by Jacki Lyden
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Mar 8th 1999
In her Acknowledgments Jacki Lyden thanks a Writers Workshop and a Writing Program. In the early chapters I was not so sure she should thank them. Her memoir is written in a stylized manner that seems studied and affected. Consider the first sentence of the first chapter, 'My mother's hand was open like a bisque cup, all porcelain, and Christ Jesus' fingers were tentacles entangled around her palm.' Of her father after his accident, she writes, 'When he spoke, his speech was as slurred as if he had inhaled one of the spring rivulets running down to Lake Puckawasay.' Maybe I am too wedded to the prose of cold facts, but I found at first that the continual use of such analogies got in the way of clear description. Sometimes I wondered whether Lyden was trying to convey a sense of mania with her prose, with ideas being run together and an almost bizarre ingenuity in word choice. Lyden's style remains consistent through the book: opening a page at random near the end, I find the following sentence about her mother, 'Her delusions choked around her mind that summer like a loosestrife attacking the cattail patch on Puckawasay.'
But after I had got a few chapters into the story, these stylistic quirks no longer bothered me. Indeed, I even stopped noticing them, and to write this review I had to go back to check whether the Lyden kept up her analogies until the end. There was something about her story that drew me in.
Lyden's voice will be familiar to most National Public Radio news listeners. She worked as a war correspondent during the Gulf War. It is slightly disconcerting to read about the personal life of a figure one is previously used to seeing in one context only, like bumping into your psychotherapist in the supermarket. When it came out in hardback, her book got high praise. So I was looking forward to the paperback when it came out. But as I say, this was a book that took some effort to get into. However, I am glad to report that once I was into it, I really started to like it.
One virtue of Daughter of the Queen of Sheba is that it does not try to be a self-help book of any kind. Building on this, while Lyden clearly has deep love and respect for her mother, she does not mince her words with the lingo of popular psychology. Her mother has manic depression, and during her manic periods, Lyden describes her as 'crazy,' 'mad,' and at one point says that her mother's writings 'reflect a wild evil that has possessed her.' It is during these phases that she describes her mothers as 'The Queen of Sheba.' The character of Sheba, who is almost another person from her mother, has incredible physical and mental energy. She is creative and industrious. She is also angry, manipulative, and totally inconsiderate of the needs of both herself and her family. She is a nightmare. Eventually her mother starts taking lithium and behaves with more moderation.
Lyden's descriptions of her mother's symptoms of mania should be familiar to most who have seen mania before: profligate spending, grandiose ideas about herself, delusions about who she knows, crazy schemes. You don't need to read this memoir in order to learn about these: you will find them in any textbooks on abnormal psychology. Other aspects of the story are also shared by hundreds of other memoirs and novels: the broken family of Lyden's childhood, the physical abuse from her step-father, the cooperation and stresses between siblings in dealing with her mother's illness, and her mother's eventual hospitalization. In the end, it is the detail of this story that makes it so gripping and unique. Lyden conveys her mother's madness especially by quoting her mother's letters and legal briefs, written for the court in suing and countersuing those with whom she is in dispute. She describes at length and with great love her relationship with her grandmother Mabel, who spent much of her old age keeping an eye on the Queen of Sheba. Especially fascinating are the details of Lyden's life as a radio journalist, and her musings on the similarity between herself and her mother. Her mother escapes into other worlds inside her head, while Lyden escapes much more literally, to other countries, often on assignment abroad, always meeting new people, finding herself in new situations.
Lyden describes how her mother tries to prove that she is not mad and her enthusiasm for Christian Science (which condemns wholesale modern psychiatry) and the writings of its key figure, Mary Baker Eddy. Lyden admits that for a brief time, she became ready to accept her mother's claims that she had never been ill and had just been a victim of circumstance. But one day when she returns home and sees her mother's bizarre behavior, it becomes crystal clear to her that her mother has become crazy as a loon. It is a great virtue of her memoir that Lyden manages to describe her mother with love and warmth without making simplistic links between creativity and madness, or suggesting that perhaps we are all a little bit crazy. Nevertheless, the similarities between herself and her mother are a running thread through the book. Without self-pity, Lyden makes clear how difficult it was to watch her mother's condition deteriorate and to see her perform rash and self-destructive acts.
Looking back on the book after finishing it, I now see what first seemed to be stylistic excess as a strength of this book. It is not at all easy to find words adequate to the task of describing mental illness, and Lyden's prose brings a passion to her task that I admire.