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NolaReview - Nola
A Memoir of Faith, Art & Madness
by Robin Hemley
Graywolf Press, 1998
Review by Brent Dean Robbins
Jun 30th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 26)

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?

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
removed.

Cut out the madness
Cut out the death

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.

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.


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