BOOKS & THE CULTURE Crossing the Gate Two Family Memoirs of the Journey into Madness BY LARS EIGHNER MY MOTHER’S KEEPER: A Daughter’s Membir of Growing Up in the Shadow of Schizophrenia. By Tara Elgin Holley with Joe Holley. Morrow. 288 pages. $23.00. OEDIPUS ROAD: Searching For A Father ,in A Mother’s Fading Memory. By Tom Dodge. TCU Press. Iremembered when the state highway through Austin passed by the state hospital,” writes Joe Holley \(a former editor of the Observer, logue to My Mother’s Keeper, “the insane asylum we called it. As children…my brothers and I would peer through the tall iron gate as we drove by. We were hoping to see a crazy person, a lunatic, gripping the barred windows and shrieking to get out.” Urban sprawl has since swallowed the Austin State Hospital. All that remains of the state highway are a few vestigial business-route markers, and the little boys viewing the gate from passing cars are likely to be on their way to Central Park, a trendy shopping center on a part of the hospital grounds ceded to commerce. The iron gate stays propped open. In the fall, late at night, fraternity pledges race their cars through the narrow lanes on the hospital grounds. They fly over the speed bumps like children dared by a bully to run up on the porch of a haunted house. Not much has changed, because the real gate is not the one of iron, but is of a stronger, more enduring alloy of ignorance and superstition. A few of us get through that gate: friends and relatives, volunteers, mental health workersand some of us get through it as patients. Those who have been through the Tara Elgin Holley and her mother, Dawn Elgin gate learn to overcome the false fears. We are disabused of the myths of wild-eyed psychos, paranoid murderers, and multiple personalities split twelve ways. Both My Mother’s Keeper and Oedipus Road are about people who have been through the gateat least metaphoricallyas children of mentally ill persons. These both are, by any account, serious and important books, but I want to emphasize that My Mother’s Keeper could hardly be a better read. If it were a novel, it would be the best Texas novel I had read. Taken as bits of Houston and Austin history, it is just as good. Whether she walks through the ’50s with her aunt \(one of Houston’s magwalks down Austin’s Drag in the early ’70s, Tara Holley’s acute observations are often presented in slight, trenchant anecdotes that characterize without caricature. Neither book contributes to the stack of serious and important books that are too dull for anyone to get through. Joe Holley Neither book is about a mentally ill person. Tara Holley’s mother, Dawn Elgin, is diagnosed with schizophrenia, and Tom Dodge’s mother Juanita has Alzheimer’s disease, but the books are not about the mothers. They are about the children, about the authors. Many differences between the booksthe differences between Tara Holley’s experiences of her mother and Tom Dodge’s experience of his motherrepresent real differences in the diseases. Schizophrenia is, overwhelmingly, a disease that becomes apparent in late adolescence or early adulthood. Dawn Elgin became ill near the time Tara Holley was born. Holley has never known a time when her mother was well. Schizophrenia , eats identity. Holley can hear stories about what Elgin was like as a child or a teenager. That is not the same thing as knowing what kind of adult Elgin might have become. Some authorities describe schizophrenia as a process. Often after twenty or thirty years, the process has run its course and de MARCH 28, 1997 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21
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