For her estate sale, I nailed my mother’s twenty seven girdles to the wall of her bedroom. Girdles, instruments of torture that impede the breath, and imprison joy were emblematic of her repressive influence. Even when she lay dying, she had the energy to tell me to put my knees together.
In Elena Louise Richmond’s candid and well-written memoir, 99 Girdles on the Wall, her mother’s girdles symbolized everything that was constraining in a childhood governed by an alcoholic father, an emotionally disturbed mother, and an infinite number of Christian fundamentalist imperatives. Early in life, Richmond found refuge in her music, but it would take her 35 years to escape from the prison of clinical depression.
Readers who have coped with the slings and arrows of an outrageous childhood will appreciate the dark humor and sharp edge of Richmond’s prose:
My mother’s prayers always ended with “Guide and direct us in all they ways.” She also went in for a lot of sighing. She wanted God to know what a heavy burden she was carrying down here and but for her recalcitrant family, she could do better.
The book is also a positive journey of hope, for Richmond—who was a prime candidate for simply giving up—found ways to hang on to and develop a career in music while learning how to fall in love with her own life.
I loved teaching. I had an intuitive way of working with the children who came for lessons. I had never forgotten what it felt like to be a child: the wonder and curiosity; also the confusion, the fear of adults, and the feelings of powerlessness.
Her journey included a strong reliance on music teachers, therapists, Christian groups and her “pilot light,” as she called her inviolate spirit, until she was strong enough to make her own rules for living outside the confines of a constricting childhood.
Those who do not suffer from clinical depression often equate it with the garden variety depression of having a bad day. Richmond’s memoir is a powerful antidote to that myth, a road map for others wearing their own figurative girdles, and a story of triumph in a world where one feels out of place.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels, including the contemporary fantasy “Sarabande.”