from Wisconsin: I have heard that manic depression is a hereditary illness. Does anyone else in your family suffer from this terrible affliction?

Jacki Lyden: Well, first of all let me say I don't necessarily regard it as a terrible affliction. While you would never wish this illness on anyone, it does seems to be an illness related to hyperactivity of the brain, particularly creative activity. Many artists in history have been manic depressive -- Vincent van Gogh, for example. And at least today there is much better treatment for it. My mother didn't really have the depressive side of the cycle. She only had the manic side. I wouldn't say I'm unconcerned about passing it on in a hereditary way, but it doesn't deeply trouble me. Especially these days when I see that she's been able to cope with the illness.

Potboiler from Nebraska: Did you need to do research for DAUGHTER OF THE QUEEN OF SHEBA? How did you remember so much?

Jacki Lyden: Throughout my mother's various periods of illness, I kept her notes and diaries, her files, her drawings, her legal records, her hospital records, letters from her to my family, letters from my sisters to each other. I have at least four or five boxes of this kind of thing. And I reread all of it extensively while writing the book. There are some passages in the book -- like that passage called "The Evil Account" that are direct excerpts from my mother's own journal. She had a form of compulsive writing when she was ill, which is a common feature of mania, called scribatousness, so that she sometimes wrote for the better part of 24 hours. And she made huge lists and notes. I didn't do clinical research on the roots of the illness. I didn't talk to psychiatrists any more than I had during the time of her illness, because I wasn't really interested in a clinical book. Other people can and have written clinical books. I was more interested in recording the experience of living with someone delusional who in real life you can't talk to, but who in a book you can try to capture. And that's why I wrote it this way. I was also interested in using language that reflected the lyricism of her hallucinations because I knew it could say so much more than any attempt to do straight reportage, which is something I do in my work every day.

Megan from the Heartland: Ms. Lyden, what do you like to read? Has your penchant for romances in your teenage life continued to your adult life?

Jacki Lyden: Do you mean literary romances? I'm a very eclectic reader. I particularly love Anglo-Irish literature from the period of the late 18th century to the 1950s. And I just picked up Arundhati Roy's THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS, which I am really enjoying. And I don't read mysteries or thrillers.

Randolph from Bradenton, FL: When did your mom's depression actually start? Was she depressed when she was married to the doctor, and he was just masking it with the pills? Was there an event that put her over the edge?

Jacki Lyden: Again, my mother wasn't depressed particularly. She parted company with reality, but I couldn't call it depression. The first time it was clear to me that she was mentally ill was when she first came home from the mental hospital and wrapped herself up in the bedsheets as the Queen of Sheba. If I knew the cause of it, if I knew there was one specific incident that triggered things, it would be a different book. But I do, as a layperson, surmise that certainly the oppression of her second marriage and the anguish in our family then caused her to crack. In any event, if she had this genetic condition, such outward stress could only have exacerbated it, although who knows, maybe if everything had been fine, she still might have become ill, because it's a disease that's born, not made by outside forces.

Sherman from Arlington: I'm interested in your life -- especially as a reporter. Although we got a taste of it in DAUGHTER OF THE QUEEN OF SHEBA, I wonder if you plan on writing another memoir about your experiences as a journalist.

Jacki Lyden: I think I'd rather use those events in future books that might be fiction or nonfiction. I have other books I want to write, but I wouldn't say that I plan any kind of immediate sequel. I'm much more interested in the things that go on behind the scenes -- even of my own career. When I tell what you might call "war stories" from my own experiences, you know like saying I had tea with Gerry Adams, which I did, or I had tea with King Hussein, which I did, it doesn't really particularly interest me. I'm not that sort of reporter. I'd rather write something impressionistic that synthesizes those experiences, because those meetings, for example, I've actually used in my journalism. I don't see the point in re-creating them precisely, unless they spin off into other stories. However, I might like to do another work of nonfiction on one topic, which would use the same kinds of things I use in journalism for National Public Radio, but in book format.

Chaon from Chicago: How much of your mother do you see in yourself?

Jacki Lyden: A lot. Even what I don't want to. I see her penchant for the dramatic, her love of costume and drama, her almost blithe indifference to safety, and that scares me sometimes. And I sometimes think I should be much more sensible, but I'm afraid that in that regard I am much more her daughter than not. She's also very, very feisty and she won't take no for an answer and she's very stubborn, and I would sound like her in all those regards. But a major difference is that I got a chance to use my talents in the real world, and she didn't.

Theresa from Palo Alto: What was your most harrowing experience as a journalist?

Jacki Lyden: There've been a number of experiences that I would regard as nerve-jangling. Although they might not be exactly what you would expect -- filing on riots and bomb blasts in Gaza and Tel Aviv, helping an Iraqi Christian escape from Iraq, getting stoned at a Palestinian camp in Jordan. But more than some of that I would say reporting on a max-security prison in the United States, and knowing that the government itself -- our government -- could be just as threatening and bullying as any foreign government was a wake-up call. In that particular story, a very senior authority tried to discredit me with an editor and I'll never forget being astonished at how far people in positions of power were willing to go, even though any reporter should know to expect that. And I think just the loneliness of being a reporter, whether it's the North Dakota plains in the middle of winter, or the 500-mile drive between Aman and Baghdad.

Ben from Washington, D.C.: I'm no doctor, but the delusional aspects of your mother's illness sound more like what I've always thought was schizophrenia. Is manic depression the same thing?

Jacki Lyden: It's interesting Ben should say that. For 20 years I thought she was schizophrenic because of things like hearing voices, seeing apparitions, hearing voices that told her to do certain things. But it was a misdiagnosis, and in untreated mania it looks much the same. The difference is that mania is treatable with lithium usually, and schizophrenia is much more difficult to treat; it doesn't have the off and on periods that mania does and it usually starts in young adulthood, not midlife. The problem with treating my mother like a schizophrenic was that while it might tame hallucinations, it wouldn't prevent her from having them again, whereas stabilizing the brain in other ways without antipsychotics, such as lithium, keeps her from being hallucinatory. But Ben should remember that even doctors confused the two in her case.

Patsi from Hoboken, NJ: How are your sisters, Kate and Sarah, these days? Do you think the troubles with your mother bonded the three of you or tore you apart?

Jacki Lyden: I think that the experiences with my mother utterly bonded the three of us. In some ways we are three very different people who might not have so much in common if we did not have this very, very fantastic figure of a mother. And like three people who have all been on the same sinking ship, there are memories I know they can share and relate to in a way that nobody else can. And we still tell stories about our mother. Sarah's a lawyer living a solidly suburban life. Kate is much more improvisational -- I would say she is more like my mother in that regard, and I worry about her a bit sometimes; although she is still very beautiful, very physically strong, she sometimes lives in her own world as well, but then she always did. They both like the book a lot. And they think it depicts my mother very well and also themselves.

Barton from Lexington, KY: Do you think you will ever cure your wanderlust? Do you have a place that you now call your home?

Jacki Lyden: I don't have a place that I call my home. And I was saying to a childhood friend this morning that I need a place that is at least a fulcrum, and she said, "Maybe writing's your fulcrum." But I do feel the need of one more than I used to.

Beetle from San Francisco: What a beautiful book. No matter what your mother's illness put you through, I could still feel your admiration and love for her. Why do you think you aren't resentful?

Jacki Lyden: People have asked me that before. Thank you for the beautiful book part, but I think that's exactly the point. I feel that I got so much more enchantment from my mother than most of us were able to get -- so much more beauty, that it outweighs my moments of resentment. I won't say that I haven't occasionally longed for her to be the head of the Junior League, but she turned the world on its ear, and it still came out all right, and I think that's an absolutely tremendous lesson to learn, especially in an age when we are all so worried about how we treat our children and treat them as if everything must be perfect or they are lost. My mother's inability to focus so heavily on me gave my own imagination and life more room to wander. I don't think she's ever told me I couldn't do something. And who could resent that?

Elizabeth Fulmont from Williamsville, MA: Did you read Mary Karr's LIAR'S CLUB? The market as of late is flooded by powerful female autobiographies and coming-of-age fiction. Who are some of your contemporaries that you admire?

Jacki Lyden: I didn't read Mary Karr's THE LIAR'S CLUB, because it came out right after I had gotten my contract with Houghton Mifflin. And I was terrified that it might somehow influence me and not for the better -- or inhibit me. I told Mary Karr that in a letter, but she never replied. Maybe because I hadn't actually read her book, which I suppose I ought to do. When I started writing DAUGHTER OF THE QUEEN OF SHEBA, it was 1989, long before the memoirs crested like this great wave into the culture. If by contemporaries you mean other people who have written memoirs, then I would say Tobias Wolff's THIS BOYS LIFE and Vivian Gornick's FIERCE ATTACHMENTS, and of course I loved ANGELA'S ASHES and will read THE LIAR'S CLUB one day soon. But I think that the interesting thing about memoir is that each one of them is as unique as a thumbprint, each has or should have an entirely different voice. The good ones redeem experience, and the bad ones seem to be overwhelmed by it.

Ben from Upstate New York: My father is manic depressive. How did you help yourself from feeling forever responsible for your mother's happiness? I am ever so cautious of my words and actions around him and often feel as though I am the cause of his pain.

Jacki Lyden: Well, I think that's instinctively natural. First of all, there is no way that you could be the cause of his pain. He was alive a long time before you came along. And no one should feel responsible for an inherent mental condition. But as to choosing words carefully, fearing that something you say or do might make a situation worse, I think that it's part of the territory of living with mentally ill people. Sometimes I set limits. Now I'll say to my mother, "I don't want to hear that story." Or "You're not thinking straight. That's crazy speech, and I don't want to hear it." I'm less inclined to let her imagination run amok in mine. I feel that I spent a lot of time trying to understand and that it's time to make time for my own imagination. It's not that I don't love hers, but I just want them to be separate and live my life and not her life. And that's what Ben should do, otherwise it would indeed be possible to be a parent's caretaker till the end of their days. And that's not a healthy way to live.

Kingston from Brooklyn: I loved your grandmother Mabel. What a blast she was, and you two seemed very close. What did you learn from your relationship with your grandmother?

Jacki Lyden: Thank you, Kingston. I love my grandmother, too. I think from my grandmother I really learned to be irreverent. She was always lampooning my mother's airs and pretensions, and I realized that fundamentally sturdy things don't have to come from outside recognition. She was a really simple, uneducated woman, but very, very determined, and I guess I loved how intense someone so plain could be. And I loved how truly earthy she was. I don't think we have many people like that anymore. My grandmother would literally make shoes out of rubber boots or wear the same dress for 25 years. I think I loved the way she lived outside the culture, as in a way my mother did and as in a way I do.

Moderator: Thank you, Jacki Lyden, for joining us this Saturday evening. We really appreciate it -- as do your fans. We hope you will join us again, and best of luck with your next work!

Jacki Lyden: I enjoyed it greatly and look forward to the next time.

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Reading Group Guide

Daughter of the Queen of Sheba

Jacki Lyden is known to many as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, a vocation which has brought her to the front lines of some of the world's most precarious regions. But in this memoir, she tells of the precariousness of her childhood and of her struggles growing up with her manic depressive mother. Beautiful, with a quick imagination and a constant yearning for a wider life than the one she was offered in her small Wisconsin town, Dolores Lyden filled her daughters' lives with the uncertainty that comes from parental instability. Her divorce from her first husband, a man who was dearly loved by his three daughters, was the initial blow to their family life. But her subsequent, and ultimately destructive marriage to a wealthy physician triggered the primary episode of Dolores' manic depression—and sent Jacki and her sisters lives' into a freefall of confusion and chaos that would last for two decades.

Jacki never knew how and when her mother's sickness would take hold. It was the 1960s, and the concept of the "mad housewife" hadn't quite swept the American consciousness. Nor had the realities of spousal abuse. The Doctor's cruel treatment of Dolores' daughters, especially Jacki, forced Dolores to make a choice between her daughters' welfare and her marriage. It was a choice difficult enough to drive any woman crazy and quite possibly brought about the onset of Dolores' mental illness. As a teenager and a young woman struggling to find her place in the world, Jacki was forced to become a parent to her own parent at a time when she could have benefited from a mother's good sense. She turned instead to her grandmother, Mabel, a hardscrabble woman who'd suffered enormous losses of her own yet managed to live happily on her own terms—a woman whom many wouldn't have hesitated to call crazy. The influences of these two powerful women instilled in the Lyden daughters an appreciation of their lives' unpredictability. But it also instilled in them a determination to make their way in an uncertain world, and helped them appreciate the force of their own imaginations—a force which, sadly, often got the better of their mother.

Jacki grew to accept, and even relish, the manifestations of her mother's illness. In her memoir she marvels at her mother's creative energy, at the intricate workings of the extraordinary mind that took Dolores to such exotic places as Mesopotamia or eighteenth-century France. Later, Jacki would become a traveler in her own right, more at home in the unsettled territory of the Middle East than with the comfort that comes from a quiescent life. As a journalist covering the front lines of some of the world's most dangerous war zones, Jacki's chaotic childhood experiences have allowed her to comprehend the insanity that prevails in so many peoples' lives. Hers was not, perhaps, a childhood she would have chosen, but it's the only one she knows. And so, in this hilarious, lyrical, and achingly beautiful tribute we come to know Dolores, to empathize with Jacki, and to revel in an unusually moving story about mothers, daughters, and growing up.


Jacki Lyden is a regular substitute host on NPR's Weekend Edition and Weekend All Things Considered. She was part of the award-winning NPR team that covered the Persian Gulf War. She lives in Washington, D.C.

A Conversation with Jacki Lyden

With your talent for writing I'm surprised you didn't become a print journalist. Is there something about radio—its anonymity, perhaps—that draws you to that medium?

Radio, for me, is usually a much more multi-dimensional and creative medium than print journalism. Good radio has in it the raw material of an Othello, or an O'Neill. Obviously I am not talking about peddling. These are, I suppose, the meat and potatoes of news...some would say the detritus of information. I'm talking about the radio ballads, the death of a way of life, the reminiscences of an elderly diarist, the exile of a Palestinian—or Jew. When radio is lyrical it transposes the advice of a columnist against the lewd and crude of her son the rock star (Ma Nugent/Ted Nugent) or the saga of people waiting for corn circles to appear (Salisbury, England) or the chant of snow cleaners at work (northern Tehran). The voices and ideas are alive in radio...raw material for the novel, or nonfiction book...but only bites for newsprint.

You mentioned that earlier in your career you developed a kind of persona you named Zelda Thorne to help boost your confidence over the air. Do you still "use" Zelda?

Zelda Thorne. How I love her. What a novel she was. She first appears in a steelworker's hall, in South Chicago, Illinois in 1980. I had one hour to interview simmering, resentful steelworkers and get back to the studio with tape. How else could I give my shy self permission? Zelda was with me the following week too, as I sat with my flip-flopping stomach at a 7am meeting with the head of Jones & Laughlin steel at the DuQuesne Men's Club in Pittsburgh, asking the CEO and four of his henchmen if they didn't owe anything more to a community than pensions. My voice cracked a bit, but Zelda asked the question. And she was with me the first night I was live on the air. No, I don't really need Zelda anymore, that's the grace of time. But I do think of her, often after a piece I particularly like, and pay her silent tribute—my patron saint when I needed her.

Why do you think you and your two sisters are all so different? How did the ways that each of you coped with your home life affect the three of you developmentally?

I am myself a bit mystified that the three sisters—all of us so close together in age—have taken such different directions in life. It's a testament to the fact that DNA can only get you so far. Yes, I would like to think of each of us as using our own alchemy to resist, or reclaim, our mother's enchantment: my middle sister's use of everything from religion to white witchcraft and tarot, my youngest sister's passion for order and Blackwell and the rule of law. I do think that Mabel and Dolores' personal rebellions were unconscious cues to use the rules of behavior and society to suit us, not to fit in. Both my mother and grandmother were much more "outsiders" than they realized—Mabel with her give 'em hell attitude, wearing the same dress day in and out, Dolores with her myth-making self, trying for acceptance in a world that might as well have been a stage play for her. And because they were both so dynamic, they were always actors in their lives, not passive recipients of whatever came.

In your memoir you focus on various incidents, stringing them together in a circular narrative. How did you decide which events to include? What methods did you use to recall the various details of your coming of age?

It's been an eventful life, to my way of thinking. So I was quite sure that certain events in the drama had to be there...the Christmas tree scene, my father's accident and loss of hearing, the creation of my mother's "Creative Renaissance by Design." Other events I was less certain of; many are, of course, not on display. I remember I had a strong disagreement with my editor, Janet Silver, about whether or not to include the rodeo season. I argued that this material was so distinct it belonged in another book, which I had long thought to write. She successfully, and rightly I think, argued that upon leaving home and really coming of age, I chose a world in every way as unruly and eccentric and delusional and bounds-breaking as the one I left. So I've included in these pages those events which best and most concisely gave definition to the story. I had my mother's diaries and letters, notebooks, and legal material. I relied heavily on the memories of my sisters. In the use of later events, the material is well documented, for by then I was already a journalist.

Was it hard for you, a reporter, to reveal so much about yourself in this memoir?

This was the hardest part. What would Nina Totenberg think? I know there are people who think no revelation too great, who believe they should be unsparing of their privacy. It's a good intention, but it may make for a very bad book. I don't support what I think of as the undigested approach to memoir. What a memoir should achieve I believe, is a sense of the contemplation of life, of meaning, even if during the book one dwells in the dark. Meaning is what digests the memoir. And yet, I did have the thoughts of my next interviewee turning to me and saying, "it says here that you kicked one of your colleagues in the head in a hotel in Aleppo." On the other side, you have to resist any temptation to make yourself noble when, in fact, you were quite the opposite. National Public Radio has been my forum, but in the end I'm a separate person from my work, as we all are. So I had to be unsparing, fingers clenched. I would have nightmares about what people in my professional world would say, and then I thought, they can have their say over my professional work, but this is a different medium altogether. So I guess I've made my peace with looking ridiculous...and let me tell you, it takes a lot more courage than any mode of self-absorbed confession or bullying up to the bar with the boys. And by the way, Totenberg loved the book. It's not like we haven't all been through thick and thin here in nearly 20 years at NPR.


  1. Lyden says she was a diarist from the time she could write. How do you think writing helped her cope with her mother's illness? How may her mother's illness have contributed to Jacki's talent for writing?
  2. Lyden writes "My life as her daughter, the life of my imagination, began with my mother's visions . . . Her madness was our narrative line. I am trying to decipher that line still, for its power and meaning over our past." What does this say about the way imagination and personality develop? How much are we the product of our parents' lives, and how much the product of our environment? Why do you think Dolores' illness prodded Jacki toward such dangerous assignments? How would it have contributed to Kate's unconventional lifestyle, and Sarah's craving for order in her own life?
  3. Dolores didn't exhibit signs of mental illness until after her second marriage. How much of a role do you think her relationships with men, including her father, played in Dolores' illness?
  4. Lyden often makes references to the pressures she felt protecting her mother, usually not the role of a daughter. How do you think this role reversal affected Jacki's adolescence? In what ways was Dolores a good mother to Jacki?
  5. What do you think of Jacki's grandmother, Mabel? What were her strengths and weaknesses? How did she influence Jacki's life?
  6. In the throes of her illness, Dolores is incredibly creative and energetic, and Lyden has preserved many of the notes and letters Dolores wrote to everyone from her lawyers to her daughters. Why do you think Lyden wants to hold on to these artifacts of her mother's illness? What do they tell her about who her mother really is?
  7. As a child Jacki learned to tolerate not only her mother's erratic behavior, but her stepfather's cruel ways. Lyden writes, "the armed hands of children do not surprise me in the least. Children are fierce, without nuance or hesitation." What do you think allows children to withstand trauma; what makes them so resilient and fierce?
  8. Lyden claims that she has been "drawn to men with despotic natures...A desperado helps one live dangerously, and perhaps that is how we know we are alive." Do you think Lyden's predilection for violent men had its roots in Dolores' relationship with the Doctor? If so, why wouldn't Jacki have learned the danger of being involved in those types of relationships instead of being attracted to them?
  9. In the chapter, "Teotihuacán, Mexico, 1960," Lyden describes an incident in which she climbed an Aztec pyramid and tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a young girl about to be sacrificed at the altar. She strays so far into this daydream that she feels as if she had passed directly into ancient history—a sensation she likens to her mother's own periods of insanity. Why is this episode significant? What is Lyden saying about the delusions of the mentally ill as compared to the fierce imaginings of a young girl?
  10. Lyden describes her and her sisters' childhood as "growing up like bumper cars in an arcade—the brakes applied harshly and erratically here, and no brakes or direction at all there... Growing up in Ping-Pong trajectories that no one else could follow, perversely desirable because our experience would protect us in dangerous situations." How different do you think her experience was from other girls her age? Was Jacki's childhood insecure or unconventional? What are the advantages and disadvantages of an unconventional upbringing?


The experience of living within a universe without light, prediction and a world you can name—this is experience of living, I think, in the absence of reason. This was my mother's distant and unreachable, unknowable world of delusion. Daughter of the Queen of Sheba attempts to enter that world in the only way we framing it, by turning on the light, by giving it a vocabulary and imposing a circular chronology. In the real world, I was fascinated by the roots of my mother's mental illness. Madness was for me the sheer vocabulary of the imagination. And yet, in the real world, you cannot have a dialogue with someone who is mad—who is delusional. You can attempt it, but it will be what turning the pages of a book is to reading, or listening to a melody you know in a language you cannot quite catch. On the page, however, I could have a dialogue with the Queen of Sheba. I could define her terms, so to speak. I could give her a history, a reason to become an all-conquering power. I could speak back to her where in real life I was nothing but one of her more difficult subjects. This time, in the world on the page I had my own sense of authority in what was previously her dominion. She could hardly answer me back or turn away from me. Writing was a chance to meet her in her own country, the country of the imagination, and capture her, on the page, as I could never hope to do in life. In real life of course, my mother is a free spirit—here, I have her down, one interpretation anyway. Sometimes I imagine Daughter of the Queen of Sheba like a verse poem, written by an apostle long after the's a canon about or a mythology about an almost mystical event.

Mental illness, untreated, can be frightening or inspiring. It can be a little of both. But it needn't ultimately rob either its claimants or their kin of their humanity. The fight we have to have is to keep those we love alive long enough in order to reach them. Sometimes, we never can. They elude us forever. As a journalist who has been on many stories that contain in them the nature of a campaign of the heart—be they the chronicles of a struggling farmer or a riot-torn Belfast neighborhood or a twisting tale from Iran, to track Sheba was the most elemental and necessary thing in all the world. In fact there are many other stories I want to tell, in fiction and non-fiction, but nothing seemed quite worth it as long as Sheba remained out there like a wayfarer in an uncharted expanse of chaos, with no voice and no order and not even the formality of memory to give her any real meaning. You are always wondering, when someone mentally ill who is close to you is actively delusional, who that person really is. Is that your mother who has gone mad, or is she that mad creature? How do you know that person you best think you know, namely your mother, if she is mad? And if that creature she has become is no longer your mother, then who is she? And what is troubling her? And how can you know her in an unreality you can never enter? Because the brain, we know, gives us many chambers—only a few of them do we inhabit. And so Sheba is an attempt to create in a literary way a reality that eludes us in life.

So, too, the memoir tries to frame an experience that could have been little more than chaotic at the time, albeit with amazing moments of insight and struggle. We have survived, we are at the end of our journey, we want to, like Odysseus, make some sense of where we have gone. There is a great deal of bunk written about memoirs, and the only truth that is universal for them is the truth applicable to any good piece of writing: they must transform our experience of what it is to be human. That means we must have digested the experience, not merely confessed it. We must have a little compassion for the selves that we are delving into here, not a sense of revenge or self-pity. I know there are people who write books like that, but I'm not interested in reading them. But then I could never see the point of going anywhere if you didn't come home a little richer in your understanding of that place or culture, even if you didn't much like it there. And nothing, to me, is ever so bad it can't be funny. Gallows humor helps a lot, and we had buckets of it at my house. My mother can be one of the funniest people I know, besides being one of the most creative.

People who are delusional, who are mentally ill, who elude us in life, take us somewhere—often to someplace we never expected to go. I have received hundreds of letters since Daughter of the Queen of Sheba was published. Many of them talk about experiences far darker than my mother's, though no less frustrating. Sometimes it is a surviving family member who has written, because the afflicted family member has committed suicide or died. Sometimes the brother or the sister is wandering out there still, unreachable, uncomprehending and incomprehensible. I do think that the fear, the lack of understanding, the guilt, and the stigma that attach to these disorders deep in the wellsprings of thinking—and I suppose of our human biology—will lessen in time. I think more demands will have to be made for acceptance, for fair health practices, for money and for insurance coverage. But even in a perfect world, we will be left or have been left with the reality of unreality—the days when all the world's language hurts too much, or when all its footsteps pass too quickly, when we are the image I used to have of my mother in my brain—of the girl at the bottom of a well I could never reach. Those will be the days when literature fills the gap, as myths have done at one time and tales of the Gods have done in another, when we will only know that our understanding is imperfect and our compassion strained. Those are the days when stories like Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, I hope, will have to suffice—(you might also try reading Yeats) because in creating a connection to ourselves, we do create a connection to that trackless chaos outside of us. And once you have that dialogue in your own imagination of who you are and who is that "other" that you may or may not be able to pull from the well, you have a dialogue. What you choose to do with it, of course, is up to you. My mother sometimes says she will write her own book. Whether she does or not, I will always love the fact that she has the courage which gave me the encouragement to write this one. This book is a testament to her courage, and that you can survive being shattered, even when you do not think that is possible. Her courage gave me this book, and I am in turn, giving it to you.

I have said before that I miss the Queen of Sheba. In some senses that is absolutely true—I miss her dramatic power, her sense of the outrageous, her daily reminder that only our fears keep us anchored to reality. What transports us is our vision. But I want to keep on missing Sheba. I don't need to see her again—I have her here, right on the page.


"One of the most indelible portraits of a mother-daughter relationship to come along in years, a book that belongs on the shelf of classic memoirs, alongside The Liars' Club by Mary Karr and Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt... A book that stands, remarkably, as both a reporter's unsentimental act of recollection and a love letter to an impossible and captivating woman."
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"The great strength in Lyden's memoir lies not only in the story it tells of madness, imagination and the tough bonds among three generations of women, but also in the poetic power and virtuosity of the language with which the story is told... A beautiful family testament."
—Chicago Tribune

"Lyden's lucid, powerful prose makes her psychic drama real and vivid."

"The story will resonate with anyone who has struggled with a mentally ill family member."
—USA Today

"Lyden captures her mother's insanity and her own response to it in exquisite detail. The writing—vivid, original, lyrical—shines at its most haunting, when Lyden homes in on her mother's behavior, which is so bold and fantastical at times that it borders on the hilarious."
—The New York Times Book Review

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2007

    Another Madness Memoir

    Heartbreaking, hilarious, lyrical, this memoir is a mother-daughter story of the most unique and dramatic kind, a testimony to obstinate devotion in the face of bewildering illness. Lyden recalls her calamitous childhood with a child¿s aching regret and an adult¿s keen wisdom. An abusive, rich doctor became her step-father for a time and she describes tragic physical and mental abuse. Lyden, an extremely descriptive and imaginative writer, is a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio and has spent much of her adult life on the frontlines of dangerous war zones in the world. Her childhood was a war zone of a different kind. Her mother suffered from mental illness and in the days when medical help for this was surreptitious, she was often labeled crazy. ¿By the time I was fourteen,¿ Lyden writes, ¿religious epiphanies were occurring in our house fairly often, and not only to my mother. I loved Communion because I liked the idea of taking a bite out of Christ Jesus. ¿I was armed by this tribal ritual, the fallen comrade who has died and given me his vital flesh to live. ¿ In church, we could all go a little crazy. ¿My teen group was taken into Milwaukee to hear an evangelistic speaker, a Mr. David Wilkerson, who blessed us by touching our forehead if we came up on stage, as I did. He talked about all the juvenile delinquents in New York City and how he personally was saving them¿ You could read about his exploits in his book, The Cross and the Switchblade, available in the lobby.¿ Lyden documents her travels, letters home, and the devotion to her mother. Trish New, author of The Thrill of Hope, South State Street Journal, and Memory Flatlined.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2009

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