Book Review: “Crazy” by Linda Vigen Phillips

By 1963, the year Crazy opens, “crazy” women were no longer committed to mental asylums and forgotten, but the stigma remained. (Until terms such as “mental illness” and “bipolar” emerged in the late sixties, “crazy” included all forms of mental health problems.) In her free-verse novel, Linda Phillips explores that stigma with insight, candor, and wit through teenager Laura Wahlberg who lives with her parents in a small house outside of Crawford Hills, Oregon, a lumber mill town.

Ibook1ris, her mother, has been behaving increasingly weird for weeks. She “smokes and stares/stares and paces/paces and mutters/and stares and stares … through … eyes that shut you out of her secret world …” Harold, Laura’s father, works at the paper mill, recites poetry from memory, grows petunias, and dearly loves his wife. He deals with her problems by “bang bang, banging” with his hammer, slipping down to the VFW for a drink, and forbidding Laura to cry because “big girls don’t cry.” Paula, Laura’s older sister, married young to escape her mother, has two small children, helps with Iris, and, Laura assumes, is glad to no longer be living in a “loony bin.” The family’s tacit code of conduct is to never reveal feelings or talk openly, especially about Iris.

Laura, age 15, earns straight A’s in school, fears bully Jerry Pruner, longs to date Dennis Martin, hates chemistry, and dreads home economics. Laura escapes from the “loony bin” to her room where “drawing or painting make her stomachache go away.” Laura is suicidal. When crossing the canal bridge to school and back every day, she often stops to admire the pelicans or to swing her legs over the edge. Increasingly, she wants to “just slip off and down/and down/and down.”

Laura hates her mother for being crazy and yearns for a “normal” home even though, she writes, “I’m not even sure/what normal is when it comes to our/family … ” Normal mothers, she believes, sew beautiful outfits for their daughters or make delicious orange rolls. But her mother, a talented artist whose pictures glow with a “Rembrandt feeling,” switched to painting the stupid religious statues cluttering their home. Laura especially loathes the frieze of the Last Supper, painted “in one boring color/of gold.” Hoping to snap Iris out of her lethargy, Laura asks her why she doesn’t start painting again.

A month later, Laura returns from school to find canvases, paint tubes, and rags strewn about the house and her mother “kneeling/muttering/crossing herself/before a dripping canvas.” When Iris is diagnosed with a “nervous breakdown” and admitted to the Salem State Mental Hospital, Laura is convinced that she is to blame. Equally certain that she will “catch” her mother’s craziness, Laura quits painting and stashes her supplies under her bed.

Laura, in her own way, faces a sort of madness as her fears, hurt, and insomnia intensify. She behaves erratically; loses weight; insults Beth and Diane, her closest friends since grade school; and increasingly ponders suicide.

Though the term would not be invented until 1969, Laura has, fortunately, an unwitting “support group.” Beth and Diane readily forgive her rudeness and worry about her disintegrating health. Laura meets Mrs. Bocher, who listens and, due to personal tragedy, understands. Dr. Goodman, her mother’s physician, tells Laura that he is available if “she ever needs help.” No matter how erratically Laura behaves, each person unconditionally reaches out to help her.

The book was marketed for young adults (YA), but anyone interested in mental health, for personal or professional reasons, will value Crazy. If the first-person insights seem especially perceptive, that’s because Laura’s story is semi-autobiographical. Phillips writes in the Afterword that “Crazy is loosely based on events and experiences from my own life.”

The story is all the more effective for being written in free verse with jagged edges reflecting Laura’s emotional journey. Each chapter is a month divided into vignettes, some so short that they might seem superfluous. To the contrary, Phillips’ plotting is so precise that removing even one vignette would crumble the story like a block pulled from an orderly stack.

Characters, primary and secondary, grow as needed. Laura, for example, resents her father for “doing nothing” about Iris. In his first scene, he “just sits there in his chair,/behind the newspaper/ … acting as if everything is fine/ …” while Iris stands at the window muttering. Since Laura is such a sympathetic character, we readily “resent” him right along with her. Yet, as the story progresses, Harold emerges as a complex character.

That a story about a suicidal teenager like Laura will be dark is a certainty, but Phillips’ bright and heartening images make despair optional. Laura admires the pelicans because she loves “the way (they) made peace/with (their) bizarre (bodies).” Repeatedly, she calls to mind Van Gogh’s images of starry skies and sunflowers. While weeding her father’s petunias, she recalls that as a child she enjoyed making mud pies and makes a few more. An apricot tree “holds (her)/like a mother cradles a child …” Repeatedly, cheerful images carry her through dark times.

When her story ends a year later, April 1964, Laura is adult enough to realize that she must start the conversations with her father and sister, that she must ask questions if she wants answers. But Laura is still a girl in many ways, so the prospect of challenging her father and sister’s stubborn resistance to honesty remains an overwhelming challenge.

BIO: Linda Vigen Phillips, a retired teacher, is passionate about poetry and better mental health, both of which culminated in her writing Crazy. It was named notable Social Studies Trade Book, listed as one of the New York City Public Library’s Best Books for teens, and one of Ban Street College of Education’s best books of the year, among other accolades. Phillips enjoys presenting writing workshops in schools and libraries, and offering a message of hope and opportunity for dialogue about mental illness to churches and community organizations. She lives in Charlotte with her husband.

Contact: lindavigenphillips.com


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Tabatha T.C.P.E. (Tabby Cat Par Excellence) | Mickes1@morrisbb.net

Greetings Friends and Fans:

As you can see from the picture, Roy and I finally finished the 4,000 piece puzzle. I don’t know about him, but I’m so relieved and really don’t care if I never see a picture of ships in battle again. If mankind behaved more like cats, there would be no bloody and destructive battles. The majority of them would be “fixed” which would take the fight right out of them. Right, Ladies?

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