October 28, 1997
by Kay Kimbrough
DAUGHTER OF THE QUEEN OF SHEBA
Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1997, $24.00.
Jacki Lyden's account of life with her manic-depressive mother Dolores, aka Queen of Sheba, opens with Dolores' first "nervous breakdown." In the second paragraph, she brings the wicked stepfather into the story. "My stepfather was the one in charge, not God. He was a doctor...Having money walled us in, I thought. It afforded my stepfather a manner of universal disdain, accented by his height and his dark, ungraying hair, which was slicked back by brilliantine into a shining crest like Clark Gable's." Lyden claims that to the townspeople he was "Richard Cory...He glittered when he walked." Although Dolores and Jacki are the major characters in this memoir, it is the evil presence of the stepfather, a cruel vampire trying to drain the spirit, not the blood, out of Jacki and Dolores that looms over the story.
As soon as Dolores began to have visions, when Jacki was twelve, the stepfather took her to a rest home for the mentally ill. Jacki imagines that the doctor has killed her mother and buried her: "Of course, he hadn't killed her. But if she couldn't be perfect, she might as well be dead." The exile of the Queen of Sheba does not last long: the doctor checks her out of the mental hospital "against all advice and prescribed her medication himself from that time on, upping the Haldol on his own scrip." The year was 1966, the era of chemical solutions. The trouble was that the chemical for Dolores' problem was not prescribed. When it was, more than twenty years later, she got well.
What happened during those twenty-plus years is the material of the book. The story is told in manic style, mirroring the life Lyden and her two sisters lived with the Queen of Sheba. Lyden's life has been manic as well. She learned to thrive in an "enchantment of chaos," or addicted to excitement, as the self- help books would put it. Her mother "romanced trouble; it was a gold bar, a bar of dhahab, that she gave to me as a hedge against boredom. She believed in risk."
Lyden's risk-taking eventually paid off. She went to college without any money because Dolores had lent her college fund to the evil doctor, now her ex- husband, and he would not pay her back. Without any money, Lyden managed to spend a term at Cambridge, England, where the main event turns out to be an abortion. When she finishes college, she runs away with a rodeo, again without any money. "The rodeo was bad at many, many things, but when it came to human irresponsibility it was outlandishly good. You never had to apologize. You never had to live with your mistakes in the same town for more than one day." Jacki was following Dolores' lead: when the times get bad, move on. Jacki's moves were made on the physical landscape; Dolores' on the landscape of her mind, from sanity to madness.
Dolores' manic stages involved grandiose delusions: she is the Queen of Sheba, Marie Antoinette, CEO of a major corporation, founder of a new company with an unlimited future or fiancee of Albert, a wealthy suitor she never had. Jacki channels her energy, becoming a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio. Sister Sarah becomes a lawyer who knows this Monday exactly what she will be doing, and where, next Monday, and Kate is the free spirit with a sun tattooed on her stomach. All Dolores' daughters are created by her, through the confusion of her wild swings from delusion to charming, imaginative and loving mother. When she is at her worst, Jacki wants to kill her, Sarah to get as far away from her as possible, and Kate to save her.
The story ends with Dolores cured, taking lithium three times a day without fail. She is happy and forgiven, working and square-dancing three or four times a week. She is still energetic. But she is not the Queen of Sheba.
The final judgment on the life of a daughter of a manic-depressive Queen of Sheba is the daughter's life: "I still dream of Sheba."
Lyden travels to exotic places by plane, not brain chemistry. She meets exotic people, hears foreign languages, has bizarre experiences. She knows where she came from and who she is, quoting Walt Whitman: "Do I Contradict Myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes."
She knows that her mother's illness, however painful, dangerous, and infuriating, make her what she is: The Daughter of the Queen of Sheba.