Mad Journey

A mother struggles with her daughter's mental illness -- and a mental health system that fails them -- in Bebe Moore Campbell's latest novel.

July 10, 2005|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun


72 Hour Hold

By Bebe Moore Campbell. Knopf. 336 pages.

Tom Cruise has been railing against psychiatry recently, attacking fellow actor Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressants during a bout of post-partum depression so severe she contemplated killing both herself and her baby daughter. Psychiatry is a hoax, Cruise asserts, and all anyone needs to cure depression are diet, exercise and vitamins.

Keri Whitmore, narrator of Bebe Moore Campbell's explosive new novel, would likely be less restrained than Shields was in her recent op-ed piece in The New York Times. Keri knows about mental illness at its most harrowing. She knows that, without medication, her 18-year-old daughter, Trina, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, is a violent, dangerous stranger.

Social commentary weaves a shimmering thread of subtext throughout all of Campbell's novels and in 72 Hour Hold, her fifth, she addresses an issue many are loathe to discuss. In her breezy, colloquial style, she lures the reader into what appears to be a simple mother-daughter tale. Except for Keri and Trina, life is anything but simple. The reader is soon pulled down the same rabbit hole as Keri as she attempts to negotiate her daughter's mental illness and a system that is unwilling or unable to help.

72 Hour Hold opens on Trina's 18th birthday. For a year, Keri has been holding her breath, walking on eggshells. Soon after Trina graduates from high school -- and just weeks before she is to head off to Brown University, the prestigious Ivy League school Keri has dreamed of for her beautiful, talented and oh-so-smart daughter -- Trina has a bout of mania so severe that Keri must have her involuntarily hospitalized in a locked mental ward, "the 72 hour hold" of the title.

Since then, Trina has claimed compliance with her medication and all seems to be well. Then -- suddenly, horrifyingly -- it is not. The journey Keri must take to save her daughter's life mirrors that of slaves escaping through the Underground Railroad. It's a motif that Campbell uses throughout the novel (to greater and lesser success) as Keri imagines herself, like Harriet Tubman, leading her daughter away from the shackles of mental illness and into the freedom of a clear, unfettered mind.

The detail in 72 Hour Hold will resonate for anyone who has dealt with mental illness and the mental health system, and illumine that world for anyone fortunate enough to have escaped it. Several years ago, when a close relative was suffering from mental illness, Campbell formed her own chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) in her Los Angeles neighborhood. Of particular concern for her is the closeted nature of mental illness in the African-American community, an aspect she addresses through Keri's ex-husband and Trina's father, Clyde, a black Republican with an attitude about mental illness that is similar to Cruise's. Clyde disbelieves anything is wrong with his daughter until something cataclysmic happens.

As Campbell illustrates, cataclysm is rife when mental illness goes unchecked. Life is unending chaos, once Trina stops taking her medication and mania takes hold. Trina tears the house apart, dresses whorishly, abuses her mother verbally and physically and takes off, leaving Keri with no sense of when or if she will return. Keri, a successful shop-owner living a comfortably middle-class life with an on-again, off-again actor, fears that she will lose Trina for good. That Trina could become a second child whose life she couldn't save (she lost her baby son suddenly to crib death years earlier) haunts her.

Finally, when the byzantine red tape of the mental health system thwarts Keri yet again in her efforts to get Trina hospitalized for more than 72 hours, Keri takes an unorthodox route to save her daughter's life and, by extension, her own.

Campbell fills her novel with a myriad of issues for African-Americans. Against the shifting backdrop of rich and poor Los Angeles, where hope is the most addictive drug around and shattered dreams are common as dirt, Campbell takes on race (black and white, black and Asian), sexual identity (her boyfriend's son is gay, a lesbian subplot looms mid-novel), class (Keri's closest allies are mothers of other mentally ill children, not all of whom have her financial comfort zone and not all of whom are black) and familial ties (Keri's own mother was an alcoholic who abandoned her and whom she cannot forgive).

Campbell leaves no shibboleth of African-American community undisturbed. Called to account are conservative politicos like Clyde, who refuse to acknowledge that the problems wrought by race are not self-imposed, but historical. Nor does she allow the mental health system any slack. Through various characters, Campbell delineates how racism and mental illness often intersect, explores how a "crazy" African American can end up shot to death by police instead of taken solicitously to the mental ward.

Stark, incisive and often harrowing, 72 Hour Hold brings the trauma of mental illness vividly to life. Campbell's characters are wholly believable, her tale, exceptionally well crafted. 72 Hour Hold wrenches open the closet door behind which mental illness has been hidden in communities of color. It's no small task, but Campbell handles it with characteristic verve and aplomb.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author of several works of fiction and non-fiction, and has edited numerous collections of short stories and essays, including the award-winning Coming Out of Cancer.

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