Baring Your Life In Print
In the opening pages of Sharon L. Hicks’ memoir focused around her mother’s mental illness, How Do You Grab a Naked Lady?, young Sharon is standing aghast in a department store while Mom’s transaction with the jewelry saleswoman goes terribly awry. Suddenly Mom is shouting profanities as she throws her muumuu off and parades down the escalator without a stitch of clothing.
“This is where that incident happened (in the department store now known as Macy’s),” says Hicks, as she sits down to talk about her new book at my randomly chosen meeting spot, Kahala Mall. The poetic intensity of the moment is unnerving. Hicks’ written account of growing up in Hawaii under the shadow of her manic mother is painful, funny, sensual and straightforward (sharonlhicks.com). In person, she’s just as candid.
How hard was it for you to share with the public something so private?
I was always going to write my mother’s story. I kept notes for years. I even recorded her on tape. Even though my mother always wanted me to write the book, even though she would love the book and be so proud of it – it’s all about her! – I had to distance myself from her to write about it. She passed away in 2001. I didn’t get to it until about 10 years after she passed. I always loved her, but at a distance. After I wrote the book, I really loved her. I had a connection with her I’d never had my whole life.
Did your mother realize the trauma involved or did she think the book would be a celebration of her life?
A celebration of her and her life! Absolutely. She felt so in tune and so much smarter than everybody else. To be that manic all the time must be kind of fun, to feel like nothing is holding you back. A psychiatrist once told me that her dis-robing was a way of clearing her mind because it gets cluttered.
One of my favorite stories is when a guy comes in the middle of the night, knocks on the door and she invites him in. He’s sitting there in the living room and she says well what do you want and he says I came to rape you, but now that I see you, I think I’ll leave (laughs). She was just out there.
The first part of the book is about your mom, the second part is about you and your difficult romantic relationships and troubled relationships with your children, where history seems to want to repeat itself. In Part Three, everything resolves itself. But during that middle sequence, you have your reader wondering how you’re ever going to get through the hardships.
Once I decided the book had to come through my eyes, I had to be completely honest with my own life. Before I wrote the book, I was perfect. I did everything right. I never had failures in my marriages. There was something wrong with them, not me. But then as I’m writing, I go, my goodness, I did have two marriages that failed. To face that was difficult – to be truthful to myself and truthful to the writing.
My mantra through life has been, “I’m never going to be like my mother. She’s crazy, I’m not.” However, in the writing of the book, I had many men like she did. I loved philosophy like she did. There were so many similarities I had never looked at before. I thought, wow, I am like my mother, not the crazy parts, but the best parts.
Was it harder to write about yourself or your mother?
An interesting thing happened when I sat down to write my mother’s story. There was a storytelling workshop a couple of years ago. I was talking about when I was 10 years old and she was having this huge anniversary party and men in white coats came to pick her up. The leader said, “Sharon, how did you feel when they strapped your mother to the gurney against her will and she’s screaming?” I started to cry and I couldn’t stop the tears. That’s when I realized I had to go inside me. How did I feel? How did I feel watching her go down an escalator naked? Those things never entered my mind before. I was in survival mode. I was in a mode of rescue, in a mode of hey, Dad, let’s get her help. So I had to go into my feelings, which isn’t easy.
One interesting thing a reviewer noticed about the book is that it shows the history of mental illness over a period of 60 years. In the ’50s there were no rights. If a doctor decided to give shock treatment, he gave shock treatment. Then came civil rights, and after the 1980s laws were passed to get a consent form for shock treatment. By the year 2000, I couldn’t even get her help.
That one chapter of just trying to get her help, it took four hours from when I called the crisis center and I had to go through all these steps to finally get her into the hospital. A psychotherapist told me this is the only book she has seen that really gets into the mind of a manic person and why they don’t take their meds. She said a lot of professionals don’t understand why they don’t want to take their meds, but that I nailed it.
What kind of response has the book received?
The response has been terrific. I’ve been hearing from 20-year-olds to 90-year-olds. People are opening up to me because I was so open. I even got a marriage proposal. He thought it was a sex manual: How Do You Grab a Naked Lady? (Laughs). It’s been really fun.
“The times of being locked in closets, of being locked outside of the house … were over. … In Hawaii there were uncles and aunts and cousins and miles of beach, and the Pacific Ocean stretched to eternity. There was sunshine and openness, and everything was green and lush and full of promise. I breathed in the tropical trade winds of my new home. Hawaii would fix everything.” -Page 27
“As I stood in the midst of all the disorder, the chaos, I wondered if (my mother’s) brain was like this … Thoughts stacked up one on top of the other, tangled, tripping, rotting, unused in the corner. Piles and piles of thoughts breeding like maggots. Wiggling. Relentless. Unstoppable. … Based on this fetid disarray, Mother’s inside world was a stinking, putrid cesspool.” - Page 150