Written by Jan Kline on March 25, 2013

Elsewhere: a Memoir, by Richard Russo

9780307959539_p0_v1_s260x420I’ve loved Russo’s novels forever, and noticed that a lot of them had absent or flaky fathers, so I always wondered if this was part of his past. Elsewhere cleared that up: Russo’s father did leave when Richard was a child. But we also learn one of the main reasons: his mother’s mental illness. As an only child, Russo spent all of his childhood, as well a huge chunk of his adult life trying to make things all right for her. As with many families affected by mental illness, the family members are in a constant state of triage, dealing with the fallout, without acknowledging (or in some cases even fully realizing) that the illness exists. This was definitely the case with Russo. Drawn into a two-person pact with his mother, he admits that his marriage only survived because his wife didn’t make him choose between his wife and his mom. Subject to obsessions, compulsions, and drastic mood swings, she enlisted her son into a futile, lifelong search for happiness. It always seemed to hinge on where she was living: if she could only get out of Gloversville, maybe she could find the independent, adventurous life she deserved. But once she arrived in her new home — most notably clear across the country, in Arizona, where she followed Russo when he left for college — it almost always disappointed, leading to the dreaded refrain “What a terrible, terrible place!” Within a short period of time, she converted her hatred of Gloversville into memories of perfection: her family had been so kind to let her live with them — why, oh why had she ever left? For anyone with empathy, this is an intensely sad book, for Russo as well as for his mother. And if anyone you’re close to has been held hostage by mental illness, either as a sufferer or a close family member of one, this book will ring agonizingly true for you. Fortunately, Russo’s sense of humor relieves the bleakness. Here, he is making his way cross country in two vehicles with his wife, facilitating yet another move for Mom:

Our second day on the road, around dawn, we were awakened by a call from the motel’s front desk. During the night somebody had broken into my car, smashing in the windshield with imagesa tire iron. Nothing was stolen, but we couldn’t get back on the road until we spent the morning getting the windshield replaced. The front seat and floor were vacuumed, but tiny glass shards had worked their way into the fabric of the seat cushions, and by the time I drove back to the motel where my family anxiously awaited, my undershorts were pink. My mother would now have to ride in the other vehicle. “Which car do you want to drive?” I asked Barbara. That is, would you rather have my mother in your car for the next seven hours or bleed from the ass in mine? After twenty-five years, she was used to such choices. Still, she seemed to debate this one for a long time.

If you’re a Russo fan, this memoir is every bit as enjoyable as his novels. And if you’re not — this could make you one.

author photo: Elena Seibert

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