Rescuing Patty Hearst: Growing Up Sane in a Decade Gone Mad

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Press:Simon & Schuster Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (February 25, 2003)
Author Name:Holman, Virginia


"1974 was a bad year to go crazy," Virginia Holman writes in this astonishing, beautiful, and painfully funny memoir of life with her schizophrenic mother in a disintegrating decade. 
In May 1974, one year after Patty Hearst and her captors robbed Hibernia National Bank, a second kidnapping took place, far from the glare of the headlines.
Virginia Holman's mother, in the thrall of her first psychotic episode, believed she'd been inducted into a secret army.
On command of the voices in her head, she spirited her two daughters to the family cottage on the Virginia Peninsula, painted the windows black, and set up the house as a field hospital.
They remained there for four years, waiting for a war that never came.
At first, it was easy to explain away her mother's symptoms in the context of the changing times -- her mother was viewed as "finding herself" in the spirit of the decade.
When challenged about her delusion of the secret war, she invoked the name of Martha Mitchell.
When she exhibited florid psychosis, her aunt, influenced by Hollywood's smash hit movie The Exorcist, seriously suggested that an exorcism might be in order.
Even after she was hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia in the early 1980s, Holman's mother retained just enough lucidity to appease caseworkers in a system seemingly more concerned with protecting a patient's rights than with halting the progress of a woman's desperately dangerous illness.
Rescuing Patty Hearst is an unflinching account of the dark days during which Holman's family was held hostage by her mother's delusions and the country was beset by the folly of the Watergate era.
It is a startling memoir of a daughter's harrowing sojourn in the prison of her mother's mind.
And, finally, it lingers as a moving portrait of a young woman defined by her mother's illness -- until at last she rekindles a family love that had lost its way.

From Publishers Weekly

One year after the Patty Hearst kidnapping fiasco, in 1975, Holman's mother, Molly, kidnapped her children (who were then ages eight and one) and brought them to live in the family's tiny cottage in Virginia. 
In her disturbing but luminous memoir of her mother's slow descent into schizophrenia, Holman writes, "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." This twisted adventure begins with mother and daughter sanitizing the "hospital" with cut-up underwear soaked in ammonia and painting the cabin's windows black.
When curious relatives drop by, Molly (lapsing into an unfamiliar British accent) warns her girls to keep mum: "You cannot talk about the secret war....
Your government has asked you to help.
You will do what I say." The family's nightmare unfolds slowly, as Molly's mask of sanity becomes increasingly less convincing to friends and family.
Holman's depiction of her young self "feeling trapped behind thick walls of glass" is hair-raisingly poignant.
Of course she knows something isn't right with her mother, but years pass before the other adults in her life (including her father) provide a language for speaking about the unspeakable.
Idealists should be forewarned: this unforgettable memoir doesn't have a rosy ending.
However, Holman's gutsy prose bespeaks her survivor's backbone and hindsight.Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Holman relates life with a schizophrenic mother who abducted her  and then kept her locked away in a cabin with blacked-out  windows. 
The publicist loves this one.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

In this searing memoir of her mother's psychotic unraveling and her family's struggle to survive it, Holman draws parallels between the uncertainty and craziness of the times and the dislocation within her own family. 
Holman switches between the early 1970s when her mother's decline began and the year 2000, trying to reconcile her past and her present, to make sense of her mother's breakdown and her personal fear that she may have inherited her mother's mental illness.
Holman was nine years old when she and her baby sister were whisked away by their mother to the family's drafty summer cottage on a deluded secret mission.
Holman's mother heard voices telling her to prepare for a secret war by setting up a field hospital.
Barricaded in the cottage, with the windows painted black, Holman struggles over the next three years with adolescent angst and her own unwillingness to believe that her mother is suffering a breakdown.
This is a frightening look at the impact of mental instability upon family members and their struggle to acknowledge the illness in order to can get help.
Vanessa BushCopyright © American Library Association.
All rights reserved


Haven Kimmel author of A Girl Named Zippy and The Solace of Leaving Early  Rescuing Patty Hearst is filled with potent images of family life, ghost children, refugees, secret armies. 
That it's a true story, and that Virginia Holman can write it now with such clarity and generosity, is astonishing.
-- Review

About the Author

Virginia Holman is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Roslynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship, and a North Carolina Arts Council grant. 
Rescuing Patty Hearst won the 2003 Outstanding Literature Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
She lives in Durham, North Carolina, where she is at work on a novel.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

PrologueNineteen 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.2000Let 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.
It could happen to you."1974The 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.
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 crumple...

--This text refers to the Unknown Binding edition.


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Comment List (Total:15)

  •     This book is not about patty hearst. Her story is very bland, slow at times and the writing is not the best
  •     It's a wonderful book just as a piece of literature. It's also a great contribution to understanding what families go through with this illness. I hope Thomas Sasz ("The Myth of Mental Illness") gets to read it. Schizophrenia usually begins in the late teens in men, but in the twenties in women, so that we often encounter schizophrenic mothers, but seldom schizophrenic fathers. Some things have improved since the 1970's. The medications we have now are not half as likely to cause drooling and stiffness and shaking. Problems getting patients hospitalized persist. The best resource in the predicament Holman describes where help was refused because of lack of evidence of dangerousness is probably your local branch of the National Association for the Mentally Ill (NAMI)
  •     Great book, very well written. Gives a very interesting perspective into living with a parent suffering from a mental illness.
  •     Madness hits homeRescuing Patty Hearst charts life with a schizophrenic motherby Carrie A.A. FryeThe biggest surprise, Virginia Holman's sister told her, is how funny the book is.The book in question is Rescuing Patty Hearst: Memories From a Decade Gone Mad (Simon & Schuster, 2003). In it Holman recounts a childhood spent with a schizophrenic mother.As you'd expect, it's a harrowing tale - the experience was, as Holman put it in a recent phone interview, "rotten and fraught with excruciating pain."As children, Holman and her sister were virtual captives to a woman who, undiagnosed and unmedicated, was often a danger to them: At one point, Holman's mother awakens her in the middle of the night, blindfolds her, drives her around and leaves her to find her way home. Another time, Holman's sister, a toddler, is given a glass of Clorox to drink instead of a glass of milk.So funny? Yes, at times. Holman is a gifted, beautiful writer. Even more than that, she's a fiercely honest one - which is why, I think, so many readers will enjoy spending time in her company."I want to lie," she writes. "To say that our lives ... were awful and horrible all the time. But the truth is that there were days it wasn't so bad, and even times it was flat-out fun."And then there were the days when bad and funny walked hand-in-hand. As when, filled with the righteousness of the elementary-school zealot, Holman campaigns to get her (fully delusional) mother to quit smoking. For the cause, Holman flushes books of matches and tosses packs of her mother's cigarettes."'Kick the habit'!" I screech, just like the insistent public service announcements on TV," she writes.The world is falling down around her, her mother is hearing voices and taking her out on "night maneuvers," and yet Holman is, after all, a child. And a child of the 1970s, at that - down on smoking, and down on litter. (Looking at a trash-strewn landfill, Holman "can't imagine what the weeping Indian in the litter commercial would do if he ever saw this place.")Likewise, Holman's mother is a product of her times. "1974 was a bad year to go crazy," Holman writes at the outset of the memoir. It is then that her mother, at 32, experiences her first psychotic break. Voices start. At first their message is innocuous, telling Holman's mother to take her husband's shirts to the cleaner.But gradually the voices become more insistent, persuasive, stranger, their message and compulsions shaped by the current events of the time: Patty Hearst, Watergate, the fallout of Vietnam.Holman's mother comes to believe that she's been inducted into a secret army. She takes Holman, then 8, and her 1-year-old sister and retreats to a small beachfront cabin in Kechotan, Va. The cabin, she tells her bewildered daughters, is to be prepared as a field hospital for war children, whom she describes as haunted, worn creatures who will soon be arriving by the hundreds from the frontlines. To her husband back at home, she says simply that she and the girls will be spending the summer in Kechotan. He is welcome to join them if he wishes."Over five years with active psychosis would pass before [my mother] 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," Holman writes. "Ultimately, this resulted in her permanent institutionalization."Over the years, Holman continues, she's been asked over and over, "How could this happen? Why didn't anybody do anything?"This memoir is Holman's answer. "Here's how," she writes. "Sit back. Listen. It could happen to you."A portion of Rescuing Patty Hearst first appeared in the magazine DoubleTake in 2001 and received a Pushcart Prize. In our interview, Holman told me she began writing her family's story soon after she turned 32. Clearly, that age was a marker. In her memoir, Holman talks about her fears that she would inherit her mother's disease: Hearing a distant conversation, she has to ask her husband if he hears those voices too. Now, at 32, Holman had reached the age that her mother had been when she first became schizophrenic - and she, Holman, was still healthy.More than that, she was now a mother herself. And with that vantage of parenthood came a growing compassion for the plight of her own mother, as well as the choices her father faced in dealing with the illness. According to the National Advisory Mental Health Council, an estimated 2.2 million Americans suffer from schizophrenia. Yet even today, it's easier always to believe that madness is what happens to other people and their families.Now think back to the 1970s - the days before Oprah, before A Beautiful Mind, before Kay Redfield Jamison's groundbreaking memoir of manic depression, An Unquiet Mind. Litter, smoking, better living through Jonathan Livingston Seagull: Those were the issues on the national consciousness. Not so much mental health.It's important to remember this to understand why, at first, Holman's father doesn't seem to recognize the extent of his wife's mental illness nor the danger his children face when left in her care. And Holman's mother is adept at hiding the signs of her illness from him. At least at first.Later, when she's slipped so far into psychosis it's impossible to hide anymore, he faces an impossible set of decisions. His wife refuses medical help, and the laws protect her right to refuse. Only if she hurts herself or someone else will Social Services intervene. If he leaves, the children will most likely be awarded to their mother's care.And if he stays, as he has promised to do in his wedding vows? He becomes, like his daughters, his wife's captive and caretaker.This is what he chooses, and as Holman describes it, these years of her mother's advanced illness are a living nightmare. She, her sister and her father lock themselves into bedrooms as her mother roams the house, muttering and laughing, her words gibberish, her delusions full-blown and violent. In our interview, I suggest to Holman that her father seems to have had only lousy options laid out before him."Yeah, lousy," she seconds. And a thread of her memoir plots her growing awareness of just how lousy her father had it. As a child and a young woman, Holman was angry at his not having saved her from the situation. As an adult, she respects what he endured in staying. It would have been impossible to write this memoir, she adds, without the help of her father and sister.Now in an institution, Holman's mother also tried to help with the book, writing Holman a series of letters about what she remembers of the years in the cabin in Kechotan, when she was readying the field hospital for the war children. The letters are a frustrating mix of delusion and reality."Sunday evenings I flew you and [your sister] out to a small island where the blood was being stored in case of a fire," she writes to Holman. But there was no flying.And the war children? They were already home.
  •     At first when Gingie's mother begins to show signs of becoming delusional, it's a bit like an adventure. Gingie and her sister Emma is one.
  •     Prison isn't only a place surrounded by black bars. In "Rescuing Patty Hearst: Memories from a Decade Gone Mad," it's a fate far worse -- spending a childhood held captive by the...
  •     This book chronicles the experiences of one family when the mother develops schizophrenia after giving birth to her second child.
  •     When she was eight years old, Gingie was forced to leave town with her mother Molly, a schizophrenic under the delusion that she was needed to set up a makeshift hospital for war...
  •     A profoundly moving story of a child raised by a schizophrenic mother. The lack of needed medical intervention is deplorable.
  •     This is one of those books where you pick it up and can't put it down until you are finished. I highly suggest this book especially if you have seen this mental health issue in...
  •     I thought this book we tell me something new that I didn't know about mental illness but it didn't really do that.
  •     Great read, a little slow but overall I enjoyed..
  •     Holman's autobiography of her childhood abuse at the hands of a schizophrenic mother is surprisingly tame: Holman writes with considerable emotional distance, as if she's still uneasy about approaching the memories. This tone makes the book read more like fiction than reality at times. Unlike many memoir writers, Holman talks little about her childhood emotions, instead opting to probe into the "why's" of the events: why her father didn't "save" her from her crazy mother, why Holman herself didn't flee, etc. It makes for an interesting psychological tale. However, by the same token it prevents readers from getting too emotionally tied to the book and its young, suffering Virginia.Holman's tactic of switching abruptly back and forth between the present and her childhood also does some major damage to the book's flow. The same goes for the book's structure: Holman divides her story into short chapters, many of them only 2-3 pages long.Still, anyone with a relative suffering from a mental illness--particularly illnesses as quirky and unpredictable as schizophrenia, will find a familiar voice in Holman's childhood self and will recognize all too well her adult frustrations with finding logic in the illogical waters of her experiences.
  •     Thanks
  •     I heard about this book when Virginia Holman was interviewed on the Diane Rehm show. What an amazingstory!

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