“Mental” is a three part, 50-chapter, 85,000 word manuscript about one young woman’s recovery from and triumph over a past of incest trauma.
Part One is set in the 1990s and narrated by the identical twin sister of Evelyn Stuart—a 22 year old woman currently suffering from a nervous breakdown that has caused her to go on a medical leave from her high school English teaching position. The narrator, Lilly Stuart, is still in college and writing a novella for a workshop class to try and understand what is actually wrong with her twin sister Eve, who has recently been diagnosed with Major Depression and is alternately suicidal and trying to figure out her next steps in life. This section revolves around a thwarted suicide attempt of Eve’s on the rooftop of an apartment complex during a party she is co-hosting with friends who are also still in college. Eve has gradually gone from being a high achieving person who graduated with honors from the University of Texas at Austin at 19 to begin a teaching career, to a person who is unable to get out of bed and has no explanation of the causes of her current condition. Lilly is a sort of sleuth who secretly reads Eve’s journal and explores their roots in a divorced family with an absent and violent father as possible causes of her sister’s unhappiness, as well as postulating that Eve’s choice to cheat on her long term boyfriend, the stress of teaching at such a young age, and Eve’s decision not to take out a $50,000 loan to attend Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, are all also clues to explain her sister’s state of mind.
Part Two is a flashback, also narrated by Lilly but heavily influenced by Eve’s own journal entries, into Eve’s undergraduate college experience, which was made much more stressful when she was cut off financially by their father for no apparent reason and had to struggle with two jobs to pay for her tuition and teaching internship in order to become the first college graduate in the family. Eve is portrayed as a very idealistic, romantic figure while in college, writing a long poem she calls a “cosmogony.” It is mainly in this second part of the novel that the reader comes to understand that Eve is suffering from a dissociation her mind employed in order to survive a rape attack by her father during their parents’ divorce during the twins’ senior year of high school—the true cause of her five-year long nervous breakdown.
Part Three is narrated by Eve Stuart herself. She, of course, has discovered that Lilly is writing a novella about her for a college class, and that her twin has found the journals she hides under her mattress and is using them to write a novella about her very personal and private nervous breakdown. Eve decides to sneak her side of things into her sister’s novella the night before it is due in class, and she reveals to her sister and the audience what it really feels like to have a nervous breakdown, multiple failed suicide attempts, and also the truth she has been hiding from herself that her father did indeed violate her five years ago during a drunken blackout one night during the divorce while in custody of the twins. She then goes on to detail plainly her decision to move past this trauma and work on becoming a whole person who will leave teaching and try her best to live her dream of becoming a published author in order to make the best of a negative past and triumph over adversity in a Buddhist vein of living.
This novel is written in two styles: both Lilly and Eve have a straightforward, conversational, confessional way of expressing themselves in Parts One and Three, and the flashback section (Part Two) is reflective of the highly esoteric mindset that Eve had when younger and still protected inside her own mind—a mind which was forced to bifurcate her childhood and has prevented her from maturing into a healthy adult.
The novel is full of Eve’s poetry (Part Two’s chapters generally begin with verses of the “cosmogony” Eve wrote in college) and direct quotes from her journals, and unfolds as a sort of mystery novel where both of these narrators seek to uncover the truths about their pasts and how those truths are illuminating their present and future paths.
I make a fair amount of literary allusions to authors and novels that have heavily influenced me, most notably J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”—this is Lilly’s favorite novel because the kid at the beginning of the book who throws the football around with Holden Caufield shares her father’s name, a fact taken straight from my real life.
I published a short novel I called “Leaves Subsiding” in 2010, which takes its title from the Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” This poem also appears in “Mental” and its themes heavily influence this second novel, as well. I am the author of two websites, www.MarieKJohnston.com (“The Fiction and Folk Art of Marie K Johnston” where you can read many more excerpts from “Mental,” excerpts from “Leaves Subsiding,” my other creative work, as well as non-fiction blog posts) and www.BipolarLifer.com (devoted to sharing my experience as a Bipolar I woman through the revelation of my personal journal and my fiction and visual art). I was formally trained both creatively and journalistically at The University of Texas at Austin and Cornell University, and I have also written for a myriad of newspapers, magazines, advertising and marketing agencies and Rice University’s Web and Print Division, under several pen names. My final pen name, given to “Mental” and my websites, is Marie K Johnston, a combination of my middle and my maternal grandfather’s names.
I hope this synopsis has piqued your interest and that you will continue perusing the pages devoted to “Mental” on this website and elsewhere!
Marie K Johnston