Approximately 61.5 million Americans are living with a mental illness. Given that and given that the average American family in 2015 consisted of 2.54 people, then it is safe to estimate that at least 156.21 million people in America are affected by mental illness. David Armand’s memoir, My Mother’s House, illustrates the impact that mental illness can have, even on the individual’s who are not suffering from the illness.
My Mother’s House follows Armand’s life story in southern Louisiana. His memoir is carries a weighty underlying message of why mental healthcare is so important. He opens his memoir recounting his earliest memory of his mother: she and her own mother are screaming at one another while Armand’s uncle and grandfather watch on, injecting themselves at random points. The tale peaks with his mother driving off in the car, his uncle running and beating on the hood, and little David is cowering and crying at his grandmother’s knees.
Subsequently, David was adopted by his uncle and aunt. The theme of mental illness continued in their home, though, with David’s uncle, Bryan, slipping into alcoholism. With the ever-present alcohol, David’s uncle was the ultimate bully; he exhibited a desire to want to beat the “macho” into his sons. For instance, Armand describes a “game” the children would often play with their dad. While Bryan sat in the middle of the trampoline, the children would attempt to find a way onto it. However, Bryan had a tennis ball as his protection and would throw it at the children to keep them from climbing on. David described how while he did not enjoy the game, the punishment that would come from not playing was far more terrifying. Bryan used any sign of weakness as a reason to attack the children.
The alcoholism continued to plague the family. There was the cringe-worthy description of Bryan sawing a chunk of David’s cast off of his arm (and cutting the young boy in the process). Later, when Bryan was fired from yet another job, he proceeded to hunt down his wife and daughter with a shotgun. Thankfully, no one was physically hurt in that incident.
The saga continues after Bryan’s death, when David is reintroduced to his birth mother, Susie, whom he has not seen for most of his life. He learned quickly, and the hard way, that his mother was seriously ill. His first interaction with her concludes with her collapsing into a near comatose state in an effort to keep him from leaving for the night. Her illness was not helped by the fact that she married an abusive and controlling man. Later, David would come to find that his step-father had been keeping his own mother locked up. When discovered, the woman was malnourished and severely dehydrated. David’s mother had played a role in the abuse that the old woman underwent although it is unclear whether she fully comprehended what was happening.
When Susie’s husband passed away, David allowed her to move in with his family. It is then that he got a hard look at her illness. She paced the floors at all hours of the night talking to herself. She stole items from his daugthers’ rooms and added them to the hoard in her own room. Then there is the case of her little dog, Toby. She would stay locked up in her room with Toby all day and kept him wrapped up in a way that is described as close to suffocation. At that point, David got an in-depth look at the mental healthcare system. For years, David worked to get his mother the help she clearly needed. There were various mental institutions, group homes, doctors, etc. Yet, ultimately, he was worn down to merely a shred of his own sanity and has to cut off his relationship with his mother. He leaves her to her trailer hoard, where she is most comfortable.
While most memoirs contain narratives that are focused on the author, David Armand focuses more on the impact that other people have on him. Centrally focused on his biological mother and his adopted father, it is clear to any reader how much of an impact these two individuals had on his development. Armand’s self-awareness is prevalent throughout the book and is particularly impressive in the memories of his childhood. He describes early on how he remembers recognizing that fear can physically feel differently depending on the situation. His commentary provides powerful insight on issues of emotional abuse, and how this particular kind of bruise does not heal. The author also states that he was vigilant about looking for signs of mental illness in himself during his twenties and thirties. It is interesting to note how little he mentions his wife and children. This is likely because he wanted to focus primarily on the role mental illness played in his life; keeping the focus on mental illness pushes his advocacy for mental healthcare reform to the foreground.
Armand’s voice is resilient throughout his narrative. It is not surprising to learn that he has published a few novels. He is able to construct a memoir that has the fine-tuned descriptions found in successful novels without losing the warming and mesmerizing perspective that is characteristic of story-tellers.
Armand’s memoir closes with his thoughts on mental illness and the mental healthcare system in the United States. Anyone who has had to manage mental illness, their own or a loved one’s, can attest to the struggle that is prevalent throughout the system. I believe it is safe to say that Armand’s memoir provides a clear call to arms for everyone to stand up for mental health awareness, education, and reform.
My Mother’s House
Texas Review Press, March 2016
Paperback, 192 pages