Jacki Lyden is known to many as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, a vocation which has brought her to the front lines of some of the world’s most precarious regions. But in this memoir, she tells of the precariousness of her childhood and of her struggles growing up with her manic depressive mother. Beautiful, with a quick imagination and a constant yearning for a wider life than the one she was offered in her small Wisconsin town, Dolores Lyden filled her daughters’ lives with the uncertainty that comes from parental instability. Her divorce from her first husband, a man who was dearly loved by his three daughters, was the initial blow to their family life. But her subsequent, and ultimately destructive marriage to a wealthy physician triggered the primary episode of Dolores’ manic depression—and sent Jacki and her sisters lives’ into a freefall of confusion and chaos that would last for two decades.
Jacki never knew how and when her mother’s sickness would take hold. It was the 1960s, and the concept of the “mad housewife” hadn’t quite swept the American consciousness. Nor had the realities of spousal abuse. The Doctor’s cruel treatment of Dolores’ daughters, especially Jacki, forced Dolores to make a choice between her daughters’ welfare and her marriage. It was a choice difficult enough to drive any woman crazy and quite possibly brought about the onset of Dolores’ mental illness. As a teenager and a young woman struggling to find her place in the world, Jacki was forced to become a parent to her own parent at a time when she could have benefited from a mother’s good sense. She turned instead to her grandmother, Mabel, a hardscrabble woman who’d suffered enormous losses of her own yet managed to live happily on her own terms—a woman whom many wouldn’t have hesitated to call crazy. The influences of these two powerful women instilled in the Lyden daughters an appreciation of their lives’ unpredictability. But it also instilled in them a determination to make their way in an uncertain world, and helped them appreciate the force of their own imaginations—a force which, sadly, often got the better of their mother.
Jacki grew to accept, and even relish, the manifestations of her mother’s illness. In her memoir she marvels at her mother’s creative energy, at the intricate workings of the extraordinary mind that took Dolores to such exotic places as Mesopotamia or eighteenth-century France. Later, Jacki would become a traveler in her own right, more at home in the unsettled territory of the Middle East than with the comfort that comes from a quiescent life. As a journalist covering the front lines of some of the world’s most dangerous war zones, Jacki’s chaotic childhood experiences have allowed her to comprehend the insanity that prevails in so many peoples’ lives. Hers was not, perhaps, a childhood she would have chosen, but it’s the only one she knows. And so, in this hilarious, lyrical, and achingly beautiful tribute we come to know Dolores, to empathize with Jacki, and to revel in an unusually moving story about mothers, daughters, and growing up.
ABOUT JACKI LYDEN
Jacki Lyden is a regular substitute host on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Weekend All Things Considered. She was part of the award-winning NPR team that covered the Persian Gulf War. She lives in Washington, D.C.
“One of the most indelible portraits of a mother-daughter relationship to come along in years, a book that belongs on the shelf of classic memoirs, alongside The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt… A book that stands, remarkably, as both a reporter’s unsentimental act of recollection and a love letter to an impossible and captivating woman.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“The great strength in Lyden’s memoir lies not only in the story it tells of madness, imagination and the tough bonds among three generations of women, but also in the poetic power and virtuosity of the language with which the story is told… A beautiful family testament.”
“Lyden’s lucid, powerful prose makes her psychic drama real and vivid.”
“The story will resonate with anyone who has struggled with a mentally ill family member.”
“Lyden captures her mother’s insanity and her own response to it in exquisite detail. The writing—vivid, original, lyrical—shines at its most haunting, when Lyden homes in on her mother’s behavior, which is so bold and fantastical at times that it borders on the hilarious.”
—The New York Times Book Review
A CONVERSATION WITH JACKI LYDEN
With your talent for writing I’m surprised you didn’t become a print journalist. Is there something about radio—its anonymity, perhaps—that draws you to that medium?
Radio, for me, is usually a much more multi-dimensional and creative medium than print journalism. Good radio has in it the raw material of an Othello, or an O’Neill. Obviously I am not talking about peddling. These are, I suppose, the meat and potatoes of news…some would say the detritus of information. I’m talking about the radio ballads, the death of a way of life, the reminiscences of an elderly diarist, the exile of a Palestinian—or Jew. When radio is lyrical it transposes the advice of a columnist against the lewd and crude of her son the rock star (Ma Nugent/Ted Nugent) or the saga of people waiting for corn circles to appear (Salisbury, England) or the chant of snow cleaners at work (northern Tehran). The voices and ideas are alive in radio…raw material for the novel, or nonfiction book…but only bites for newsprint.
You mentioned that earlier in your career you developed a kind of persona you named Zelda Thorne to help boost your confidence over the air. Do you still “use” Zelda?
Zelda Thorne. How I love her. What a novel she was. She first appears in a steelworker’s hall, in South Chicago, Illinois in 1980. I had one hour to interview simmering, resentful steelworkers and get back to the studio with tape. How else could I give my shy self permission? Zelda was with me the following week too, as I sat with my flip-flopping stomach at a 7am meeting with the head of Jones & Laughlin steel at the DuQuesne Men’s Club in Pittsburgh, asking the CEO and four of his henchmen if they didn’t owe anything more to a community than pensions. My voice cracked a bit, but Zelda asked the question. And she was with me the first night I was live on the air. No, I don’t really need Zelda anymore, that’s the grace of time. But I do think of her, often after a piece I particularly like, and pay her silent tribute—my patron saint when I needed her.
Why do you think you and your two sisters are all so different? How did the ways that each of you coped with your home life affect the three of you developmentally?
I am myself a bit mystified that the three sisters—all of us so close together in age—have taken such different directions in life. It’s a testament to the fact that DNA can only get you so far. Yes, I would like to think of each of us as using our own alchemy to resist, or reclaim, our mother’s enchantment: my middle sister’s use of everything from religion to white witchcraft and tarot, my youngest sister’s passion for order and Blackwell and the rule of law. I do think that Mabel and Dolores’ personal rebellions were unconscious cues to use the rules of behavior and society to suit us, not to fit in. Both my mother and grandmother were much more “outsiders” than they realized—Mabel with her give ‘em hell attitude, wearing the same dress day in and out, Dolores with her myth-making self, trying for acceptance in a world that might as well have been a stage play for her. And because they were both so dynamic, they were always actors in their lives, not passive recipients of whatever came.
In your memoir you focus on various incidents, stringing them together in a circular narrative. How did you decide which events to include? What methods did you use to recall the various details of your coming of age?
It’s been an eventful life, to my way of thinking. So I was quite sure that certain events in the drama had to be there…the Christmas tree scene, my father’s accident and loss of hearing, the creation of my mother’s “Creative Renaissance by Design.” Other events I was less certain of; many are, of course, not on display. I remember I had a strong disagreement with my editor, Janet Silver, about whether or not to include the rodeo season. I argued that this material was so distinct it belonged in another book, which I had long thought to write. She successfully, and rightly I think, argued that upon leaving home and really coming of age, I chose a world in every way as unruly and eccentric and delusional and bounds-breaking as the one I left. So I’ve included in these pages those events which best and most concisely gave definition to the story. I had my mother’s diaries and letters, notebooks, and legal material. I relied heavily on the memories of my sisters. In the use of later events, the material is well documented, for by then I was already a journalist.
Was it hard for you, a reporter, to reveal so much about yourself in this memoir?
This was the hardest part. What would Nina Totenberg think? I know there are people who think no revelation too great, who believe they should be unsparing of their privacy. It’s a good intention, but it may make for a very bad book. I don’t support what I think of as the undigested approach to memoir. What a memoir should achieve I believe, is a sense of the contemplation of life, of meaning, even if during the book one dwells in the dark. Meaning is what digests the memoir. And yet, I did have the thoughts of my next interviewee turning to me and saying, “it says here that you kicked one of your colleagues in the head in a hotel in Aleppo.” On the other side, you have to resist any temptation to make yourself noble when, in fact, you were quite the opposite. National Public Radio has been my forum, but in the end I’m a separate person from my work, as we all are. So I had to be unsparing, fingers clenched. I would have nightmares about what people in my professional world would say, and then I thought, they can have their say over my professional work, but this is a different medium altogether. So I guess I’ve made my peace with looking ridiculous…and let me tell you, it takes a lot more courage than any mode of self-absorbed confession or bullying up to the bar with the boys. And by the way, Totenberg loved the book. It’s not like we haven’t all been through thick and thin here in nearly 20 years at NPR.
- Lyden says she was a diarist from the time she could write. How do you think writing helped her cope with her mother’s illness? How may her mother’s illness have contributed to Jacki’s talent for writing?
- Lyden writes “My life as her daughter, the life of my imagination, began with my mother’s visions . . . Her madness was our narrative line. I am trying to decipher that line still, for its power and meaning over our past.” What does this say about the way imagination and personality develop? How much are we the product of our parents’ lives, and how much the product of our environment? Why do you think Dolores’ illness prodded Jacki toward such dangerous assignments? How would it have contributed to Kate’s unconventional lifestyle, and Sarah’s craving for order in her own life?
- Dolores didn’t exhibit signs of mental illness until after her second marriage. How much of a role do you think her relationships with men, including her father, played in Dolores’ illness?
- Lyden often makes references to the pressures she felt protecting her mother, usually not the role of a daughter. How do you think this role reversal affected Jacki’s adolescence? In what ways was Dolores a good mother to Jacki?
- What do you think of Jacki’s grandmother, Mabel? What were her strengths and weaknesses? How did she influence Jacki’s life?
- In the throes of her illness, Dolores is incredibly creative and energetic, and Lyden has preserved many of the notes and letters Dolores wrote to everyone from her lawyers to her daughters. Why do you think Lyden wants to hold on to these artifacts of her mother’s illness? What do they tell her about who her mother really is?
- As a child Jacki learned to tolerate not only her mother’s erratic behavior, but her stepfather’s cruel ways. Lyden writes, “the armed hands of children do not surprise me in the least. Children are fierce, without nuance or hesitation.” What do you think allows children to withstand trauma; what makes them so resilient and fierce?
- Lyden claims that she has been “drawn to men with despotic natures…A desperado helps one live dangerously, and perhaps that is how we know we are alive.” Do you think Lyden’s predilection for violent men had its roots in Dolores’ relationship with the Doctor? If so, why wouldn’t Jacki have learned the danger of being involved in those types of relationships instead of being attracted to them?
- In the chapter, “Teotihuacán, Mexico, 1960,” Lyden describes an incident in which she climbed an Aztec pyramid and tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a young girl about to be sacrificed at the altar. She strays so far into this daydream that she feels as if she had passed directly into ancient history—a sensation she likens to her mother’s own periods of insanity. Why is this episode significant? What is Lyden saying about the delusions of the mentally ill as compared to the fierce imaginings of a young girl?
- Lyden describes her and her sisters’ childhood as “growing up like bumper cars in an arcade—the brakes applied harshly and erratically here, and no brakes or direction at all there… Growing up in Ping-Pong trajectories that no one else could follow, perversely desirable because our experience would protect us in dangerous situations.” How different do you think her experience was from other girls her age? Was Jacki’s childhood insecure or unconventional? What are the advantages and disadvantages of an unconventional upbringing?