Daughter of the Queen of Sheba
By Jacki Lyden
257 pages; $24
Journalism is tweaked by the life experience of the journalist, the practice and even the choice of the profession tugged by a past that gives form to both present and future. In her memoir, "Daughter of the Queen of Sheba," National Public Radio Senior Correspondent Jacki Lyden recounts the story that shapes her stories: the tale of her mother's manic depression.
In reading the book's opening paragraph, your mind's ear hears Lyden's own quicksilver voice, the same that fills the gaps between stories on "Weekend Edition," the same that delivered award-winning coverage of the Persian Gulf War:
"My mother's hand was open like a bisque cup, all porcelain, and Christ Jesus' fingers were tentacles entangled around her palm. Christ Jesus appeared to her as a white octopus, luminescent in the darkness, deep in the middle of the night in our small town of Menonenee, Wisconsin. It was 1966. I was twelve... And everything happened to us after that."
Menonenee is a pseudonym, as are some of the other proper names Lyden gives places and people. Lyden writes in a brief forward that she was "unsparing" in sharing memories that her mother keeps private, and so gave her mother that minimal protection. But the telling is vivid and Lyden's truth, "the past as only I see it."
Weeks after that opening scene, Lyden returns from school to find her mother dressed in a toga of bedsheets, with hieroglyphics drawn in eyeliner on her arms. "I am the Queen of Sheba," she regally informs her eldest daughter.
Lyden, on a December Sunday in 1979, learns that her mother is missing in the Midwestern cold, but before rushing home must do the first radio show of her life. "I fantasized that she could hear me, my debut on the air of this Chicago FM station, WKQX. I am talking to you Mom, I thought. Goddamit. Listen to me for once. Wherever you are this is me, your daughter, speaking. My voice on the radio at last!"
Lyden, nine years later, brings friends to Wisconsin for the Fourth of July, to discover her 50-something mother dressed suggestively in a black bustier with garters, "her decolletage..a scimitar, suspended for battle," intent on seducing the heir to a Milwaukee brewing fortune.
In 1988 Lyden is 34, the age at which her mother first became ill: "I search the mirror on rising to claim my lips and my eyes as my own, fixed on straight while I wait and listen," she writes. "Am I going to go mad?"
"You could say that my life as her daughter, the life of my imagination, began with my mother's visions," Lyden writes. "My sisters and I took them for our texts. Her madness was our narrative line. I am trying to decipher that line still, for its power and meaning over our past. Many years later, as an adult, I longed to be sent to find things out in places of great secrets, loving most the places that were the farthest and strangest and hard."
In the Middle East, in the shadow of Saddam Hussein, Lyden tells us that her mother "was my conqueror. She was at my back, always, her hand on my spine, pushing me even to Iraq as I waited for a war to begin."
In Baghdad, November 1990, Lyden assumes her hotel telephone is bugged. It "makes me feel at home, as it is one of my mother's peculiar fantasies when she is sick that everything in the house is bugged."
Nearly a year later, again in Iraq, she tempts the odds by taking pictures of the statuary the megalomaniacal Saddam has erected in his own honor. She and a colleague are caught by the Republican Guard, apprehension that could have meant death. Lyden cooly moxies her way out of trouble, sputtering in Arabic that the confiscated film contains pictures of her children. Sheba is with her.
Finally, Lyden confesses to us: "I am a writer who has nothing to fear."
Finally, after years of struggle against a reluctant legal system, Lyden and her sisters succeed in committing their mother to psychiatric care, where the miracle of lithium brings her back to reality.
Finally, Lyden can write of the photograph she carries always, of her mother in a satin brocade dress tailored in Hong Kong, taken in her mid-30s, the Queen of Sheba lurking behind her smile. It is the photo that adorns the book's cover, and if you look carefully at the picture of Lyden inside the back sleeve, you will recognize that she is wearing that very brocade.
"My mother, the 1950s housewife, never asks me to settle down," Lyden writes, in what might be her journalist's creed. "I am as content as any traveler deducing that she has everything she needs for the road...
"Like my mother I can look into the future and see a thousand stories waiting there. And maybe a home defined by that shared and sacred space with which we redeem our lives."