Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Parent's Worst Nightmare

What do you think it is? Judging from the general media, it seems to be that your kid will be raped and/or murdered. Bebe Moore Campbell's 72 Hour Hold explores an eventuality that, in same ways, could be just as hard for a parent: a serious mental illness.

Trina was a bright, beautiful teenaged girl. She had been accepted to Brown, she had lots of friends, she seemed to be doing well. Until her mother noticed her talking too much, too fast. Staying up for 36 hours at a time. Hitting the streets in the morning and returning loaded with shopping bags late at night. Then she'd crash. Trina was bipolar.

And the system was failing her, and her mother Keri. Trina's behavior would often be terrifying, but when her mother called to have her admitted to the mental health unit, she'd be able to pull herself together long enough to be judged not to meet the criteria for a 72-hour hold. Meanwhile, Keri's life changed. Her carefree days of spa trips with her girlfriends were over. She had a new crew now, people that she met at the mental illness family support groups she attended. Mostly they talked on the phone, rather than socialized in person, because they were all caring for children of their own.

Keri hits a breaking point when her daughter, a recently legal adult, sneaks out after her latest 72-hour hold before she can bring her home. One of Keri's friends from group told her about an alternative to t he traditional treatment: illegal, shadowy and costly, but she and her friend decide to pursue it together.

This is where the book started to come undone a bit, for me. The chapters on Keri's battle with Trina's illness were gripping, suspenseful, engaging and heartbreaking. And they had enough ancillary stuff thrown in so you didn't walk away from the book feeling like you'd just gone four rounds with Mike Tyson. Keri also deals with her ex-husband, Trina's father, a neocon pundit who's been married four other times since their divorce and is making noises about how maybe he had it right the first time. She deals with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, an actor whose dreams, talent and ambition are much larger than his luck. She runs her own business, a high-end designer consignment shop, with her two assistants, one of whom is a former prostitute and drug addict.

Keri's an interesting person, dealing with something unimaginable. The passages where she's trying to provoke Trina into assaulting her so she could get her placed on 72-hour-hold are heartbreaking. And the "alternative" is intriguing, but it should have been fleshed out a little more. The leader of the alternative treatment comes off as a foolish little boy, who revels in secrecy and the power it gives him. The reasons why people who've responded to nothing else respond to whatever it is his group does remain shrouded in mystery. Ultimately, Keri turns back to the system for help and hope.

But then again, I guess you can't really fault a novel for coming to the same conclusion about mental health treatment that anyone who's worked around it does: this isn't the answer, but damned if I know what is.

Incidentally, this is the book I got from the African-American section. It was good, and I'm going to do my best from now on not to read that label as a "WHITE GIRLS KEEP OUT" sign.

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