By: Carol Piner
Publication Date: August 2010
Reviewed by: Ellen Feld
Review Date: October 7, 2010
Within the first few pages of Evidence of Insanity, it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary memoir. There are no recollections in this book of strolling through a small southern town, cherry blossoms a flutter, hand-in-hand with a secret love. No, this book is a no-holds-barred, open-your-soul and show yourself and your family for the dysfunctional group they, and you, are. That may sound like a gloomy tale, but the author uses such humor and descriptive language, that you won’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Piner begins her story with one of her earliest memories growing up in a small southern coastal town in North Carolina. Her mother and father were just about to erupt into one of their frequent knock-down, drag-out fights. Piner’s father was a philandering, abusive husband. It was no secret that he slept around, and “Mama” had had enough. Soon, the fight was over, and Mama and her five children were taking a “trip to the water,” which, the author tells us, means throwing all the clothes of the guilty party into the river. Now, this is a pretty intense scene but the way Piner tells it, she relates this event as normal; one she actually enjoyed, “…we did not consider this domestic violence. I didn’t anyway. If this was violence, it was my kinda thing. This was just our hellaciously good time childhood. Didn’t everybody live like that?” (pg. 6)
Growing up in such a violent household, where men treated women like chattel, beat them, committed adultry, and had no time for their children, had a lasting impact on all the Piner children. As the memoir continues, we see how the author’s brothers had various problems (both related to women and life in general), while Piner’s older sister MaryBeth grew into a wild teen, sleeping with just about any boy who seemed remotely interested in her.
Piner, very smartly, sees the path her sister is going down as the wrong one. She wanted nothing more than to avoid getting pregnant and getting the heck out of that small southern town. She graduated from high school, “…then I proceeded to get the hell out of Carteret County as fast as I could. Unpregnant, too.” (pg. 88) She started summer school at the same college her brother attended and life looked like it might improve for the tenacious young woman.
From school to her early career, her early romances, and all the tumultuous times both entailed to her later, still bumpy, life, the author tells all. There were many stories that touched me such as the one about Ginny, her brother Jimmy’s girlfriend (no spoilers here, you have to read the book!). At the same time, Piner's deep love for her Mama, a strong woman who had been hurt one too many times, was truly moving. There are so many stories like these in Evidence of Insanity that you’ll wonder how one woman lived such a full, and at times, disastrous, life. Humor, too, plays an important part in this book as Piner repeatedly injects it into her story. While experiencing yet another hurricane (she had a talent for living in spots visited by dangerous storms) she was desperate for good batteries and began talking to them. “Hold out, guys. Would you do that for me? Good grief. I was talking to batteries.” (pg. 258)
The book is divided up into short, four or five page vignettes that follow Piner’s life with headings such as, “Anybody Lose a Weight Lifter?” “Too Old, Too Ugly and Barren,” and “Should I Have My Brains Appraised.” While as noted earlier, Piner had a difficult life, she never complains, never says, “why me?” but rather tries to see the positive in each event. Unfortunately, there are many incidents that are just too heart-wrenching to have any positive aspects and for those, Piner again and again turns the tables and adds a humorous comment or two. Reading a book with such devastating events as losing a lover to a land mine in Vietnam or watching a mother slowly die from depression and alcoholism might sound emotionally draining, but I came away from this book amazed at the upbeat outlook the author has on life.
It should be noted that the author doesn’t mince words and some of her language is rather “colorful.” Also, there were a fair number of typos in the text, “I do hate to keep bringing this us but it was part of what was going on.” (pg. 241) A close review by an editor would greatly enhance the reading of this book.
Quill says: A memoir that will linger in your thoughts long after the last page is read.