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In potent prose, Sights Unseen tells the story of the troubled relationship between Hattie Barnes and her elusive mother, Maggie, known by their neighbors as "that Barnes woman with the problems." Plagued by Maggie's suicidal lows and delirious highs, Hattie struggles to find a place in her mother's heart. From the bestselling author of Charms fo the Easy Life.
Had I known my mother was being given electroconvulsive therapy while I was dressing for school on eight consecutive Monday mornings, I do not think I could have buttoned my blouses or tied my shoes or located my homework. I see myself fumbling with the snap on my skirt, trying to connect the sides, turning around in a circle like a cat chasing its tail. I was twelve, deemed too young to be told what was happening to her and in fact too innocent to surmise it.
There was a certain power in her healing that I, as a child, felt was beyond my capacity to comprehend, the way I, as an adult, cannot comprehend the largeness of the universe, the number of its stars, the heat of the sun, or the speed of light. I could not fathom how such a terribly sick woman could get well. Unless the doctors were using some sort of medical magic, I could not understand how pills and a changed environment were helping when her family's love had been of no use. I believe I was jealous of the hospital and her doctors. At home, she had simply endured her life. In the hospital, she began to flourish. She returned home an independent woman.
I worried about my own lack of influence in her life. If I had a little girl, I thought, I would look at her and discover ways to ground myself. I would find reasons to move out of the haze and into the clearing, where a husband, a sort, and a daughter could see me fully and welcome me. If I had a daughter as needy for my love as I was for hers, I could, I thought, will myself to be well for her sake. But Mother did not find that inspiration in me. Her illness, manic depression, was beyond her control. Along with my father, Imourned the inability to change her, to restore her. And I worried that later, when she had been back home with us for a while, the pills and the doctoring would stop working and she would revert to her old crazy ways, and once more, the voicesof my father, my brother, and me would be no more than background noise to her ravings. I worried that her wellness; would not take, the way vaccinations take. Life with Mother, I feared, would again be life with a stranger, a changeable stranger.
Because of her illness, it was impossible for her to be with us all the time. However, I always maintained the notion that I deserved a mother and would someday have mine. Instead of playing solitaire at the kitchen table while Pearl, our cook and housekeeper, fixed dinner, I would deal a hand of old maid or spades with my mother. She would join me in my life. I hoped for that even in the worst of times. As much as Pearl mothered me, she never let me forget for a minute that I had my own mother upstairs resting or in that hospital, and someday all would be well in our household. I am drawn to know why and how I never abandoned the ideal of a mother. She gave me ample opportunity to ostracize her completely. Why did I "turn out"? Why did my brother "turn out"?
Mother was depressed almost always, and her sadness was fractured only by wild, delusional turns of mind, with brief periods of stability that were celebrated and remembered by my family as though they were spectacular occurrences, like total eclipses or meteor showers. Had she not crashed to a halt in 1967, 1 would never have known her. I would have been raised wholly by my father and Pearl, and I would have spoiled my life trying to mitigate the ill effects her absence might have forced on me.
A girl cannot go along motherless without life's noticing, taking a compensatory tuck here and there in the heart and in the mind, letting out one seam or another whenever she is threatened by her loneliness. I could have lurched on ahead to adulthood, straining to be a good girl, not ever learning what to do when my own children were placed in my arms. My instinct might have been to ignore my responsibility for them the way my mother had initially relinquished responsibility for me. The children might have had to wait for me to find my way, as I had had to wait for my mother, and they might not have been as patient. My patience came from a deep longing for an ideal, and had I not pitied my mother, I would have stopped waiting for her, given up on her and ranged about for love elsewhere. But we caught each other just in time, right on the edge of my puberty. She pulled me back from the rim of an abyss. Just when I should have been growing away from my mother, we moved toward each other. When I should have been running out of the house with the screen door slamming in my wake, I was crawling into her arms. Boys, when they finally took notice of me, had to wait for my mother and me to learn each other, to learn our habits and our ways.
Mother died five years ago, right after I found out I was pregnant with my first daughter. She was well by then, bolstered by fifteen years of medication and therapy for her manic depression. My brother, Freddy, and I had gone to help her and my father one quiet Sunday afternoon as they cleaned his childhood belongings out of the Bames family homeplace. My father's father had left the house to his sister-in-law, Miss Josephine Woodward, as a life estate. Although my parents preferred to say that Mr. Bames and Miss Woodward "kept company," my Aunt Menefee, who was with us that day, said they were "involved." Aunt Menefee's husband, my father's brother,...
About this Book:
SIGHTS UNSEEN is an unforgettable tale of unconditional love. Brilliantly written in the form of a memoir, the novel recounts the story of a Southern family's desperate attempt to achieve normalcy in the midst of a mother's manic- depressive illness. In powerful prose, Hattie Barnes recollects on her childhood and her deeply convicted relationship with her mother Maggie, who is known in their small North Carolina town as "the Barnes woman with all the problems."
As one turbulent episode leads to another and Maggie's dramatic manic spells are followed by periods of sedation, young Hattie continues to long for her mother to become well and to return the intense love Hattie feels for her. Only as an adult can Hattie begin to understand the relentless emotional upheavals withstood by her family and to know the hopes and fears of the beautiful, troubled woman who was her mother. In Hattie's haunting, tranquil voice, the wisdom of an accomplished woman illuminates the experiences or a sensitive girl with immediacy and poignancy.
Praise for this book:
"Vivid. . .compelling--an arresting novel.... This is a story about the quality, not the quantity, of a life. It's a story about change and hope, compassion and healing." --The Boston Sunday Globe
"Astonishingly original...moving and evocative...beautifully crafted and intense."--People
"A rich stew of years...Ms. Gibbons's last novel, Charms for the EasyLife, found the large audience her work deserves, but I like this book even better. It is more intense, more vibrant, both richer and stranger.--The New York Times Boston Review
1. The title SIGHTS UNSEEN is wonderfully evocative and can be interpreted as having different meanings for each of the novel's main characters. In what ways did Maggie's illness limit her vision, and what did it cause her to miss? What sights were unseen by Hattie as a child, and how did this affect her development? What remained unseen by Hattie's father, and how did these instances of "blindness" affect his family? Which other characters experienced "sights unseen?" How did the family's hidden experiences isolate them from the community?
2. Hattie draws a brilliant comparison between some of her family members and a set of magnets (p. 154-155) to understand the simultaneous repulsion and attraction that complicated the relationships she experienced and witnessed. How does her analogy illuminate the relationship between Hattie and her mother? Freddy and Maggie? Maggie and her husband.
3. Hattie writes, "Had I known my mother was being given electro-convulsive therapy while I was dressing for school on eight consecutive Monday mornings, I do not think I could have buttoned my blouse or tied my shoes or located my homework" (p. 3). Why would a 12-year-old girl have been so overwhelmed by this information, and how do you think it would have changed the way she related to her mother upon her return from the hospital? How could this knowledge have affected Hattie's ability to cope with illness (her own, her children's, others') in her future?
4. Although the novel is written from Hattie's point of view, the author succeeds in providing a thorough and fascinating portrayal of Freddy's character. While Hattie writes that "Freddy's maturity was inchoate" (p. 162), what do we as readers know about Maggie's effect on his sexual development? His obsessive commitment to academic excellence? His emotional inaccessibility?
5. The book's presentation of Maggie's manic depression is extremely powerful. By examining the description of one of her manic episodes at Hattie's sixth birthday party (p. 84-87), discuss the techniques the author uses to achieve impact. What other narrative devices could the author have used, and why would they have been less successful?
6. Mr. Barnes is as dark and conflicted a character as any in recent fiction. Examine how his coldness and violence influence the personalities of his sons and his grandchildren. Why does he behave so differently toward Maggie, and does this special treatment help or hurt the family?
7. Hattie writes, "I wanted Maggie Barnes, the woman with all the problems, to turn into my mother" (p. 93). What expectations do many of us have of our mothers, and are they fair? Is Hattie ultimately satisfied with or disappointed in her mother once she has recovered?
8. Uncle Lawrence and Aunt Menefree are described respectively by Hattie as having "the look of a man who never gets to go anywhere" (p. 144) and the kind of woman who drives men to other women" (p. 147). What importance do they have in the novel, and how do they influence young Hattie's understanding of relationships between men and women?
9. How did Hattie's family life contribute to her becoming a girl who "knew better than to need anything" (p. 135)? Why can it be so harmful for girls to be taught to be "good" and not to demand what they want or need?
10. Young Hattie was continuously frustrated by her ability to "get through" to Maggie and influence bad behavior, and she writes, "If I had a little girl, I thought, I would look at her and discover ways to ground myself" (p. 4). How is Hattie able to maintain such strong love for Maggie even though her mother disappoints her time after time? How does Hattie's relationship with her mother affect the ways she later mothers her own children?
11. Hattie writes, "I had such a backlog of things to say to [Maggie] that picking one became an insurmountable task" (p. 156). Why do Hattie and Maggie remain strangers even after Maggie's illness is under control? How does Freddy contribute to the two women's emotional distance?
12. As Hattie reflects on her past, she wonders, "Why did I 'turn out'?" Why did my brother 'turn out'?" (p. 5) How do you think both children achieved success despite their early trauma?
13. Hattie writes, "Pearl was my salvation" (p. 67). What role does Pearl play in Hattie's and Freddy's lives? In Maggie's? How would it have affected the family if Pearl's caregiving responsibilities had been handled by Frederick? By Aunt Menefree?
About the Author:
"Some people might give up their second-born to write as well as Kaye Gibbons," wrote Time magazine of her novel, Charms For The Easy Life, a New York Times bestseller. Her other novels. Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman and A Cure For Dreams, have garnered awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Chicago Tribune and the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. She has three daughters and lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband.