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
The experience of living within a universe without light, prediction and a world you can name—this is experience of living, I think, in the absence of reason. This was my mother’s distant and unreachable, unknowable world of delusion. Daughter of the Queen of Sheba attempts to enter that world in the only way we can…by framing it, by turning on the light, by giving it a vocabulary and imposing a circular chronology. In the real world, I was fascinated by the roots of my mother’s mental illness. Madness was for me the sheer vocabulary of the imagination. And yet, in the real world, you cannot have a dialogue with someone who is mad—who is delusional. You can attempt it, but it will be what turning the pages of a book is to reading, or listening to a melody you know in a language you cannot quite catch. On the page, however, I could have a dialogue with the Queen of Sheba. I could define her terms, so to speak. I could give her a history, a reason to become an all-conquering power. I could speak back to her where in real life I was nothing but one of her more difficult subjects. This time, in the world on the page I had my own sense of authority in what was previously her dominion. She could hardly answer me back or turn away from me. Writing was a chance to meet her in her own country, the country of the imagination, and capture her, on the page, as I could never hope to do in life. In real life of course, my mother is a free spirit—here, I have her down, one interpretation anyway. Sometimes I imagine Daughter of the Queen of Sheba like a verse poem, written by an apostle long after the act…it’s a canon about or a mythology about an almost mystical event.
Mental illness, untreated, can be frightening or inspiring. It can be a little of both. But it needn’t ultimately rob either its claimants or their kin of their humanity. The fight we have to have is to keep those we love alive long enough in order to reach them. Sometimes, we never can. They elude us forever. As a journalist who has been on many stories that contain in them the nature of a campaign of the heart—be they the chronicles of a struggling farmer or a riot-torn Belfast neighborhood or a twisting tale from Iran, to track Sheba was the most elemental and necessary thing in all the world. In fact there are many other stories I want to tell, in fiction and non-fiction, but nothing seemed quite worth it as long as Sheba remained out there like a wayfarer in an uncharted expanse of chaos, with no voice and no order and not even the formality of memory to give her any real meaning. You are always wondering, when someone mentally ill who is close to you is actively delusional, who that person really is. Is that your mother who has gone mad, or is she that mad creature? How do you know that person you best think you know, namely your mother, if she is mad? And if that creature she has become is no longer your mother, then who is she? And what is troubling her? And how can you know her in an unreality you can never enter? Because the brain, we know, gives us many chambers—only a few of them do we inhabit. And so Sheba is an attempt to create in a literary way a reality that eludes us in life.
So, too, the memoir tries to frame an experience that could have been little more than chaotic at the time, albeit with amazing moments of insight and struggle. We have survived, we are at the end of our journey, we want to, like Odysseus, make some sense of where we have gone. There is a great deal of bunk written about memoirs, and the only truth that is universal for them is the truth applicable to any good piece of writing: they must transform our experience of what it is to be human. That means we must have digested the experience, not merely confessed it. We must have a little compassion for the selves that we are delving into here, not a sense of revenge or self-pity. I know there are people who write books like that, but I’m not interested in reading them. But then I could never see the point of going anywhere if you didn’t come home a little richer in your understanding of that place or culture, even if you didn’t much like it there. And nothing, to me, is ever so bad it can’t be funny. Gallows humor helps a lot, and we had buckets of it at my house. My mother can be one of the funniest people I know, besides being one of the most creative.
People who are delusional, who are mentally ill, who elude us in life, take us somewhere—often to someplace we never expected to go. I have received hundreds of letters since Daughter of the Queen of Sheba was published. Many of them talk about experiences far darker than my mother’s, though no less frustrating. Sometimes it is a surviving family member who has written, because the afflicted family member has committed suicide or died. Sometimes the brother or the sister is wandering out there still, unreachable, uncomprehending and incomprehensible. I do think that the fear, the lack of understanding, the guilt, and the stigma that attach to these disorders deep in the wellsprings of thinking—and I suppose of our human biology—will lessen in time. I think more demands will have to be made for acceptance, for fair health practices, for money and for insurance coverage. But even in a perfect world, we will be left or have been left with the reality of unreality—the days when all the world’s language hurts too much, or when all its footsteps pass too quickly, when we are the image I used to have of my mother in my brain—of the girl at the bottom of a well I could never reach. Those will be the days when literature fills the gap, as myths have done at one time and tales of the Gods have done in another, when we will only know that our understanding is imperfect and our compassion strained. Those are the days when stories like Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, I hope, will have to suffice—(you might also try reading Yeats) because in creating a connection to ourselves, we do create a connection to that trackless chaos outside of us. And once you have that dialogue in your own imagination of who you are and who is that “other” that you may or may not be able to pull from the well, you have a dialogue. What you choose to do with it, of course, is up to you. My mother sometimes says she will write her own book. Whether she does or not, I will always love the fact that she has the courage which gave me the encouragement to write this one. This book is a testament to her courage, and that you can survive being shattered, even when you do not think that is possible. Her courage gave me this book, and I am in turn, giving it to you.
I have said before that I miss the Queen of Sheba. In some senses that is absolutely true—I miss her dramatic power, her sense of the outrageous, her daily reminder that only our fears keep us anchored to reality. What transports us is our vision. But I want to keep on missing Sheba. I don’t need to see her again—I have her here, right on the page.
AN INTERVIEW 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?