Wicked Cool Overlooked Books #3:
A co-review of Hillbilly Gothic: A Memoir of
Madness and Motherhood
by Adrienne Martini

h1 August 6th, 2007 by Eisha and Jules

It’s the first Monday of the month, and that means we get to highlight what we think is a Wicked Cool Overlooked Book. Colleen at Chasing Ray will probably have a round-up of other WCOB titles today, so — if interested — head over there.

How about we open this co-review (and, yes, brace yourselves: it’s actually a nonfiction title we have read here, people) with another review? ‘Cause, you see, we like this review and think it pretty much hits on the book’s good points. The book of which we speak is Adrienne Martini’s Hillbilly Gothic: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood (Simon & Schuster: Free Press; 2006; library copies), and in the interest of full disclosure, Adrienne is a friend of Eisha’s. And Jules also met her once through Eisha (and has corresponded with her just a wee bit since then). But, if you’ve ever read our review copy policy, you’ll know that we only review books we want to review and that we don’t just do favors for friends. Okay, so we got that out of the way. Onward and upwards then . . .

So, back to what I was saying: Since we usually like to begin co-reviews with a brief summary of the book, here is Publishers Weekly’s review of Adrienne’s book, which we feel succinctly summarizes what you’re getting when you read it (and, as we already mentioned, pretty much nails all the things we liked about the book):

Martini, a journalist and college professor, summons her blackest comedic chops to rehash her free-fall into postpartum depression—and the newfound understanding of her own upbringing that buoys her back up. Still mired in the oppressive Appalachia that chafed at her in childhood, she checks herself into the Knoxville psychiatric hospital shortly after giving birth, acquiescing to the “hillbilly Gothic patchwork” of suicides and manic-depression that scourge her family history. As her newborn daughter battles jaundice, her mother hovers intrusively as she awaits the mystical ability to breast-feed; Martini ponders her maternal fitness with a panicked despair nimbly rendered with dry humor and candid self-appraisal. Her misery, so jarringly at odds with the “bundle of joy” in her arms, throws open a window on her own mother’s severe depression, helping Martini to make peace with her family and its legacies. Unflinching honesty, mordant wit and verbal flair (she comes apart “like a wet tissue” after giving birth) save this memoir from soggy self-pity. In its humor and empathy, it’s a nonjudgmental resource for the thousands of mothers battling the “baby blues.”

Jules: I’m going to give Eisha the honor of launching into our commentary on this memoir, since she was the one who told me about it and since she finished it before I did. I will quickly say, though, that — although I think this Publishers Weekly review nails the book — there is a distinct difference between your average, run-of-the-mill “baby blues” and what Adrienne experienced. The reticence surrounding postpartum depression is what makes people make uninformed comments like the last one in this review. Okay. There. I said that. Don’t want to diminish Adrienne’s soul-wrenching experience by letting that sentence in the review go unnoticed before we’ve even said what we thought about the book here . . . Okay, hit it, E-dawg.

eisha:  Yo, yo, yo, MC-E in da hiz-ouse!

Sorry, I really can’t pull that off, even in print.

Anyway, yes, I have known Adrienne for several years – our husbands were both TDs and scenic/lighting designers in Knoxville, TN when we lived there, and Adrienne wrote theatre reviews for the Metro Pulse while I was still acting occasionally, so our paths crossed pretty often.  We bonded over being “theatre widows” while our husbands were deep in tech rehearsals that lasted 18 hours; and over having both bought cute old fixer-upper houses in nearby neighborhoods, in the mistaken belief that our handy husbands would actually be around to fix them up.  And my husband painted a fairy-and-flower mural on the ceiling of their daughter’s nursery.

So, yes, I knew that Adrienne had suffered from postpartum depression.  I talked to her about it not too long after she left the hospital.  And I read her article in the Metro Pulse about it.  I knew the book was coming out long before it actually did.  But even so, I was not prepared for the emotional sucker-punch it turned out to be.  Postpartum depression is just a horrible thing for any woman to have to go through, so I imagine any memoir about it would be hard to read.  But knowing the person that had written it made it a devastating experience for me.

The problem is that Adrienne has a real talent with apt, original turns-of-phrase that just nail a situation or a person or an emotion so that you’re right there with her.  At least, that’s my impression.  But maybe I’m not being objective – like I said, knowing the person maybe makes me more sensitive here.  What did you think?

Jules: Oh, I agree whole-heartedly. I’m sure it was more difficult for you to read, since you’re friends, but, yes, she has that ability to really take you there.

What I really loved about this book is how she wrote with such candor about all the issues surrounding new motherhood. I’ll try not to head deep into Motherese here, but you know how I feel about how this subject (early motherhood, that is) is simplified, how it isn’t discussed enough in a more honest manner (even when you don’t have postpartum depression); I’ve posted about it before. I was nodding my head at the part in which she was telling her boss that she was pregnant and he asks her if she’ll be returning to work after the birth (“The idea of staying home with the tot lacks appeal, but I don’t tell anyone this. For my generation, who were weaned on Susan Faludi and Bust magazine, it’s hard to know how one should do the mom thing. There is only one rule anymore, which is that you will be shunned in any given circle no matter what you choose to do. Some of my friends would be appalled that I don’t want to breast-feed for five years and homeschool. Others would be pissed that I didn’t immediately go from delivery room to conference room”); I was nodding when she discussed the fact that mothers today exist at two poles (“Either you are warm and nurturing or cold and toxic. There is no in-between. You are either the Madonna or Andrea Yates”) and how it’s so frightening to feel even slightly unbalanced when society expects you to be at your most joyful; and I was nodding when she discussed how, of course, the Madonna is who you’re supposed to be, this being what makes it so difficult for contemporary mothers to speak in a truly honest fashion about the stresses of motherhood (“Here’s the one person in society who is looked on as pure and loving and she turns out to be just as human as everyone else, subject to the same perversions we all are. It’s subversive and un-American. Next we’ll find out that baseball players cheat and that apple pie is actually French. Mothers who go mad are a terrifying paradigm shift, on the order of priests who fondle young boys. Sweeping it all under the rug is less terrifying than looking the reality in the face, because this face seriously messes with our worldview”).

Now, with that last excerpt from her book there, she is discussing mental illness. But I dare say that mothers today who don’t walk around with their babies in slings on them 24/7, who aren’t constantly making crafts involving pipe cleaners with their kids, who don’t breastfeed them, and who speak in an honest fashion about the strains of early motherhood are seen almost the same way. It’s unfortunate. As Andrea Buchanan has pointed out, we do not encourage mothers to discuss the isolating and darker side of mothering — the insecurities and confusion and fear and ambivalence we sometimes feel along with the elation and joy and beauty of it all. If a mother attempts to do this, she is seen as ungrateful, unhappy, or even unhinged (though we can talk about work or marriages or just about any other topic this way). So, even though Adrienne is writing about how her depression became severe enough to send her to a psych ward (therefore, making this book a great read, I would think, for other mothers who have experienced that), I think she still does wonders towards helping mothers who do not even have postpartum depression take steps in speaking about early motherhood a bit more honestly, especially with passages like this:

Deep down, I think this whole thing was triggered by the dark fear that I’ll be a crappy mom. I honestly don’t know how I can escape that . . . I just want to do the whole parenting thing right –- and I know there is no such thing, really. But I feel I should at least give it the best shot. I got a little lost in it, though.

Part of the problem is that I’m not really sure if I love you yet. I mean, I love the idea of you and the you you will become, but right now you’re just a crying, pooping ball of need that threw my life out of control. The irregularity of you -– you have your own arcane inner schedule that neither of us has been able to decode -– can be a little tricky to accept on a daily basis. You seem alien at times, speaking a language and living in a world we can’t see or comprehend. And at 4 a.m., you feel that much more foreign to me and I wonder how I could understand so little about something that used to be a part of me. I feel inferior and inept at something I should be a natural at. The whole pregnancy and birth thing is by far the hardest thing I’ve done . . .

And later when she writes about missing her old life, not being able to do whatever she wanted with her husband anymore (whenever she wanted to do it), even if it meant staring at the televison . . . and when she writes about how she “can’t sit and stare lovingly into her eyes the whole time she sucks on a bottle because the boredom makes me profoundly antsy. I can’t seem to set up a bedtime routine because I’m just too tired. I don’t know that I can give her all of the sensory input she needs because I don’t have flash cards or know many baby songs . . .” Well, it’s comments like those that get shunned by other mothers, even though — as Sheila Kitzinger once put it so well — when a woman becomes a mother, she is “pulled away from a world of choices, plans and schedules, where time is kept, spaces cleared, commitments made, and goals attained . . .” What Kitzinger goes on to say is that what we are pulled toward is “the warm chaos of love, confusion, longing, anger, self-surrender and intense pleasure that motherhood entails” to which I say, word. But why can’t we talk about that darkness (Kitzinger says a new mother must lose herself in this darkness) without getting funny looks? It sounds hopelessly corny to say, but Adrienne’s book is an inspiration in that she talks about this honestly and with great compassion (and humor). And she does so fearlessly, too.

And I love how, at its core, the book is hopeful, too. But I’ll get to that later, ’cause I really wrote a lot there. Sorry.

Here’s a question for you, E: How mad did you get when she was talking about arriving at the psych ward and one of the female doctors told her she was “just too smart for {her} own good” when she said she wasn’t sure if she believed in God? And then the doc implied that was the reason she was there. And then she told her to run a comb through her hair. Saddest of all was that, at that point, Adrienne — who normally is quite the saucy, spunky one — thought, “I deserve to be lectured on my failings.”

eisha: Really, really mad. I mean, obviously that woman was inappropriate and had no right to speak to any patient that way, much less one who had JUST BEEN ADMITTED TO A PSYCH WARD FOR DEPRESSION. But aside from that, it makes me mad because that’s why so many depression cases go untreated – because there is still such a stigma about mental illness, and a perception that depression is something that people should be able to just shake off. That victims of depression are just weak, or overreacting, or lazy, or just need to make a little more effort… And that perception is held by the people who suffer from depression just as much as anyone else, and that’s why so many don’t try to seek treatment, or even realize that they can be treated.

That’s why I really admire Adrienne for writing this book. The more people are willing to talk about their own experiences with depression (post-partum and otherwise) the more they do to dispell those mistaken assumptions about the disease, and the more readers like us can learn about what depression really means.

That’s all I’ve got to say about it. How ’bout you?

Jules: Eisha, I feel like I’ve hogged this conversation. You know I love the motherhood-topic. Anyway, good points all. I will close with one of my favorite parts of the book, since I mentioned earlier that I like how the book, at its core, is hopeful. I love this, since I think a lot of mothers today make themselves terribly anxious with the drive toward perfection: “I can be perfect and completely insane or good enough and sane enough. I choose the latter – but it is always a choice. I have options, but this is the best way for me to be right now.” I love that. Ariel Gore writes about that in Mother Trip — that doing our best (not being the perfect mother) is all we have to do.

It was fun talkin’ books with you again, Eisha. I’ll close by saying that if Adrienne, by chance, writes more on the topic of motherhood, I’ll be first in line to read it.

Until next time . . .

12 comments to “Wicked Cool Overlooked Books #3:
A co-review of Hillbilly Gothic: A Memoir of
Madness and Motherhood
by Adrienne Martini”

  1. Thank you for an excellent review. This is going on my TBR list! The stigma on mental illness makes me angrier than just about anything else does.

  2. My ears always perk up when I hear/read the name “Adrienne,” you know, but this book sounds fascinating — although I always feel sort of badly that people have to live through these things in order for me to have something interesting to read, you know? It reminds me of a writing workshop in which we got into a discussion about mental illness/instability and writers, the whole idea that without the issues, we wouldn’t necessarily have the literature, that the troubles are part of what makes a person write. It’s brave of Adrienne to share her story in a way that sounds so honest. I’d like to read this one: thanks for telling us about it!

  3. Adrienne, Adrienne sometimes visits our blog, and I always have to double-check which one of you is talking (though you tend to visit more often). I once read a comment she left here at 7-Imp and thought for days that you had said it. And it’s a good thing I checked, ’cause it involves one day sending her something and I might have sent it to you instead (though it’s kick-ass children’s music, so I guess you and Lucas and Max would have enjoyed it anyway!).

  4. I only very rarely run into other women with my name — seriously, like, maybe five or six times in my life (“Adrian,” as in a boy, is a completely different story — tons of those) — so it always seems really weird, like I’m meeting my doppelganger or something.

  5. Actually, I visit every day. I’m just not so good with the comments. And I hear ya, Adrienne. Sometimes you’ll leave a comment and I’ll wonder if I wrote it and then just forgot that I had done it. Weird, eh?

  6. When I glanced at the comments, I was like, “Why did I leave two comments in a row? I don’t remember doing that.” Then I realized the second one was you. We have a lower case/upper case “A” thing going, so maybe that’s how people can tell us apart.

  7. What’s funny is that one of you lives in Oneonta, the other in Rochester. So if i drive for about 2 hours in one direction, I could hang out with one Adrienne. And if I go 2 hours in the other direction, I could hang out with the other Adrienne.

    Well, maybe that’s just funny to me.

  8. I’m hearing Twilight Zone music.

    My dad was in Ithaca yesterday, btw. He’s one of those guys who drives about in a truck fixing things, and even though he lives up here (Syracuse now, since he moved out of my basement a few months back), Ithaca’s in his service area. Anyway, when he told me, I was all, “Oh, I have a friend who lives there.” And he was all, “I like this town. It’s pretty.”

  9. It is so totally pretty! Next time he comes to town, tell him to, um… continually honk “shave and a haircut” as he drives around so I can recognize him and wave at him.

  10. Wait for it…

    My husband is from the ROC. He grew up in Rush-Henrietta. His dad taught at Penfield elementary and his mom is a nurse at Highland.

    Nee-na-nee-na *my lame version of the Twilight Zone theme*

    And apropos of little, Rod Serling was from Binghamton.

  11. Did I know Scott was from Rochester? Now this is getting freaky.

    I did know about Rod Serling – he taught at IC, where my husband just got a job, and their library has his archival collection. Which makes me want to work there really bad.

  12. Maybe The Cult of Adrienne is like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon: we all connect up somehow. 😉

    Rod Serling rocks. Well, rocked. His stuff still rocks in the present tense, but he, himself, is going to have to rock in the past.

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