Stories about mothers and their daughters tend to be sweet. Admittedly, there is usually some sort of tension. Still, whether that is teenage angst or the daughter trying to gain more independence and freedom from her mother, the tension is not usually one that rules the relationship.
Hopping Roller Coasters is not one of these stories.
Not at all.
Rachel Pappas wrote Hopping Roller Coasters to explore the relationship between her and her daughter, Marina. Getting pregnant was difficult for Pappas, and Marina, in some ways, was her miracle baby. In Hopping Roller Coasters, Pappas outlines the trials and triumphs in the first 20 years of Marina’s life. She honestly describes her own rages and outbursts, many that were directed at Marina. Her description of these events is at times frightening and astonishing. (There is one incident where she screams at six-year-old Marina in front of one of Marina’s friends. Marina is so terrified that she begins begging her friend to get her mother to stop screaming.) However, although Pappas seems quite honest about certain things, her memoir does not contain enough introspection or detail to make it a compelling read.
Pappas is clear that she sought help over the years from different mental health professionals and tried numerous medicines to curb her anger and outbursts. But she was not the only one dealing with internal struggles. Starting around her preschool years, Marina began behaving in ways that concerned teachers. For instance, her teachers repeatedly called Pappas to express concerns that Marina had a hearing issue. They would tell Marina things over and over again, and she still would not follow instructions. After several years of teachers’ concerns and after having Marina’s hearing tested several times, Pappas finally gets an explanation from a specialist: Marina has a sensory condition. If surrounded by many noises or sights, Marina’s sensory perception essentially shuts down. Marina would hear everything that was said to her but would not actually process the information.
As Marina entered pre-adolescence, her struggles escalated. Not only was she struggling with her sensory condition, but her emotional stability also began to waver. She started having outbursts similar to her mother’s, and their relationship became a walk on a tight rope. Pappas and her daughter battled at home every day. As their relationship grew tenser and Marina’s internal struggles increased, she placed greater walls around herself. She also began acting out in school and dabbled in self-mutilation. At 16, in a therapy session, Marina finally breaks down her walls and reminds her mother of a time when she told a four-year-old Marina that she had cancer. “Why did you used to say that to me?” she screams at Pappas.
Pappas, meanwhile, is fighting with teachers, therapists, and administrators. Many times, she tells us, she felt as though she was the only one looking out for her daughter and attempting to find a solution. Although some people offered them, the author tells us, it often seemed as though their “fixes” entailed addressing Marina as a bad child.
After years of seeing therapists, adjusting Marina’s meds, and putting Marina in various facilities, Pappas and her husband finally send their daughter to a Catholic boarding school for troubled girls. Thankfully, Marina finds her place there and begins to make the journey out of the dark hole she has been in for years. Pappas tells us that one of the proudest moments in her life was watching her daughter graduate from high school.
The book rounds out with Pappas describing the shift in their relationship as Marina enters young adulthood. Unfortunately, the positive change is overshadowed when Pappas is diagnosed with breast cancer. Marina becomes a self-reliant adult and Pappas learns to allow her daughter the independence and freedom she craves. As Pappas becomes more involved with fundraising for breast cancer awareness, she learns that her father is slowly dying of cancer and her mother is sick as well. However, she still is somehow able to see a light at the end of the tunnel and, at times, her positivity is surprising.
As a mother, I’m always interested in reading the stories of other parents. However, despite my high hopes for the book, I found myself constantly struggling to get wrapped up in Pappas’s memoir. It is possible that a reader who has had similar struggles — perhaps one who has raised a child diagnosed as clinically depressed or who has herself received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder — might find it easier to get into the story. Unfortunately, I found it to plod along. I wanted more details, more descriptions of how the author felt during dramatic moments.
For instance, there is a scene in which Pappas is called to the school yet again and finds that Marina is being challenged to unveil what is in her pockets. After Pappas orders her daughter to acquiesce, Marina bolts from the room. Although Pappas explains to some extent her emotional turmoil, her description seems to be lacking something, some kind of “oomph.” Perhaps that is because by this particular scene, these outbursts are not uncommon and Marina’s attempts to run away are not that uncommon either. In fact, later in the scene, Pappas is recognized by a paramedic from the last time Marina bolted from school.
Another issue throughout the book is the treatment of Marina. To be fair, the author suffers much with her own personal struggles. However, I have to wonder how many of Marina’s issues are really disorders, or if her behavior was learned from the treatment her mother gave her at a young age. How many rages did she witness during developmental years that formed her own response patterns? This was one of the thoughts that I found myself constantly returning to throughout Hopping Roller Coasters.
Still, Pappas’s memoir does have a place on the shelves. An account of the problems she and her daughter have faced may prove invaluable to those who have had similar experiences. I would not recommend this book to most readers, but it could perhaps shine a light of hope for a few.
Hopping Roller Coasters
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, August, 2012
Paperback, 286 pages