Surviving Sister: A Melody of Madness

This is a tattered photograph that I have carried around for 43 years since the age of ten. It was retrieved from a scrapbook that my grandma had in an old trunk that held my mother’s personal effects after she died in 1969. The scrapbooks were filled with the sorts of things teenaged girls and young women collect, postcards from places visited, movie and theater tickets, coupons for dancing lessons, pressed corsages, letters exchanged between friends and lovers. On the back it is signed, “Love, Carol.” I don’t know who the intended recipient was supposed to be, but it became the only tangible image of her that I possessed for thirty years.

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My aunt, my mother’s only sister, had a few photographs. They were mostly small pictures taken in their childhood years and there were only a couple that my aunt had of her sister as an adult. There were other pictures, but they were given to my older sister for safe keeping and we became estranged over the years of separation that followed Mama’s death.

In 1997, after coming to Florida and connecting with a cousin, the one who owns Cypress Cove Nudist Resort and Spa, I learned that my uncle, his father, who started the resort back in 1964, had been a photographer with the Miami Herald during the 1950s. When my Aunt Pete, his wife, died in 2000, my cousin was cleaning out boxes in their home and ran across some photographs of my mother and her sister that were taken in their teen years. There is now a vast treasure of black and white 8X10s, and smaller photos of the two sisters. I was overjoyed to be gifted this collection and shared them with my mother’s sister, who was also thrilled.

I want to ask you to take a look at two sets of these photographs that hang on my wall. You don’t know the story of these sisters, Claudette and Carol, but I would like to ask you to tell me if you see anything that hints of a story in these images.

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The images alone demonstrate the differences in these two sisters.  My mother, Carol, a ballerina and dance instructor died of suicide at the age of 26, and Aunt Claudette, a pianist and horticulturist, is 74 years old now.

Carol was a hopeless romantic and a dreamer, and Claudette was a hopeful realist and pragmatic. Carol was cosmopolitan and sophisticated. Claudette was countrified and domestic. Carol, a soprano. Claudette, an alto. Carol was open and free-spirited. Claudette was closed and restrained. As young adults, Carol was dressed in stockings and heels, and Claudette wore jeans and penny loafers.  Both were well educated and cultured in their youth, but their childhoods, teen years, and young adult lives were tumultuous. Music and dance were where they mutually sought solace.

That side of my family is riddled with mental illness and addiction.  Of all the many cousins and aunts and uncles on my maternal side of the family there are geniuses who became entrepreneurial millionaires, and there are paupers who suffered epilepsy, neurological conditions, psychiatric disturbances, multiple tragedies, became institutionalized, or died trying to overcome the obstacle that is madness.  There is a fine line between madness and genius. Mental illness and neurological disorders were cloaked in a veil of secrecy in their era and still have a degree of stigma associated with them that needs to be overcome.

Very few were able to walk the middle of the road, but the strength found in faith, time, and modern science and medicine has made a huge impact. My aunt is one of those who did, although she had severe issues with bipolar and addictions.

I had a brief adventure with drugs and alcohol between the ages of 17 & 19, but addiction was never a problem for me. I was hospitalized for an acute psychotic episode when I was 19, and have been on medications for bipolar and in therapy ever since that event. I drink socially on rare occasions but the experiences of me and my aunt have paralleled many times…either on a personal level, vicariously, or through my patients in my nursing career. My moods are relatively stable now. I am still “driven” at times and “depressed” at times, not to extremes, but such has not always been the case. I would like to tell my story someday, but not before I tell the story of the two sisters, my mother and my aunt.

When I wrote “Red Clay and Roses”, I was telling a story that was wrought with historical tragedy and the serious issues of racial tension and reproductive rights and responsibilities. I wrote passionately about events I witnessed personally or events that had been shared with me by others who had lived the experiences. I did not set out to write a novel by a specific formula or template. I documented a harsh reality. It was open and candid. I have never been one to shy away from that which is painful or shameful. A wounded society does not heal itself by looking the other way, and neither do individuals. At the same time, I tried to be as unbiased as possible and approach these unapproachable issues with sensitivity. On that level, I feel it was successful.

In addition to numerous short stories, I have three works in progress. One is a crime novel. I am about 30,000 words into it and my husband, who reads them daily, loves it. I feel that it is superficial and shallow, amusing and entertaining in its own way, but I am not certain that it carries the weight that makes me comfortable in my own writing skin. Another is a murder mystery. It is more a psycho thriller than a crime novel and I am about 15,000 words into it. I liked the beginning of it, but it doesn’t seem to be going in the direction that I planned for it. Sort of hard to explain, but it, again, doesn’t flow with the passion from the pen that I feel most comfortable with…it feels forced and I am beginning to see that in the way that it reads.  At any rate, I am not so sure that this genre of crime/murder is where I need to be right now. I don’t feel like I am in my element. Perhaps this is something that I can come back to at some future point. The final work is an autobiography of sorts that is almost unbelievable as a memoir.  It is a complex life that I have lived in foster care, an orphanage, on the street, in the islands, small town USA, the countryside, the nudist resort, and the big city. So I am not sure what to do with this either, whether to continue it or shelf it for a while.

Which brings me to questions that I need your help with. It seems to be the passion that I felt when writing “Red Clay and Roses” that I am missing.

For those of you who have read “Red Clay and Roses” (A fictionalized true story set in the 1950s-60s, but involving relatives on my father’s side of the family), you already know that Carol is mentioned twice in that story…once by Hannah in relating her memories of her mother and her mother’s death, and again by her cousin, Sybil, in relating the death by suicide of her cousin, Henry’s, wife, leaving three little girls with no mother.

If I decide to write this book, I would approach the writing process much differently, not as a fictionalized true story being told to a narrator, but as pure fiction (which is always, in part, based on some truth).

Without knowing the details, do you think the story of Claudette and Carol is one that you would find interesting? Particularly, how Claudette coped in the long run to turn her life around. I have been all over Amazon reviews this past week and there seems to be quite a market for this sort of thing as well as the era…people are saying that they are too old to enjoy the drama of Paris Hilton, and too young to relate to the 1930s and 40s, about which so much is written.  Finding and connecting with these people will be another challenge.  People my age and ten years older are beginning to retire, have the time to read, and they are dissatisfied with what is on the market.

As a family saga, beginning in the mid-fifties and moving into the mid-nineties, do you think this story would make a worthy sequel to “Red Clay and Roses”?

For those who have not read “Red Clay and Roses”, what are your thoughts about “Surviving Sister: A Melody of Madness”?

49 thoughts on “Surviving Sister: A Melody of Madness

    • I want that passion back. It is a writing feeling more than a writing practice. I spent most of last week on the phone with my aunt and cousins talking about this and they are all encouraging.

  1. Write it! I would find it fascinating and certainly want to read it. I’m writing my memoirs, which also include the bipolarity of my mother and her attempted suicide. Interestingly, I started writing a fictionalised version of the family story from the late 19th century some decades ago and must return to it. Your post is spurring me on!

    • Good for you! Keep writing. I have history books written by clinical psychologists at Central State Hospital in the 1950s, otherwise known as Milledgeville, in Milledgeville, GA, the worlds largest inpatient mental hospital, and one of the earliest in the country. It is also home of The Georgia Power Cocktail…words used by residents of the state to indicate electroshock treatments that went by the wayside in the early 60s, but are making a comeback in a milder form. Georgia Power being the name of the monopolized power company in GA. I love history and find the books fascinating in consideration that many family members did some length of time there, whether rich or poor. Mental illness and addiction know no socioeconomic class…those afflicted do find it more difficult to meet their life goals as a result.

      • Fascinating. I’m as obsessed by history as you! My mother had shock treatment in, I think, 1969 (ironic considering your mother’s sadly successful suicide in the same year). It was a year later that my mother attempted suicide. It is so sad that the stigma remains, no matter how much more knowledge and openness there is these days. You might be interested in my mother’s memoirs which I want to get back into print. There are a few secondhand/remaindered copies on Amazon still, I think. It’s called The Catch of Hands (Benedicta Leigh) and won the UK’s MIND Book of the Year award in ’92. I’m very lucky that I only suffer from depression for known causes. The cross I have to bear is physical disability!

        • Your mother”s story sounds like something I would like to read. I don’t know if I have ever known anyone with a physical disability that did not suffer from some form of depression at some time in their life, and I am a Nurse who has met many. There is often a biological component to mental illness that cannot be overlooked. It does not always come out in the phenotype, but it is present in the genotype. There are some families that have much stronger markings than others. Either way, I am a firm believer in the brain chemical medical model. Not as a purist approach to treatment, because so very much has to do with diet and environment, but as a component.

  2. It’s a fascinating story. The nudist colony, the foster homes, the music of genius, playing loudly over the softer voice of sanity. Drowning out the quiet sense of responsibility. I hope you find your passion in this story.

      • You have to do what is right for you, my friend. When the time is right. Your mother looked so joyful and full of life. Perhaps if her highs were so very high, her lows were correspondingly too low. Moderation is a thing difficult to some, and when they are in their most joyful, they have so much charm and vivacity. In their lows, nothing can seem to console them. I hope the story gives you comfort. I’m happy your Aunt found her stability.

        • You hit the nail on the head Brenda. Those were the extremes she dealt with in bipolar d.o. In the ups she was elated, joyous and free, high spirited and filled with life and energy, and in the downs of despair there was no consoling. Also, in the downs, she was affected by delusions of persecution and religiosity, and paranoia. A sad way to try to exist.

          • That is tough. I’m sure she tried her hardest. It must have been so confusing in the lows for her. She was so young, and the world didn’t understand her illness then. Even now, you really have to have lived through it with someone to really understand.

            • That is so very true. They had just come out with some experimental drugs when she was first diagnosed, were clueless about safe and effective dosages, and those are what she used to kill herself with…so sad. There were many that were saying it was accidental, I have since seen evidence to the contrary…which I will bring up in the book.

              • Life on a roller coaster never under your own control would be incredibly hard. Even in the good times, she must have begun to fear the dark times. And I bet the doctors treated her with a lack of real understanding. I lost my mom at 4. We were hit head on by a drunk driver on a dark, rainy night. We had just left church. A tragedy of another kind. Another unkind.

                • A most unkind. So very sorry for your loss. That is a sense of emptiness that is never quite filled up again. I believe it is a most difficult thing to lose a parent or a child regardless of the age. My younger sister was three when my mother died and I was eight. She has no memory of our mother and there is some resentment there. I feel for her and pray she finds her peace.

                  • I am blessed with a long memory. I have happy memories from ages two and three. I remember being loved and treasured. Belonging. That is something you need in your formative years. I pray your sister finds her peace, too.

  3. Tell the story. A good read never goes out of fashion. Sounds to me this one is cooking and itching to come out. Go ahead. No one can tell your story like you can and that make you, YOU. 🙂

    Happy New Year to you and yours.

  4. I think it’s a great idea. There is a lot of interest in stories that delve into mental health issues. As you mentioned, it is still taboo to talk about such things. From our talks, I do think it’s a topic that you’d be passionate about and you would craft an amazing story out of it. This goes for both ‘Surviving Sister’ and the ‘unbelievable memoir’.

    • Thank you for saying so Charles. The passion does seem to be the missing ingredient in my current writing. After speaking with relatives this past week, I have a good handle on the direction I would take the Surviving Sister…not sure just what to do with the unbelieveable memoir just yet..lol…there is so much out of the ordinary that people would find it difficult to believe one person could live such a life…like my psychiatrist once said…statistically speaking…I should be dead.

  5. Comparison / contrast stories as a vehicle for unlocking the riddle of family mysteries may be the Next Big Thing, SK. I would read it.
    You are fortunate to have such dramatic snapshots. The pictures and portrayal are perfect–great post!

    • Thank you Marian. I have an 8X10 of my aunt as a young woman with her head resting on a piano that has no keys…there is a long stem rose laying beside her face. I also have several dance shots of my mother in an ankle length gauzy ballet dress. I am thinking a superimposed image of my mother in her outfit in a graceful dance pose (sort of ghostly-like) above my aunt’s head might make a good cover image for this book.

  6. It sounds like a great idea and a great story. It seems like you are getting a lot of encouragement, but the important thing is you want to write it. The wonderful part about fictionalizing the story of your family is that you can invent what you don’t know, or change incidents, as long as they are historically accurate and true to the characters. Follow your passion! New Year; new project! 🙂

  7. Maybe this has already been said, but I wonder if you’re just more comfortable writing in that same “faction” style as Red Clay and Roses. Also, you have a treasure trove of material (fodder) in your own family; you don’t need to make anything up. Yes, if you tell the story of your mom and her sister, you will probably have to do some fictionalizing as you did for Red Clay and Roses. In looking at those photographs, I wanted to know what was going on in the minds of the two young women at those points in time. The fact that they are sisters makes the story even more compelling. Follow your passion. Writing shouldn’t be a drudge. It can be hard, painful, frightening, but it should never be a drudge.

    • Thanks Marie. I do write best in “stream of consciousness style” and I have not been doing that with the writing that I have attempted this past year. The “faction” style is really nothing more than inspired fiction, which is, pretty much what everyone else is doing. I do; however, as you have noted, have a brain filled with fodder from family stories and those of my patients. I would like to take the inspiration in the story of Carol and Claudette and set out with a novel template to accomplish a fiction novel. A great deal of Red Clay and Roses was made up…not the storyline…that was the true story, but the details were pure fiction. Hannah, Beatrice, Moses, the Good Doctor, Althea, Eula Mae, Nathan, Sybil, and Trent (all by other names except Sybil) were all real people…characters in a real world with a real story (except the ending, which I felt needed to be more satisfying than how it ended in real life) that needed to be told…but that story was creatively constructed. With Melody of Madness, I have the inspiration of two very different sisters. A maternal family history of mental illness that goes back generations and then extends into the future from the point that Carol and Claudette are when the story would begin. What I write will be pure fiction, a fictional world inspired by people and events, but creatively constructed to tell the story of mental illness/substance abuse, how it its treatment has evolved, what has been effective and not effective in these character’s lives. I don’t know if you are familiar with Central State Hospital, Milledgeville..but it was once the world’s largest inpatient facility…it was also one of the first in the nation started in 1834. It is located in Central GA and will most certainly play a role. I do love history and write best when I am feeling motivated by something deeper than mere entertainment. We will see how this goes. Already I have a cast of characters and events gelled in my mind and this has happened much faster than anything I have started writing this past year. Have a Happy New Year and thanks for stopping by. I value the feedback and the opportunity to mull it over 🙂

  8. Hi, and Happy New Year to you. I think the photos and the brief story about the two sisters you mentioned earlier are completely fascinating. Already I want to know more about them. I also love the tie-in with Red Clay and Roses. You really do need that passion to keep you going through all the silly obstacles that crop up in the daily life of a writer, so, personally, I would go for this story and let everything else rest or ‘prove’ (I like the baking term) for a while. You can always go back to them later. I’ve written some faction stuff myself – I find the most difficult thing can be to get away from the facts when the fictional core of the story demands it, but it’s well worth the effort. I wish you all the best with the project.

    • Thank you for the well wishes and the feedback. With RC & R the facts tied in well and were easily woven because society in general during that era was becoming more politically involved, so the facts did not bog down the story, but were nicely assimilated into it primarily because one character was so involved in Civil Rights. This will be much different. Politics was not such a hot topic in this circle of characters.

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