Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Book Review -- Same Cup, Different Tastes

Swallow the OceanSwallow the Ocean by Laura M. Flynn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Set in 1970s San Francisco, Swallow the Ocean is the true story of what it’s like to experience a mother’s schizophrenia from the perspective of a child confined by the insanity. It’s not a story I sought because of the author’s first-hand perspective of mental disintegration, I read it for the setting.

I grew up in San Francisco and during high school lived about two blocks from the author, although I’m older than she and don’t recall ever meeting her, but perhaps my younger siblings did. What I was looking for in Laura Flynn’s memoir was engagement with the city, with the world outside the home and family, not about coping with a closed life, captive to another's illness.

Since I’m considering writing a memoir that will spring from the same turf, I wanted to see how another writer handled the larger context of growing up in San Francisco in the 70s. That is not what Swallow the Ocean is about. It's not the experience I would relate in a memoir of my own because I was not similarly closeted.

What strikes me in Flynn’s story is how we cannot really know what’s going on behind our neighbors' front doors. In our case it was mental and physical abuse. I was usually able to escape it by leaving and joining in activities--walking, dance, horseback riding, swimming, surfing, clubs and such, but often the little kids weren’t so lucky. We grew up under the constant threat of violence. My refuge was the streets of San Francisco. 

A reviewer of Swallow the Ocean said, “Most of all, this stunning memoir is a tribute to the ingenuity of children in the face of catastrophic events.” I suppose that’s true of Flynn’s three-year experience of her mother unraveling. But, in the same place, during roughly the same time period, I guess I used a different type of ingenuity to survive.

For me, Swallow the Ocean was hermetic -- closed, a world collapsing in on itself. The positive outcome – her father gaining custody of the girls and going to live with him and a loving step-mother – seems like a happy ending compared to my experience. The setting, the city, seemed to fade away in Flynn's memoir and with it my interest in the story.

What touched me in her story is the heartbreak of her mother's later years, dealing with a broken ghost that once was her mother, once vibrant and engaged in the world around her. In the end she was no longer able to connect with the world and her loving, accomplished daughters. I felt Flynn's quiet agony. 

Laura Flynn is a good writer and her experience is told with honesty. It's hoped she will continue to write and bring us memories and stories we can ponder and enjoy. Swallow the Ocean is thought-provoking and sad, but inspiring in that Flynn and her sisters survived such a profound loss.

This memoir brings added meaning to Mother's Day.

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