• click for details

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness by Robin Hemley

I appreciated Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, and so I was interested when I learned he’d written a memoir of a difficult-to-write-about family member.

The first paragraph of Hemley’s prologue introduces five characters in a nuclear family. Father Cecil, who died when Robin (the youngest child) was seven. Brother Jonny, who “used to be good at everything, from languages to sports to the sciences,” but as an adult specializes in Orthodox Judaism (he and Robin are not close). The eldest, sister Nola, who “was good at everything, too, art and language, but especially things of the spirit.” Mother Elaine, writer and teacher, who is good at surviving. And here Robin introduces himself, as larcenous. Throughout this book, he is tormented by the thought of the stories, secrets, feelings and anguishes he’s stealing from his family members, particularly Elaine and Nola. Brilliant, spiritual, disturbed Nola, who always heard voices and saw fairies and angels and communicated with God, was treated for the last several years of her life for schizophrenia, in and out of mental institutions until she died when she was twenty-five years old, and Robin was fifteen.

This is a memoir filled with documents. The Hemleys are a writing family, and Robin mines Nola’s unpublished autobiography, her drawings, his own and his mother’s short stories, letters sent among the family, court documents, and more. Nola’s writing in particular appears peppered with struck-through text and additions, mostly the work of their mother as editor. These edits are not redacted; the reader gets both versions at once, often unsure of whether a change is Nola’s or Elaine’s. It is disconcerting, and entirely appropriate.

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness is well-named. It is not an easy read. Just over 300 pages feels longer, as Hemley navigates the pain and distress of layers of family trauma–his father’s death and the deaths of several school-age friends; moves to ill-suited towns; a permissive, struggling mother; everyday sibling discord, and Nola’s increasing difficulties with a world she characterizes as “a strange and unbearable monster.” This is Nola’s book, but it follows side-threads, too, as when eleven-year-old Robin goes to live for part of a school year with elderly relatives in Florida (“By any yardstick other than a conventional one, I was essentially an elderly person… I really liked being old”). Later, he finds middle school frightening and chooses instead to attend day school at the psychiatric hospital where Nola is an inpatient. The Children’s Ward is a comfortable enough home for Robin, until he finds out they might not let him out again. Years after Nola’s death, when Robin is a graduate student, he has a girlfriend who suffers a psychotic break echoing his sister’s. Obviously, these threads are part of Nola’s story, her mystery, as well.

Not an easy read at all, as the book’s progress follows Nola’s descent into a misery she will not escape from. I do not recommend staying up late into the night to finish reading this as a winter storm rolls in. I found it quite upsetting, in fact. There’s no question that Hemley achieves emotional engagement, a representation of some of the agony his family has experienced. It’s a complicated achievement, all these layers of family trauma–often still with hope strung through them, at least while Nola retains it–and the writerly impulses of a family committed to communication and the written word, to education, and to some version of truth, however complicated. [Elaine’s technique is to write the family stories as fiction. Hemley’s essay “Truths We Could Live With,” appearing in Joy Castro’s (ed.) Family Troubles, and assigned by Jeremy Jones for my recent residency, discusses the difficulties he’s had with this practice. You can read an excerpt here.] A major thread of Nola follows the back-and-forth communications of mother and son, as Robin researches his family history for this book, and Elaine both helps (consulting, remembering, mailing him copious documents) and worries over the pain this will cause her, and Robin worries in turn.

So, a rich and complicated story. And cerebral: the Hemleys are a heavily educated, intellectual and mystic family, as well. (Cecil was co-founder of Noonday Press, and with Elaine translated and edited I.B. Singer’s work.) Almost every page is dense with philosophy (Nola’s grad-school discipline), religion, theory: faith, art, and madness indeed. I was having trouble getting through it, until I decided to let Nola’s concepts in particular sort of wash over me, and stop trying to understand them. (Much easier this way.) This book is an accomplishment worthy of study, but it will cost you something in the reading, so I recommend it with that qualification. Maybe stick to the daylight, too.


Rating: 7 Blakean drawings.

One Response

  1. […] of Hope.” I have read some of the contributors before: Paul Lisicky, Alison Bechdel, Robin Hemley, Dinty W. Moore, Richard Hoffman, Sue William Silverman (and have attended classes with […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: