Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

"I have depression, I say to myself. Saying 'I am depressed' makes it sound like that's all that I am. But that's not all that I am. I have depression, but I am not just depressed. Maybe the night I tried to kill myself, that's all I was. Depression took over and became my all. But I'm a good worker at the right job. I like to write. I'm a friend. I have memories and ...hopes?"

The Memory of Light is an intensely honest and touching novel about a young girl's journey towards healing after a suicide attempt. The novel is all the more profound because author Francisco Stork writes that when he was a young man he too attempted suicide.

Sixteen year old Victoria (Vicky) Cruz wakes up in a room in Lakeview Hospital. She vaguely remembers being in the emergency room having her stomach pumped after overdosing on sleeping pills. Dr. Lina Desai tells Vicky that Juanita Alvarez found her and called 911. Vicky tells her that Juanita has been her nanny since she her birth but that she is being sent back to Mexico because of her arthritis. At the suggestion of Dr. Desai, Vicky calls Juanita who is overjoyed to hear from her. She tells Vicky her cat, Galileo's frantic meows are what alerted her that something was wrong. Juanita in trying to understand asks Vicky many questions to which she has no answers. Juanita tenderly tells Vicky she will not return to Mexico until she comes home.

After the telephone call, Dr. Desai tells Vicky she is going to recommend to her father and stepmother that she stay at Lakeview for a few more weeks to attend daily group therapy,  to meet with her and to allow the thoughts of killing herself to quiet down.

At Lakeview, Vicky's roommate is Domonique (Mona) Salas. Mona is welcoming towards Vicky and tells her briefly about the other two people, E.M who is in for beating up people including his father and Gabriel, who are part of the Group Therapy Healing sessions. Vicky meets them at lunch with Mona and finds their discussion of suicide to be honest and real. E.M., muscular and tattooed, states that he believes suicide is an act of cowardice. Gabriel insists that "a person who kills himself can be ill. When you're ill, you can't deal with problems the way healthy people can. No being able to have courage and hope is the illness." Vicky realizes that with these three fragile people she doesn't have to pretend.

The next morning Vicky's father and stepmother arrive to take her home. They plan to have her return to school immediately while she goes to see Dr. Sanez, reputedly the "best young people's psychiatrist in Austin." However, Vicky tells her father she does not want to return home that "If I go back now, it will be like before." Dr. Desai explains to Vicky's parents that a new environment for a few weeks will help her to consider the type of thinking that led to her suicide attempt. Despite his anger and disappointment, Vicky's father agrees to her stay.

As her stay at Lakeview continues, Vicky finds her thoughts of suicide become less prominent as she has daily sessions with Dr. Desai and the GTH group. During one session Dr. Desai asks them to talk about their fathers. Gabriel who doesn't know his father talks about his grandfather who is seventy-four and works as a gardener. His grandmother has an unknown mental illness. When his mother died it affected his grandfather deeply and he had a heart attack. He quit school to help his grandfather so they can take care of his grandmother. E.M. won't talk about his father so Mona tells the group about her family. She also doesn't know her father but must cope with her stepfather and her mother both of whom are addicts. The only good thing in her life is her little stepsister Lucy who was taken away by social workers and placed in a foster home. Mona is desperate to find Lucy.

Unlike the others, Vicky comes from a well to do family. Her father inherited his father's brick making factory and grew his own business from there. Vicky's father invests in rundown buildings which he restores and sells for profit. Six months after her mother died, Vicky's father married his office assistant, Barbara. Vicky talks about her mother at the request of Dr. Desai and tells them that her mother was beautiful, loved Spanish and Latin poetry and loved to play Scrabble. But when Vicky was eight she got breast cancer and died two years later. She spent the last three months of her illness in bed. Vicky's nanny, Juanita brought her meals while Vicky spent time reading to her beloved mother.

After hearing about Vicky, Mona tells the group that she believes Vicky is still sad over her mother's death. In response to Mona's statement about feeling sad over her mother's death, Vicky tells them she feels numb. As the group discusses the sadness Vicky and Gabriel felt after their mothers' death, Mona suggests that Vicky is suffering from depression. It is something Vicky has not considered and it is the first step that she takes towards healing. As the group continues to meet, they grow closer and begin to help one another towards self-acceptance and healing. E.M, Mona and Gabriel each give Vicky a tool to help her cope with life and in return Vicky saves each of their lives.


The Memory of Light is simply an amazing book, so well written because it's obvious the subject matter, depression and suicide, are close to the author's heart. And because it is a very honest and forthright treatment of depression and suicide. The novel traces Vicky's fragile journey towards healing from depression and suicide and towards learning to find the strength and joy to live again. This journey is portrayed in a realistic and very informative way to young readers so they can have some understanding about depression and see how Vicky journeys towards healing.

At the beginning of the novel, in hospital after her suicide attempt and during her meeting with Dr. Desai, Vicky lacks hope, believing that another suicide attempt is inevitable. "I want to tell her that she's right, that I'm going to try again. Sooner or later, the days, hours, minutes, and seconds of my life will slowly choke me until I feel like the only way to breathe is to die. All the group therapy meetings or private session full of talking or comfortable silences are not going to stop me."

Vicki begins to gain insight into what happened to her when the Therapy Group Healing talks about their families in-depth and Vicky talks about her mama's death from breast cancer. Mona tells Vicky that she believes she is still grieving over her mother's death. "What you were trying to say is that it's normal to feel sad for a while after your mom dies, but it's not normal to feel numb and empty like you did six months after your mom died or like Vicky feels now, which is not normal sadness but clinical depression..." This comes as surprise to Vicky because up until this time depression was only a word. But now it's "a heavy, thick fog, yellow and pale purple, the color of a bruise, that fills up a room with no windows, no air, no light."

This leads Vicky to research depression and to develop an interesting analogy of minerelves who live and work in the tunnels of her brain. Both her sessions with Dr. Desai and her daily contact with the other group members help Vicky to process what happened to her. With deft skill Dr. Desai begins to explore the time leading up to her suicide and what led her to finally move on to killing herself. They explore her father's expectations for her and how these expectations have affected how she feels about herself and her family. Dr. Desai uses the story of the monkey who refuses to let go of the mango and is captured, to tell Vicky that we all have mangoes we are holding onto. "The mango is a view of reality that is not true, a story about ourselves or about our world that causes us pain and keeps us from being open to life as it is." Vicky believes her mango is that she pretends.

The interactions between Mona, Gabriel, E.M. and Vicky demonstrate how the group begins to help one another but the focus is on the main character, Vicky who learns ways to understand herself and her mental illness. Each of the characters in the story impart some wisdom from their young lives that help Vicky move towards healing. For example, Mona tells her to be honest with herself and to make an inventory of her "uglies". "Don't lie to yourself about how you really feel about things or people or yourself." Gabriel helps Vicky to see that the things that make life good and worth living are the "green things" like roses and writing. E.M. encourages her to be brave and work around the "rocks" or obstacles that might be people such as her controlling father.

When the two weeks are up, Vicky finds the strength to confront her parents about going to Dr. Desai's ranch in spite of her father's derogatory attitude towards her fellow patients and his insistence that she try to salvage her academic year so she can attend college. He seems unable to process that his daughter tried to kill herself only two weeks earlier. But part of Vicky's journey is that she now has identified her problem and knows what she needs in order to get well.  "This dark thing, I now know, is my depression. It is something I need to get to know, understand, tame if possible, but I don't quite have the strength or knowledge to handle it yet. It has gone into hiding these past few days because I had help --- it's been five against one."

Ultimately Vicky begins to have hope for the future. It is this hope that allows her to act "as if life were worth living" when a rafting trip on the Natchez River on Dr. Desai's ranch proves disastrous. This hope also leads to Vicky beginning to want things in her life again - a sign that living is taking precedence over suicidal thoughts. And she moves from thinking to acting on those wants, helping Gabriel when he goes into a mental health crisis, finding a home for her beloved Juanita and rescuing Mona from a deadly situation. More comfortable with reaching out when she needs to, when Vicky faces her own crisis, a return to home and school, she finds support in her sister Becca and her voice to place her own care and what she believes best for herself, first. She even has to courage to confront her father when he refuses to take her to Lakeview to see Gabriel.

We also see a gradual shift in how Vicky views herself. When she enters treatment Vicky tells Dr. Desai that she's lazy an doesn't care about anything. She doesn't realize she's viewing herself through the lens of depression. By the end of the novel Vicky has a more positive view of herself as for example when she thinks "I'm a good worker at the right job."

One of the strongest metaphors in the novel is that of light which is part of the title. Dr Desai helps Vicky put her depressive thoughts into perspective by encouraging her to view herself as the sun. "Thoughts are clouds, Vicky. They are not you. The cloud of wanting to die disappears, and if you don't grab it, it will eventually float away. The cloud that says 'I'm lazy and a coward and a phony to boot' floats before you, and you can calmly watch it come and go. You are not the clouds or even the blue sky where clouds live. You are the sun behind them, giving light to all, and the sun is made up of goodness and kindness and life."

E.M furthers this imagery when he talks to Vicky about how he uses Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, to help him be brave in his difficult life.
"...Huichi is about being brave. About not being defeated by anybody or anything. Rising up every day and doing what you gotta do. Shining your light so that people and things around you can live."

Eventually Vicky finds her own Huichi, and that is her mama. In a poem about her mother Vicky writes,
"You hardly see me in the sun
My sparkle's in the stars
When all is dark around you,
I'm the memory of light."

One of the strengths of Stork's novel is the presentation of some of the realities and issues surrounding mental health issues. Stork tackles the image of mental illness head on and Vicky's father is the prime mouthpiece for these views. He doesn't want her to remain at Lakeview and is quite blunt about how he views the people at the hospital's fifth floor. "This is a public hospital. They take all kinds of deranged people. You don't belong here." and later on when Vicky advocates for living at Dr. Desai's ranch, "I don't like you being surrounded by sick people, by...patients in a psychiatric ward." These are statements that would never be made to a loved one if the ailment were physical. The novel also realistically portrays some of the realities people confront when dealing with mental health issues. For example, Mona who has been diagnosed as bipolar stops taking her medication, believing it is working against her.

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Stork never overwhelms his readers. Although the novel often contains detailed information about mental illness, Stork lightens the mood frequently with humorous dialogue and situations. This is especially seen in the intereactions between Mona and E.M. and also when E.M and Vicky's father meet in the parking lot of RC Cruz.

The Memory of Light is populated by a varied cast of characters ranging from the infuriating Miguel Cruz (Vicky's father) to the tough softie E.M., sensitive Gabriel, and the gentle caring Dr. Desai. Even the secondary characters stand out.

Stork on his website writes, "I have faith in the goodness and value of my books. In the case of The Memory of Light, I have faith in the ability of the book to give hope to those suffering from depression and to re-affirm the joy of hope in those who are well. The story of Vicky’s recovery from depression and suicide attempt is a story of hope and of how hope comes to a person’s anguished soul."

The Memory of Light is a brilliant novel that accomplishes what Francisco Stork intended. There are plenty of themes to explore besides the ones mentioned in this post. Well worth reading and highly recommended to teens who want a young adult novel with substance.

Book Details:

The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork
New York: Arthur A. Levine Books 2016
325 pp.

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