Swallow the Ocean – Laura M. Flynn
published 2008 – 277 pages
From the book jacket -
As a little girl, Laura Flynn thought her mother could do no wrong. A strong, free spirit, Sally Flynn sparked her daughter’s imagination with games and stories of her youth – when she’d set off for Paris in 1960, met Laura’s father, and criss-crossed Europe. The couple settled in San Francisco and had three daughters, embarking on what might have been the most charmed of family lives.
Instead, by the time Laura was eight, Sally’s hold on reality began to slip. She turned to her dreams for messages and portents, set strict rules for what her daughters could eat and wear, and came to believe her husband was the devil himself – or at least that he was under the devil’s power – that he had “crossed the line”. After Laura’s parents divorced, her father struggled to gain custody, while Sally waged a pitched battle for her daughter’s souls. Forced to make impossible choices, the three girls retreated to books, stories, and elaborate games, creating a powerfully protective world of imagination.
Set in 1970s San Francisco, Swallow the Ocean is the beautifully written true story of what it’s like to experience a parent’s schizophrenia through the lens of a child who has no language for mental illness. Most of all, this stunning memoir is a tribute to the ingenuity of children in the face of catastrophic events.
My thoughts -
First of all, this is a memoir but it’s written like a novel. Honestly, Flynn’s writing is just so beautiful – she captures each moment with just the right words and stunning phrases, I really look forward to whatever she writes next, whether it be fiction or not. So for those of you not such big fans of memoirs, this may be a good one to pick up simply for the novel-esque quality about it.
Second of all, I was especially intrigued by this book because I have an undergraduate degree in psychology and mental illness is something that I’ve studied and that I’m very interested in. I also spent two years in college volunteering at a crisis/suicide hotline, where in addition to receiving calls from suicide victims, we also spoke with several “regulars” who were sufferers of different types of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia. The behaviors Flynn described her mother doing were very similar to what I saw in the people that I had worked with who suffered from schizophrenia. It was heartbreaking (yet also interesting) to read about this disease from a child’s perspective, and to see the utter destruction it caused in these three girls’ lives. It made me sad to read about the first time Flynn’s father attempted to gain custody, when her mother put on such a good show that the courts threw his case right out – keep in mind, this was in a time when the mother ALWAYS got custody, so it was of course a long shot to begin with. But all the same, how sad to be a child in this terrifying situation, when even your own father cannot rescue you?
The ending of this book is ultimately triumphant, although sad at the same time. I feel for Flynn, being a thirtysomething woman and not having a mother to talk to – personally, my mother is one of the most important people in my life. But it seems as though she has truly come to terms with her mother’s condition – she spoke of the closeness she now has with her sisters, father, and stepmother, and it didn’t seem like Flynn really felt she was missing out on much in her life. This book really shows how growing up in an adverse situation can truly create your personality – Flynn and her sisters’ lives were shaped by their mother’s schizophrenia, and this book is a wonderful testament to what we can make of our circumstances, even the most awful ones.