White Elephants: A Memoir about Surviving a Mother’s Bipolar Illness and Alcoholism

Madeline Sharples, author of Leaving the Hall Light On, reviewed here, has volunteered to review another memoir about  mental illness. 

White Elephants: A Memoir. Chynna T. Laird, Eagle Wings Press, 2011.

Reviewed By Madeline Sharples

Chynna T. Laird

Everyone knew something was terribly wrong with her mother, but nobody did anything about it …that is until Chynna T. Laird wrote White Elephants.

Chynna T. Laird and I met while I was on my WOW – Women on Writers blog tour last June. She graciously hosted me on her “White Elephants” website and later wrote a review of my memoir, Leaving the Hall On, which she posted on one of her blogs, “The Gift Blog.” When my tour was over, I reached out to Chynna because I realized how much we had in common – most notably, that she and I are both survivors. She survived growing up with an abusive and alcoholic mother as a result of her bipolar disorder, and I survived living with an adult son with bipolar disorder and his suicide as a result of his illness.

We both agree how important it is to communicate these kinds of stories in hopes of erasing the stigma of mental illness. Only when the victims as well as their families know the causes and available treatments do we have a chance to save lives.

White Elephants

The meaning of the title of Chynna T. Laird’s heart-wrenching memoir about her life with her bipolar and alcoholic mother, Janet, says it all: “a White Elephant [is something] everyone can see but no one wants to deal with; everyone hopes the problem will just go away on its own.”

Except in Janet’s case, the problem didn’t go away. It became increasingly worse.

Like my son Paul, Janet was a creative genius – so typical of people with bipolar disorder. She was poet and artist, but her greatest gift was music. She earned a living as a piano teacher. And music was the only way she and her daughter, called Tami while she was growing up, could communicate. Tami learned piano and sang in the choir so that she could do something her mother would approve of.

Otherwise Janet resented her daughter – she made it clear she never wanted her, and she blamed her for not having the same musical success as her sister who was a renowned opera singer in Canada.From the very beginning and throughout her life, Tami and Janet did not get along.

Tami was only five years old when she realized that something was desperately wrong with her mother – that the reason she and her brother Cam went to stay with their grandparents was not because their mother was on “vacation” but because she was on an alcoholic binge and not capable of caring for them. And as always, after the binge was over, the children went home with their mother and nobody said or did anything to help her.

When the grandparents finally got fed up and forced Janet to keep her children home with her, both Tami and Cam went downhill fast. Tami was a witness to many of her mother’s affairs in their home, and at age twelve she was raped by one of Janet’s boyfriends, resulting in Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. Janet never even asked her what happened, calling Tami a tramp in front of the doctor who treated her.

In trying to endure the chaos in her life and home, little or no sleep, and the insecurities of puberty, she began cutting herself at age thirteen – soon after Janet remarried a man as much of a drinker as she was. Janet couldn’t even be contained during her two pregnancies during her second marriage.

Tami also drank – she tells about her mother offering her, her first drink at her tenth birthday dinner. Cam, three years younger than Tami, also succumbed to alcohol and drugs. He partied as heavily as their mother and her husband and displayed his ever-increasing anger toward Janet by punching holes into walls and later punching her out. But he didn’t go as far as Tami. She tried to end her life by taking a whole bottle of aspirin. Even then Janet didn’t help her. She called the suicide attempt acting out, so once recovered Tami actually did begin to act out – she became a full-fledged punker.

In her late teens Tami contacted genital warts and later cervical cancer, and finally developed a life-threatening case of anorexia – all because of an abusive and unloving mother who couldn’t get through the day without drinking herself into a stupor. Janet not only caused Tami and Cam to self-destruct, her two younger children still suffer from her drunken abuse of them.

Tami finally began to straighten out her life in her twenties. She lived with her godmother, Auntie Lois, who taught her she had worth as a human being. Later on she lived with her father and although this visit didn’t end successfully, it laid the groundwork for a long-term relationship with the father she hardly saw growing up. Then, needing to return home, she lived with Janet again until she could stand it no longer.

When she finally got a job as a legal assistant, she moved into an apartment of her own – never returning to live with her mother again. Tami took control and began building a healthy life with her husband, Steve, three daughters and one son, and a degree in psychology.  As an adult she took on her given first name, Chynna, as a symbol of moving forward and added her mother’s birth name, Arlene, to her name.

In her mother’s memory, Chynna carries on her efforts to help children and families with Sensory Processing Disorder that affects two of her children. She also is committed to help other families living with bipolar disorder.

Although Chynna’s is a horrendous story, it is also a story of survival. Although she admits that she and her brother, Cam, may never get over what they went through as children and teens, she is finally in a place where she can embrace all that has happened to her. She feels fortunate that it has given her an insight into her own children’s problems. And most important, she lives for now – because tomorrow may never happen.

As author Chynna T. Laird says, “Janet Batty [her mother] was a person with mental illness. It doesn’t excuse the things she did or erase the damage done as a result of some of her bad choices. But her story can help others. It might give strength to those who see a mother, sister, daughter, lover, wife, best friend, teacher or acquaintance in need.”

What makes tales of survival succeed in the goal of helping other readers? Have you ever read a memoir that helped you cope with a significant issue in your life?

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Guest blogger and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to White Elephants: A Memoir about Surviving a Mother’s Bipolar Illness and Alcoholism

  1. In case there is any confusion, Chynna’s mother, Janet, died during the time Chynna was pregnant with her son Xander. The cause of death was listed as a heart attack. Chynna did not go the funeral but sent flowers and a letter to be read at the service. In the letter Chynna shares her gratefulness for the gifts of art and music her mother gave her, and that she in turn has passed down to her daughters. Chynna also expressed the wish that her mother had finally found peace.

  2. My goal in writing a memoir about a life that has had more than one person’s share of difficulties is to say, “If I can survive and thrive, anyone can.” I wanted most of all for my memoir not to be identified as a “misery memoir” written solely for the purpose of whining. I think the important factor for a memoir that others can learn and benefit from is to incorporate hope–hope that they too can move past whatever challenge life has dished out.

    The two memoirs that have made an impact on me are The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. They are not only well written, they are humorous and uplifting. And, oh, by the way, they also mirror many aspects of my own childhood.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Brenda,
    I think if you read White Elephants and my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, you won’t find any whining and a lot of hope-hope. And maybe you’ll end up adding them to your list.

  4. Chynna says:

    Hi there! First of all, thank you so much to Madeline for such an amazing review of my book. She truly grasps what I’m trying to say in the book. Thank you, Madeline!

    To futher clarify, Madeline is right. My mother passed away in March of 2006 from an apparent heart attack. Sadly, she never took care of herself properly and years of drinking, smoking heavily, abusing perscription and over the counter drugs and otherwise not taking herself properly, her body gave out. I know people would love to think that I was glad she died but I wasn’t. It was sad. A waste of a life. And I was finally at the point where I was ready to try working things out with her and she died. I had many unresolved feelings to contend with. But instead of lashing out or turning to the ways of coping my mother did, I wrote.

    The first draft of ‘White Elephants’ was more of a regurgitation of my feelings. But through meditation, thoughts, prayers and many edits, I felt I gave a very raw but fair depiction of what happened. I think even my mom would have been okay with how I wrote it. I am finally at a point where I have reached forgiveness and acceptance for what happened. Without that I couldn’t have gone on to be able to help others in the same situation.

    You are all more than welcome to read the synopsis and a sample chapter of ‘White Elephants’ at http://eaglewingspress.com/whele.html. By sharing our stories, it makes these situations less taboo and more real and THEN we can help others.

    And Brenda, I love your quote about if you can survive and thrive, anyone can. That is so true. And memoir writing isn’t whining if it’s told with passion, compassion and love.

    Thank you for commenting and sharing!

    With love and light,

    Chynna
    http://www.lilywolfwords.ca
    http://www.the-gift-blog.com
    http://www.seethewhiteelephants.com

    • shirleyhs says:

      Chynna, welcome to 100memoirs and thanks for joining the conversation. I think your advice for how to deal with painful stories as a writer is excellent. So glad others are able to learn from your experiences.

      • Chynna says:

        Shirley, thank YOU for having me here. It truly is an honor to be here. I hope others are helped by our story. It can be very difficult to find the courage and strength to share these stories but in doing so, we’re not only helping another who may be going through a similar situation, we’re furthering our own healing process as well.

  5. Shirley says:

    Brenda, your goal is a worthy one, and one you share with all memoirists who have difficult stories to tell.but don’t want to whine.You have chosen two outstanding models, The Glass Castle and The Liar’s Club, both of which do this brilliantly. As a person with the opposite problem–having to dig to find the buried conflicts–I offer this piece of advice, for whatever it’s worth to you. Don’t censor or edit your first draft for whininess. Focus on telling the truth as you know and remember it. If it was hard, write through your tears. If you cry till you laugh, find the zany humor, too. There is always time to edit. Write from the heart. Edit with the brain and the heart. Don’t know if that’s what others would say or not. But I think I can tell when a voice is trying too hard to be what it isn’t or to tell a prettier story. The balance is a very delicate one. And most of us can’t find it until its been aged for awhile.

    • Shirley, Your advice is so true. I found that writing the truth even through the tears was so important at first. When I got my book contract I hadn’t touched my original draft for almost two years. Only then was I ready to edit and revise it and turn it into a viable book. Even when I was training engineers to write proposals to the government, I told them write their section all the way through, walk away from their text for as long as they could, and then go back and edit it. Editing with fresh eyes as well as the brain and the heart works wonders.

    • Chynna says:

      I completely agree, Shirley. What I did was spent a week (literally) spilling the story out. It wasn’t pretty and not nearly as fair or focused at it is now. But that’s what you have to do. Write from those raw emotions, get the story out. THEN go back and edit it. Or even have someone help you edit it. I hired an expert memoir editor to help me edit it before I submitted it to a press. Half-way through the editing process, I felt better about how the story was being told and sent it out, getting an immediate and more positive response. It’s great to share these stories but there’s a way to do it. It isn’t ALL about making sales, you know? At least not to me. =)

  6. “We both agree how important it is to communicate these kinds of stories in hopes of erasing the stigma of mental illness. Only when the victims as well as their families know the causes and available treatments do we have a chance to save lives.”

    I agree with the above.

    Thank you Chynna for telling your story of survival and strength and hope, and thanks, Madeline, for bringing this book and author to our attention.

  7. Hi, Shirley,
    I love your blog and appreciate how interesting and rich it is!
    I found this review and interview interesting, so thanks to Madeline Sharples. I wanted to note two memoirs about mental illness readers might be interested in: Your Voice in My Head, by Emma Forrest, which I just blogged about at paulettealden.com/blog, and I did an earlier post there on Swallow the Ocean, by Laura Flynn, which is really a beautiful literary memoir about growing up with a mentally ill mother. best, Paulette

  8. What a rich and helpful conversation. Thanks to everyone, especially our hostess, Shirley.

  9. Shirley says:

    Thanks, Paulette, for adding to our list of resources for those who want to explore multiple stories about mental illness and the impact it has on all those it touches. I hope readers will check out your wonderful blog also.

    Brenda, you are so generous with your praise. Thank you!

  10. Etsuko says:

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