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Sylvia True talks about her astonishing novel-based-on-a-true story, WHERE MADNESS LIES, combining elements of historical fiction, medicine, mental illness, motherhood, secrets, more


By Leslie Lindsay

Such a beautifully tragic and heart-wrenching tale of hope and redemption, a lesser-known slice of WWII, combining intergenerational trauma, mental illness, secrets, more.

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~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~

Spotlight: Women’s Historical Fiction

I was absolutely struck by the themes and ideas—and writing—in WHERE MADNESS LIES (Top Hat Books, February 1 2021) by Sylvia True, which is a gorgeous and devastating voyage into the madness of madness, tracing the Nazis’ view of the morally disgusting idea of racial hygiene, but also eradicating ‘any life not worth living,’ such as those deemed feebleminded, mentally ill, sexually degenerate, more.

Alternating between the 1980s Massachusetts, and 1930s Germany, with a brief stint in Switzerland, WHERE MADNESS LIES is so beautifully rendered. I was in awe at the breadth of this book–in terms of historical accuracy, emotional intelligence, compelling voice/characters, how it’s based on a true storyand so much more. This story is hauntingly compelling, devastating, and horrifying, yet there’s a glimmer of hope dangling from a pearl.

WHERE MADNESS LIES is achingly honest and masterful, a page-turner with fully developed characters and timelines, each section was equally compelling. I worried about these characters, gasped aloud, and marveled at True’s lyrical prose, her attention to detail, all of it. Truly an eye-opening, chilling tale.

A quick note on themes explored: WHERE MADNESS LIES is not your typical WWII book. It deals with mental illness and psychiatry, and often presents a very derogatory–early–approach to the science, (but Dr. Arnold Richter is fabulous; loved him). There are tough scenes including gas chambers and neglected children, euthanasia, sterilization, eugenicsmore. If these may be triggers, please proceed with caution. It’s also a rich tapestry about family, dysfunction, secrets, power, truth, redemption, hope.

On a personal note, I am a daughter of a mentally ill mother who died by suicide and this book, these themes, completely resonated.

So masterfully done, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to connect with Sylvia.

Please join me in welcoming Sylvia True to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Sylvia, oh my gosh—WHERE MADNESS LIES completely gutted me. I am in simultaneously in awe, but also disgust at the cruelty, the travesty explored in this book. It’s so well-written, too. This is based on a true story—your family’s—but it’s not exactly a memoir. Can you talk about the driving force? Why now?

Sylvia True:

I think one of the driving forces of my life is that of openness. When I was in my twenties, I ended up in a mental hospital shortly after my first daughter was born. I was desperately ashamed of being the weak link in my family.

When the psychiatrists asked, “is there any mental illness in the family?”

I answered, “No. My family is perfect.”

My three-month stint in McLean Hospital was probably the best education of my life—one of the best gifts as well. It was during my hospitalization that I learned there was a secret history of mental illness in the family. My mother and grandmother slowly revealed the family’s traumatic past during the time of the Nazis. I began to understand that as a child I felt the aura of secrecy and the unspoken emotions. I turned those emotions inward, carrying them in the form of depression.

Understanding what secrets can do to a family made a crusader of honesty of sorts. More than anything, I didn’t want my children to grow up in a climate of fear. I didn’t want my daughters to be ashamed of mental illness. In fact, when my eldest daughter did become depressed, around the age of fifteen, I made sure to bring her to a psychiatrist, a therapist, and a psychic. I covered all of the bases to help her.

We all know there is still stigma around mental illness, and I believe the best way to combat this stigma is with openness. Although I teach chemistry, I always try to weave in life lessons as well, and it’s important to me that my students also understand that there is no shame in emotional struggles. So this book, which is about me and my family, reveals our struggles. Yes, it makes me vulnerable. But it’s a risk I want to take even if it helps one person feel less ashamed about their family secrets or mental illness.

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com


Absorbing and intelligent, WHERE MADNESS LIES is a brave and uplifting reflection on an ever-sensitive subject. With deftly-rendered characters, True illustrates just how strong the connections are between past and present.”

–Maryanne O’Hara, author of CASCADE


Leslie Lindsay:

For me, as a writer, the lines of memoir and historical fiction are so compelling—they are two of my favorite genres. They are also a bit blurry. WHERE MADNESS LIES isn’t straight memoir, it’s not straight historical fiction, but a gorgeous blending of the two. Can you tell us why you chose not to write this as memoir?

Sylvia True:

The protagonist in the novel, Inga, is based on my grandmother. Because I wanted to write this largely from her point of view, it couldn’t be a memoir. My grandmother was the matriarch of the family and she had a tremendous influence over me. She was often critical to the point of being mean. She didn’t like my hair, the way I dressed, the way I sometimes slouched…the list is long. What I did not know or understand was that she was carrying so much pain and fear. She wanted her grandchildren to be perfect, both physically and mentally—in order to protect us. The threat of the Nazis might have been gone in reality, but it lived on in her emotionally. And so we weren’t allowed to feel things like anxiety or depression, and if we did, we had to hide it.

I think that it’s the difficult relationships in life that are the ones of great interest, and my relationship with my grandmother was very difficult at times. In writing her story, from her point of view, I was forced to understand her in a much deeper way.

There is something very healing about empathizing with the adults who raised us—perhaps even wronged us at times.

Once we understand, we can move out of a place of fear and into a place of love.

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Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

I love how you explore the themes of intergenerational trauma in these pages. This—along with psychiatry, motherhood, grief—are huge influences for me. Like your family, my maternal side is rife with mental illness, dysfunction, a series of poor mother-daughter relationships. Do you believe in this notion that these traits—behaviors—can ‘be passed down?’

Sylvia True:

One of the themes of the book is about what we pass on, both genetically and culturally. I absolutely think there is a genetic predisposition in my family for depression and anxiety. It’s impossible to tease out exactly what percent is genetic and what is environmental, but suffice it to say, both played a huge role. Both of my daughters have some anxiety and depression. But I can proudly say, they don’t have shame around their diagnoses. I do believe shame and fear get passed down as well. In many ways, those are the more dangerous traits to pass on. As I said above, I felt the fear and secrecy as a child, and that had a great effect on me. But I was fortunate to get help and that help gave me the tools to model openness and vulnerability, as a mother and a teacher.  I also reinforce to my daughters and students that there is help out there—a lot of it. So maybe the first therapist isn’t a good fit, or the first medication doesn’t work. The key is to keep trying.

Leslie Lindsay:

In terms of structure, you chose to alternate time periods and character, which I really loved. That’s often a challenge to translate to the page. What is your process typically like? Right now, I’m a fan of notecards for a linked story collection. What helps you?

Sylvia True:

This was a tricky novel for me to piece together. I had many drafts. It’s funny because in the last question I talk about not giving up when seeking help for mental illness. I think that’s been a major theme in my life and applies to the writing process. I kept trying different things. I wrote out each storyline chronologically, then broke them into chunks, then used an outline, and finally notecards. I had the characters write me long letters about what they wanted to tell me. Sometimes I felt as if I was going in circles. It took me a number of drafts to figure out where to begin the story. I envy writers who seem to be able to download a story in an almost finished form. For me it takes perseverance and accepting that the process is confusing and frustrating. I often remind myself that confusion is good; it means I’m learning. For me life is about learning, whether it’s writing, raising children, teaching chemistry, or dabbling in the paranormal.

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Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Shifting gears considerably, I am struck—saddened and repulsed—and many other visceral responses—about what really went on behind closed doors of these asylums in Nazi Germany. I hope I’m not giving away too much, but in the end, Dr. Arnold Richter was trying to tell newspapers about the atrocities only to be met with disbelief. Can you talk a bit about eugenics, sterilization, and psychiatry, please?

Sylvia True:

Sir Francis Galton invented the term eugenics in 1883. The literal meaning of eugenics is “good birth.” Basically it began as a study in human population, a way to increase the characteristics in humans regarded as desirable. There were eugenics societies all over the world. Many of these societies believed in using sterilization as a way to stop inheritable diseases from being passed on.

The Nazis used some of the ideas in eugenics to justify their treatment of disabled people, and of course Jews. In 1933, the Nazis enacted their first sterilization law. From 1934 to 1939 about 400,000 people were sterilized. The list of disabilities that fell under the sterilization law was extensive. A few of the diagnoses that led to sterilization were: feeble-mindedness, epilepsy, schizophrenia, manic-depression, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, even idleness and alcoholism.  It had been the Nazis plan all along to move from sterilization to euthanasia. The first euthanasia decree was purposefully signed at the beginning of WWII in the hope that people would be focusing on the war and not what was happening in the mental hospitals.

There were six mental institutions that murdered mental patients. They erected gas chambers that were the prototype of the gas chambers used in the concentration camps. In fact, it was the doctors from the institutions that went to the concentration camps to aide the Nazis in designing the gas chambers. In many ways, the killing of the mental patients can be seen as the Nazi’s opening act. Everything that was done in the concentration camps, gassing, cremation, the pillaging of bodies, was first done in the mental hospitals.

It was such a terrible time, and even though I wrote about these horrors and know of their existence, it’s still hard to believe that humans would actually do this to other humans.

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Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

I feel like I could ask questions all day—alas, we both have other things to do. What three things can you not stop talking about? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Sylvia True:

  1. My grandchildren. To me they are dazzling and endlessly entertaining.
  2. The paranormal. I have studied and researched the paranormal for years. I am the head of the science department at my school and am fortunate to have colleagues who have put up with my interests and actually joined me in some of my research projects. I have renamed the department: The Science, Technology, and Paranormal Studies Department.
  3. Getting children back in school. I am worried about the mental health of students at the moment.

Leslie Lindsay:

Sylvia, this has been so great. There is no doubt a kinship we share. Before we go, is there anything I should have asked, or perhaps something you’d like to ask me?

Sylvia True:

I am interested in your writing life. I know I have written a couple of books, yet I see myself as a teacher, mother and grandmother first. The writing process fascinates me. I didn’t go to school to study writing, so I think I missed out on many of the writer’s workshops and the general shop talk. I’d love to know what drew you into writing, and makes you keep wanting to do it? What does writing give to you?

Leslie Lindsay:

Well, you might be interested to learn that I didn’t go to school to study writing, either! I originally thought I’d be a Solid Gold dancer, and then a pediatrician…I dabbled in architecture, but math terrified me. I went to school to become an R.N. and worked in that role for over five years at the Mayo Clinic in the child/adolescent psychiatric unit. You see, it’s all cyclical. All along, I wrote. Writing for me is a way to process the world, my feelings and experiences. It gives me identity and meaning. Writing, for me, is often about unearthing the subconscious. That’s what I find so exciting about the process. Often I feel like an outsider, too. The good thing is, there are so many workshops, continuing education classes, critique groups, journals, and online platforms to hone one’s craft. Writers work in isolation, but there’s a community of like-minded folk out there. Find them. 

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Artistic photo of book designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram @leslielindsay1 for more like this #bookstagram #alwayswithabook

For more information, to connect with Sylvia True, or to purchase a copy of WHERE MADNESS LIES, please visit: 

Order Links:

~BOOK CONCIERGE~

Readers may recall Diane Chamberlain’s book, NECESSARY LIES, also about eugenics, which I found to have similar echoes to WHERE MADNESS LIES, but also Margaret McMullan’s WHERE THE ANGELS LIVED may also resonate.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sylvia True is the author of The Wednesday Group and Where Madness Lies.

Where Madness Lies, Sylvia True’s second novel, is a story about hope and redemption, about what we pass on, both genetically and culturally. It is about the high price of repression, and how one woman, who lost nearly everything, must be willing to reveal the failures of the past in order to save future generations. With chilling echoes of our time, this novel is based on a true story of the author’s own family. 

​Sylvia was born in England to parents who were refugees from Germany. She moved to the US when she was five. Growing up with parents from a different culture, a mother who was a Swiss champion figure skater, and a father who was a theoretical nuclear physicist, gave her varied and unique perspectives. 

​Sylvia is a high school chemistry teacher and head of the Science and Technology Department at Holliston High School. During her summer breaks, she likes to travel to the Amazon and do research in the rainforest.  

She has raised two daughters, who are both pursuing their passions. If Sylvia had to sum up who she is in a word, she would say learner. There is so much in this world that she is deeply interested in—science, the paranormal, writing, teaching, and of course her grandchildren. 

Presently, she lives in Massachusetts with her two very spoiled dogs. Please feel free to contact her and ask her any questions. She looks forward to responses to both of her novels. 

ABOUT YOUR HOST:

Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Mary Kubica to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.

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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website 3.8.21. Artistic photo of book designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram @leslielindsay1 for more like this #bookstagram #alwayswithabook]

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