By Djami Diallo The Afro News Burnaby
72 Hour Hold. The last contribution to the literary world that the late Bebe Moore Campbell, who lost her battle with brain cancer in 2006, made to the world. I did the one thing we are taught never to do when it comes to literature: I judged a book by its cover. But the book cover donned the image of a young Black girl with her eyes cast partly on the reader and partly in the shadows. Her face with its striking features was captivating to me, but I could also tell it held secrets. If the story was about her, than I wanted to know it. The only way to access this girl’s story however, was through her mother’s own.
Keri Whitmore’s daughter Trina is perfect by her mother’s own admission: her beauty is striking and her standing as a straight-A student would make her the envy of any parent. Keri, who tells Trina’s story is taken with her daughter’s beauty and surprised by the fact that it could not suffice to ease Trina’s way in the world. Keri’s assumption that physical beauty should lead to happiness and perhaps even perfection, is something that makes her immediately realistic to the reader, human. However, she shatters all expectations that this is the story she is going to tell. The moment we meet Keri, we get a sense that her fairytale has long ended. She is walking on eggshells, because her perfect daughter has bipolar disorder. Because at the moment we meet her asleep in her mother’s bed, recalling an earlier angelic version of herself, Trina is a ticking time bomb. One of the indications of this to Keri is Trina’s babyish voice, a red flag that keeps Keri hanging on to her daily routine, to her sense of peace by a thread.
Trina’s breakdown comes much too soon for readers although it is something we too anticipate, but for her mother who takes us through flashbacks of her daughter’s illness all the while praying another bout won’t strike again, it is as if she were hit by a ton of bricks. When her daughter is well, Keri can easily maintain the surface of perfection; in her support group she can feel the full weight of her privilege and quietly boast that Trina is well. But when Trina becomes manic everything falls apart for Keri. Her house itself goes down when Trina breaks the windows; what was once a home literally transforms into a crazy house in the blink of an eye. The model child in Trina becomes a monster-child. And as the novel progresses, Trina’s bouts with bipolar disorder slowly expose the cracks in her mother’s own life.
It is apparent that Keri depends on her daughter’s wellness for her own sanity. With Trina sick, she is left with an empty house, a failed marriage and memories of her own unstable childhood due to her mother’s addiction. The only thing that keeps Keri going is a supportive cast of characters: her boyfriend, her support group and co-workers are her backbone. Her determination to overcome the medical system in order to help her daughter is also instrumental for Keri. We learn that for Keri and Trina the only option is a seventy-two hour hold: Keri cannot force her daughter to take her medication and hospital officials cannot hold her against her will. At eighteen, Trina can now fully exercise her rights. This logic clearly contradicts itself when it is met with Trina’s irrational paranoia and it leaves her mother’s hands tied. The author’s treatment of the issue then becomes twofold. On the one hand it is a critique of the institutionalization of the mentally ill, of the dehumanization they and their families endure; on the other hand it addresses the stigma of mental illness in the Black community. The latter is evident when Keri becomes increasingly isolated, specifically by her ex-husband’s adamant refusal to accept Trina’s illness for what it is. In fact, Clyde embodies the belief that mental illness is a ‘white person’s problem.’ What I found most interesting was the author’s response to Clyde’s character and to the culture he represents.
In dealing with her daughter’s disorder, Keri who finds her roots in the South often juxtaposes her own experience with those of slaves. This gives her a metaphor she can use to make sense of her own feelings of imprisonment, but it also keeps her connected to her past in a way that forces her to deal with her demons. When Trina is well, Keri is free of her chains, but when Trina is manic Keri is back on the plantation: shackled by the system, by her daughter’s fragile state and volatility, not to mention her own memories of an absent mother. To me the comparison that Campbell was able to make between the experience of mental illness and slavery is fascinating. I love being able to access some part of my history when I read, but it wasn’t just that. Slavery is one of the great ills of our society, as we all know. It is stamped on the backs of many civilizations like a scarlet letter and especially when we consider the racial nature it took on at its height, we feel a shame that is impossible to clamp down. Mental illness is something similar in that we simply don’t talk about it. If we ignore it then it ceases to exists, just as the memory of slavery does if we sweep it under the rug. In fact, if I were to follow the same logic Campbell suggests has been applied to mental illness traditionally; I would say that we need to pretend mental illness was a non-issue not because we are ignorant but because we need to survive, to carry on. While I wasn’t completely ready to embrace this idea, Campbell appears to support it with Keri’s constant need to keep a surface of perfection in her life. This allows her to keep going as if everything were fine even when Trina is at her worst. Her hopes for Trina are unrealistic, that she will eventually resume the Polly-Anna personality, instead of plainly learning to cope with bipolar disorder. In fact, it is Keri’s own refusal to accept the idea that her daughter will never fully recover that seems to put her at odds with the system. What readers will see however is simply a mother’s indomitable spirit in the face of her child’s adversity. In this light, Keri is able to transcend the boundaries of race. The message she carries is that mental illness is not specific to race, or as we’ll find out, to class or gender. It is every man’s problem, but it meets with varying degrees of acceptance in different communities.
As readers we cannot miss the author’s message that mental illness is a universal issue, but Campbell offered a unique solution to Keri’s struggle with the legal and medical systems, skillfully bringing mental illness back to the Black community: when she reaches her wits’ end Keri sees no other recourse but to take Trina to a program that is built on the same model as the Underground Railroad. She takes a leap of faith and both she and readers are met with the same sense of trepidation that we imagine slaves must have felt in their fight for freedom. During her journey to save Trina, Keri has no guarantees of success. She is feeling her way in the dark, the only light being the hope she always holds for both her and Trina’s emancipation. Metaphorically, Keri is able to follow the path of her ancestors, experiencing all the highs and lows of escaping the plantation. In the moments when hope, love and even prayer cannot sustain her, Harriet Tubman becomes a constant fixture for both Keri and readers. Without a doubt, Tubman was the embodiment of the Slave woman’s struggle and her ultimate triumph. Her placement in the story then is in no way half hazard. I read it as Campbell’s way of keeping our memories active; of reminding us about the obstacles we have overcome and have still to jump over; of saying if mental illness is ‘the elephant in the room’, the jailor, we can tackle it. Whether or not we agree and identify with Campbell’s approach we have to stay on the ride to find out if Keri and Trina will emerge from the storm. As a reward, readers can experience empowerment similar to the one Keri gains throughout of her journey. In fact, by the end of it all, she is finally able to fully own the decision she makes for Trina’s care. This is of the utmost importance especially, as Campbell impresses upon us, when Black women have historically been stripped of their power and have engaged in this push-and-pull to reclaim it.
In the end, 72 Hour Hold is Bebe Moore Campbell’s offering to her readers. Keri promises to be our everywoman and Trina our girl next door with a twist. Their story, one of the ultimate search for deliverance, belongs to everyone. However, what elevates it is that it is so eloquently set against the backdrop of the Slave narrative. There should be no doubt then if we recognize the likes of Tony Morrison in Campbell, or if this story resonates with us long after we put it down.
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