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 HarringtonIn 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.