A debut memoir explores how 17 special people helped a woman overcome the effects of child abuse and mental illness.
Papierniak’s book begins with her early childhood as the eldest child of a military family, victimized by her controlling, sharp-tongued and sometimes violent mother. The author’s descriptions make clear that her troubled mother passed on a legacy of depression and rage. However, the author sometimes fails to differentiate between her mother’s horrifying acts of violence—including chasing her with a butcher knife—and more typical mother-daughter issues. For example, Papierniak describes in damning tones her mother’s insistence that Monopoly money be organized by denomination, which may make readers who do the same wonder about their own mental health. The book’s structure is largely chronological, moving from the author’s school days, through college and two years in the Navy, and into marriage, parenthood, and professional life as a scientist and musician. For each phase of her life, she identifies a “guardian angel” that gives each chapter its name—someone who provided her with support, counseling, or simply a sense of belonging or self-worth. Some are friends or teachers, but several are therapists and doctors, allowing Papierniak to paint an evocative, if not comprehensive, picture of the mental health system in the 1970s. Her memoir is most self-aware when analyzing her own journey to wellness, and consequently, those therapeutic relationships seem the most fully realized. But scenes involving the author’s mother never seem to achieve the distance necessary for such emotional acuity. By contrast, the author writes too distantly about several “guardian angels,” which may give the impression that their chapters are merely devices for advancing the author’s own story. There’s no reason to doubt the author’s sincerity and appreciation, but readers may long for fuller portraits of these special people.
An often engaging memoir that offers tangible evidence that gestures of empathy and support can make a difference.