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KNAU's Southwest Book Review: Denice Turner's "Worthy"

University of Nevada Press

The premise of Denice Turner's new memoir Worthy is about being raised in a Mormon household in suburban Utah, trying to find her place in the Church. But it's also about Turner's struggle to win the love and acceptance of her mother: a woman whose severe bipolar disorder was repeatedly misdiagnosed throughout her lifetime. That theme is what caught the interest of KNAU's Southwest Book Reviewer Mary Sojourner, and it ended up bringing the two writers together in a very cathartic way.

Denice Turner writes in her memoir Worthy: "My mother's heart weights 370 grams. Her brain, 129 grams." She found that information in the autopsy report filed after her mother, Helen Chournos' death in a mysterious fire. I decided to review Worthy because Turner's mother was Mormon, and I'm intrigued by accounts of the lives of Mormon women. But, as I read on, Worthy became personal. I found myself caught up in a powerfully written story of a girl trapped in a terrifying childhood much like my own.

Worthy carries the reader into a suburban Utah home filled with the signs that a troubled woman lives within its walls. Denice Turner's mother was a dedicated physician assistant, a flamboyant belly dancer, a possessed collector of whatever caught her eye, a woman faithful to her religion, a woman beset by hallucinations, a mother unable to mother.

When she sought help for her terrors and the voices that muttered to her, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and narcissism. Her own therapist saw her not as a woman in the grip of a damaged nervous system, but as a fellow mystic. Helen Chournos was - at the time of her death - on a sinister cocktail of medication, including 7 central nervous system drugs and intravenous morphine.

Turner tried to find causes for her mother's wild enthusiasms, hallucinations and obsessions. She considered her mother's family history of violence and inadequate parenting, and found clues in the Mormon religion's objectification of women. Still, the puzzle remained unsolved. Doctors and Chournos' therapist never provided the information that might have allowed Turner to consider the real source of her mother's pain: an undiagnosed severe bipolar disorder. She didn't learn the truth until after her book was published.

I saw the signs of this genetic nervous system tsunami because I grew up with the same awful mystery of my mother's wild mood swings and suicide attempts, and finally - 30 years later - had learned the cause and the medical treatments that might have relieved her misery.

I was shocked that no mention of bipolar disorder appeared in Turner's book, so I called and asked her, 'Did no one suggest that you mother suffered from severe bipolar illness?' There was a moment of silence. 'No, Turner said, 'but I thought that might have been what was going on.' We talked for an hour. We both understood not just each other's words, but how we had each been marked by our mothers' misdiagnosed affliction.

By the end of the conversation, I knew this Southwest Review had to be an invitation to any of our listeners who might have tried to grow up as Denice Turner and I tried; in homes shadowed not just by severe mental illness, but also by the failure of some health professionals to do their jobs. In Worthy, there are pieces to a puzzle that may have estranged you in childhood and over which neither you nor your parent had control.

Mary Sojourner is the author of three novels: Sisters of the Dream Northland Publishers, 1989; Going Through Ghosts, University of Nevada Press, 2010 and 29, Torrey House Press, 2014; the short story collection, Delicate, Nevermore Press, 2001 and Scribner, 2004; essay collection, Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest University of Nevada Press, 2002 and 2004; memoir, Solace: rituals of loss and desire, Scribner, 2004; and memoir/self-help guide, She Bets Her Life, Seal Press, 2010. She has been a ten-year NPR commentator and now reviews books for KNAU’s Southwest Book Reviews. She’s the author of op eds and columns for High Country News, Yoga Journal, Writers on the Range, Matador Network and dozens of other publications. She was chosen as a Distinguished Writer in Residence in 2007 by the Virginia C. Piper Center for Creative Writing, ASU.