Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness

by Robin Hemley

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The evidence at hand: an autobiography—complete with their mother’s edits—written by his brilliant and disturbingly religious sister; a story featuring actual childhood events, but published by his mother as fiction; the transcript of a hypnotherapy session from his adolescence; and perjured court documents hidden in a drawer for decades. These are…  See more details below


The evidence at hand: an autobiography—complete with their mother’s edits—written by his brilliant and disturbingly religious sister; a story featuring actual childhood events, but published by his mother as fiction; the transcript of a hypnotherapy session from his adolescence; and perjured court documents hidden in a drawer for decades. These are the clues Robin Hemley gathers when he sets out to reconstruct the life of his older sister Nola, who died at the age of twenty-five after several years of treatment for schizophrenia. Armed with these types of clues, Hemley quickly discovers that finding the truth in any life—even one’s own—is a fragmented and complex task.

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness is much more than a remembrance of a young woman who was consumed her entire life by a passion for finding and understanding God; it is also a quest to understand what people choose to reveal and conceal, and an examination of the enormous toll mental illness takes on a family. Finally, it is a revelation of the alchemy that creates a writer: confidence in the unknowable, distrust of the proven, tortuous devotion to the fine print in life, and sacrifice to writing itself as it plays the roles of confessor, scourge, and creator.

Upon its first release in 1998, Nola won ForeWord’s Book of the Year Award for biography/memoir, the Washington State Book Award for biography/memoir, and the Independent Press Book Award for autobiography/memoir. 

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Editorial Reviews

Even though Hemley's memoir is non-fiction, the family portrayed in this book is as bizarre as one might find in a John Irving novel. At age 13, Hemley's older half-sister Nola had a life-transforming dream, leading her into the spiritual world and eventually to madness. Shortly before her 26th birthday, Nola died as a result of an accidental overdose of Thorazine, prescribed to control her schizophrenia.
Three years later, Hemley's curiosity was aroused when he discovered a legal document denying Nola's status as her father's legal heir. He gradually reconstructed his family's history after years of research including painstaking translations of Nola's journal (which was written in Sanskrit), letters from family members (written in Yiddish), and the spoken words of his mother, who used church Latin when telling Hemley about the family's early life.
Nola is filled with visions and voices; fairies and ghosts; lies and embellishments of the truth. However, Hemley suggests, this book should not be viewed as the story of his half-sister going mad, a story of death or a story of change. Instead, the author proffers this as a story of love. And although the pieces of this puzzling story are somewhat disjointed, Hemley relates an engaging tale of a family dealing with spiritual obsession and mental illness.
­Jill Hughes
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A diagnosed schizophrenic, Nola Hemley died in 1973 of a medication overdose at the age of 25. In this affecting, highly inventive memoir, Hemley's younger half-brother, a creative writing teacher and the author of Turning Life into Fiction, attempts to understand what led his gifted sister down the path toward mental illness, drawing on her journals and artwork as well as his own memories of her. There are, he discovers, no obvious answers, and his frustration in trying to comprehend the workings of Nola's mind is palpable: "Whatever I say condemns her, romanticizes her, lies about her, idolizes her, but never, never recreates her in all her complexity." Perhaps that's why the book keeps veering away from its ostensible subject to tell the story of the author's own childhood and to explore his parents' lives. In the end, Hemley's strikingly, often fascinatingly, postmodern narrative tells us more about the challenges and ramifications of writing a personal memoir than about its subject's life. Readers in search of an in-depth account of a family's struggle with mental illness may come away frustrated by Hemley's sometimes oblique treatment of this theme, but those interested in writing as a process will find his articulate musings amply rewarding.
Library Journal
In this jewel of a memoir, Hemley (creative writing, Western Washington Univ.) poignantly recounts the impact of mental illness on his family. Deftly unraveling his family's many trials and triumphs--his father, Cecil, was a poet, publisher, and, along with his wife, Elaine, translator of the early works of Isaac Bashevis Singer--he makes his half-sister Nola the nucleus of the book. A once-brilliant budding scholar, she fell into schizophrenia at 22 and died at 25. Her correspondence and personal writing enables the reader to see the illness engulf her, while Hemley's gripping narration relays how the family coped then and what her illness means now. Highly recommended for all libraries.--Ronald Ratliff, Chapman H.S. Lib., KS
Seattle Times
Buckle your seatbelts for this ride: the action caroms from kibbutzes and ashrams to mental hospitals and Mexican getaways. Hypnotists, literati, ghosts and gurus climb aboard and get off like hitchhikers on the interstate..Excruciatingly self- conscious, disturbingly meddlesome, unremittingly inventive--Nola, the book reflects Nola the person through the myriad glinting pieces of a crazed rear-view mirror.
Anne-Marie Oomen
Exceptional ... Hemley's book sits square in the center of the new and most successful nonfiction, exemplifying the trend of stretching the form. Nola is not just a life-and-death narrative of the author's brilliant and disturbed sister, but it's also a complex narrative of Hemley himself .... Couple the inventive format with a writing style that is deeply reflective, utterly honest, and sensitive of the issues of writing nonfiction in this way, and you have a colossal memoir.-- ForeWord
Kirkus Reviews
This profile of the author's sister succumbs to self-absorption, revealing the painful difficulties of trying to capture the life of a family member. Nola, the author's older half-sister, has been dead for 25 years, yet he remains enthralled by her imaginative stories and psychotic episodes. So too does their mother, a bohemian writer whose own story dominates much of this account. Hemley (Creative Writing/Western Washington Univ.) complains that their mother is choosy about revealing even the basic facts of her unconventional life, yet he also self-importantly claims that the facts are boring!

From the Publisher

“In this candid, revealing family scrapbook, Robin Hemley, a fiction writer and essayist, assiduously investigates the ways in which truth and fable shape identity. . . . Ultimately Nola becomes a chronicle of a literary period, a story about a gifted family and, most of all, an examination of Robin Hemley's evolution as son, brother, husband, father, and writer.”—Chicago Tribune 

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University of Iowa Press
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A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness

By Robin Hemley

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 1998 Robin Hemley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60938-180-6


The Invisible and Quiet Hand

We believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble. EMILY DICKINSON

My sister and my brother inherited most of the spiritual genes in my family—I suppose by way of our maternal great-great-grandfather Abraham, a village mystic in Lithuania, a colored photograph of whom graces the wall of my office.

According to legend, he lived to be 117 or 105—accounts vary. My grandmother Ida told me that his secret was a cup of hot water with lemon every day, and that's the regimen she followed, religiously, but she only lived to be 90. Ida used to tell me that people would come from all over Lithuania for Abraham's advice; in the picture, he wears a yarmulke and has a full gray beard and mustache.

My father comes from a family of atheists, but he was always fascinated by philosophy and by Eastern religions, and he and Nola would have long conversations about Buddhism and Hinduism toward the end of his life.

My mother and I are, I suppose, the agnostics of the family. For my mother, writing is her religion. Although her maiden name, Gottlieb, means "God love," I don't remember her ever saying a word to me on the subject—with one exception—when I was seven and announced to my mother that fairies were real but angels weren't—my sister's influence, no doubt. My mother thought this was a hilarious assumption, and made me repeat it to my father. But that's the only conversation on any religious subject that I can recall.

I can't presume to think that my mother is without spiritual yearnings whatsoever—but we treat it the way other families might treat the subject of madness perhaps. In some ways, for me, it's closely allied to madness. A large percentage of people classified as schizophrenics see visions and join cults. In my limited experience, that's true. Nola was always seeing visions, and while my mother has steadfastly claimed to be a skeptic, I always felt she wanted to believe. In the early 1970s, the Hemley household was Psychic Phenomenon Central. At eleven, I was doing automatic writing, a kind of spiritual advice column for my family and my mother's students, and I signed the columns "Shiva." My sister was communicating with her Guru Sri Ramanuja, whose Centre of Being was located in Queens, New York, sometimes by way of letter, sometimes by telepathy. I remember my mother hosting a séance in 1971. But now she dismisses all of that as a kind of game, or as her attempts to try to understand what was going on with her daughter.

Still, someone accused my mother of being a witch—some disaffected student, she thinks, who received a low grade, and she wasn't reappointed. That's part of the reason, in any case. At the time that my mother was coming up for reappointment at Stephens College, Nola suddenly disappeared (one of several times), drove with an acquaintance to New York to be closer to her Guru, and wound up in the psychiatric unit at Bellevue chained to a bed. For weeks, my mother had no idea where Nola was, and when it came time to give the tenure committee her teaching evaluations and other documents she just handed them a sheaf of papers and said, "Here. I can't do anymore. Nola has disappeared. I've got to go to New York." The committee made no excuses for her and she wasn't reappointed.

Here. I can't do anymore. Nola has disappeared. These are words I'm tempted to repeat, to shove the couple hundred pages of her journals in someone else's hands and say, "You make sense of them. I'm going to New York to look for her." Gone for almost twenty-five years, run away for good this time. I know that eventually I'll have to throw away the crutches of other people's voices, their words, and even throw away Nola's own words. To rediscover her, I'll have to look into those wordless places I've turned my back on.

Sept. 1, 1994

Dear Robin,

Here's Nola's "Journal." As you will see, she wrote in an extremely exaggerated style. I tried to edit the manuscript—with her consent—but I gave up. It was too much, and she couldn't do it herself.

She also distorted facts. WHEN SHE QUOTES THE little speech to God that she made as a child, she says it was her "stepfather" who was with her—but it wasn't Cexcil, ixt was I. What actually happened was that we were climbing the stairs of the brownstone where I first lived in the Village, and as we came to the top floor, mine, she looked up at the small skylight and said: Oh God, I love you God, if I could see you now I would hug you, but I can't because you're invisible, aren't you, God?——Quite remarkable for a five year old, I xxxx


Of course, Cecil and I were married when she was five (on her birthday, actually, but she wasn't with us that time).

There are other things she dxistorted—but you won't know until

you've worked your way through the flourishes of her sometimes unreadable handwriting. She did type some of it, which may help.

Love, Mom

What my mother refers to as my sister's journal isn't a journal at all, but a memoir of sorts, titled "In Search of God, An Autobiography." It's about 150 pages, half typed and half written in my sister's script, and it was written the last year of Nola's life, when my mother thought that writing might be therapeutic for Nola. I have to keep reminding myself that my sister was twenty-four when she wrote her memoir, that I'm nearly fifteen years older than she was when she died, and that Nola's aims were high ones. She didn't merely want to tell the story of her life—the book seems as much of a book of spiritual instruction as anything else. Events are foreshortened and skipped over lightly in Nola's telling—much of the text is addressed to people in general, exhorting them to give up material things and self-love and follow her spiritual master, Sri Ramanuja. I also have to remember the year in which she wrote this, 1972.

What immediately strikes me as I read through Nola's memoir are the crossed-out passages. These are the crossing-outs of my mother, not censorship exactly, but my mother's higher calling always: to turn the overwrought into art, to tone down, make something subtler, find exactly the right word. My mother edited Nola's manuscript with Nola's permission, she says. Still, there's no denying that my mother was exerting the same kind of control over Nola's words as I'm exerting over her own. Even in her letter to me, she wants me to know the truth, that she (not my father) was standing with Nola on the steps when Nola cried out to God at age five. And my reaction: Why does that matter? Why is it important that I know of my sister's "distortions," certainly ones so trivial? Perhaps there are some distortions of fact in Nola's autobiography, but not distortions of the spirit. My sister, as she claims throughout her book, hungered for things of the spirit. Her writing begins, "I have always been obsessed with God." Here, my mother has drawn a line through the rest of the sentence, "and with the hidden." That seems like a perfectly fine sentiment to me, even a connection between Nola and myself, and I feel almost resentment at it having been crossed out. While I have not been obsessed with God, like Nola, I have, like her, been obsessed with the hidden, and perhaps my mother, even in the crossing out of such a simple line is stating that she prefers to keep the hidden crossed out? Nearly every paragraph has something crossed out, or a replacement made. In some cases, the editorial changes my mother made were good ones, but I prefer to put the versions side-by-side, to compare the choices of my sister with the choices of my mother. When I first read the memoir, I felt my sister's presence more strongly than I'd felt it in twenty-five years—despite the rhetorical flourishes my mother writes of, my sister's voice, or how I remember it, comes through. The only way I can truly describe my feelings from reading Nola's memoir is "drunk." My head reels with strange connections, almost explosions, stumblings of possibility.

The first page and a half sets the tone for the rest of the memoir. The italicized words are my mother's substitutions:

I have always been obsessed with God [begin strikethrough]and with the hidden[end strikethrough]. Nature has appeared to me, even as a child, to be a veneer; the product of erroneous vision which should in some way [begin strikethrough]manner[end strikethrough] be corrected. As a child and adolescent I immersed myself [begin strikethrough]was submerged[end strikethrough] in the occult, reading the imaginative [begin strikethrough]most bizarre[end strikethrough] stories of I.B. Singer (who was a friend of my parents, also writers), hypnotizing friends to see whether they had latent psychic powers [begin strikethrough]and doing so well in certain forms of school work that it seemed to rush from some higher center of the brain rather than the ordinary process of laborious thought.[end strikethrough] Very early in life I was reading [begin strikethrough]immersed myself in the most outrageous and[end strikethrough] mystical [begin strikethrough]of fairy tales[end strikethrough] stories, preferring George MacDonald, Lord Dunsany, Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum's Oz series to something like Hardy Boys. Age made no difference to this preoccupation with the fantastic [begin strikethrough]toward which I was pushed as if by an invisible and quiet hand. My life, accordingly, took on a more and more miraculous character, and[end strikethrough] I began to frighten my friends by intuiting their private thoughts.

My earliest yearning for God was inspired by an Irishwoman who used to sit with [begin strikethrough]for[end strikethrough] me when my parents went out. She was a devout [begin strikethrough]but simple and unfanatical[end strikethrough] Catholic; I remember one Christmas kissing a little effigy of the Christ child when she told me that he had once lived to redeem the world. I was about five when I learned about Padre [begin strikethrough]Pope[end strikethrough] Pio, the Italian saint who was said to bear the marks of the cross on his hands and feet in commemoration of his great predecessor. My parents were agnostic Jews, and completely unsympathetic with my thirst for the divine in spite of their own artistic temperaments [begin strikethrough]bohemianism[end strikethrough] though I recall one incident which seemed to belie this. I was five, and I stood in the dining room watching my stepfather, [begin strikethrough]Cecil Hemley[end strikethrough] chatting [begin strikethrough]speaking[end strikethrough] with someone in the hall. A copy of Buber's I and Thou was on the buffet. [begin strikethrough]Naturally[end strikethrough], I had never read this before, and I was mystified by the title. I [begin strikethrough]writhed in an effort[end strikethrough] wanted to understand what it meant; "Thou," a word which I had never heard before, sounded like a term for someone of immense importance. "Mother," I asked. "Is 'Thou' God?" My mother, who at that time was preoccupied with her writing, answered [begin strikethrough]carelessly[end strikethrough] that it was. I could not get that book out of my mind, [begin strikethrough]however,[end strikethrough] and kept wondering what strange conception of God a grown man could have, and why it was necessary to write a book about Him when He was so apparent everywhere. [begin strikethrough]I had not yet been initiated into the twisted habits of the world, which has to read books before it will see what it has always inwardly seen, and which requires proofs for the obvious.[end strikethrough] My stepfather caught me one afternoon in a kneeling position on the [begin strikethrough]nursery[end strikethrough] floor, with my arms wildly outspread, crying out "Oh God, I love you and I wish I could shake hands with you, but then I'd only be shaking hands with nothing." He always made a joke of my piety; he was a Greenwich village intellectual and a cum laude graduate of Amherst, a kind of twentieth-century Faust, who thought he had exhausted the world's secrets [begin strikethrough]with his own half diabolical mind, and refused to question the limits of his intellect, it was especially strange because[end strikethrough] Most of his poetry and prose were profoundly religious, though from the point of view of postwar America God had died. He used to recite me nonsense poetry about little children being devoured by lions and the Jumblies, who had green heads and blue hands [begin strikethrough]playing mercilessly with my imagination until I had nightmares and[end strikethrough] I began to see real devils' heads peering out of the dark [begin strikethrough]when I tried to sleep[end strikethrough] ... I had nightmares and screamed so terribly that my parents often had to put me to bed by force.

I have to resist being an apologist for either my mother or my sister, in the same way I have to resist being critical or patronizing to either—although this is an impossible task I've set for myself. How can one be objective about one's family? How can one resist the urge to edit, to become the family spin doctor? There are old scores to settle, I'm sure, ones I'm not even consciously aware of—although, if I become aware of them in the telling, I'll let you in on them—perhaps. We are constantly, as we read, looking for conclusions, judgments to be made, sometimes villains. I suppose I am the villain in all this for writing it down, manipulating the texts I choose to uncover for you, the juxtapositions. I am playing God, manipulating. I suppose some might look at it that way, and it's true in the sense that any writer manipulates. My sister manipulates. My mother manipulates. Even the reader manipulates in the conclusions she draws.

Many of my mother's edits in my sister's manuscript seem entirely justified to me. The places I wince are those where Nola sounds too self-important, a little pompous and self-congratulatory. Yes, I know those are qualities that fit me as well right now—criticizing my dead sister, for heaven's sake, who wrote those words nearly thirty years ago never knowing that her kid brother would pick them apart. And patronizing. I know, but that doesn't stop me from having those feelings, from wincing in certain places. Too much the writing teacher in me, I suppose. Too much of my mother, whose religion is writing, who has an alliance to the facts, but shudders at the truth, and to my father, the modern-day Faust with his "half diabolical mind" who feels he's discovered all the world's secrets. That's where my father and I separate company. My mind, three-quarters diabolical, has not even uncovered one of the world's secrets, although sometimes a secret feels close.

I would have cut "I writhed in an effort," just as my mother had cut it from my sister's text, but there are other choices, other substitutions that I wonder about. For a moment, I'd like to put those questions aside, and instead question my sister's views of events—did she really have such a sophisticated notion of God when she was five years old? Asking my father about Martin Buber? Seeing God in everything? A young pantheist? I don't doubt it—not in Nola's case. I wasn't born yet, and so have no way of knowing whether Nola was truly this precocious, although my mother corroborates the story of Nola's talking to God—albeit in a different setting. But of course, my sister must exaggerate in places, as my mother warned in her letter. Nola was sick when she wrote this. She was hallucinating at times, talking to invisible beings who surrounded her. How could she remember events straight-on? But I wasn't there and neither was my mother, not all the time, and so maybe everything Nola says is true, or at least no more exaggerated than anyone else's memory.

We are not invading her privacy by asking these questions, by challenging her stories. Clearly, she meant for this book to be seen by others, just as my mother expected her journals to be saved for posterity—the voice, the stance, is a public one. We are her reviewers.

I couldn't imagine my own daughter, Olivia, at the same age, asking about Martin Buber, but I can imagine the kindling of an interest in metaphysics. Recently, my wife found a Canadian coin on a path in the woods. The coin was dated 1929 and had a portrait of King George on it. Olivia wanted to know who King George was, and Beverly said he used to be the King of England.


Excerpted from Nola by Robin Hemley. Copyright © 1998 Robin Hemley. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Robin Hemley is the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He is the author of numerous books, including the story collection Reply All; the memoir Do Over; the craft guides Turning Life into Fiction and A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel; a book of investigative reportage, Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday; and the novel The Last Studebaker. His many awards include the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Nelson Algren Award for Fiction from the Chicago Tribune, the George Garrett Award for Fiction from Willow Springs, the Hugh J. Luke Award from Prairie Schooner, and three Pushcart Prizes. 

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