Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Half Life of Molly Pierce by Katrina Leno

"In the times I 'd like to black out, I am forced to live. To be aware. To witness."

Leno tackles the unusual condition, dissociative identity disorder in The Half Life of Molly Pierce. Formerly known as multiple personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder is a controversial disorder in which "two or more distinct identities, or personality states, are present in—and alternately take control of—an individual. The person also experiences memory loss that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness." (Psychology Today

Seventeen-year-old Molly Pierce experiences long stretches where she remembers nothing about what has happened to her.  As far as she knows the missing memories started a year ago and she hasn't told anyone. No one except her thirteen year old sister, Hazel seems to notice. Not her parents who own a book store, nor her fifteen year old brother, Clancy. Molly has been seeing a therapist, Alex one a week.

It's mid October and Molly finds herself driving through Manchester-by-the-Sea, a small town in Massachusetts. She's left school and she can't remember what has happened to her over the past few hours but she decides to go home, shower, take a nap and then go to her parents bookstore to help out. Looking in her rear view mirror she sees  a boy on a motorcycle in a black helmet and jacket, racing to catch up to her. While she makes it through the next intersection safely, the boy on the bike does not. His motorcycle is hit by a truck and he ends up landing on the pavement in front of Molly's stopped car.

Molly races out of her car to the boy who is badly injured and dying. He recognizes her and calls her Mabel, telling her he messed up and he's sorry. He tells her his name is Lyle Avery and that she knows him, asking her to stay with him as he dies. Molly has no idea how Lyle knows her but she agrees to "pretend" she knows him. She agrees to call his brother, Sayer and accompanies Lyle to the hospital in the ambulance. When Sayer arrives Molly tells him she has no idea who he is and she questions him as to how he knows her name. Sayer never really answers her questions and following Lyle's death, she is picked up by her parents.

Lyle's death is the trigger that eventually helps Molly realize what is happening to her and that she had created an "alter", a separate personality to deal with the stress of living. Molly is puzzled by the fact that Sayer knows her yet she has no idea how she knows him. Sayer asks her to attend Lyle's funeral which Molly agrees to. Molly is filled with many questions. She asks Sayer how he knew where she lived, how long he's known her and how she knew Lyle. Sayer's answers are vague adding more mystery to Molly's life until she gradually begins to remember.

Molly's memories come back in reverse chronological order starting with her most recent encounter with Lyle in a warehouse just prior to his accident. Lyle and Molly argued and she told him it was over and not to follow her. But he did. On his motorcycle. After the funeral Molly remembers a second time when she met Lyle beneath the "oak tree on the edge of the graveyard in town."  Molly told Lyle something that he didn't seem to like and he left. This memory is so deeply upsetting to Molly that she sees her therapist Alex.

At the appointment with her therapist, Molly tells him that she is missing  "blocks of time" where she has "no idea what I've been doing. Where I've been."  Molly thinks that Alex should be surprised by this but she learns that he already knows. Alex tells her that when she's herself he has told her but she doesn't remember, that she blocks it out. And he suggests to her that she needs to work it out for herself.

Each memory leads to only more and more questions and Molly gradually comes to remember events further back. At first she doesn't understand who the Molly is in her memories because she's different.
"Something has developed between yesterday and today: this weird feeling that I am not watching myself but a copy of myself. Some of the things I say, I would never say in real life. The Molly in my memories, she is bolder than I am. She is less inhibited. She is prettier. She does her makeup better than I do. Her hair. She holds her shoulders differently and she always smiles like she knows what everyone is thinking."
Molly begins to understand that Alex is right, that she has to figure this out for herself. These memories gradually lead Molly to the revelation of her alter, Mabel, who met Lyle but fell in love with his brother, Sayer.
It was almost as if someone else had taken a turn at living my life.
Someone else.
And suddenly the answer hangs waiting in the air in front of me....
Someone else living my life.
I don't feel anyone else inside me.
What else accounts for any of it?
The Half Life of Molly Pierce is a strange novel because is deals with a very unusual mental illness - that of a person having several personalities. In this story, Molly Pierce has a second alter, Mabel, who is more outgoing, confident and happy. As Molly recovers her memories and becomes aware of Mabel, she has to make the decision as to whether her alter is going to stay or leave.

Molly is a believable character, struggling to understand what is happening to her and ultimately deciding that she needs to live her life, that she deserves to be well and to be happy. One of the strong features in this novel is the positive portrayal of Molly's therapist and her family, both of whom give her the space and time to work through her mental illness.

Leno weaves her mystery about Molly slowly and then drops hints along the way as to the identity of "Mabel".  A novel about a girl with dissociative identity disorder could have been very depressing, but Leno never lets her story slip into the darker aspects and in fact, the novel ends on a very hopeful tone. We even get to experience some of her alter, Mabel, in a few chapters and learn why Mabel came into being. Mabel seems to recognize that her time is almost up but she seems accepting of that. Mabel writes Molly a letter explaining why Molly created her and that she now needs to go because she is harming Molly rather than helping her.

Perhaps the novel's weakness is the lack of secondary character development, particularly Molly's parents. The dynamics between Molly and her siblings was interesting to read, how they were able to recognize that she had two different personalities. Hazel knew before anyone else that Molly had Mabel, but Clancy is more accepting and more honest towards her. I also found it interesting that Mabel could be recognized and distinguished in family photographs from Molly.  

The Half Life of Molly Pierce is an excellent debut for this author. It is a short, high interest, and well written piece of realistic fiction.

Book Details:
The Half Life of Molly Pierce by Katrina Leno
New York: HarperTeen    2014
234 pp.

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