Monday, July 6, 2009

Surviving High Society: Lots of Love Trumps Lots of Money by Elizabeth Marvin Mulholland - 184 pgs

Book CoverAdopted into a wealthy family shortly after her birth, Elizabeth Mulholland led a life of lavishness and riches that most only dream about. But in her youth, she hungered for the things money couldn't buy: the love, acceptance and stability of her adoptive mother. Her family, which also included another adopted brother, was additionally complicated by his frequent violence and disruptiveness. After her father's death, Elizabeth's mother, a controlling and manipulative woman, begins to attempt to control her daughter by threatening disinheritance. Eventually, when that fails to get the desired results, she places Elizabeth in an asylum to be medicated for an invented mental disorder. Her hope is to have Elizabeth committed for life, or possibly, and more fiendishly, have her die of mysterious causes while in the care of the asylum. Although Elizabeth leads a tortured home life, she is adept at finding joy in the small things, and in this memoir chronicles the life she has led in spite of her mother's cruelty and hatred. Both shocking and scandalous, Elizabeth's story embodies the persistence and triumph of one woman's spirit amidst the chaos surrounding her.

I am a bit on the fence about this book. While I found reading it to be a completely absorbing experience, there were times that I felt as though the real grist of the story may have been obscured. I think in the author's attempt to be good mannered about the trials she suffered, she left out some of the most compelling aspects of the story. Why was her mother so vile, and why was her vileness so inconsistent? I never got the gist of that from her recollections. At times, her mother would remove her from the asylum to take her on cruises around the world, and the two would go shopping and dining in a way that seemed relaxed and even friendly. It was hard to stomach that she seemed to arbitrarily enforce a truce towards the daughter she hated and wished ill, only to place her back into the hospital once the trip had ended. I kept thinking that the author should have had more feelings of negativity towards the woman who made her suffer such torments, but throughout the book, Elizabeth remains passive and compliant in way that I found a bit odd.

On the other hand, I liked that she didn't persist in a sour grapes attitude and seemed to be cleverly optimistic about her life, even when the worst was upon her. Some of the most interesting sections of the book were her observations about the world and people around her and it was a refreshing change of pace to be privy to the thoughts of someone so genuinely optimistic. There was something about her that never let her wallow, but instead focus on the pleasing aspects of her life. In a way it was like reading two stories, one that was filled with treachery, and the other with humble hope. I liked the fact that nothing seemed to get her down, and that she took everything in stride, but was that honestly the way she felt about her situation? That was something I could never quite figure out. I know that if I had been where this author was, there would be a lot of bitterness in my heart for a mother who was so vicious, and I am not sure if, realistically, most people wouldn't have felt the same. I think it's great that she was able to rise above her mother's smallness, but was it really healthy to forgive and forget? Didn't that only place her in the danger zone again and again?

Aside from that, I liked Elizabeth and really wanted to see her succeed. She seemed like a very peaceful and genial person who maximized her enjoyments and minimized her discomforts. She didn't act like a victim but more like a passively resistant participant. It is also worth mentioning that during her childhood she was on friendly terms with Katherine Hepburn's family, and sections of the book provide a close look at the actress and her personality during the various stages of her life.

In writing this book, the author certainly unmasked her mother and learned to have a great life, though it seemed that she was not destined for one. In her later years, after her mother has died, she is finally free of the crippling control and abuse and leads a more normal life. But I still am left wondering: Has she really forgiven the woman who ruined most of her life? Does she really possess the nobleness and grace to let everything go and move on with nary a complaint? Ultimately, I must conclude that I admire Elizabeth for her staunch determination to face a tide of malice and come away the winner after all.

This book would make a great read for those who like an uplifting story or those who like compelling memoirs. I think that it was a very interesting and uncommon read, and one that may leave you with more questions than answers. For those who would like a chance to figure it out for themselves, I recommend giving this book a try.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Thanks for the review...I'll have to check this one out. I do occasionally like reading memoirs and this one sounds riveting. It does bother me, though, when I don't understand the motivation behind characters' actions in books (even nonfiction ones).

Mystery Writing is Murder

Jules said...

This sounds like an interesting read, although I'm not normally a memior reading, I may look more into this.

I'm also dropping by to let you know I have an award waiting for you at my blog.

Have a good week.

Aarti said...

This is a really thoughtful and interesting review. I am not huge on memoirs, but this sounds like a good one.

Marie Cloutier said...

sounds like a fun book. i enjoy a good memoir, especially with a charismatic subject!

Amy said...

I remember coming across this book somewhere and thinking that I would have to pick it up and read it at a later date, thanks to your lovely review for reminding me!

Elizabeth's mother's actions sound intriguing -- she almost sounds like a "Mommy Dearest" kind of person. Definitely going to reserve this one at my library.

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