Hillbilly Gothic: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood

Hillbilly Gothic: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood




"My family has a grand tradition. After a woman gives birth, she goes mad. I thought that I would be the one to escape."

So begins Adrienne Martini's candid, compelling, and darkly humorous history of her family's and her own experiences with depression and postpartum syndrome.

Illuminating depression from the inside, Martini delves unflinchingly into her own breakdown and institutionalization and traces the multigenerational course of this devastating problem. Moving back and forth between characters and situations, she vividly portrays the isolation -- geographical and metaphorical -- of the Appalachia of her forebears and the Western Pennsylvania region where she grew up. She also weaves in the stories of other women, both contemporary and historic, who have dealt with postpartum depression in all its guises, from fleeting "baby blues" to full-blown psychosis.

Serious as her subject is, Martini's narrative is unfailingly engaging and filled with witty, wry observations on the complications of new motherhood: "It's like getting the best Christmas gift ever, but Santa decided to kick the crap out of you before you unwrapped it." New mothers and those who have struggled with parenthood -- whether or not they dealt with depression -- will find affirmation in this story of triumph, of escape from a difficult legacy, of hope for others, and of the courage to have another baby.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781428143685
Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
Publication date: 08/23/2007
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.50(h) x 5.00(d)

About the Author

Adrienne Martini, a former editor for Knoxville, Tennessee's Metro Pulse, is an award-winning freelance writer and college teacher. Author of Hillbilly Gothic, she lives in Oneonta, New York, with her husband, Scott, and children, Maddy and Cory.

Read an Excerpt


My family has a grand tradition. After a woman gives birth, she goes mad. I thought that I would be the one to escape. Given my spectacular failure, my hope is now that my daughter will be the one.

On the day that I admit defeat, I have been crying for days and I am on my way to the emergency room of my local hospital. But of course since I'm running on empty psychologically, my car would be, too. So I pull into a gas station in the middle of the mother of all summer storms.

No one at the gas station will look at me, which is odd considering that most people will at least give you a smile at any time of day in Knoxville, Tennessee. The July air is heavy and wet. Oily splotches and knots of old gum dot the rain-slicked asphalt. My blue tie-dyed T-shirt is soaked and clinging to my quasideflated postpartum belly, showing all of the other drivers that I am wearing maternity shorts, the kind with the stretchy nylon panel in the front -- all that I could fit into two weeks after my daughter's birth. I could have braided the hair on my legs and the hair on my head looked like a nest of live eels writhing in the rain.

My sneakers squoosh as I fumble out my debit card and swipe it in the pump. Miraculously, my hands remain steady for the first time in a few days, but I sniff and snort constantly as tears pour typhoonlike out of my eyes.

Three other drivers gas up and studiously ignore me, including one right next to me. While Knoxville is known for its general friendliness, I've also discovered that it loves a good spectacle. If a stranger appears to be on the verge of a colorful collapse, gawkers flock for front-row seats. I'd assumed that no one could tellthat I'd been crying, what with the rain. I'm lying to myself. My eyes are red-rimmed after forty-eight hours of not sleeping. I'm cursed with a near-constant sorrow so deep that it would make a great bluegrass song. Ralph Stanley and I could make millions, provided I can get through the next twenty-four hours without killing myself.

I'd also assumed that no one would care at this particular station, simply because it is in one of Knoxville's few dicey areas. The projects, such as they are in this small southern city wrapped in Appalachia's arms, are just across the street. The rescue ministry is a few blocks away and, from here, I could toss my car keys into Knoxville's largest nightlife hub, where bars and dance clubs spill out their 2 a.m. drunks, then said drunks wander up to this gas station to stock up on cigarettes and six-packs. The clerks here must have strong nerves or they are researching sociology dissertations.

Still, in the harsh light of day, I am enough of a sight that I unnerve even those who spend their nights dealing with drug-induced shootings and drive-by vomitings. Normally, I'd be proud of this. I always revel in the chance to break out of my cardigan-sweatered shell in a town full of supersized Baptist churches and Junior Leaguers. Now, I look like a freak who scares all of the other freaks. My father would be so proud.

Once gassed up, I'll drive myself to the emergency room, where I'll check myself in to Tower 4, a local psych ward. I could have seen it from my gas pump if it weren't so overcast. I'll stay there for the better part of a week, bonding with my fellow loonies while someone else takes care of my brand-new baby because I am a failure. New moms are supposed to be joy made flesh, yet motherhood and I met like a brick meets water. I'm drowning here, not waving.

This wasn't supposed to happen and, yet, it was inevitable, given my past.

During my colorful confinement, in a conversation with a ward social worker, I described the hillbilly Gothic patchwork of suicides, manic depression, and bipolar disorders that is my mother's family and the notable suicide attempt on my father's side. She commented that it was a wonder I hadn't been there before. Now, I can chuckle when I say that. Then, her astute comment touched off yet another deluge of tears.

I wasn't the first of my generation to log some time in the loony bin. One of my cousins, in her early twenties at the time, was committed after the birth of her first child and was later diagnosed as bipolar. Her older sister has battled depression since her first child was born when she was fresh out of her teens. While most of the madness comes on postpartum, it isn't confined to it. One of her children, who is still a teenager, has also checked in to her local Tower 4, a move that has become my family's version of summering in the Hamptons.

Our tale begins in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a microdot of a town buried in the hollers of the Appalachians. Driving into this part of the country is an adventure to the uninitiated. The road cuts through the mountains, creating a narrow canyon fenced on each side by rock or steep cliffs. Greenery sprouts impossibly from these stark faces. One must pay close attention when arriving in Parkersburg. The unobservant -- a person folding a map, say -- will miss the downtown and wonder why there are houses in such a desolate area.

Isolation has long been the hallmark of Applachia. Before the era of reliable transportation, entire generations could be born, live, and die without ever clapping eyes on a stranger's face. Even after the rise of Toyotas and cable TV, a deep suspicion of new faces and, to a large extent, new ideas still thrives. This wariness is warranted; rarely is a person from Appalachia portrayed in a flattering light. An Appalachian twang marks someone as a hick who should be mocked. Deliverance does not exist in a vacuum.

My mother's family springs from this setting. The isolation and suspicion that inform the region also inform generations. It is coded in our genes like brown hair. For decades, outside help was never sought. Nor was it even imagined to be needed. My family tree kept growing inward, as each successive batch of children convinced their spouses, who were also from the region, to keep these matters within the family. Tighter and tighter the tree grew, and few people saw a need to thin the branches to let in a little nourishing light.

This cautionary tale is my attempt to do a little pruning. This is my attempt to untangle my family's history of mental illness. It is a story of mothers and daughters as well as a journey in search of absolution. It is about being at your most unbalanced when the rest of society expects you to be at your most joyful. It is about living in and with mountains, with occasional lapses into bluegrass and banjos. The past must be understood and, in some sense, loved, in order to be overcome.

Here is where my maternal great-grandmother abandoned her three children. Here is where my maternal grandmother went quietly mad. Here is where my uncle came home from Vietnam, put his gun to his head, and killed himself. And here is where my mother met my father, and then escaped the geography but not the heredity. Years later, I would be back in the same scenery, if a few miles farther south. The irony is not lost.

For six weeks after my birth, my mother didn't wash her hair. Now, she claims that she was postnatally splendid, except for that one little detail. Her assurances don't...assure. At the time of my birth, which was in the early 1970s, little was known about postpartum depression and even less could be done about it. My mother's interior landscape has always been a mystery to me and I didn't understand that her black moods weren't the norm. My childhood wasn't spent around happy families, against whom I could compare my sad home. Even in a big city, Mom and I remained more or less isolated. One of my fondest memories is of listening to my mother breathlessly sob on the other side of her bedroom door. There was nothing I could do, and, in so many ways, it was all my fault.

I swore I would not do the same to my daughter, yet, for two weeks after her birth, I did nothing but cry and, eventually, completely came apart like a wet tissue. My mother contends that this happened because I waited until my early thirties to have a baby and, in her words, "worked for too long" before fulfilling my biological destiny. My mom has never quite come to terms with the concept of women with careers. In her eyes, jobs are just what you have before you have a baby and your life becomes bliss. We all construct our own versions of reality in order to deal with the day, but this reinvention makes my eyeballs ache. If my birth caused bliss for my mom, please let me never find it for myself.

In many ways, my depression was the end state of an almost perversely natural progression. Not only is my family history shot through with crazy, but there had also been warning signs before I gave birth. My teen years had been full of undiagnosed fits of melancholy that went beyond what one would normally expect from a girl that age. In my early twenties, I scared the bejeezus out of a psychiatry intern by bursting into tears in her office and not being able to stop. There were signs, all right. The big red ones that signal danger.

Copyright © 2006 by Adrienne Martini

Reading Group Guide

Hillbilly Gothic is a personal memoir that also tells the history of a family and of their roots in the Appalachian region. It's remarkable for the keen sense of emotional and geographic isolation it portrays. Adrienne Martini presents her own experiences with depression, postpartum syndrome, and institutionalization triggered by pregnancy and childbirth, and traces the multigenerational history of this devastating problem through the women in her family. Martini also weaves in the stories of other women, both contemporary and historic, who have dealt with postpartum depression, psychosis, and the "baby blues." Maintaining an indelible sense of humor throughout, Martini ultimately conveys a story of triumph, of escape from a difficult legacy, of hope for others, and of the courage to have another baby.

Questions for discussion:
1. Martini begins her book with two quotes:
"Left my home in the valley
put the mountains to my back
there's nothing wrong with where I come from
Sometimes it's meant to be just that."
— Scott Miller, Cross the Line
"As for me, I've chosen to follow a simple course:
Come clean. And wherever possible, live your life
in a way that won't leave you tempted to lie. Failing
that, I'd rather be disliked for who I truly am than
loved for who I am not. So, I tell my story. I write
it down. I even publish it. Sometimes this is a
humbling experience. Sometimes it's embarrassing.
But I haul around no terrible secrets."
— Joyce Maynard, "For Writers: Writing for Health"
What is the value of these to the text? Did you feel differently about them before reading the book as opposed to after? Why or why not? Did you find it helpful or interesting when a book begins with a quote or quotes like this? Why or why not?
2. Early in the book, Martini remarks that, "Once you stop wanting it to make sense, the way always becomes clear" (18). To what is she referring to specifically? In what way is this statement true? How do things become clear to her throughout the book?
3. Referring to her body, Martini wonders if, "everything will ever fall back into its previous location" (44). But what about her life? Does it ever "fall back into its previous location"? Can it? Should it? Is it depression that keeps her life from falling back into place, or is it simply the experience of having children?
4. What do you think Martini means, in both a literal and a figurative sense, when she says, "I will be doing this for the rest of my life, this pushing" (53)?
5. On page 61, Martini likens a thunderstorm to a car wash and says that, "Next would come the hot wax" (61). What is she foreshadowing with this comment? Does the metaphor seem apt? Why or why not? Does the text "make good" on the foreshadowing?
6. "I can navigate, sure, but I'm not linear enough to make my own charts" (83), Martini says. Before going back into the text to remind yourself, can you remember to what she is referring? Now look to the text and find the quote. Were you correct? If not, was your explanation just as appropriate? Why or why not? If you were correct, what was Martini saying through that particular metaphor and what made it stick with you? How does the quote "Once I'd been given a plan, I couldn't dream of deviating from it" (130) relate to the quote mentioned at the beginning of this question?
7. The idea of being outside of one's own body comes up numerous times throughout the novel both in reference to Martini herself and to others. "It's like she wasn't completely present, that some part of her was floating just above her head in a helium balloon" (173). What does this imply? Do you think everyone feels this way at some point?
8. Martini expresses a strong sense of needing to belong as evidenced by how often she attempts to "prove" that she does indeed belong, that people like her. "Even crazy, I still got it" (174). Why is that? What does that say about Martini and her personality? What does it mean both for the text and Martini's life? Is this too directly related to the postpartum, to having children, or simply to Martini's personality?
9. Martini feels there is a stigma around depression and the medications prescribed for treating it. Do you agree? Why do you think Martini feels so strongly that it exists? Does her feeling that way help her or hurt her in any way? What do her strong feelings say about her?
10. Martini battles with food and weight throughout the memoir. (See pages 22, 25, 26, 32, 33, 41, 47, 115, 156, and 202, for example.) By extension, she also deals with issues of appearance — how she felt about herself as well as how others viewed her. In what ways do food, weight, and overall appearance play into Martini's experiences with postpartum depression?
11. When Martini says, "I love a plant that can thrive despite extreme neglect" (183), to what do you think she's referring? Herself? Family? Husband? Baby? Explain your response.
12. "I am always surprised by how kind people can be" (184). Throughout the book, Martini seems surprised by people's kindness — bringing food, coming over to sit with her, watching Maddy. Why do you think that is? How does it make you feel about Martini and her self-image? What does it make you realize about postpartum depression? Point to other places in the text where Martini comments about being surprised by people's kindness.
13. Throughout the text, Martini talks about being a failure — from breastfeeding to not loving Maddy enough to suffering from depression. (See pages 185, 188, and 190 for example.) What societal pressures contribute to such feelings of failure for many women?
14. Are you surprised at the end of the text to find out that Martini is again pregnant? What do you think of her decision?
15. Hillbilly Gothic is filled with fresh metaphors and analogies like, "Our lives now fit us like too-small pantyhose, uncomfortable and riding up in weird places" (205). What other examples of such language can you point to in the text? What purpose do such devices serve?
16. While reading Martini's story, did you see yourself or any of your family or friends? In what way(s)? Was this helpful to you? Painful? Neither?

Creative Tips:
Invite a therapist who specializes in postpartum depression to join your discussion.
Find an article or essay about postpartum depression either online or at the library. Compare and contrast the information and experiences you find in the article with the stories of the Martini family.
Check out Martini's website http://www.martinimade.com/ to learn more about her and her writing.

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