An interview with Marin Sardy
Marin Sardy‘s essay “A Shapeless Thief,” about her mother’s schizophrenia, first appeared in the Missouri Review (37:2) and later became part of her new memoir, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia (Pantheon, 2019). You can read Marin’s essay here.
Last month we talked with Marin about the development of the memoir and her new book project.
Evelyn Somers: Initially you saw your book as an essay collection. How and when did you realize you were working on a more cohesive memoir?
Marin Sardy: Even when I was writing the individual essays, I had a sense that they would be able to collectively tell a larger story. They were each about some slice of my life, and I suspected that if I put enough slices together, some kind of arc would emerge. I didn’t know what that larger story would be, however, until far along in the process. It wasn’t until I started writing the chapters about my brother’s homelessness—which I wrote last—that I saw that much of what had been driving me had always related to questions about how my family’s long history with mental illness came to bear on my brother’s struggles with schizophrenia. I also found I had much more to say about my brother’s story than I had expected, which gave some of those parts more of a flavor of narrative memoir than of the highly selective, tightly constructed essays I had produced first. So it was a lot of letting things happen as the words came out and paying attention to what the words were telling me, and looking for the connections that became visible after everything was down on the page.
ES: Did the early publication of some of the pieces give you more confidence going forward with the book?
MS: Definitely. More confidence and more skill. The practice and the encouragement I got along the way turned out to be integral to the final product. In retrospect, I’m so glad the book developed the way it did, though it took a much more circuitous path than I ever expected. Taking the time to fully shape the essays that later became chapters, stepping back from them and letting them steep for a while before returning to the work—that allowed my ideas to percolate, so that by the time I was thinking in terms of a book, I had really developed my own perspective about mental illness and knew what I wanted to say. And how I wanted to say it!
Also, going through the process of submitting to journals and working with editors helped me understand how my work fit into the larger literary landscape. The people I knew who were getting book contracts weren’t trying any of the weird conceptual and structural approaches I was taking in my essays, but when I sent my pieces to literary journals, I got a lot of positive feedback. So the successes I had in the world of litmags gave me more confidence to take that work into the realm of New York publishing and see if someone would be interested. And someone was.
ES: Can you say a little about the process of turning a group of individual essays into a memoir–for instance, even though The Edge of Every Day is not a traditional chronological narrative, were there gaps in the story that you realized you needed to fill in?
MS: My first reaction to this question is actually to laugh because when I look at the finished book, all I see is gaps! And that was a deliberate choice, and it kind of surprised me when early readers of the manuscript commented on how well it all seemed to flow together. But I never really thought of it as “I’m turning a group of separate essays into a memoir.” To me, the essays were not very separate from one another anyway, and I don’t feel like I’ve entirely transformed it into a memoir either. My editor and I were not aiming for it to be “a memoir” in the typical sense. Here’s an example: When I first sold my book based on having about two-thirds of it written, my editor, Catherine Tung, asked me if I’d be willing to add some “connective tissue.” But she also assured me that, for the most part, it should keep its “highly fragmented” shape. That sounded fine to me. Several months later, when we were talking again about the book in depth and I was saying I had this chapter and that chapter to add, none of which qualified as “connective tissue,” Catherine said, “You know, looking at it now, I really don’t think the book needs more connective tissue. ” And I just thought, “No, it doesn’t need it at all.” So we scrapped that idea and never looked back.
I just focused on telling all the parts of the story that I felt were necessary to include, and on telling them in the ways they needed to be told. I really believe in listening to the material, in letting it tell you what form it should take. And it just became what it wanted to become, which is somewhere in between a memoir and an essay collection. What I did end up changing to make it more memoir-like was so minor it hardly registers to me now. I rearranged a few paragraphs at the beginnings of some chapters that were formerly essays, so that each one opened on me rather than on some other topic. I cut out redundancies and added a few sentences to clarify shifts in time and place. And of course, we were very strategic about the order in which we arranged the chapters—loosely but not strictly chronological. But that’s about it. Now we’ve labeled it a memoir, and that seems to work for people. But I think of it more as, maybe, “memoirs”—or, as my subtitle says, “sketches.”
ES: In your research for the book, you spent some time learning about the neuroscience of schizophrenia. Did that change how you wrote about your mother and brother?
MS: Yes, very much—but largely in ways that it’s now hard to put my finger on. The early research I did, in the first couple of years of writing about schizophrenia, fundamentally shifted my thinking about mental illness. And it wasn’t just neuroscience, but also philosophy—the phenomenology of psychosis. And that change in my perspective pervades the whole book. The biggest thing the research did for me was show me where I had been making unfounded assumptions about what I’d witnessed. I had been personally relating to schizophrenia for decades, so I had a lot of my own ideas about it, most of which were unexamined and some of which were incorrect. Being forced to confront and then question my own perceptions and conclusions opened me up to many new paths of inquiry. And that got me excited about delving deeper into what I had experienced, what those things might mean, things I hadn’t considered before. So I was able to approach the topic, and those relationships, from an open place rather than a restricted place. It proved so creatively fruitful and became a way for me to transform what were deeply traumatic events in my life into something that revealed a broader view of what had happened, a view that could be much more useful to readers.
ES: What was the most important discovery you made in writing the book–either about mental illness or about writing?
MS: Most importantly for me, the writing process enabled me to rediscover my brother. To remember who he was as a person, who he always had been, inside his illness. For so many years, my focus was on his schizophrenia—how it affected him, how it harmed him, how I could or couldn’t help him. And I grieved deeply for what was lost when he became ill. But all of that focus and intense emotion, I later realized, had the effect of obscuring his actual presence in the world. After writing the book, I felt very bad that I hadn’t been more cognizant of that while he was alive. The book, and all of the sorting through my memories and feelings that it required, eventually made it possible for me to find him again inside his own story. So in a way, after losing him twice—first to illness, then to death—I got him back as a result of writing the book. It’s sort of the Wizard of Oz effect: searching and searching, only to find that what you’ve been looking for was there all along.
ES: What’s your next writing project or challenge?
MS: I’m pleased to be able to say that I am beginning work on a second book. It’s in the nascent stages still—just a lot of research and notes—but in the last several months I’ve begun to see what I want it to be. Like this first book, it will discuss mental illness. But it will largely focus on an artist whose work I have long admired, who died in 2012: a photographer who lived with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, and whose work in many ways reflected her struggles. I hope to tell parts of her story and include a fair amount of art criticism as well, in which I engage deeply with her images and reflect on them in terms of my own experiences with mental illness.
“A Shapeless Thief” by Marin Sardy
Marin Sardy’s debut memoir, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia, about mental illness and her family, was published by Penguin/Random House in May, 2019. “A Shapeless Thief,” which is taken from the memoir, first appeared in TMR 37:2. The essay was named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2015.
A Shapeless Thief
By Marin Sardy
My mother knows the earth’s surface is composed of tectonic plates, and that these plates move hundreds of miles with ease. They arrange and rearrange themselves, very quickly sometimes, creating natural phenomena when they shift. There is one place, the Shear, where the plates have fallen away, leaving a bare, scraped expanse extending for hundreds of miles. In another place, near Monterey, California, a plate dropping into the ocean has created a series of horizontal shelves at the continent’s underwater edge. On one of these, she says, a city thrives beneath the waves.
Sometimes plates duplicate themselves or multiply, resulting in two or more that are nearly identical and seem to contain the same location. For this reason, she says, it’s important to pay attention to details when you travel, to make sure you stay on the right plate—in the correct Roswell; in the Anchorage where you grew up. Each Roswell, each Anchorage, is a distinct colony. And if you accidentally end up in the wrong colony, you won’t find the people you know, because they’re not there. This is why flying is tricky. You go up in the air, and when you come down, there’s no real way of knowing if you’ve landed on the right plate or another by the same name. You fly to Santa Fe to see your sister, but when you go looking for her, you may not be able to find her.
So check the sky. See if it looks different today. Strange. See if it looks like a different sky than the sky you remember seeing over Santa Fe. And if you go to your sister’s house and she’s not there, look at the pillows. They might be the wrong color. These are the little things that help us know where we are.
In bits and pieces over many years, my mother has described to me this earth, the one she inhabits, expansively elaborating on the details of plates and colonies, as well as the Assay, a natural force that continually sorts us according to where we belong. It’s more than a single fantasy. It’s a whole system of rules and perceptions that constitute an alternate world—a foundational delusion that emerged slowly in her mind when I was in high school and developed into a full-scale paracosm by the time I finished college.
I’ve been told that when I was very young and my mother was still sane, she sometimes spoke of the universe as existing in two streams. First Stream was our tangible, everyday reality. Second Stream was a separate, inner place, the realm of the imagination and spirit. Then the boundary between realities became so porous that she lost track of the differences between imagery, metaphor and physical fact. The two streams ran together.
Now she doesn’t bother to explain much, because she knows I understand the basics. She’ll bring up the topic only if there are new developments, usually as a prelude to offering important advice: “Stay away from California for a little while.” Or, “Make sure you have plenty of gas!” This isn’t overprotectiveness on her part; it’s reasonable concern. Her world is one that is capable of shifting beneath her feet. The houses she has lived in, the cities they were built in, the very rock they stand on—all can be yanked out from under her.
This may explain why she moves regularly through several states, never living in the same place for longer than a year but instead looping back to visit the same spots again and again. She never flies anymore. She’ll take the train from New Mexico to Monterey. She’ll work her way by bus up to Bellingham and maybe take the ferry to Anchorage, sleeping in hostels and befriending the twenty-somethings she meets there. Sometimes she gives me a name and a number. “Hang on to that,” she says. “If you find yourself in a bad situation, this is someone you can contact for help.” Or: “Remember this name. If you meet someone by this name, you could take her home and give her a place to sleep for the night. She might become your roommate!”
My mother’s travel habit began in the grip of her descent into psychosis, twenty-seven years ago, when she was nearly forty and I was eleven. She spun into a manic six-month round-the-world romp that stretched from Hawaii to North Africa to Australia and then returned periodically to many of those places over the next several years. This was spurred by a belief that someone was after her, and it may have started because my grandparents were trying to have her hospitalized. After a few months in and out of clinics in Alaska, she went along with their plan to try one in Dallas. There the effort reached an unexpected climax when she bolted across a parking lot, jumped into a cab, and disappeared into the night. She resurfaced with a phone call, two weeks later, from the other side of the world.
I was offered few explanations for my mother’s behavior beyond being told by my father that she was “ill” and it was not her fault. At some point the word “schizophrenia” reached my ears, but it meant little to me. In place of understanding I took hold of the tokens of my mother’s travels, as if they were crumbs forming a trail I could follow to this new place inside her. Whenever she returned from a trip, she would bring back such wonders for my sisters and brother and me to pore over—embroidered housedress-like garments from Tangiers; all kinds of currencies. The Australian coins were our favorites: kangaroo, platypus. Once, my older sister organized the coins into a booklet and labeled them. Although we were savvy enough to sort out where the various European currencies came from, there were a number whose origins we couldn’t decipher from the script. My sister labeled those “Arabic Nation.” We asked our mother, but she didn’t know. She had gone missing in more ways than one.
To this day, my mother has never accepted the idea that she has a mental illness, and she has never taken medication for it. She has not been specifically diagnosed with schizophrenia, either, but she knows it is what people say about her. At least two doctors have said they believe she has some form of it. And it runs in our family—my brother began to show similar symptoms about a decade ago and eventually received the same diagnosis. (He, too, resisted the idea and ultimately abandoned treatment.) But official diagnosis for my mother would require a doctor’s observation that her symptoms have lasted longer than one month, and none have examined her repeatedly over such a period of time. For nearly a quarter century, she wouldn’t allow any doctor to examine her at all. My sisters and I, on the other hand, have observed that her symptoms have lasted for twenty-seven years.
Even as a child, the word schizophrenia struck me with its frightening poetry. Its exotic and convoluted array of letters captured the sense I had of the illness—confusing and bizarre, mysterious, infamously inscrutable. During the first few years of my mother’s illness, I witnessed what I can only describe as a disintegration. She went from leading a healthy, engaged life to being a mistrustful recluse who lived off cigarettes and screwdrivers. For a while she nearly imprisoned us in our own house, barring the door with heavy pieces of furniture and having lengths of wood fit to the windows so they could not be slid open. She was so afraid of assassins that her fear seeped into me, too. I did as she asked for a long time. After a while, though, I rebelled, and eventually I just gave up, choosing instead to detach myself by playing video games all afternoon while she fitted the TV antennae with balls of foil or simply sat very still for hours on end.
I rarely found words for what I saw my mother do, what I heard her say, so her illness seemed always to live in the shadows. In the closet, under the bed. As a child I felt schizophrenia to be a dark, shapeless thief. What other image could fit what I had seen? How does a child articulate the absence of what is necessary? The absence of sanity. The absence of the mother I had known. To my eye it appeared that, more than anything, she had been stolen.
Now, grown and far more educated, I feel nearly the same. Schizophrenia still defies the most fundamental question about it: What is it? I can tell you it is a brain disorder that causes distortions in perception, thought, and emotion. I can explain that it arises by way of chemical and physical processes inside the brain. But if I reach much further, I soon arrive at the edge of human knowledge. We have not yet grasped how the brain creates perception, thought and emotion to begin with, let alone how it produces such spectacular distortions. One important study compared contemporary researchers’ various hypotheses to the fable of the three blind men of Hindustan: each, when asked what an elephant looked like, felt a different part of the beast and described it. One, feeling its trunk, said it looked like a snake. Another, feeling a leg, proclaimed that it looked like a tree. . . .
I have only what I have seen. For instance, that the inherited wealth that paid for my mother’s globe-trotting is now long gone. In recent years, needing an allowance from my grandmother, my mother began living near the epicenter of her family, New Mexico, hopping once or twice a year between Roswell, Santa Fe, Denver, Colorado Springs and Tucson, where her six brothers and sisters and various other relatives live. This was for her a fairly circumscribed and blessedly consistent movement pattern, although she still ranges farther from time to time. Right now she is in southeast Alaska.
Because I lived in Santa Fe for several years in my early thirties, I could see her regularly. She also called often, which was important to me, since she had no telephone for most of that time, so I couldn’t call her. She was too paranoid to keep a phone of her own, but she would use pay phones and relatives’ phones. She just wouldn’t leave a message, ever, and while on the phone, she wouldn’t refer to people she knew by name, and if you lingered without speaking for more than a couple of beats, she’d hang up on you. If behind this paranoia there was a delusion, however—some belief that would make sense of this—she has never explained it to me.
A new pattern emerged when I moved to New York, and she stopped calling me. Before moving I reiterated several times that I wanted her to call me regularly, but she skirted the issue, and it was only after I left that I realized there was something in her mind getting in the way.
When I visited Santa Fe a few months later, I tried again, although I didn’t think it would make a difference. “Mom,” I said. “Call me.”
“Oh, well, you’re over there now,” she said. “So far away! I think it’s better to—to stay close.”
“Yeah but, Mom. Why does that matter? It’s a phone.”
“Hmmm. I try to call Sadie,” she said, referring to my younger sister, who lived in Santa Fe too. “I’ve been trying to call Sadie! She never answers.”
“Sadie has to turn her phone off when she’s at work. So call me.”
“Well. I think I’m just going to stay focused on what’s nearby. I just think that’s a good idea right now.”
Our conversations are riddled with these inexplicable refusals—inflexible positions she won’t relinquish and won’t, or can’t, explain. They emerge from nowhere and stick like cement. A decade ago, when I lived in New Hampshire, she called me often. But in New York it is as if I have fallen off the edge of the world. Recently she got a phone again. Now I can call her, and she’s delighted when I do, but she still won’t call me herself.
Certain places, it seems, must be avoided. When my older sister got married in Bozeman, Montana, my mother missed the wedding. I cajoled and then harassed her about it as the date approached, but she was evasive. Every time I brought it up, she shifted the focus to the lovely wedding gift she had bought.
At first I thought she didn’t like the idea of attending a crowded event, so I tried bargaining. “You don’t have to go to the reception,” I told her. “You can just go to the ceremony.” When that failed, I went all the way. “You don’t even have to go to the ceremony,” I said. “You can just see her beforehand, on that day. Or the day before that.”
I got nowhere. She wouldn’t relent and wouldn’t say why. I have since racked my brain trying to understand what it is about Bozeman. If it is about Bozeman at all. But her whole world is a cipher, and in it there are codes I can’t break.
In her youth my mother was one of those people who seemed to catch everyone’s eye. “Like a sprite,” my aunts say. “Like an elf.” Petite and pale, with a heart-shaped face and a delicate smile, she was beautiful and alluring and had a distinctive, distant charm. Now approaching seventy, thick around the middle, with her once dark hair a peppery gray, she still seems somehow like a pixie. Her eyes dart about her, and her hands flit with precision as she speaks. When quiet, she turns inward, and it is almost as if I am watching her curl her head under a wing. She isn’t beautiful anymore. Jowls hang low on her face, and when she smiles she reveals teeth weathered and crooked from malnutrition. But her blue eyes seem to have intensified in color, and her bony fingers are as articulate as ever.
These days my mother has a very clear sense of what kind of information upsets others—things “people don’t like to hear about.” So she has been in the habit, for nearly two decades, of reserving discussion of certain topics for my sisters and me.
“Marin, I’m glad you’re here because there are some important things I need to tell you about,” she says, peering at me with wide eyes, her hands clasped politely in her lap. “I’ve learned about a few things that I think you might want to do. I have found out—I’ve found out that now is a good time to move to Pluto.”
Despite her refusal to accept her illness, she knows that the world reaches her in a different form than it reaches others, and I am almost certain she knows that something about this cripples her. But she still fights for the validity of her thoughts, as anyone else would.
“Pluto?” I ask. “Like, the planet?”
“There are some exciting developments happening there right now, and you can buy a home at a good price. Right now, before it really catches on. They’re setting up a colony there. Homes for young people, and you’re at the age that you could go there and really get started on your life.”
“Mom,” I say, “I have a life.”
“Oh, but this is such a great opportunity! It’s so affordable! You could really find a nice house there and have a nice place to live.”
There is no point in arguing with delusions, but I hate to play along with them, either. Usually I engage just a little, to show I care. I offer something like, “So, how do you know they’re colonizing Pluto?” But I’m not very good at hiding my impatience.
“I’ve seen it! I’ve seen—I know this, Marin. I’ve—I understand this.” She pauses, her eyes searching. I can practically see the wheels turning as she sorts through her mind looking for a response solid enough that I won’t silently reject it. As much as she’s shared the material of her delusions with me, she’s almost never let slip anything about where they come from or how they’re formed. And she knows I’m a skeptical listener.
“Such a beautiful place! Do you know the oceans there have waves that are capped with fire? Can you imagine? Fire-capped waves?”
“That’s a beautiful image, Mom,” I say, genuinely, picturing it. “It kind of takes your breath away.”
“Yes, it does, doesn’t it? And there are all these condos for sale there now! You might want to do that!”
“Mom,” I say gently, “I just really want to be here right now, okay?”
“Well, think about it and see if you don’t change your mind. Also, there’s something else I want to explain to you, too. Your uncle Robert has been staying in the condo in Santa Fe, and I want you to know that the condo belongs to me. It’s mine, and he—somebody—took it away from me. Now, while I don’t have a home at all, Robert goes and stays in that place and acts like it belongs to him.”
I’m annoyed now, inevitably. I rub my forehead. I say something like, “As far as I know, the condo has always been Robert’s.” I say it wearily, not to convince her but just because it’s a reasonable response that is neither condescending nor untrue. The condo does belong to Robert, but I qualify the statement because I recognize that I’ve never actually seen the deed.
“Well, it wasn’t always his. He went and got the papers from where they were filed, and the people at City Hall didn’t notice, and now he’s told everyone it’s his, and there are no papers, so everybody thinks it is his. But maybe one of these days, Marin—this is why I’m telling you this—those papers might turn up. So if you see, at some point, some papers that look like they have to do with a house, if you find them lying around somewhere, I want you to take them and keep them someplace safe. Because then I might be able to get my house back.”
“I don’t think they would leave those kinds of papers just lying around.”
“Well, you never know. You never know!”
Sometimes I just stare at her and remind myself that she’s on her own trip and it’s not my job to fix the unfixable. But she tends to persist until I say something like, “If I happen to come across some papers that look like the deed to Robert’s condo, I’ll do that.”
“Good,” she’ll say. “Now, what are you up to today?”
Other times, though, her voice might turn sad. As in dreams, much of the symbolism in her delusions expresses her own feelings about her life as she struggles to understand it. But this is a dream she can’t wake up from.
“All these homes I’ve had, that people have taken away from me!” she once said plaintively. She lifted her chin and gazed into the distance with innocent eyes. “It’s almost too much for a person.”
And that was too much for me. Although I know that nobody has ever taken a home from her or even claimed any property that was rightly hers, I wanted to tell her I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to her. But I could never say that, really. I’ve never been able to protect her from anything.
For a decade or more, since my mother sold her last residence, she has been wondering how she lost her home. She keeps searching for a place where she can live and be safe for the rest of her life. But she’s too erratic and irrational. She has spent all the money that bought her former houses—a trust fund from my once wealthy grandfather, a divorce settlement, her own sporadic earnings. Now she rents small apartments, one after another, rarely committing to a lease longer than six months.
To explain this, I have only a theory: when she arrives at a place, it is new, unsignified, a clean slate. Then her visions and voices begin interacting with this physical environment, and, slowly, over the course of months, meanings accrue. All the powers of the universe work their way into the smallest details. Here is where a bright light visited me one night. I stayed quiet for it, and watched. Loaded with emotional import, the details often turn ominous or antagonistic. Someone has been burying horses in the backyard. I’ve seen the teeth coming up out of the ground! Eventually, every detail of the place seethes and echoes so resoundingly with the influence of powers only she can see—everything pointing back to her, for her, about her—that the only way to keep it under control is to flee.
This is, I think, why she wouldn’t live at her mother’s house in Roswell, her hometown, despite being welcome to live there for free until my grandmother passed away last year. The dozens of paintings on my grandmother’s walls made her uncomfortable. She started moving things around, hiding things. It baffled my aunts and uncles and frustrated my grandmother. I could only guess what my mother wouldn’t say outright: the paintings were looking at her, talking to her, and when they upset or frightened her too much, she had to escape. She put them away in corners to sap them of their power, and when my aunts and uncles tried to convince or force her to stop doing this, she moved out. Nowadays she rents an apartment for a few months or a year, buys a white comforter, and keeps nothing on the walls but a small cross and an image of whatever saint has recently caught her attention.
I think if she had a house of her own, she would still leave it periodically for months at a time. But she wants that house, her house. She wants to see the return of at least one of the many homes she has lost in her lifetime, which she believes were stolen. And the weird truth is that, in a way, they were stolen. Schizophrenia stole them, by taking away her capacity for long-term planning and remembering. The ability to keep track of time is a prerequisite for virtually everything a person can have or do in life. In the timeline of the universe, my mother lives in a bubble that disintegrates into chaos two weeks in either direction. That’s about the extent to which she can pin down reality well enough to manage her life within it. Beyond that it becomes too warped to be of use.
She can manage a weekly budget but not a yearly budget. She can sublet a room, but she can’t get through the paperwork required to qualify for low-income housing. In her paranoia, she often refuses to sign her name on official-looking documents. She hasn’t worked in over a decade. For several years she has lived on Social Security benefits and an allowance from the family. She can do fairly complex tasks like shopping, cooking, or balancing a checkbook, but she has trouble maintaining the relationships required to keep a job. Momentary concerns overwhelm the bigger picture, which dissipates into mist.
Trying to help my mother is a frustrating and usually useless effort. She won’t often accept help, preferring, she says, to take care of things herself. The harder we push, the more she resists. I try to be as cooperative as possible, hoping she’ll go along with my plans if I act optimistic. But mostly, my hands are tied. Over the years, we in her family have sometimes tried to maneuver around her to get her finances under control, but we couldn’t legally do much without her permission. No one could have forcefully intervened. She functions far too well to be declared incompetent. This is how it happened that she spent and wasted all she had, spending more to live than she could earn, buying and selling a long series of houses, condos, apartments, and cars, each time losing money on the deal until she had nothing left.
When people first meet my mother, she peers up at them expectantly, immediately asks how their day has been, and often says something disarmingly cute. She’s fond of giving gifts, doling them out almost as offerings to the gods: a coupon for a latte at Starbucks, a brochure for a luxury cruise in the Caribbean. “Look at this,” she’ll tell my friends, holding up the photo of a jewel-blue seascape. “You may be interested in doing something like this in the future. Maybe this will give you ideas.”
She may or may not decide to say something risky. And if she does, it may or may not be apparent that it’s a delusion. Often it’s necessary to know the people she mentions in order to know whether what she’s saying is true. Relating to my mother involves a delicate interplay between realities, one that few people are prepared to learn. So my role is to be her translator. When she speaks to friends of mine, I try to stand slightly behind her so I can signal—a sharp nod or a quick shake of the head—to indicate whether they should interpret a given story as fact or fantasy.
When my mother first met my husband (then a new boyfriend), in a Santa Fe bookstore, she pulled a book on Italian cooking off the nearest shelf and asked if he liked Italian food. She concentrated hard for a moment, and as she continued I could see her working her way toward a thought. It was clear from her manner that she was seeking, not scheming—listening, perhaps, to the ruler of her strange, secret world. Then she announced that T.J., my father, was a friend of the book’s celebrity-chef author, Giada De Laurentiis. Only after we left could I tell Will that my dad had never met Giada De Laurentiis—though my father does make great Italian food. The delusion apparently sprang up as my mother was speaking.
Other things my father has done, according to my mother, include being swept away in a tsunami in Hawaii in the mid-’80s. As she tells it, he drowned, and in the confusion, another man appeared and took his place. This man was very helpful and began taking care of us, and after a while nobody noticed anymore that he wasn’t T.J. He let everyone call him by that name, and for a while my mother believed that he was the real T.J. But a few years later she caught on, and when I was about twelve she explained to me that the man I called Dad was not actually my father but a replacement. “I call him Mr. Ree,” she said. I didn’t catch the significance of the name until my older sister sardonically spelled it out for me: “Myster-ry.”
As the rest of us experienced it, my mother divorced my father in 1984, when I was nine, in a period of sustained and probably paranoia-based rage, after nearly a dozen years of marriage and the birth of us four children. My dad, stunned and horrified by her descent into madness, moved into the house next door, and we settled into a joint custody arrangement. Years later, when I asked him why he hadn’t fought for sole custody, he said, “I just couldn’t do that to your mother.” For the rest of my childhood, my father was in that same house and my mother stayed within the neighborhood. We moved back and forth between the two homes about once a week.
For years my mother would refer to my father only as “Ree.” “How is Ree?” she would say when I was at her house. “Are things okay over there at his house?”
At some point in my teens, I dryly asked her if it bothered her that her children were being raised by a stranger.
“Well,” she said, “he seems to be a nice enough man, and he has really, truly accepted this work of taking care of you kids. So I guess it’s worked out okay.”
Her mind is forever another country, a long-lost homeland that only she has seen. And I am her bridge, even when I can’t see one side from the other.
Nowadays my mother’s delusions fade in and out, and with these shifts, her memory changes. Sometimes she still calls my dad Ree, other times by his real name. He first became Mr. Ree not long after their divorce—not long after he, in a last-ditch effort to get help for her, had her briefly committed at the state psychiatric hospital. During the next two or three years, her rage and paranoia toward him were so thick that she couldn’t speak to him without shouting, and for a while she wouldn’t allow him to see her face. She kept her head shrouded in a scarf when she drove up his driveway to drop us off. Now, when her stolen-house delusions turn toward a cabin he owns and when she tells me why it rightfully belongs to her, he is Ree. But when, maybe, she hasn’t thought about him for a while and isn’t upset about anything relating to him, Ree slips away, and he is T.J. once again.
The hardest losses for me to witness are this kind—not of home or fortune but of the relationships her illness has made so difficult. Or impossible, as for anyone she comes to fear through her paranoid beliefs. I know she feels these losses as much as any. The inevitable by-product is her own loneliness.
Even for my sisters and me, loving our mother is never simple. My younger sister, Adrienne, is an ongoing point of confusion because she usually goes by her nickname, Sadie. My mother seems to assume that Adrienne and Sadie are different people, but she doesn’t take issue with it. I didn’t even realize that this was the case until one of my aunts mentioned a conversation she had had with my mother while Adrienne was traveling in Asia. “Is Adrienne still in India?” my aunt asked. “Yes,” my mom answered, “and I think Sadie is, too.”
For a few years she also thought there were two of my older sister. I may be the only one who remains singular, and I admit this has always been a relief for me—although I know my doppelgänger could emerge at any time.
“Mom,” I once asked her, “don’t you think it’s strange that I’m the only one there has never been two of?”
“Oh, I know!” she said. “Isn’t that remarkable? It’s amazing how things can happen sometimes. Everyone but you!”
For many years, my mother was sure that my brother had, like my father, been swept away in a tidal wave in Hawaii and that this little boy who called her Mom was another child. This boy, this false son, was just as sweet as her son, however, so she embraced him as her own. But she worried that her real son was still out there, lost and alone. She only hoped someone kind and loving had taken him in.
She finds lost children everywhere she goes. They’re always young people, often travelers, and when she speaks of them to me, it is to ask for my help in keeping an eye out in case they might need shelter or a surrogate family. “You can adopt each other!” she says sometimes. One of her more elaborate delusions involves an actual organization, the Arc of Anchorage, which in reality provides support for people with disabilities but which she says facilitates the process by which people can adopt each other. Because there are so many of these orphans wandering around, she explained to me, somebody decided to help them take care of each other.
She has often suggested that I adopt my brother, whom she hasn’t seen in about ten years. She knows, because I have told her, that he is in Anchorage but that on any given day I don’t know where he is. I don’t know what she makes of that. But I can tell that she knows, from her own observations and intuition, that her son is struggling and isolated.
“Any news from up north?” she asks me every time we talk. This is her way of saying, “Have you heard from your brother?”
“Not lately,” I almost always answer.
“Why don’t you give the house a call?” she suggests next.
“You mean Dad’s house?”
“I can’t reach Tom by calling Dad’s house, Mom. He doesn’t like to go to Dad’s house.” For a long time I used this reply to evade what I never had the heart, or the guts, to truly explain. But when Adrienne told me she had already tried to explain that Tom is mentally ill, with unclear results, I thought I should give it a try too. During a visit to Santa Fe, my mother asked for news from Alaska. I looked at her squarely. “I can’t call him because I don’t know where he is, Mom,” I said. I took a breath. “He’s homeless. He lives on the street.”
She looked down, her face furrowed in annoyance, and began picking a cuticle.
“Tom has schizophrenia, Mom,” I said.
“Oh, don’t say that!” she said, pulling her hands back close to her body, still looking down and picking at her fingers.
“Mom, that’s why I can’t call him.” She wouldn’t look at me.
“Come on, now, Marin! Let’s not talk about that today.”
My words sounded cruel in my ears as they grated across her. But I hate to hide the truth from her. Her mind does that so brutally well already.
“Tom is going to deal with his life,” she said sternly, “the way he decides to. Now, let’s not talk about this.” I realized she had already thought this through. And she got it right—for years my brother has refused help from anyone, even help to get off the street. My mother understands, perhaps better than anyone, that his troubles are ultimately his to overcome.
The balm for these rough times comes in the small moments with my mother, the easy ones. Moments when nothing can be gained or lost, when one of us notices something lovely in the world: she sees a bird outside the window and remarks at the brilliance of its red wing. She bends to pet my dog and comments on how daintily she lifts her paw! For all the confusion and fear induced by her ever-reconfiguring world, it also grants her the full richness of its magic.
Driving down the road in Santa Fe one spring morning, when a gust of wind picked up a spray of fallen pink petals and swirled them over the road in front of my car, I wished she were there to see it. I knew she would feel its beauty and for a moment be filled by it. I miss her whenever I have these moments alone. One day in Central Park, I walked past a shadowy grove of leafless trees after a morning rain had left their branches laden with drops of water, clinging so densely that they seemed like pearls strung along the undersides of the limbs. “Mom!” I wanted to say. “Look at the droplets of water shining on the trees!”
“Oh!” she would say. “Isn’t that lovely!” Her voice would be high, captivated. She would pause. Her bubble in space-time would encompass us both, and for a moment I would feel as if the entire world began and ended there.
Marin Sardy’s essays and criticism have appeared in Tin House, Guernica, the Rumpus, Fourth Genre, Missouri Review, ARTnews, and Art Ltd., as well as in two award-winning photography books, Landscape Dreams and Ghost Ranch and the Faraway Nearby. She has also been the arts editor in chief at Santa Fe’s Santa Fean magazine.