A Daughter’s Memoir of Motherhood & Madness
In the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, amidst the rolling hills and winding roads of new developments, the Stanley family fit right in. Or maybe they didn’t, but they cultivated a presence, created ambiance. The two-story house sat on a hill, its shutters painted Wedgewood blue, and the lawn perfectly manicured, a wreath hung on the door. It all made sense. Lynne was an artist, a gifted seamstress, and a self-taught interior decorator. When he wasn’t running, Mark wore a suit over his athletic frame and carried a briefcase to his downtown office. They had one little girl, Leslie, and then another, eight years later. When Lynne is nearing her thirtieth birthday and the baby is two, the family’s foundation is ripped from under them, revealing the flimsy facade that held them together. Lynne is psychotic. She is hospitalized in the Midwest’s best psychiatric hospital not once, but twice that summer, leaving Mark to be the sole provider and caregiver of their daughters, but he now he must also navigate a crumbling marriage (rumors of indiscretion), his wife’s psychiatric condition, court battles over custody, and his wife’s dysfunctional family of origin. A tumultuous twenty years ensues in which the family careens permanently off the conventional course. There’s a failed joint-custody arrangement, then a single-dad raising two girls, flagrant harassment and emotional abuse from Lynne, mother-daughter estrangement, countless psychiatric hospitalizations, kidnapping, and more.
But always, Leslie is there. She reads up on psychiatric diseases on her own time, she becomes a candy striper at a local hospital and has aspirations to be a doctor. Maybe she’ll be an architect, because she adores the symmetry and creation of solid structures. She can’t admit to liking interior design because that’s what her mother does and if she does that, well, then, she might be too much like her mother. She already looks like her; she can’t become her. Instead, she visits her mother in the psychiatric ward after her shift. She volunteers at a suicide hotline run for teenagers by teenagers. She tries to understand and include her mother in her life, but Lynne pushes her away. Time and time again, Leslie walks away bruised and battered. But she’s a perceptive, astute, and tenacious young woman. She goes to college, becomes a child/adolescent psychiatric R.N., and begins her career at the Mayo Clinic far away in Minnesota, a place her mother will never go. It’s behind her now, her mother’s illness; Leslie can turn her attention to helping others.
Like a dark cloud, Leslie’s mother is everywhere. Hateful letters and packages appear on her doorstep. Her mother phones the Mayo Clinic in a manic state, intent on locating her daughter, and terrifying Leslie’s colleagues. When Leslie becomes a mother herself, she does it alone, with her husband, in the frozen reaches of Minnesota. She adores her baby, yet the longing is there, to be mothered. And so, together, Leslie and her husband, Jim, begin the slow and tentative process of letting her mother into their lives.
For while, Lynne seems stable. Pleasant. Hearts begin to heal, experiences shared. And then one Christmas, Leslie and her husband invite her into their home, now in Chicago, with two young children. The visit is a disaster. Is Lynne devolving?
Eighteen months later, Leslie receives a knock on the door: a police officer, “Please, call your aunt in Missouri.” A phone number is scratched onto a pad of paper. At first, Leslie thinks it’s another hospitalization, an accident. But no, her mother is dead. Finally, there is relief. For her, for her mother, for her family.
It is during these fragile days and months following her mother’s suicide that Leslie delves into the archives of her mother’s family history, her psychiatric and medical records; she begins and solitary forensic journey into the complex labyrinth of her mother’s mind.
This is the story of how mental illness unspools an entire family. As Leslie works to process her mother’s life, her death, she is fighting an invisible enemy: the legacy of mental illness. Would she become her mother? Could she break the cycle of strained mother-daughter relationships that go back generation after generation on her mother’s side?
Reading with the urgency of a literary thriller, Model Home is a memoir interspersed with darker, poetic elements of life and death, psychosis and sanity, love and guilt, and ultimately–resilience. Here, a vivid portrait of generations fraught with mental illness and its secrets are revealed. It’s about the destructive impact of stigma, shame and isolation, and, finally, the falsity of the notion of a perfect family. Throughout the story, we see first hand how a mental illness and family denial can strip a life of everything, only to build it back up, make it stronger. Model Home is infused with the depth and texture of past mother-daughter relationships, hinting at a legacy of mental illness, while encapsulating the interior and exterior worlds of architecture, design and aesthetics and Leslie’s identity as a (former) nurse, writer, wife, and mother.
At the core of Model Home is what makes us who we are—is it memory, biology, history, or experience? Is it a cognizant decision to pull away, to do things differently than the ones who came before? Perhaps, it’s a glimmering coalescence of all. This story will resonate with all mothers and daughters; it is a universal condition, amplified. Through its lyrically raw and resonate depiction of one family in extreme turmoil, it asks readers to reexamine their heritage, their dysfunctional cycles, to wallow in complicated grief, and to emerge brighter, bolder, stronger.
EARLY READER PRAISE:
“I found [Model Home] compulsively page-turning, intimate, sensitive yet ferocious. I loved the looping structure, as I felt a similar spiraling into (or at least closer to) understanding of the incredibly complicated woman that was your mother. The title is an apt one for so many reasons, but I found myself particularly touched by the way you portray spaces within these pages, from your mom’s interiors to her father’s wedding chandelier, to [your husband’s] built-in bookcases to the dollhouse miniatures and your first curtains – it’s like you gave your readers a physical map for navigating the emotional landscape your mother left for you to mine in her wake.”
“You have distilled this story so beautifully. I am in awe of your ability to take your own experiences and shape them into such a readable, cohesive story.”
“This story is simply spell-binding. Although the topic is difficult to read in some ways, your prose is lovely and lyrical and deeply insightful and that it makes the story intense and compelling. the cyclical and insidious nature of mental illness—in a passionately feminine way. Your fear of transferring mental illness to your daughters is explored in an intimate manner. I found this aspect, along with the architectural references, to be very strong elements of the story. More, I am still impressed by how aptly you tell the story of the evolution of your bond with your mother and her battle with mental illness.”
My home resembled the unfinished dollhouse, the wood glue growing hard and crusty on the carpeting, the thin, plywood walls splayed outward with nothing to anchor them, and the various ornamentation—doors and window sheeting, trim, and shingles—stripped away.
Represented by Murray Weiss at Catalyst Literary Management: murray [at] catalystlit.com