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.
Copyright © 2003 by Virginia Holman
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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