Here are excerpts from the next three fabulous finalists: Amy Campbell
, Amy Risher
, and Dana Campbell
! Check back here often-- we'll be posting excerpts from three finalists each weekday, from now until the winner is announced on September 7th.
All my best,
A WORLD AWAY, BY AMY CAMPBELL
In her own words:
My book-in-progress is a memoir focused on my family’s sudden, dramatic introduction to mental illness, and the way my reaction to it challenged my self-concept. In the summer of 2005, after a two-week ramp-up that I didn’t recognize, my husband experienced a complete psychotic break. He was taken by ambulance to the psych ICU, where I – sick with fear and certain the only answer was to pack up our daughter and run – kept waiting for someone to give me the book on what to do when your husband goes crazy. This memoir is the story of what I did when my husband went crazy – how we got through the months of active illness, and how I wrestled with my own ignorance, prejudice and pride. My passion for this book comes from both the intensity of what we went through, and the certainty that people need to know that doing the best they can is plenty, even when it isn’t pretty.
A patrol car has beaten the ambulance. When I get to him, my usually quiet husband is releasing torrents of words.
“You’ve been trained very well,” he’s saying to the cop. “You’re standing like that so I’ll know you’re not going to hurt me and I’ll stand that way too so you know I’m not going to hurt you.”
His speech and actions are broad and lively. He is a Rob I don’t know, expressive, bigger than life, exploding on our front lawn, lighting up the yard. It had started a week ago as a glimmer of happy, the sizzle of a sparkler catching fire. He was jovial and engaging and full of ideas. He talked
. But within a few days sparks were jumping from him, burning whatever they landed on, igniting fires we couldn’t control. And tonight is a mushroom cloud, the very atoms of our lives corrupted, rising from our yard to greet the neighbors.
“No, I’m not going to hurt you,” the cop agrees. “You have a child inside?”
“Yes. Rosalie. She’s adopted,” he answers earnestly.
“Rob!” I snap, and he startles at the rebuke. He had put it in my head – what if they take Rosalie away? – and I can’t let him put it in theirs. But he has no inhibitions, will divulge anything, real or imagined.
The ambulance pulls up and three EMTs jump out. Rob starts grilling them immediately.
“Do you believe there’s more than one way to get to heaven?” he asks loudly.
The question rings in my ears as I make my way past him to the ambulance. The fire chief is driving the rig and I’m both relieved and mortified. In our very small town anonymity is scarce, and as a reporter for the local weekly I have none. The chief knows his stuff; right now I just wish he didn’t know me.
“Is he off his medication?” he asks, climbing from the truck.
Oh, if only there’d been medication. If only he’d seen someone when I’d asked him to, the times his winter melancholy had rendered him virtually mute. If only I had faced what I sensed was coming. But I wouldn’t answer the door to the gentle tapping of a mental illness I’d only heard about, so it knocked harder and I covered my ears and bargained with God. I know you’ve been toughening me up for something
, I’d told Him just hours earlier, sobbing on the side of a country road, a place I could be alone with beauty. But please God, don’t let it be this.
And now God was saying “no deal.”
“He’s not on medication,” I tell the chief, stumbling in the dark grass. “This has never happened before.”
It had happened before. Years ago, before we met, the pressures of college and the excesses of dorm life had taken their toll, he’d told me. He’d been hospitalized back then, and tried to commit suicide a few months later. But there was ultimately no diagnosis, at least none he knew of, and eventually he eschewed the drugs he’d been given and slowly put his life back together.
He’d wanted to be honest with me, a fact I allowed to mitigate my first, gut reaction to run like hell and never look back. I was giving high marks for honesty back then, in the wake of a divorce from a man I’d discovered had been lying to me since day one. Rob had told me on a date, one of our first few. I had been lonely and the beer was cold, and as the evening went on his voice and the neon lights and stylish crowd muted the colors of the scene he described, lulling my primitive brain away from fight, away from flight, toward him. This smart, handsome guy – a guy I’d met at church, no less – was confident that the episode had been an anomaly, a freak occurrence caused by circumstances or a misalignment of the stars. There was another date, then another, and soon he was spending more time at my house than his own, occasionally touching on a detail from the hospital or the days leading to it. Most notable to me was the fact that he’d had a girlfriend – a girlfriend he’d begged to see when he got to the psych ward: a twenty-year-old student who knew in an instant she didn’t want to be a psych-ward girlfriend. I’d been smugly confident then that I would never forsake him like that, and just as confident that I’d never be put to the test.
Hers had been a pop-quiz; mine was more like a seek-and-find puzzle, the kind they put on kids’ menus at family restaurants. Look closely and see what’s not quite right. Can you spot them all? One table leg is really a shovel. The back bicycle wheel is a pepperoni pizza. The wordless days are depression. The siege mentality about money is nascent paranoia. That vitamin his mom takes is lithium. The kooky aunt is schizophrenic. Circle them all with a red crayon, give it to the hostess, and you’ll win a husband whose complete mental breakdown is prevented because you caught it in time.
I’ve never been good at puzzles.
I WILL BRING YOU HOME, BY AMY RISHER
In her own words:
I Will Bring You Home
is a memoir that gently, and often humorously, unveils my time as a sister to more than seventy-five foster children. Most foster care stories are told from the foster child’s perspective, and are often stories of victimhood and trauma. I’m on the other side. I was the biological child, the constant presence in the ever-changing foster home. I Will Bring You Home
conveys my parents’ endeavor to build a strong, loving home while our construct of family swelled and depleted.
As always, it began with a phone call. My whole family happened to be in the kitchen, evening snacking, and Dad put down his ice cream to answer. There was a way of knowing that the phone call was for a foster care placement, especially when the phone rang so late at night. Also, there was an energy in the voice of the family member who answered the phone. Something that called all of us around to listen.
Details were given and Dad relayed it to us by repeating bits and pieces of what the caseworker said. Little girl, Dorothy. A young 3. First time placement. No outstanding medical issues. Some developmental delays. Not potty trained. Would we take her?
Katelyn bounced back and forth over the stretched telephone cord, like jumping rope. And I, in conscious effort to suppress my excitement into fifteen-year-old coolness, rocked up and down on my toes and nodded. We all looked to Mom. She signaled yes, giving the official go-ahead, and Dad told the case worker that yes, we would take her.
Dorothy would be home in about an hour. She was an emergency placement and this threw my family into a familiar whirlwind. There was usually something, often were many things, that needed to be done in immediate preparation. A child under 3? Make sure the power outlets are all plugged with plastic safeties. A teenager with a history of substance abuse? Make sure the alcohol is moved from the kitchen to the shelves downstairs, out of sight. Put Mom’s cigarettes into her sock drawer. A child with a history of fire-starting? Hide the matches and lighter fluid.
Over time, these details became common sense. We could anticipate almost anything, but were game for any surprise that would most definitely be dealt. In Dorothy’s case, an unpottytrained little girl coming late in the night, we needed diapers.
Katelyn and Mom went to find a store that would be open late. While they were gone, Dad and I scanned the house for anything that could be dangerous to a little one. We plugged outlets with safeties and moved the glass vases from up on the windowsill to a lower shelf at ground level. I brought a few bins of toys out from storage. Katelyn and I had long outgrown the little ponies and Legos, but we kept the bins of toys downstairs in containers. They were organized into age appropriate categories so that when we got a child it would be easy to access the right play things. I brought out the toddler bin, removed a few marbles (choking hazard) and brought the bin to Katelyn’s room where Dad was making up the spare bed with Mickey Mouse sheets and the detachable side guard to prevent falling.
Sometime after midnight, Dorothy and the caseworker finally arrived.
Dorothy wasn’t sleepy. The caseworker carried her into the house and Dorothy was all shy grins and bright eyes. Baby flirting. The caseworker handed her over to Mom and Katelyn and I waited on the couch. We knew to sit back and wait for them to join us, because overcrowding and too much attention too fast usually shocked the little ones. Often it even shocked the older kids, too.
Dorothy went right to Mom, who immediately noticed her sagging diaper. Mom motioned to the diapers and wipes that were still in the shopping bags. Mom laid Dorothy on the floor, stretching the smiling, curious child out in front of her. With the gentleness of holding a newborn for the first time, Mom leaned in and whispered, “Hi honey.”
BABY BRAINS, BY DANA CAMPBELL
In her own words:
When I had children I delved into the scientific literature and found a plethora of ingenious ways that scientists “ask” babies and children about the otherwise invisible cognitive steps of their developing minds. As my children got older, I collected an archive of experiments that I translated from the convoluted lingo of scientific journals into projects for parents. My book, Baby Brains: 10 Studies You Can Do To Investigate the Developing Mind Of Your Child
, is a fun, step-by-step guide through these studies for parents to actively explore questions such as: When does my child recognize her mirror image? When does the “gravity bias” disappear? Does my three-year-old know my thoughts might be different from hers? Each chapter provides space for parents to take notes and record findings while they discover – with a very personal perspective – how these experiments contribute to our rapidly expanding scientific understanding of how cognition develops in humans (and other animals).
Kicking down memory lane (Age: three-four months)
Think back to your earliest memories. Maybe you remember losing a doll when you were four? The first day of kindergarten? You might have a memory from age three or even two. But you don’t remember anything from being three months old. Psychologists term this memory deficit “Infantile Amnesia” and until recently have attributed its cause to the idea that infant memory systems are too undeveloped to store long-term memories (that is, memories longer than about 15 seconds).
Research from the infant cognition and memory lab of Dr. Carolyn Rovee-Collier at Rutgers University in New Jersey now gives us a new take on memory development. Rovee-Collier shows that infants, in fact, can recall events over long periods of time, and that infant memory systems actually have all the same constituent parts and same abilities as adult memory systems.
Rovee-Collier developed a task that thrills infants and turns out to be very handy for investigating memory in babies: simply connect a ribbon from the baby’s leg to an overhead mobile in him crib. Within a few minutes an infant learns that he can move the mobile by kicking his leg, which gives him a highly memorable taste of power! Using this tool at home, you can ask some interesting questions just as Rovee-Collier’s research team has: Can your three-month-old remember how to work the mobile the next time he sees it? Are there ways to extend his memory? How detailed is his memory? Your baby, of course, can’t tell you what he remembers, but the three mini-investigations here are designed so that he can show you.
What did the scientists find?
Infant and toddler memory is robust. Dr. Rovee-Collier and her colleagues found that the typical three-month-old immediately remembers the kicking trick for three or four days after he learns it. (A two-month-old forgets the task one to three days after training, and six-month-olds can remember up to two weeks).
A little reminder goes a long way. Even after he has forgotten, priming a baby with a little reminder of the system can reactivate latent memory. Rovee-Collier has shown that with repeated reminders, an infant can remember the event until he is 18 months old!
Baby memories are highly specific. In the “novel mobile” investigation Rovee-Collier finds that babies do not remember the generalized task of how to move a mobile, rather, they remember how to move that specific mobile and only kick at a high rate in response to the mobile on which they were trained. However, if you wait a few days before showing the altered mobile, babies often respond to it with the high kicking frequency. Rovee-Collier interprets this as the baby’s gradual forgetting of the specific features of a particular mobile. This finding highlights a similarity between infant and adult memories: details usually are the first things to go when a memory is forgotten, and the broader concept lasts longer.
The Big Picture
We see with this project that life in infancy is not such a “great blooming buzz and confusion” as Harvard psychologist William James reflected in 1890. Very young babies lay down specific and lasting memories of their experiences, and appropriate reminders can recover memories after they are “forgotten”. Rovee-Collier’s research suggests that infantile amnesia is the result of failure to retrieve a memory rather than a failure to form a memory in the first place.
Further, Dr. Rovee-Collier suggests that children – perhaps even adults – may technically still have memories from infancy, but several factors keep us from realizing that they are memories. For example, infants continually update and modify memories in the same ways that adults do. These updates make it difficult to recognize the memory as one from infancy. Also, because their rapid development dramatically changes their sense of the world, the context in which an infant lays down a memory frequently no longer matches the context of the later retrieval period so it becomes hard to find an appropriate cue to summon up the memory. It’s no wonder infant memories are so hard to recognize and recover!