Welcome to the TLC Book Tour for The Long Journey Home
Margaret Robison has lived an extraordinary life. Born in 1935, she grew up in Cairo, Georgia, the daughter of an emotionally distant mother. Margaret was a tomboy of sorts. While other girls played with baby girl dolls, she wanted to play with the boy dolls. She found herself drawn to other girls and, in fact, developed her first serious crush on another young woman in college. Although Margaret had no yet come to understand what her feelings met, she overheard her parents discussing a family member who was a lesbian. Her mother told her father that she would rather Margaret be dead than like that cousin.
Margaret met her husband, John, in college, and spent the next twenty-three years in a marriage that saw John enjoy great success as a academician, while Margaret endured unspeakable horrors. John was preparing to become a Presbyterian minister, but later became a professor of philosophy. John was not only an alcoholic; he was physically and emotionally abusive. His need to control Margaret and every aspect of their lives resulted in their living for a dozen or so years in an isolated rural area. When Margaret threatened to leave, John convinced her to remain by threatening suicide. The codependent relationship endured as long as it did, in part, because of Margaret’s devotion to the couple’s two sons, John Elder and Chris. Even so, John Elder left home while still a teenager. Years later, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Chris became involved in a sexual relationship with a much older man at the age of fifteen, failed to graduate from high school, and has suffered with mental disabilities. He eventually changed his first name to Augusten, under which he penned six memoirs, the most well-known of which, Running with Scissors, caused Margaret much consternation.
During the marriage, John was treated by Dr. Rodolph Turcotte, a psychiatrist who was already notorious for his unconventional and high questionable treatment methods. Because he had lost his privileges at the local hospital, his patients checked into a motel for therapy. There, he encouraged John to release his pent-up anger. Margaret also became Turcotte’s patient. Her long history of depression eventually resulted in full-blown psychosis for which she was institutionalized. Eventually, John and Margaret’s marriage imploded. For several more years, Margaret remained under Turcotte’s influence, and she submitted to his unethical and harmful advice until his behavior escalated to such appalling and frightening levels that she found the strength to extricate herself from the relationship. She involved the local police and was instrumental in Turcotte eventually losing his medical license.
That marked a turning point in her life. Eventually, she turned to teaching, in addition to leading writing workshops and seminars. She also came to grips with her sexual orientation, and enjoyed several long-term relationships. Margaret reconciled with her mother, from whom she was estranged for many years with Turcotte’s encouragement, finally seeing her with compassion and understanding. She still suffered from depression and endured yet another psychotic episode which required hospitalization. But her recovery was much quicker because of what she learned during earlier episodes and the fact that she was free from Turcotte’s destructive influence.
In 1989, Margaret suffered two debilitating strokes that left her paralyzed on her left side, unable to walk or talk. Grueling therapy enabled her to regain her speech and the ability to walk with assistance, but she has never recovered the use of her left arm.
Margaret survived it all by turning to her artistic endeavors. As a child, she studied painting, but writing has always been her real passion and salvation. A published poet, Margaret describes how, even during the darkest moments of her life, writing poetry, as well as in her journals, and painting helped her survive.
The Long Journey Home is a painstakingly detailed account of author Margaret Robison’s life, beginning with the story of her big, southern family and her childhood experiences in a family that kept secret their struggles with mental disabilities, alcoholism, and misogyny. Robison describes her early feelings of being different. While her contemporaries watched the popular Tarzan movies and longed to be his Jane, Robison wanted to be Tarzan. She “suddenly and painfully” realized that she “didn’t like being a girl who would grow into a woman” and have to endure the same struggles that she saw her mother confront. Those included caring for Margaret’s younger sister was severely debilitated due to cerebral palsy and required round-the-clock care.
But she did grow up to be a woman who put aside the issue of her own sexual orientation and attempted to make her marriage work. Robison chronicles her husband John’s descent into out-of-control drinking, violence, threatened and actual suicide attempts and, eventually, homicidal tendencies. Concomitantly, she suffered depression, but codependence kept her in the marriage even after she had to escape to the home of John’s parents for a period of time. Eventually, she became psychotic, as well, and ended up institutionalized. She describes how, during that hospitalization, she turned to painting and writing in order to regain her sanity.
It’s been a long journey from the Cairo, Georgia, of my childhood to the New England of my old age, and I know that, for all its detours, wrong roads taken, and stops along the way, it has always been a spiritual one. . . . I know now that I’ve always been coming home.~ Author Margaret Robison
How a woman with Robison’s intelligence could become so enamored with and controlled by Turcotte is never fully explained, but he looms large in her life story because of the years she and John were involved with him and his associates. Robison fails to explore why she did not question his blatantly unconventional methodology, even though she and John knew at the outset that he had been professionally disciplined. Turcotte’s influence undoubtedly contributed not only to the marriage’s problems and duration, but also Robison’s mental disintegration. Not until Turcotte engaged in bizarre episodes of inappropriate and, eventually, violent conduct was Robison’s empowered to pull away from him and his influence over her life. By then, she had ended her marriage and began to stand on her own for the first time in her life. She also confronted her sexuality.
The book would have benefited from judicious editing because many of the included detailed are superfluous and detract from Robison’s otherwise fascinating story. The memoir would have been more intriguing and memorable had Robison devoted more pages to sharing her insight into why so many of the critical events in her life took place and, more importantly, what she learned from those experiences. The book is largely just a description — sometimes rambling — of what happened to her and her relationships, as best she can recall. (She readily admits that there are large chunks of time and many details that she cannot recall either due to being in a psychotic state, heavily medicated or because she destroyed her writings from that period of time.) Such omissions are most glaring in her recitation of the time she spent with Turcotte. She was finally able to part with him and even cooperated with the police investigation into his activities, but she provides no explanation of what she took away from those years or how readers might avoid making the same mistakes she did. Perhaps it is her intent that readers infer from her experiences what the lessons learned might be. Perhaps she has no insight to offer. It is unclear which is the case, but a memoir lacking that kind of introspection and revelations makes for a far less satisfying reading experience than one in which the author details not only what transpired, but also how the event shaped the next chapters of the writer’s life.
Also missing from Robison’s narrative is any accountability or apology for the impact growing up in such a dysfunctional household had upon her two sons, both of whom have written about their traumatic childhoods. Robison takes them to task in the final pages of the book, contending that she does not understand why the boys have written falsehoods and “fiction” about their own upbringings, but insisting that she loves them unconditionally and, at least as to Chris, who is now Augusten, has no intent to sue him over what he has written. No parent is perfect and it would have been inspiring to read that Robison feels at least some remorse for her own culpability in her children’s suffering. But such acknowledgment of her own responsibility is entirely lacking. Indeed, she completely glosses over the fact that she allowed her fifteen-year-old son to become embroiled in a sexual relationship with a man many years older than Chris, even allowing the two of them to live with Robison while openly engaged in the affair.
The one aspect of Robison’s story that is clear, however, is that she has survived because of her art: Painting and writing poetry gave her a voice (even when she lost her ability to verbally communicate following her stroke), an outlet for her complicated emotions, and inspiration to carry on no matter how difficult things became. She was greatly influenced by her childhood painting instructor and her partner, and in addition to reconciling with her mother, Robison visited their graves, fulfilling a promise made decades earlier. Robison’s poetry and journal entries are interspersed with her story, providing insight into her struggles to find her authentic self and be at peace.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of The Long Journey Home free of charge from the author in conjunction with the TLC Book Tours review and virtual book tour program. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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