In this debut memoir, a woman struggles with her daughter’s illness and seeks answers while getting a graduate degree in divinity school.
Popham (Skywater, 2001) writes that she never “identified” with her East Coast husband’s wealth and always longed for a life more meaningful than her “bland and lacking” Midwest upbringing promised. Her memoir explores this search for meaning, and its first section chronicles her divorce and her daughter Ella’s transformation from a typical teenager to a troubled young woman battling a life-threatening mental illness. Her observations of this time, involving therapists and psychiatric wards, range from biting, dark comedy—such as the nurses’ simple classification of disorders as involving “food or mood”—to the powerful, quiet desperation of helplessness. These insights make her world feel very real, and every new therapy arrives with great suspense and relatable doubt. After it seemed that Ella was on the road to recovery, Popham gravitated to Christianity. She inquired about religious school for her son before blurting out, “No, wait! The hell with my son. I want to go to Yale Divinity School!” Surprised by this revelation, she soon found herself studying for a master’s degree in religion in her 50s. She writes of struggling to overcome loneliness and the inherent awkwardness of being a nontraditional student while also incorporating her intensive education into her understandings of spirituality and of herself. This second part of the memoir lacks the immediacy and drama that propels the first so well; overall, the narrative is most powerful when it focuses on Ella. However, Popham achieves a remarkable balance in her prose, crafting an accessible, approachable, and warm persona without ever sacrificing her intelligence or her profound knowledge. Readers will relate to her as a student who’s initially in over her head, scrambling for the dictionary, but will also be impressed by how she uses the work of great theologians to craft meaningful interpretations of her daily life, spirituality, and difficult times.
A well-crafted autobiography that blends tense family drama with a deep, multifaceted view of spirituality and the rewards of personal edification.