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Nineteen seventy-four was a bad time to go crazy. The talk in our townhouse complex in Virginia Beach was of the Stockholm Syndrome, the Hearst kidnapping,
Watergate, and what the government had done to Martha Mitchell. "I had Viet Cong hold guns to my head, but I never proposed," spat one Navy man whenever talk turned to the young women in the Stockholm bank robbery who married their captors.
The story I stuck on was Patty's. That spring the famous photo of Patty Hearst appeared. Citizen Tania's image was everywhere, her fine soft face turned tough. The beret; her warrior stance; the way she held the butt of the carbine against her pelvis -- everything about her thrilled me. I studied the photos of Patty and Tania like reverse before and after pictures from a Mary Kay makeover. Was there any princess left in Tania's eyes? I secretly hoped she hadn't been brainwashed and that the kidnapping had been a fortunate excuse to abandon her rich-girl life. I imagined Tania as Annie Oakley, the only other woman I'd seen pictured with a gun. In my eight-year-old mind, Patty was a female Robin Hood. She'd left her palace and come over to our side. Folks laughed when Patty's father was forced to spend his riches to feed the hungry in California and then whined he'd go broke in the process.
"Don't you believe everything you hear, Gingie," my father said as we watched the evening news. He put his big freckled arm around my neck and whispered in my ear, "That man can afford to buy the world a Coke."
My mother, on the other hand, identified with the loudmouthed Martha Mitchell, the attorney general's wife who seemed to have walked straight out of a gin-soaked Tennessee Williams play set in the drawing rooms of Watergate era Washington, D.C. Martha, with her blonde bouffant and silk dresses, was the visual opposite of my mother, whose long black hair and black eyes made her look something of a hybrid between Liz Taylor and Cher. When the topic turned to Watergate and the Mitchells, people waved Martha off as "that crazy Southerner." But my loudmouthed mother admired and defended Martha as much as I loved Tania and when it later came out that Martha wasn't hallucinating, that she had truly been drugged in a hotel room by the FBI, my mother felt vindicated right along with her. "I'm with you, Martha baby!" my mother exclaimed. "We know the truth, don't we? We'll show 'em." She'd lift her dewy glass of Gallo white and salute the television. "Amen, amen," she murmured and ticked her fingernails against her wineglass.
I wanted to be Citizen Tania; my mother wanted to be Martha Mitchell. It wouldn't be long before we both got our wish.
* * *
One year after Patty Hearst robbed Hibernia National Bank, my mother lost her mind and kidnapped my sister and me to our family cottage in Kechotan, Virginia.
Her reason was simple. My mother believed she had been inducted into a secret army. My mother, my baby sister, Emma, and I were foot soldiers entrusted with setting up a field hospital.
We lived in that cottage for over three years.
Let me start with some history. Mother had just turned thirty-two when the first signs of schizophrenia sprouted in her brain. In terms of the disease, which usually strikes people in their late teens and early twenties, she was a late bloomer. In 1974 my mother had her first psychotic break -- I was eight, my sister one, and my father thirty-six. Over five years with active psychosis would pass before she was seen by a psychiatrist early in 1981, hospitalized for four weeks, diagnosed, medicated, and sent home. But by then, her disease had progressed to a stage of severity that would limit effective treatment. Ultimately, this resulted in her permanent institutionalization.
"How could this happen?" This is the refrain I have heard from friends and head-shaking shrinks over the years.
"In an educated, middle-class family?"
"With children at stake?"
"Why didn't anybody do anything?"
"How is this possible?"
I was just busy trying to get through those years -- these were questions I had never had time to ask. For many years I certainly had no answer other than a blank shrug.
Then, in my thirty-third year, I began asking my parents and sister and friends about the years my family was held hostage by my mother's delusions. Now when someone says, "Why couldn't somebody help you?" I can say in reply:
"Here's how. Sit back. Listen. It could happen to you."
The spring before my mother's first psychotic episode we lived in a town house in a complex of town houses and apartments in Virginia Beach. My father worked in a bank in Portsmouth, Virginia; my mother was a stay-at-home wife and mom. My sister was one year old and in a half-body cast to correct her displaced hips, a congenital defect. One day I came home from third grade to find my mother in the den, bent over the sofa, frantically changing my sister's diaper through the large square cut in the gray eggy-smelling crotch of the cast. Mother had her red, polka-dot scarf knotted in her hair and was dressed in a wool dress I'd never seen before. It had blue stripes and little brass buttons embossed with anchors. Her white nylon gloves, reserved for church or weddings, were laid out beside her purse on the foyer table.
"There's a treasure hunt," she told me. "We need to go." I wondered if this was like the scavenger hunts I'd gone on at birthday parties.
"What do we have to get?"
"It's a different kind of treasure hunt. We need to follow the color red. It will lead us there." She put on her lipstick in the hall mirror by holding the golden tube against her bottom lip and turning her head from side to side. She grimaced to wipe a red smear from her teeth.
"Where?" I demanded. "To the party?"
My mother paused and looked confused. She set her hand on her purse and looked as if she might cry. My sister burbled from the floor. Mother suddenly twisted her head and shoulders straight -- she had a lovely erect carriage, like Patricia Neal. "To the most magnificent place," she said mysteriously, and her black eyes darkened. A line of electric thrill ran up my legs and back. Mother hauled my sister up and tried to arrange her yellow ruffled skirt to cover the cast. I grabbed my mother's purse and gloves from the foyer, and we were off.
In the car we followed the color red. Until I started looking, I'd never noticed before how many things were red. Stop signs, other cars, billboards, fire hydrants. We drove and drove until we were in the neighboring city of Chesapeake. We drove until my excitement faded. My sister drained her bottle of formula, and she began to drool and chew idly on the bottle's brown nipple. My mother's scarf slipped from her head.
"When are we going to get there?"
"I don't know," she snapped.
"I want to go home. This is stupid." We were far down a long, newly paved road. Just then I saw a sign. WELCOME TO CHESAPEAKE POINTE. Red balloons were tethered to a red-lettered sign. "This is it!" I screamed. My mother paused at the white split-rail fence and squinted at the sign.
"It may be," she conceded. We drove in.
Chesapeake Pointe was a community of fancy town homes built on man-made hills. There were no real hills in Virginia Beach, and I imagined that this place was built on a hill of bottles and cans, like Mount Trashmore, the local go-cart track. When we pulled into the parking lot, we were greeted by two sales reps, a tiny blonde woman with blood-red nails and lips to match, and a man whose distinguishing feature was his missing arm. Vietnam, I guessed. They filled my mother's hands with flyers and floor plans and then ushered us inside the town homes.
The rooms echoed; the ceilings soared. The furniture, walls, and floors were white and shimmery. I hoisted my sister on my hip, or rather, against my hip -- her cast held her legs apart in a rigid upside-down U and her feet were held apart by a spreader bar -- and we found the kids' room.
All the furniture was pressed against the walls and the Sahara white carpet invited you to fall to the floor and crawl across it, which is exactly what Emma and I did. I had stopped looking for red when I discovered an enormous plastic treasure chest, filled with plastic toys in plastic wrappers and a roll of jewel-colored lollipops sealed in cellophane that endlessly unfurled. While the grown-ups were in the hallway I stuffed my pockets. My mother walked in the room and shot me a look. I stuck a lollipop in my mouth. Red, of course.
"We need to go now," she said.
"We just got here!" I whined. Then, low, "Did you find the treasure?"
She looked embarrassed or mad, or both. The man beside her kept talking. Her foot began to rock. She was wearing the most marvelous shoes -- blue suede clogs with a three-inch cork wedge. They looked like little boats that could be docked in a marina. "Where do you currently reside? Will you be relocating to Chesapeake soon?" The sales rep fixed his one hand to my mother's shoulder and she was bending her knees and twisting her body in order to disengage him. I hoisted my sister off the floor and my mother bent down and seized my hand and literally pulled me out of the house. The sales rep followed us to the car and continued his pitch. She didn't say anything and refused to look at him.
She opened the door and he blocked her by leaning into the door frame with his one arm. "Look here, lady, don't waste my time. I'm here for people who are interested in buying. You got me, lady? I'm no tour guide." Then he looked at me in disgust -- a look that would become increasingly familiar in the years to come. At that time I was thinking that look meant he was going to take back the lollipops, but he merely sneered as we got in the car and drove down the long hill and out the gates of Chesapeake Pointe.
Rush hour traffic had set in, and the roadways were otherworldly. A rippled haze of exhaust made the pavement float and buckle, and the taillights of the chain of cars flashed and jerked like a slow-moving Chinese dragon. My mother's face crumpled on itself and her hands trembled.
My sister, who was normally placid, began to cry. I unwrapped a yellow lollipop for her and she sucked on it between sobs until she fell asleep, her sticky hand jammed in her mouth, the lollipop tangled in her hair.
We turned onto a four-lane byway and the car in front of us stopped without warning. My mother slammed on the brakes and she began crying in earnest and so hard that she turned off at the next exit and pulled over to the side of the road. She didn't speak. I handed Mom a green lollipop. "I know the way," I lied. "Let me tell you." I was tired and scared and I wanted to go home and yet I was sure I could find our way back. Mom stared out the window, and I could tell she wasn't really looking at anything. Then I saw that she was looking at the empty reflection of herself in the glass. I took the lollipop back from my mother, unwrapped it, and handed it back to her.
"We go down this road on field trips. I'll tell you how to get there." She blankly turned the key and started driving. I began looking for signposts of my own. The pink dairy building -- turn here, I said. Then the Esso billboard -- soon things really did begin to look familiar. There was the Be-Lo, the road my dentist's office was on, there was our town home complex, there was our town house. My mother pulled into our parking space and slumped at the wheel, pale. I was full of myself, so pleased I had found our way home.
My father was waiting on the stoop, one hand jammed in the front pocket of his Levi's, the other fishing dead bugs out of the front porch light. I leapt out of the car. "We were lost on our treasure hunt, but I found our way home! All by myself!" He looked at me, puzzled, and walked over to where my mother now stood, tears streaming down her face. My father unstrapped my sleeping sweaty sister and handed her to me.
"What's wrong? What's happened?" he asked my mother. They leaned their heads together and he cupped the back of her head with his hand. "Oh, Nathan," I heard her wail. And she began to sob and sob.
Later, I remember her being in bed and my father telling me that she was sick. I said she was sad and confused and Dad said those things could sometimes make a person sick. My eight-year-old mind reasoned she was sad because the adventure had turned out so badly; because there had been no magnificent place or reward for following the color red.
Now I know she was sad and scared for a different reason -- she was having a delusion, and she knew she was having a delusion. She was disintegrating into madness, but she wasn't so far gone, yet, that she wasn't fighting it. Her tears were proof of that.
Do you remember the first time you heard the voices?" I ask my mother. We're sitting beside a small fishpond in the Catholic nursing home where she now lives. I've just now started asking questions of my parents. For many years my mother has been too fragile and my father has flatly refused to discuss the past, but things have changed. My mother is relatively stable and my father has agreed to try to answer my questions.
My mother's gaze is fixed on the orange flashes of the Japanese carp in the water. I've come on this visit just so I can ask this one question and the mere thought of asking it provokes a fear that raises the hair on my arms.
"The very first time you heard the voices, do you remember when it was?" I blurt it out, unable to bear the weight inside me any longer.
She turns her face to me and smiles, exposing the wide lazy gap between her front teeth. "Oh yes." I feel my breath halt. Mother rests her hand on my arm. Her fingers look just like mine, small, but not shapely. The backs of her hands are dry and wrinkled; her palms a tight pink that looks almost polished. "It was the most glorious day. We were living in Virginia Beach. I went to the cleaners to drop off your father's shirts."
"What did the voices say? Were they scary voices?"
"No. The voices told me to drop off your father's shirts at the cleaners. They said, 'You've got a good-looking husband. Take his shirts to the cleaners.'" I laugh; I can't help it. I've been terrified of asking this question, thinking it might trigger something horrible in my mother or me, and I expected the voices to say creepy things, unnerving things. Something as strangely ordinary as "Take his shirts to the cleaners" never crossed my mind. Then she holds out her hand in front of her as a shield. "But the colors. Oh, Gawd!"
Schizophrenics often see auras around colors and objects. For my mother it was red. For Van Gogh it was the stars in the night sky.
"So the voices didn't bother you? They didn't scare you?"
"Not until later," she says and pulls her long graying hair off her neck. "It's too hot out here. I need to go back to my room." Visit over. Class dismissed.
To our friends and neighbors in Virginia Beach our disappearance must have appeared to be the typical domestic variety -- a now you see them, now you don't sort of affair. What must they have wondered? Was Mother's leaving some flash of whimsy? A longing for liberation? After all, it was the age of Betty Friedan angst, and women on TV and in magazines were breaking the yoke of twentieth-century wifedom, getting divorces and jobs.
Our abduction, however, was wholly unlike Patty Hearst's clear-cut and dramatic departure from domestic life. In Patty's world there were good guys and bad guys, but then the bad guys turned out to be kind of cool. "Urban guerrillas." It was like the stories of people kidnapped by Indians who decided to stay and become part of the tribe. Anyway, until my mother told us, my sister and I hadn't a clue we were being kidnapped. I simply came home from school one afternoon and my mother told me we were going to our cottage in Kechotan for a couple of days. She said my father would join us there.
I recall asking only one question: "You sure you know how to get there?" I asked not only because of Mother's recent tendency to forget where she was, but because she had driven to the cottage by herself just once before, the previous winter, to put camellias on her mother's grave. Though it was only an hour and a half's drive to Kechotan, it was a much longer trip than my mother was used to taking. She had learned to drive only four years before.
"Would you get in the car, Miss Smart Aleck!" She swatted at me with her straw hat. I dropped my book bag inside the front door and did as she said. There was nothing in her manner that made me uneasy. I do recall that she seemed especially happy. I suppose because she suddenly had a purpose, a job, a mission. Though I didn't realize it at the time, the voices that had at first told her to drop my father's shirts off at the cleaners were now telling her that she had been chosen to help serve her country in a secret war. Her mission was to set up a field hospital at the cottage. Hundreds of orphaned children would travel to our cottage at night. We were to treat their injuries and evacuate them to safety.
But right then, getting into the car, I knew none of that. I just sang along with the songs on the radio as we drove out of Virginia Beach. Our dog, Ralph, hung his huge gray head out of the passenger's side window, his drool streaking across the back window of the Beetle. His tail thumped up and down and Emma tried to grab it in her little hands. Our cat, Oliver, dug in under my mother's seat and yowled.
"Good-bye, Oyster Pointe Village," my mother called as we left our townhouse court. "Good-bye, pool. Good-bye, Be-Lo. Good-bye, Tammie Sugarman's house." Good-bye, good-bye. She was ecstatic. I became caught up in my mother's farewell litany and shouted out good-bye to every billboard and hitchhiker and seagull until I was giddy beyond calling.
When we hit the Hampton Roads Tunnel, John Denver was singing "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" and my mother sang louder and harder than I had ever seen, waving her head in the wind, laughing so hard tears squeezed out of the corners of her eyes. Emma was in the backseat, clapping her hands and growling, her latest trick. She sounded like a puppy.
"Here we go, Gingie," my mother announced as we descended into the mouth of the tunnel. I held my breath and began to count to see how long I could last. The car went dark, the radio signal disappeared, and we went under.
Copyright © 2003 by Virginia Holman