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  • June 16th, 2008 | 8:21 AM
Who's Hugging the Rock?

It's always hard for me (and perhaps for many authors) to talk about myself and my books. Sometimes I fear people will think I am putting more credence in my words (or self) than I should. Other times I perhaps don't value myself or my words enough. Sometimes it's just hard to toot your own horn. Which means it is especially nice when someone comes along who understands where a story might have sprung from or who looks at a story I have written in a completely different way and makes me wonder if that was what I meant all along.

I'll tell you right now that this is a long post but one I think is worth the time it will take you to read it. 

Over the period of writing Hugging the Rock I was asked (and asked myself) what this story was really all about. I started off thinking it was about my daughter and her father. I ended thinking it was about me and never knowing my father. But now, several years after the book has been out, Erica Harrington makes me wonder more about the mother in the story.

I have never met Erica but she won my heart by the kindness that she shows to my son Ryan. They both volunteer at the Loma Vista Life Skills class for adults with disabilities. When Erica told Ryan she was working on a children's book project for school he put her in touch with me so I could offer whatever helpful tips I might have to share. It was fun to see her excitement as her own book took shape. Toward the end of the school year Erica sent me a paper she had written. A paper she had written on MY BOOK. 

This was a first for me and I confess, I was a little bit nervous about opening it the first time. What would I say if it I didn't like it? Luckily, that was not a problem. Instead I was blown away by her thoughts on the book. I also wanted to give her a hug of my own.

Today is Erica's birthday, so it seemed like the perfect time to share this. Happy birthday, Erica! May you continue to touch the lives of many with your kind heart.

With Erica's permission, her is her entire paper on my middle grade verse novel, Hugging the Rock.

                                               Who's Hugging the Rock
                                                       by Erica Harrington

In Hugging the Rock, Susan Taylor Brown tells the poignant story of a young girl abandoned by her bipolar mother, her painful attempts to adapt to life without her, and her eventual bonding with her father as they create a new life for themselves. Written in achingly touching free verse in the daughter’s voice, the story will undoubtedly lead most readers to identify with the abandoned daughter, Rachel, and to feel sympathetic toward her clueless but well-meaning father as he tries to make it up to her. Having survived an abusive childhood, I very often identify with the child victim because of the many injustices she must endure at the hands of an unstable parent.  However, Susan Taylor Brown so brilliantly sheds light on the frightening truths of being bipolar, un-medicated, and in the throes of uncontrolled episodes of manic depression that I cannot help but see the unfairness and cruelty of this gripping story through the eyes of the absent mother. While no one would deny the innocent young girl’s suffering in this horrendous situation not of her own making, I would argue that the first victim here is Rachel’s mother. 

Rachel’s anguish is evident throughout the story. From the first it is obvious that Rachel is confused and distraught that her mother is packing to leave “with all the things that matter most” (2)—not Rachel: “…By the time she’s done / there’s no room left for anything else. / No room left for Dad. / And no room left for me” (3). It’s clear that Rachel knows her mother’s leaving makes no sense, but that doesn’t lessen the pain, and neither does her father’s explanation: “The hurt / settles in my heart / like one of those giant rocks you tie to something / when you want it to sink / and I feel like I am drowning / in the truth / of his words” (132). Her father’s pain, guilt, and bumbling attempts to bond with her are also apparent. In telling her the whole truth about her mom, Rachel’s father admits, “I felt like a failure” (131), and goes on to say, “…when I couldn’t give you the mom you deserved / I just stopped trying” (131). Their relationship begins to mend and rebuild when she lets him squeeze her hand and tell her lovingly, “…I wanted you then / and I want you now” (132). Both Rachel and her father are sympathetic victims in this situation. But what about the mother?

It’s easy to blame any mother who would abandon her child—she must be selfish or irresponsible or weak—because there is a far greater level of expectation than for fathers, a demand to be perfectly and instinctively maternal. The prototypical fairytale mother is either all-knowing and kind, or completely unfeeling and villainous. But what if your instincts are all wrong, not suited to this responsibility? What if you cannot do what society expects? It is Rachel’s mother who is truly a victim: of her disease, of society’s expectations of women, of society’s ignorance about mental illness, and of her husband’s selfish desire for a child, thinking that he could fix her by tying her down to what for her is a monstrous, impossible responsibility.

Rachel’s father admits his wife did not want a baby. She knew herself well enough to know she couldn’t handle it, but he pressured her anyway, knowing her history of serious instability. Rachel’s dad tells her “…how Mom said she wasn’t cut out to be a mother / and how he said she could learn / and how they fought about it until Mom gave in” (130). Some victory.

There is ample proof Rachel’s mother was unable to handle the responsibility of raising a child because of her unmedicated and uncontrolled manic episodes, both before and after Rachel’s birth.  The risks she took while Rachel was in her care are frightening: “My mom liked to drive fast / especially around corners / where she could jerk the steering wheel so hard / …and she’d take one hand off the steering wheel / …laughing so loud that I had to laugh too” (86). When in a manic state, there is a feeling of invincibility that a person experiences, and this euphoria can be dangerous because of the risks a manic person is willing to take without regard for those around them. Surely Rachel’s father knew this.

Who is the real villain here, if there is one? If Rachel's father knew his wife was "all mixed up inside" (129), to put it mildly, how could he knowingly pressure her into becoming a mother when she was so dependent on him to be her rock? He took advantage of this for his own selfish needs, admitting to Rachel, "…I needed to be needed" (129), and yet he didn't support her the way she needed him to. He prevailed on her to have a baby, making a promise he had no right to make—"he tells me / how he promised her / that she could leave whenever she wanted…" (130)—putting her in an untenable situation and using guilt and Rachel as a pawn in his attempt to keep her from leaving. How is this fair to Rachel, to know that her mother could not be what she was expected to be, and that her father had brought her into this unstable life to fill his own personal void? Did he even consider the impact it would have on Rachel's mother, let alone the impact it would have on Rachel herself?

Hugging the Rock
brings out my deepest, most personal fears of becoming a mother and living my life the way Rachel’s mother does—a frightening, never-ending, manic swing of instability, inconsistency and absentminded, uncaring parenting. I feel as though bringing a child into the world when one cannot manage herself is the most irresponsible a person can be when diagnosed with a mental illness. Rachel’s mother did not want to take on that responsibility, she was pressured into it. I would argue, therefore, that it was the healthiest thing for Rachel’s mother to do to leave her daughter with her father because it shows, on some level, that she realizes she cannot fulfill the role of wife and mother forced on her by her husband, on whom she was dependent. The way Rachel’s mother behaves and the way her absence affects Rachel is my greatest fear as a woman with Bipolar Disorder—I do not want to have children for fear of allowing my life and personal relationships to fall in shambles. Susan Taylor Brown’s story of an abandoned girl is an anthem to the power of a father-daughter relationship, yet speaks just as loudly, if not more so, to the tragedy of an abandoned woman, forced to battle her mental illness on her own.

Thank you, Erica.

Thank you for reading my book with such an open heart and mind. Thank you for responding to my story with a full heart. And thank you for letting me share your paper with the rest of the world.
impressed
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.



Comments

( 23 comments — Leave comment )
azang
June 16th, 2008 04:43 pm (UTC)
That was honest, brave and nicely done!
susanwrites
June 17th, 2008 04:45 am (UTC)
Wasn't it just? I was so touched.
jeannineatkins
June 16th, 2008 05:58 pm (UTC)
How, cool, Susan, to have your book written about with such careful thought. And how great, Erica, for doing that!
susanwrites
June 17th, 2008 04:52 am (UTC)
It was a first for me and I was honored that she chose to write about my book.
idaho_laurie
June 16th, 2008 06:34 pm (UTC)
Goes to show how rich your story is! I found out yesterday that the preteen girl I gave HUGGING to a few weeks ago was so moved/inspired by it that she has started writing poems of her own. (She has a father with a history of mental illness.) Thank you, Susan!
susanwrites
June 17th, 2008 04:47 am (UTC)
Thank you for sharing that. I don't hear about my book making a difference very often so it is still like winning the lottery to me - to think that something I wrote could have touched/helped someone else.
lizzybee999
June 16th, 2008 06:40 pm (UTC)
What a wonderful essay! It truly reminds us how much the reader brings to the equation, and why it is such a good thing to discuss what we read, and share our opinions. Illuminating!

PS to Erica: I think those who worry most about not being 'good enough' parents actually make THE BEST parents. Just another reader's opinion...can't wait to read your fiction, if this is an example of your non-fiction!
susanwrites
June 17th, 2008 04:51 am (UTC)
This reading thing, it really IS a partnership.
boreal_owl
June 16th, 2008 07:08 pm (UTC)
Erica's essay is thoughtful and well written. You can feel good that your characters are three-dimensional and jump off the page.

Brava to both of you!
susanwrites
June 17th, 2008 04:48 am (UTC)
Thank you/
beckylevine
June 16th, 2008 07:41 pm (UTC)
Wow. When I was in college, I took a "theory"-type class that stated a book is a creation not just of the writer, but of the writer AND each reader, so that it is a different story every time it is read. I think Erica may have just added some concrete proof to this story. What an amazing analysis and how wonderful of both of you to share it with us.
susanwrites
June 17th, 2008 04:50 am (UTC)
I was just blown away. Someone said something once about how a book is never really finished until it is read. I think the way it is read makes a difference too.
janni
June 16th, 2008 08:06 pm (UTC)
Wow. Fascinating stuff, there.
susanwrites
June 17th, 2008 04:53 am (UTC)
Makes one think, doesn't it?
(Deleted comment)
susanwrites
June 17th, 2008 04:53 am (UTC)
I never cease to be amazed at what someone else sees in my stories. And I love that they see things that I didn't (at least consciously) see myself.
onegrapeshy
June 17th, 2008 05:18 am (UTC)
Perfect. Because you wrote an absolutely beautiful, beautiful story! I just finished it this weekend. Thank you!!!
susanwrites
June 17th, 2008 01:28 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much! Words of praise mean a lot coming from you, the author of a book that I very much admire.
(Deleted comment)
(Anonymous)
June 18th, 2008 06:57 am (UTC)
From Erica Harrington

Dear Laura and Susan, and everyone who commented,

I can't tell you all how much it means to me to see my work so widely commented upon. I do very much appreciate, Ms. Salas, your point of view. As I look back at my paper, which after writing, I'd been so afraid to share with Susan because of how wonderful a writer she is, I will give you that perhaps Rachel's father is not the villain. But in defense of my argument, doesn't his misguided attempt to want for a "normal" family still make him in many ways responsible for the way in which Rachel's mom was unable to cope with life and marriage and her baby?
(Deleted comment)
(Anonymous)
June 21st, 2008 05:27 pm (UTC)
Re: From Erica Harrington
Ah! Desperation. You hit the nail on the head. I totally see it now. thank you for your dialog with me, I feel as though I have found a world of marvelous writers and I'm going to start a livejournal just to keep up with it all. this writing feedback thing is really really fun and inspiring and helpful! i hope you would friend me once i'm up and running. looking forward to more collaboration and discussion with you, most sincerely, Erica
liz_scanlon
June 17th, 2008 11:25 pm (UTC)
Wow. If that's not the whole point of why you do what you do...
The magic alchemy between each and every reader and her book.
Thanks for sharing this, Susan.
susanwrites
June 18th, 2008 03:00 pm (UTC)
You're very welcome.

It really gave me an over-the-top warm fuzzy feeling. :)
slatts
June 24th, 2008 12:12 pm (UTC)
I finally...
...got around to reading this and I'm glad I did. VERY powerful! Just goes to show there can always be another way to view something especially when that's your way of seeing everything.
( 23 comments — Leave comment )
WHO AM I?



Who am I?I was born on the Cancer/Leo cusp and share a birthday with Ernest Hemingway and Robin Williams. The similarities don't stop there as I can go from depressed to ecstatic without ever passing go. I feel scared most of the time though my friends call me brave and I find it easier to believe in my friends than to believe in my own abilities to make what I want out of my life.

Who am I? A wife, a mother, a daughter, and even, gulp, a grandmother.

Who am I? A writer who never gets tired of playing with words, even when the words are hard to find. A writer of books for children and articles for grown-ups and many things in-between.

Who am I? A motivational speaker, writing instructor, workshop leader and full-time follower of dreams.

Who am I? Read and find out.






Susan Taylor Brown

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