In her debut novel, social worker Sherman (Jailed, 2011) paints a vivid portrait of an older homeless woman in custody on a psychiatric ward.
Mary Motter, once a veterans hospital social worker, now lives on the streets of Oakland, California. One day, drunk and stoned, Mary stumbles upon an abandoned baby outside a hospital. As hallucinations blend with memories of her own baby daughter, given up for adoption five decades ago, Mary feels an overwhelming compulsion to bury the tiny corpse. When she wakes up, though, she is handcuffed in a hospital psychiatric ward: Police tell her the baby was alive when it arrived at the hospital. The next two months are a nightmare of trials, interviews and neurologist appointments as Mary and her lawyers fight involuntary manslaughter charges. Mary’s first-person voice is instantly distinctive, both witty and forthright: “My blisters have blisters. I’m parched as hell.” She seems to blend her past and present; her mother’s funeral, her rebellious adolescence and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and scenes from her marriages are just as intense as day-to-day hospital life. Sherman ably alternates reminiscences (often dredged up by the sight or smell of food) and present-day action, recording Mary’s confused thoughts and fostering sympathy for this unreliable narrator. The author’s professional experience translates into believable passages detailing group therapy sessions and two patient suicides. She also uses, to good effect, birds as metaphors of lost innocence and crushed hopes. Mary’s matter-of-fact statements about her predicament, however, sometimes lack subtlety: “I was disregarded and discounted….I can’t believe what’s happened to me…the abuse, neglect, not caring.” Readers will most likely empathize with Mary despite occasional emotional browbeating—though they may wish the novel explained precisely how she descended into homelessness.
Sherman’s insider knowledge illuminates this compassionate character study.