SWEET MYSTERY by Judith Hillman Paterson


A Book of Remembering
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 A sad, loosely constructed memoir of a girlhood troubled by ``emotionally erratic and undependable'' parents and a family legacy of alcoholism and mental illness. Paterson (Journalism/Univ. of Maryland) grew up in Alabama during WW II. Reexamining her difficult childhood, she focuses primarily on ``the class warfare'' between her parents and on the death of her mother at 31, when Paterson was nine. Differences between her mother's family (slave-owning planters whose fortunes sank with the Confederacy) and her father's (Northern reformers who founded Alabama's first college for blacks) not only cause conflict in a marriage already marred by addiction and depression, but, Paterson notes, reflect a fundamental tension between progressive and conservative postbellum southerners. This historical-social context might have been explored more fully; its sketchiness contributes to the vacuum in which remembered events unfold, as does the first-person, present-tense narrative. Absence of adult perspective initially hampers Paterson's overarching goal--to make sense of the past--especially at the beginning of the book, which covers family history and early childhood memories. However, this narrative strategy amplifies the emotional impact that parental fighting, drinking, and sexual misconduct have on their four children. Paterson recreates a child's-eye view of family conflict: disjointed, only vaguely comprehended, then internalized to a frightening degree by an increasingly troubled girl. The memoir's strength lies in the portrayal of this internalization, and in the author's resolving it 50 years later, producing what she calls ``the `help' note finally written, not only for the suffering that was mine, but for all who suffer in childhood and think, as I did, that the pain of forgetting is less than the pain of remembering.'' Paterson's moving, intensely personal story of survival and adult reconciliation with childhood trauma impressively delves into family history and the nature of memory while avoiding self-help bromides. (8 pages photos, not seen) (Author tour)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-374-27226-3
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1995


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