Oct/Nov 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

Hillbilly Gothic

Review by Colleen Mondor

Hillbilly Gothic: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood.
Adrienne Martini.
Free Press. 2006. 221 pp.
ISBN 0-7432-7273.

In her incredibly revealing and gripping memoir, Hillbilly Gothic author Adrienne Martini not only exposes her personal struggle with post partum depression, but also shows with great eloquence and sorrow just how devastating the impact of family secrets can be. I was emotionally drained by the time I finished reading this book; it is not at all something that I have experienced but Martini's brutally honest way of writing about herself and members of her family who have struggled with depression so captivated me that I felt like they were my family—like I knew them. Quite frankly she made me feel horribly sorry for her and for the many other women who are bereft and soul-destroyed after giving birth. Through a long look at the lives of her immediate ancestors, Martini reveals a decades-long cycle of mothers and children who have not been okay, but through shame or confusion were left alone to deal with their problems. If only they had talked about it, if only they could talk about it, then so many of them, including the author, might have avoided terror, emotional pain and even death. This is hard stuff that Martini writes about, but it's also vitally important and utterly fascinating to read.

In the book's opening chapters Martini explains the sad family history that she inherited. Her mother is one of four siblings, including a brother who killed himself after serving in Vietnam. Her maternal grandmother, Nell, died so horribly of cancer that although Martini's mother was there at the end, she will not speak of it. Her grandmother's birth is far more mysterious than her death however, as her own mother disappeared when she and her siblings were young and they were raised by an "aunt." Martini's father also left the family. Nell is spoken of as "not well" when her own children were small and she spent time in a psychiatric hospital after the birth of her son. All of this family evidence is given in support of Martini's opening lines: "My family has a grand tradition. After a woman gives birth, she goes mad." Yet knowing this trend and actually understanding it are clearly two different things, as the author learned. After the birth of her daughter she entered into a downward spiral that ended with voluntary commitment before the baby was a month old. That is when Martini truly began to come to grips with her family legacy, and to form a plan to change it.

There is much more here than emotional struggles—the author's descriptions of the area she grew up in and living in Knoxville, Tennessee where he daughter was born are particularly evocative. She manages to bring both James Agee and Frances Hodgson Burnett into her discussion of Knoxville, and Cormac McCarthy, Rachmaninoff and Hank Williams. "On a good night," she writes, "you can almost feel all of these ghosts lingering along the center city's streets, whispering ideas to you as you pass. A dark creative spirit is nearly tangible when you get down by the river, which has inspired many a bluegrass ballad about drowning. For that reason, Knoxville always pulls part of you back, once you've gotten to know her." Mostly, though, this is a deeply personal story about a legacy of falling apart and Martini's determination to put herself back together again. "The map of my undoing is difficult for me to draw," she writes, but it is clear to the reader how hard it was to follow that map; how relentlessly harsh it was to be victim to a map that each woman in her family seem doomed to pursue.

Sometimes, family can really be a bitch.

I think what was hardest for me to understand while reading Hillbilly Gothic was Martini's determination to follow some sort of unwritten rules or ideas about what a good mother should do. She is determined to breastfeed and takes it as a failure when she has to supplement with formula. Her mother's suspicion of breastfeeding might be the problem here, but the author's devastation over not being good enough to feed her daughter is palpable. She slavishly follows two-hour feeding schedules, even though they only send her spiraling into exhaustion. Readers will feel like helpless voyeurs as Martini tracks her repeated attempts to be her ideal of the best kind of mother, even as she so clearly is falling apart. In the end, she is perhaps the only one surprised by her failure to keep up to that impossible standard. "So what if my kid grows up to be sick and stupid?" she writes. "So what if I am not giving her the best start in life I possibly can? So what if I will never be a fully loving and real person? At least if I stop, I can get some sleep. I am selfish and weak."

No wonder she had a breakdown—anyone, regardless of family history, would crack under that kind of pressure. That Martini's story is not unique is what is really upsetting, though. Why is it necessary to prove yourself as a mother? And who gets to make those standards that some new parents feel so compelled to follow? Why, in other words, does this have to be so hard?

For Martini, after officially being diagnosed with postpartum depression, a lot of the hints and half stories she has heard about the women in her family begin to make an awful sort of sense. After she spends several weeks in an inpatient facility she comes to grips with her depression, learns what has triggered it, and also gains a fresh perspective on motherhood. She is careful to point out though that there was no overnight cure associated with these quiet revelations. "Again," she writes, "I wish there was a magic bullet I could point to, where I could say, ‘Do this and you'll feel better'. All I can say is that you have to take it minute by sucky minute until it doesn't suck so much. And to not be afraid to find the help you need. Don't become invisible."

Hillbilly Gothic is a moving and personal look at something that, Brooke Shields aside, we don't talk about nearly enough. Women are supposed to have babies and love them and paint rooms pink and blue and spend all day—all damn day—covered in smiles from the glory that is their little darling's first smile, first word and first step. As a mother, I can tell you that all of those things are truly grand and wonderful, but I also know how easy it is to lose yourself in all those baby moments. Adrienne Martini's impressive memoir is a report from the other side of that life—from someone who did go over the edge. How fortunate we are that she came back and was willing to share what she learned. Now, perhaps finally, she has broken her sad family tradition.


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