Reviewed by Angela L. Eckhart
At 15, Judith A. Fisher began stealing her mother’s painkillers. One night, feeling particularly unloved by her parents, she leaves a note and swallows the pills, waking up later in the hospital. Rather than seeking help or even discussing the suicide attempt, she and her parents are silent, as if it never happened. The silence, while dealing with her mother’s own mental illness, propels Fisher into a downward spiral lasting seven years of hospitalizations and electroshock therapy, which she dubbed “the black period.” This is a story of how one young woman climbed out into the light and found her way to happiness and fulfillment.
Imagine a child who dreams of becoming an artist only to be told that it’s not good enough. Fisher, author of Bookbinder’s Daughter: A Life Lost and Found (Lost Coast Press, 2014) recalls one such memory of her mother. In her vignette, ‘Crayola Sun,’ her mother insinuates that being an artist is not a worthy vocation when she says to the young Fisher, “Oh, I hope you won’t do that. You’re smart enough to be better than just an artist. Be somebody important.”
Many other troubling memories portray the relationship between young Fisher and her mother, slowly bringing the young girl into a state of hopelessness. In ‘The Pit,’ she reflects on her mother’s condition which caused her to slowly doubt her mother’s love. Fisher often feels responsible for her mother’s chronic migraines. She finally finds refuge and solace while away at camp and again at boarding school as a junior and senior. “Two weeks at Camp Minnetoska confirmed for me that kindness and understanding aren’t just abstract concepts—they mean something. As our voices blended in song around the campfire, we grew close, bonded in a way my heart remembers.” Fisher continued to search for this feeling of acceptance and love as she matured, finally free at 21 to find her path in the world.
The book’s eleven chapters each contain segments of memories which are full of descriptive details and imagery. But while Fisher’s writing is full of prose and vivid images, the organization of these smaller stories within the chapters could be tightened. It seems as if Fisher wrote this autobiography in an effort to record her life, to salvage hidden memories that do not seem to add to the overall book.
For instance, the ‘Driving’ segment within the ‘When I Was a Small Child’ chapter is portrayed as if it had been a writing assignment to describe a photograph. Additionally, the style in which some of the memories are written is inconsistent. In ‘Dad,’ Fisher takes us into her father’s workshop in the basement in first person, but the last three paragraphs are written in second person. The sudden point-of-view change can be jarring and pull the reader out of the moment.
Finally, several memories simply aren’t linked; they seem like scattered thoughts without any transitions. In ‘Growing Up,’ the segment of ‘Junior High’ begins with a captivating story where it seems as if young Fisher will be getting into trouble because she laughs in class and is unable to answer a question. She writes, “The class giggles and he [the teacher] moves on.” But then all of a sudden, Fisher writes, “At home, Mom focuses on our kitchen remodel project.” There is no transition or new paragraph to lead into this next section which appears to have no connection to ‘Junior High.’
Although choppy in the beginning (the Prologue didn’t seem necessary), Fisher’s writing grew on me; there are some beautiful descriptions and passages, poetic and tasteful. While I wondered throughout the story about how “bookbinding” fit in, I discovered this fact towards the end. This is a marvelous book for Fisher to leave behind to her daughter and grandchildren. What is admirable is Fisher’s wide array of talents, from building houses, practicing as a massage therapist, and working as a skilled weaver, to managing a bed and breakfast, owning a health food store, and running a successful healing center. As the book progressed and developed, so did Fisher’s writing skills, and the later years were well-written. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in how depression and mental illness affects someone and how hope and perseverance can result in healing and finding one’s purpose in life.