email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?""My Madness Saved Me"10% Happier365 Days49 Up56 UpA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Book of ReasonsA Can of MadnessA Child's Life and Other StoriesA Dangerous LiaisonA Fight to BeA First-Rate MadnessA Good Enough DaughterA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Lethal InheritanceA Lethal InheritanceA Life ShakenA Life Worth LivingA Little PregnantA Message from JakieA Million Little PiecesA Numerate LifeA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyA Slant of SunA Special EducationA Tribe ApartAbout FaceAddicted Like MeADHD & MeAEIOUAgainst Medical AdviceAgents in My BrainAileen - Life and Death of a Serial KillerAlgernon, Charlie and IAll Out!All Seasons PassAlphavilleAlzheimer'sAn Anthropologist on MarsAn EducationAn Unquiet MindAngela's AshesAngelheadAnna Freud: A BiographyAnnie's GhostsAnother Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnthology of a Crazy LadyApples and OrangesApproaching NeverlandAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAs I Live and BreatheAs Nature Made HimAt Home in the Heart of AppalachiaAt the End of WordsAvalancheBad BoyBad GirlBeautiful BoyBeautiful WreckBecoming AnnaBen Behind His VoicesBequest and BetrayalBereftBertrand RussellBlackoutBlanketsBloodlettingBodies in Motion and at RestBoneBorn on a Blue DayBoyBoy AloneBoyleBrain on FireBreaking ApartBreaking the SilenceBrokenBulimics on BulimiaBuzzCamus and SartreCharles DarwinChasing the HighCheeverCherryCity of OneCluesClumsyComfortComplications Compulsive ActsConfessions of a Cereal EaterConfessions of a Former ChildConfessions of a Grieving ChristianConfessions of the Other MotherConfidingConquering the Beast WithinContesting ChildhoodCrackedCrazyCry Depression, Celebrate RecoveryDamned to EternityDancing at the Shame PromDante's CureDaughter of the Queen of ShebaDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDays With My FatherDefeating the VoicesDementia Caregivers Share Their StoriesDepression and NarrativeDescartesDetourDevil in the DetailsDiagnosis: SchizophreniaDirty DetailsDirty SecretDivided MindsDivine MadnessDon't Get Too ComfortableDown Came the RainDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDrinkingDriving My FatherDrunkardDryEarly Embraces IIIEinsteinEinstein and OppenheimerElectroboyElegy for IrisElijah's CupElliott Smith and the Big NothingElsewhereEnough About YouEpilepticEvery Girl Tells a StoryEverything In Its PlaceExamined LivesExiting NirvanaFaces of Huntington'sFamily BoundFast GirlFearless ConfessionsFind MeFinding Iris ChangFirst Person Accounts of Mental Illness and RecoveryFirst Person PluralFixing My GazeFlanneryFolie a DeuxFor the Love of ItFortress of My YouthFranz KafkaFraudFree RefillsFreudFriedrich NietzscheFrom Joy Division to New OrderFumblingFun HomeFuriously HappyGalileo Get Me Out of HereGirl in Need of a TourniquetGirl Walking BackwardsGirl, InterruptedGirl, InterruptedGirls on the VergeGoing BlindGoing Through Hell Without Help From AboveGraysonGrowing Up JungGuttedHalf a Brain Is EnoughHardcore from the HeartHead CasesHeal & ForgiveHeal & Forgive IIHeavier than HeavenHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHello from Heaven!Hello to All ThatHer HusbandHer Last DeathHigh PriceHole in My LifeHolidays On IceHolidays on IceHope's BoyHouse of Happy EndingsHouse of Happy EndingsHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow to Lose Friends & Alienate PeopleHow to Make Love Like a Porn Starhow to stop timeHumeHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurry Down SunshineI Feel Bad About My NeckI Never Promised You a Rose GardenI Remain in DarknessI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'd Rather LaughIf I Die Before I WakeImagining RobertIn Search of FatimaIn the Realms of the UnrealIn the Wake of SuicideInside TherapyInternInvisible No MoreIt Happened to NancyIt Takes a Worried ManJack Cole and Plastic ManJean-Paul SartreJohn Stuart MillJourneys with the Black DogJust CheckingKafkaKantLa SierraLab GirlLast Flight OutLearning to FallLet Me Make It GoodLife As We Know ItLife InterruptedLife ReimaginedLimboLincoln's MelancholyListening in the Silence, Seeing in the DarkLittle PeopleLive For Your Listening PleasureLive Through ThisLiving in the Shadow of the Freud FamilyLiving With SchizophreniaLiving with SchizophreniaLockeLonelyLong ShotLook Me in the EyeLooking for The StrangerLoose GirlLosing Mum and PupLosing My MindLove Is a Mix TapeLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLove You, Mean ItLuckyLudwig WittgensteinLyingMad HouseMad PrideMadame ProustMadnessMagical ThinkingMalignant SadnessManicMarcel ProustMarcus AureliusMary BarnesMaverick MindMe Talk Pretty One DayMeaningMelanie KleinMemoirMemoirs of an Addicted BrainMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMen-ipulationMisconceptionsMiss American PieMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMommies Who DrinkMonkey MindMore, Now, AgainMortificationMy Age of AnxietyMy Body PoliticMy Brain Tumour AdventuresMy DepressionMy Father's HeartMy First Cousin Once RemovedMy Flesh and BloodMy Horizontal LifeMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Sister LifeMy Stroke of InsightName All the AnimalsNeural MisfireNietzscheNietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyNinety DaysNo Hurry to Get HomeNo Impact ManNo More ShavesNolaNotebooks 1951-1959NothingOdd Girl Speaks OutOedipus WreckedOf Spirits & MadnessOn Being RapedOn the Edge of DarknessOn the MoveOne Hour in ParisOne Hundred DaysOphelia SpeaksPagan TimePassing for NormalPeople Who Eat DarknessPerfect ChaosPerfect ExamplePermanent Present TensePersepolisPlanet of the BlindPlaying with FirePlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPoisoned LovePollockPOPismPortraits of Huntington'sPoster ChildProzac DiaryPsychiatrist on the RoadPsychosis in the FamilyPuppy Chow Is Better Than ProzacQuitting the Nairobi TrioRaising BlazeReasons to Stay AliveRebuiltRecovered, Not CuredRelative StrangerRescuing JeffreyRestricted AccessRevengeRewind, Replay, RepeatRichard RortyRiding the Bus With My SisterRobert Lowell, Setting the River on FireRoom For JRosemaryRough MagicRunning After AntelopeRunning with ScissorsScattershotSchizophreniaSchopenhauerSecond OpinionsSectionedSeeing EzraSeeing the CrabSex & Single GirlsSex ObjectShakespeareShe Bets Her LifeShe Got Up Off the CouchShut the DoorSickenedSilencing the VoicesSimone de BeauvoirSinging in the FireSkin GameSlackjawSlut!SmashedSome Assembly RequiredSome Kind of GeniusSometimes Madness Is WisdomSongs from the Black ChairSongs of the Gorilla NationSoren KierkegaardSpeak to MeSpeaking Our Minds: Revised EditionSpecial SiblingsSpentStandbyStick FigureStill LivesStretchSunset StorySurviving OpheliaSwing LowTales from Both Sides of the BrainTales of PsychotherapyTalk to HerTellingTelling Tales About DementiaThe Accidental BillionairesThe AddictThe Anatomy of HopeThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe BeastThe Bell JarThe Best Seat in the HouseThe Body SilentThe Boy on the Green BicycleThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Buddha & The BorderlineThe Burn JournalsThe Camera My Mother Gave MeThe Cancer Monologue ProjectThe Center Cannot HoldThe Chelsea WhistleThe Churkendoose AnthologyThe Day the Voices StoppedThe Devil WithinThe DisappearanceThe Discomfort ZoneThe Doctor Is InThe Eden ExpressThe Family SilverThe Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State HospitalsThe Fasting GirlThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Geography of BlissThe Glass CastleThe Good DoctorsThe Hillside Diary and Other WritingsThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Last AsylumThe Last Good FreudianThe Last Time I Wore a DressThe Liars' ClubThe Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet HiltonThe Lives They Left BehindThe LobotomistThe Long GoodbyeThe Looked After Kid: Memoirs from a Children's HomeThe Loony-Bin TripThe Madness of Our LivesThe Making of a PhilosopherThe Making of Friedrich NietzscheThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Man Who Shocked the WorldThe Man Who Tasted ShapesThe Marvelous Hairy GirlsThe Maximum Security Book ClubThe Me in the MirrorThe Memory PalaceThe Mercy PapersThe Mistress's DaughterThe Naked Bird WatcherThe Naked Lady Who Stood on Her HeadThe Night of the GunThe Noonday DemonThe Notebook GirlsThe NursesThe Only Girl in the CarThe Orchid ThiefThe Other HollywoodThe OutsiderThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThe Philosophical IThe Pits and the PendulumThe Pornographer's GriefThe Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner The Professor and the MadmanThe Psychopath TestThe Quiet RoomThe Red DevilThe Rescue of Belle and SundanceThe Ride TogetherThe Rules of the TunnelThe Secret of LifeThe Shaking Woman or A History of My NervesThe Shared HeartThe Shiniest JewelThe Siren's DanceThe Statistical Life of MeThe Story of My FatherThe Strange Case of Hellish NellThe Summer of a DormouseThe SurrenderThe Talking CureThe Thought that CountsThe Three of UsThe Vagina MonologuesThe Velveteen FatherThe Winter of Our DisconnectThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaThe Years of Silence are PastThe Yellow HouseThe Yipping TigerThick As ThievesThinTiger, TigerTits, Ass, and Real EstateTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTo Walk on EggshellsTransforming MadnessTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTruth Comes in BlowsTuesdays with MorrieTweakTwitch and ShoutUltimate JudgementUndercurrentsUnholy GhostUnlikelyVoices of AlcoholismVoices Of Alzheimer'sVoices of CaregivingVoices of RecoveryVoluntary MadnessWaiting for DaisyWar FareWashing My Life AwayWastedWaveWe're Not MonstersWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWeekends at BellevueWhat Did I Do Last Night?What Goes UpWhat I Learned in Medical SchoolWhat's Normal?When a Crocodile Eats the SunWhen Breath Becomes AirWhen Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....When It Gets DarkWhen the Piano StopsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhere Did It All Go Right?Where is the Mango Princess?Where the Roots Reach for WaterWhile the City SleptWhile They SleptWho Was Jacques Derrida?Why I'm Like ThisWildWill's ChoiceWinnicottWinnieWish I Could Be ThereWith Their EyesWomen Living with Self-InjuryWomen, Body, IllnessWrestling with the AngelYou Must Be DreamingYour Voice in My HeadZeldaZor
Who is Nola? In essence, this is the question that haunts Robin Hemley in his memoir devoted to exploring the world of his sister and her eventual descent into madness. Yet Hemley is no psychologist, nor a philosopher or anthropologist; rather, he is a writer, and more importantly, a brother. In his interrogation of the fabric of Nola's world, his own world is implicated, as is his mother's and father's, and the tangled web of relations that was Nola's life--and by implication his own--unfolds in Hemley's delicate yet relentlessly honest prose. Hemley's strength is that unlike the psychologist, for instance, his labor is not in the service of weaving together the many strands of Nola's story into a tightly knit web of facts that corroborate with a theory or diagnostic label, nor is his work aiming toward a critical investigation of medicine or madness in general. In fact, what is notable and noble about Hemley's wonderful book is that it offers no easy solutions. His question--Who is Nola?--is asked in the service of generating only more questions. And, in the end, it is not only Nola's soul that he questions and ponders; his task turns out to be nothing less than the work of saving his own soul.
Hemley's wisdom resides in his recognize that his story about Nola is a story as much about himself as his sister. And it is a struggle to contend not only with Nola's madness and death, but with his own madness and guilt surrounding his reverse Midas touch: that those he loves dies. And so it is touching, in retrospect, to read Hemley recover a yellowing journal, where he had scribbled notes about his future story of Nola. He writes:
What is the story? Thus, Hemley writes in the spirit of a hermeneutic of love. His journey relies not simply upon his memories, or the recollections of his mother and brother, but also contends with the scraps of herself Nola has left behind in the form of her notes, poetry and drawings. And where Hemley finds the notes lead to nowhere, or are too ambiguous to decipher in any coherent way, he gives her the benefit of the doubt, or he leaves the notes to speak for themselves. Hemley's hermeneutics of love in the telling of his sister's story is a lesson, perhaps, for psychology. After all, Hemley does tell a tale of madness, death, and change, but these themes are read through a lens of love, and for this reason alone, Nola emerges in her humanity rather than a specimen for our inquiring gaze.
Is it about Nola going mad? No, too long a tale.
Is it about death? No
Is it about Change? No
or is it about love?--Yes
If it is about any one
of these four things,
then the others must be
Cut out the madness
Cut out the death
Hemley writes, "We are constantly, as we read, looking for conclusions, judgments to be made, sometimes villains. I suppose I am the villain in all this for writing it down, manipulating the texts I choose to uncover for you, the juxtapositions. I am playing God, manipulating." From out of his hermeneutics of love for Nola, -Hemley finds himself guilty in the imposition of his own interpretations. He wants to present his sister, his mother, his friends in their truth, but discovers that who and what they are transcends his every effort to pin them down. It is, one suspects, out of an ethics of a hermeneutics of love that Hemley confesses to his guilt. In the end, Nola's story can't be other than Hemley's story, an admission of guilt, and also a confessional. And what Hemley has to teach us, through Nola and his own confessions, are that the distortions that we live through--the distortions that we are--are the very basis upon which truth is a condition of possibility. It is in the telling of the story that truth happens: "It is precisely the distortions that tell us who we are."
It is Hemley's unceasing doubt and skepticism, one suspects, that makes him different from his sister. His everyday "pathology" is the logos of suffering in the face of uncertainty. When he returns to a childhood memory of seeing a ghost with his brother, he is not sure whether to believe his own eyes. Nola would have believed. She would have asserted the reality of the ghost; she would have believed her own eyes. And it is Nola's almost innocent desire to believe, and to have certainty, that seems to provide at least one constituent in the whole matrix of events leading to her madness. When Nola gives up her faith, health, body and mind to a guru, and as a result begins a severe fasting ritual, she becomes lost in the convolutions of her own certainty, her own will to believe which becomes ironically a loss of will. "What she was looking for," suggests Hemley, "was that fragile part of the soul that doesn't repudiate. . ."
Within the circle of interpretations of Hemley's hermeneutics of love, he is always implicated, always guilty, always confessing, always in the process of sense-making. Making sense, Hemley's implies, is a faculty he shares with Nola. As he writes, "what terrifies me most about life are exactly those moments that are unremarkable and bland, that are erasable. Loss of memory terrifies me. Loss of identity terrifies me." He suggests that he, like Nola, is only capable of memory and identity to the extent that he is making sense, and at the end of sense is madness or death or something worse, but certainly a loss of some sort, something irrevocable, unrecoverable. Like his sister. And like the many people who Hemley's loved in his life who are now gone: his father, his sister, and his friends Jimmy and Lonnie.
What haunts the reader at the close of Nola is not simply Nola's madness, but the recognition in the end of Hemley's need to write the book. If it is not simply a book about madness, or change, or death, what is it about? Certainly love, yes, but more than love: through a hermeneutics of love it is ultimately a confession, an admission of guilt, and a search for redemption. All those who Hemley loves die, and by writing down their names, telling their stories, he wants to save their lives from his own omnipotent wishes, the violence of his own interpretations. That he doubts his omnipotence, perhaps, is what saves him and redeems him, and how Hemley, when all is said and done, does not go the way of his sister.
If one is searching for a book which explains madness and the family from the hermeneutics of science, Nola is certainly not the book to read. It offers no explanations, no formulas, no theoretical analyses. But if one is seeking an exemplary case of a work told from a hermeneutics of love, and a tale of madness and the family in that interpretative frame, I can think of no text better than Hemley's Nola. In that sense, Hemley tells a tale of love, change, death and madness that is often a tale yet to be told by the science of medicine and psychiatry, and for that reason alone, I hope it is read with care and with love for years to come.
© Brent Dean Robbins, 2001
Brent Dean Robbins is a Ph.D. Candidate in Clinical Psychology at Duquesne University, where he teaches and performs counseling at the University Counseling Center. Among his duties as co-editor of the journal Janus Head and partner of Trivium Publications, he is in the process of finishing his phenomenological and critical theoretical analysis of the emotion of joy.