Authors & Events
Oct 01, 1998
| ISBN 9780140276848
Jul 05, 2000
| 360 Minutes
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Oct 01, 1998 | ISBN 9780140276848
Jul 05, 2000 | ISBN 9780553751451
As an adult, National Public Radio foreign correspondent Jacki Lyden has spent her life on the front lines of some of the world’s most dangerous war zones. As a child, she lived in a war zone of a different kind. Her mother, Dolores, suffered from what is now called manic depression; but when Jacki was growing up in a small Midwestern town, Dolores was simply called crazy. In her manic phases, Dolores became Marie Antoinette or the Queen of Sheba, exotically delusional and frightening, yet to young Jacki also transcendent, even inspiring. In time, Jacki grew to accept, even relish, Dolores’s bizarre episodes, marveling at her mother’s creative energy and using it to fuel her own. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and lyrical, this memoir of a mother-daughter relationship is a testimony to obstinate devotion in the face of bewildering illness.
Jacki Lyden is a correspondent and host for NPR. Formerly of Weekend Edition and All Things Considered, she now hosts The Seams, a podcast and NPR series about fashion, anthropology, and culture. She lives in Washington, DC.
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.
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