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A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness

Robin Hemley

Publication Year: 2013

The evidence at hand: an autobiography—complete with their mother’s edits—written by his brilliant and disturbingly religious sister; a story featuring actual childhood events, but published by his mother as fiction; the transcript of a hypnotherapy session from his adolescence; and perjured court documents hidden in a drawer for decades. These are the clues Robin Hemley gathers when he sets out to reconstruct the life of his older sister Nola, who died at the age of twenty-five after several years of treatment for schizophrenia. Armed with these types of clues, Hemley quickly discovers that finding the truth in any life—even one’s own—is a fragmented and complex task.

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness is much more than a remembrance of a young woman who was consumed her entire life by a passion for finding and understanding God; it is also a quest to understand what people choose to reveal and conceal, and an examination of the enormous toll mental illness takes on a family. Finally, it is a revelation of the alchemy that creates a writer: confidence in the unknowable, distrust of the proven, tortuous devotion to the fine print in life, and sacrifice to writing itself as it plays the roles of confessor, scourge, and creator.

Upon its first release in 1998, Nola won ForeWord’s Book of the Year Award for biography/memoir, the Washington State Book Award for biography/memoir, and the Independent Press Book Award for autobiography/memoir. 

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Title Page, Copyright, Quotes, Dedication

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pp. 2-11

Table of Contents

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pp. xi-xii

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Prologue: Larceny

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pp. xiii-2

My parents seemed to believe in letting everyone do whatever they wanted until they became very good at it or died. My father, Cecil Hemley, was a poet, novelist, editor, and translator of Isaac Bashevis Singer's work. He was also a good smoker and that's what he died of when I was seven. My older brother Jonathan used to be good at...

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The Invisible and Quiet Hand

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pp. 3-13

My sister and my brother inherited most of the spiritual genes in my family-I suppose by way of our maternal great-great-grandfather Abraham, a village mystic in Lithuania, a colored photograph of whom graces the wall of my office...

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pp. 14-22

My mother has never wanted much more from life than to be an artist. Money has never mattered to her. She taught her children to scorn it, and always told me, at least, that the most precious commodity I had was time, that time was the only true currency of value...

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The Valley of Ednah

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pp. 23-28

1. The following is a portion of the first "chapter" of Nola's memoir, which I have broken off at, what seems to me, a natural stopping place. The chapter heading is my own invention, and I, like my mother before me, have done some editing of Nola's original-not for style or content, but for the sake of brevity, ...

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The Ghost on the Staircase

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pp. 29-43

I've seen a ghost. The sentence throws suspicion on my credibility immediately. One either believes or doesn't believe. There seems to be little room for an in-between stance. "You think you saw a ghost," someone says. "You're making it up," says another. "You believe you saw a ghost, and that's the important thing," another says in a patronizing...

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Her Soul's History

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pp. 44-46

... I had decided to put LB. Singer in a state of hypnosis to see chic powers. I had originally picked up at least the basics of the ten, where I observed a professional put two girls into a trance in broad daylight and cause their hands to interlock so tightly wards on my cousin, and on friends with little success; the first ...

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The Exploding Pen

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pp. 47-52

My mother sent me a couple of new stories of hers to read. The first one, she has already warned me, is about me when I was an adolescent. It's called "The Habit of Loving," and it's to this one I'm immediately drawn, of course, when I open the manila envelope. There are times in midterm, when I'm swamped with student stories, and I don't even ...

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Walk Away from Them

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pp. 53-74

I can tell you this for sure: Nola was born July 3rd, 1947, in New York City, the daughter of Elaine Gottlieb and Elliot Chess. She never knew her father. He died at the age of sixty-three in EI Paso, Texas-drunk, climbing the stairs, he had a heart attack. My mother, on learning of his death, went to Nola's room. Nola was sixteen, the difference in age ...

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Interior Shot

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pp. 75-83

"In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," the story by Delmore Schwartz that prompted my mother to write him a fan letter, is one of my favorite stories, too-one of the finest stories ever written, I think. Of course, my mother and I are not the only fans of this story. Nabokov called it one of the finest half-dozen contemporary stories, and it was...

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pp. 84-89

It's Yiddish, not Hebrew, that I'd like to know. The words I know are so few. Gay kacken afen yam, go shit in the ocean, is about all my relatives taught me, and I have only one book written in Yiddish, The Yiddish Teacher; published in 1939. I open the book up to the copyright page...

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The Pattern of Her Dreams

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pp. 90-91

The dream instructions which I was receiving with increased frequency bore a significance which carried into the events of my waking life. Their quality was without exception so vivid intense that I never seemed to be afflicted by the forgetfulness experienced by most...

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The Unbridgeable Gap

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pp. 92-105

My father's story will be short, in part because I've reconciled with him what I needed to reconcile a long time ago. I suppose there's anger in the statement, "My father's story will be short." I know, of course, that he did not plan on dying when I was seven-if he had he might have...

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The Nonexistent Robe

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pp. 106-129

Until recently I couldn't have told much of what Nola did the summer of 1967. I didn't know about her married Irish/Jewish lover, Martin, until my mother sent me letters from Nola to Martin and to my mother, and of course, Nola's memoir...

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pp. 130-142

I love the word but I fear it. Of course, I can't say it without hearing Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson singing so melodiously about something so dissonant. I suppose when Willie wrote the song, he didn't aim for verisimilitude. If he had, he might have brought in a little of...

Her Diet

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pp. 143-144

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pp. 145-161

Even now, I can't think of Slippery Rock without revulsion. For years, I hated the entire state of Pennsylvania simply because it contained Slippery Rock. Later, I decided I liked the Eastern half of the state because Philadelphia was a mitigating factor...

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Nothing I Sensed Could Corroborate or Deny Them

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pp. 162-173

Until recently, I thought Nola's troubles could be blamed on a chiropractor. I didn't know his name. My mother never told me-all I knew about this mysterious man was that Nola's troubles had begun after she went to see him, and that she was never the same afterward...

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The Silver Sword Society

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pp. 174-182

I was good at curses when I was twelve. I could put a curse on you and make it stick. But I had to be able to get close to you first. That summer, I was at Granite Lake Camp near Keene, New Hampshire. My mother was writing at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, and...

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The Shiva Notebooks

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pp. 183-195

One winter I became a prophet.
Over Christmas 1970, we went to my grandmother's beach house in Long Beach, New York, where we always gathered for holidays and vacations. Forever interested in documenting my family's odd comings and goings, I commemorated this holiday by painstakingly creating a...

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A Thousand Aerial Voices

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pp. 196-199

.... I have mentioned a friend of mine, Sarada, (a disciple of Sri Ramanuja of New York) who is at the time I am writing this a junior psychology student at Brandeis. She is my closest and most dependable friend. She was not a participant in my yoga class, but we meditated together once a week on Thursdays...

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Family of Avatars

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pp. 200-212

"Guru wants to meet you," Nola told my mother, Phillip, Jonathan, and me one night at dinner. We were eating breaded chicken sticks. Ida, as usual, hovered by the stove, trying to double our portions of food. A pile of chicken sticks and peas and carrots sat on Nola's plate, untouched. Nola and Ida loved one another but Ida couldn't understand...

Good News

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pp. 213-238

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Everyday People

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pp. 214-235

To describe my mother as permissive would be, as we used to say, the understatement of the year. She allowed us all the freedom to explore the world around us to whatever degree we wanted, and I'm not sure, even now, whether this is something I should be proud of or angry about. And yet she worried about our well-being like any parent, more ...

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The Children's Ward

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pp. 236-256

I had heard of truant officers before, although I had never actually seen one. But there was one in my living room, and I was curious about him, so I sat on the stairs while he talked to my mother as though I wasn't there. He was a black man in a coat and tie, soft-spoken, polite, "Mrs. Hemley," he said. "The law says that the boy has to go to ...

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pp. 257-282

... My mind improved, and I made many discoveries in silence. I learned that too much speech perjured the Real. and that talk was hallowed by its brevity. The substances of things always awaited me inside their appearances, but in order to see them...

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The Woman Who Was Absent

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pp. 258-269

In the Density of Dream where she was someone else if not more intensely herself, where she danced with or was embraced by a man known in the dream but unknown in her fitful widow's life, where she went into a strange house, trying to obtain the secret of the...

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pp. 270-276

Somehow it feels right for me to transcribe this story of my mother's word for word, like a naughty child staying after school to write his crime on the blackboard.
"Boy, I was awful," I tell my mother on the phone after I finish this task...

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Young Americans with Helpful Attitudes

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pp. 277-294

Joan, a woman my sister's age, called me up one day and told me that she had heard about my organization, SPEC. She represented another organization of concerned young people, called YAHA, Young Americans with Helpful Attitudes, and wanted to know if I'd be interested in talking about becoming a member. I didn't like the sound of...

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The Greater Joy

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pp. 295-297

... For the first time since my miraculous vision at thirteen, my life seemed to be making sense, the pieces were finally falling together, and I was at last able to justify every act, every move that I made. I knew Christ had intended me for service, but at...

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All in the Family

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pp. 298-302

Less than two months before my sister died, she received a letter from her Guru's spiritual partner, his shakti, Alo Devi. I have had this letter and have held onto it for many years. I don't remember where I found it or what made me want it. Like the court documents about the circumstances...

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Riding the Whip

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pp. 303-306

The night before my sister died, a friend of my parents, Natalie Ganzer, took me and her niece to a carnival. I couldn't stand Natalie, but I fell in love with the niece, a girl about fifteen named Rita. On the Ferris wheel Rita grabbed my hand. On any other ride...

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Danger, Pills

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pp. 307-332

... I began to be aware of a presence standing over my right shoulder in a majestic red cloak, from a height of about seven feet. It was trying urgently to tell me something. My mother was seated at a small table with the British girl. and the girl's husband...

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The Space between Contradictions

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pp. 308-314

I came home from school one day to find the door open and the house quiet. One of my mother's students, a woman named Lara, stood in the living room, hands in her pockets, looking awkward, disoriented, as though she'd just dropped into our living room from another dimension...

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pp. 315-328

I had a girlfriend named Rita in graduate school-we met the summer after my first year there when I was twenty-three, and I think what attracted us were our mutual quirky sensibilities. During the first weeks of our infatuation, we would write strange little cards to each other...

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pp. 329-335

Olivia and Isabel are always making drawings for Beverly and me. Sometimes Olivia writes "books," drawings with jumbles of letters around them-she can't spell or read yet. But she likes to draw pictures and tell me stories that seem to fly into her head as she turns the pages...

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A Dark and Ageless Voice

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pp. 336-337

... I was in a white robe, and had bright yellow hair. Grim mountains surrounded the world like impenetrable prehistoric beasts, and behind them the mountains a dark and ageless Voice, which I knew was God. The earth was covered...


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pp. 338-363

E-ISBN-13: 9781609381806
E-ISBN-10: 1609381807
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609381790
Print-ISBN-10: 1609381793

Page Count: 362
Illustrations: 27 photos, 10 drawings
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: First University of Iowa Press edition.