Loving homage to a
by Rachel Pepper
Chana Wilson's moving new memoir Riding Fury Home (Seal Press) is uniquely compelling. It tackles mother-daughter relationships, mental illness in the family, coming out into the lesbian-feminist movement of the 1970s, returning to school to find meaningful work as a healer, and finally, what it means to come into one's own as an adult while making peace with one's past.
It quickly becomes clear from the beginning pages of this memoir that although Chana Wilson is a first-time author, she is a masterful storyteller. This book is almost impossible to put down, especially if readers relate to any of the memoir's main threads. And the span of Riding Fury Home is immense: it begins in 1958 when Chana is a child, and carries us forward until almost the present day, well after her mother's death. Although originally Wilson says she was afraid that in writing this book, "the truth would come out" about the trauma she suffered as a child, she felt committed to exploring her mother's story. Yet after she began to write, she found that her own life story was intrinsically tied to her mother's. Thus the book ended up being her own memoir, but it pays loving homage to her mother.
"I decided to tell a story of two lives set against cultural history," she says, and it is clear from reading her book that she succeeded. The book begins with Chana having to caretake her mother during an age when mental illness was not discussed, let alone understood. Also not discussed was her mother's illicit lesbian affair while married to Chana's father. When this affair ended, the grief of the loss led to her mother's depression, suicidality, and eventual hospitalization. In and out of the hospital, and eventually given shock treatment, her mother's depression and lesbian tendencies were surprisingly not "cured" by the treatment.
Through her caretaking and witnessing her mother's struggles, Chana made a vow oft taken by the children of the mentally ill: that she herself would never succumb to mental illness, nor to addiction. Surprisingly, Chana's father took a job out of the country during this time, Chana became her mother's keeper, and eventually, she had to go stay with other people when her mother was again hospitalized.
By incorporating such cultural moments as the rise of public radio (Wilson hosted a lesbian show on KPFA), FBI surveillance of lesbian households in San Francisco, and the blossoming of the Bay Area as a gay and lesbian mecca, Wilson creates a book not just of personal but also of political and cultural relevance. Of the 1970s Wilson says, "There was euphoria at being part of a community and having radical ideas, of having a sense of belonging even when stigmatized, and this created a powerful political force." Wilson found comfort in doing her radio work and participating in groups such as Sistah Boom, a women's street percussion band which has led various rallies and marches, and which she has been a member of since 1984.
Riding Fury Home took Wilson 12 years to write. She says that she rewrote some chapters 30 times. During this time, she took writing classes, participated in supportive writers' groups, and gradually pieced together the story she wished to tell. But the story still didn't seem as authentic as she wished. She wondered how she would get fully inside the head of the girl she had been as a child, and felt frustrated by the disassociation she felt from what had been her authetntic childhood self. At that point, Wilson decided to take a class that helped her "open up to my subconscious." The book swelled out to more than 550 pages, which was eventually pared down to just under 400 gripping pages.
After many years spent in young adulthood not sure what direction to move professionally, Chana eventually went back to school to become a therapist. Ironically, she found herself following in her mother Gloria's footsteps, since she had already trained as a Gestalt therapist and was doing counseling in the LGBT community. Chana still practices as a Marriage and Family Therapist in the Bay Area, doing "LGBT-affirming therapy," and believes that being a clinician has helped in her writing process. "I have been so inspired by the healing of others," she says. "As therapists, we also need to do our own healing." Writing her memoir, Chana says, provided incentive to "tackle issues of trauma and recovery," and to infuse the book with "a hopeful air of change."
Likely because of its focus on mental illness as well as its strong lesbian feminist voice, when Wilson was pitching her book for publication, she was told by several large publishers that her book "wasn't commercially viable." Luckily, small feminist publisher Seal Press, which has a roster of first-rate lesbian-feminist memoirs, was not afraid to take a chance on her book. Three weeks from their first inquiry of interest, she had a book contract in hand.
By being so honest about her mother's mental illness and the effect it had on her, Wilson hopes that her story "opens up others, as well as helping them or moving them in some way." She says, "I hope that my story helps take away some of the stigma and shame" of mental illness. There is no doubt this fine memoir by Oakland author Wilson will help do so, and no doubt, too, that of the many readers who will enjoy this book, some will find comfort for this reason.