This is an unusual memoir. It combines vivid travel writing spanning a lifetime of visits to France with an account of de Vaney’s personal journey of self-discovery in the midst of crisis. She endows her memoir with the instinctive pacing of a thriller, and I read it in just two sittings, driven by the suspense generated by the two intertwined crises she faced.
Trips to France run through the entire book, with colorful stories of meals eaten, places visited, and people encountered, but those incidents described in the second half of the book could not be more different from those in the first half, because of the shadow cast in the first half by her husband during two decades of marriage. As the author states, when living with an emotionally abusive, controlling mate, “losing my soul to someone else didn’t happen overnight, but little by little.” The cycle of his rages and withdrawal and her appeasement strategies was a pervasive feature of their relationship; month-long trips to France were also a fixture of their married life, and for a while, the shared enjoyment of experiencing new sights and tastes together or revisiting old favorites clouded the truth of their underlying disconnection and conflict. Over time, however, de Vaney realized what had been happening: “a marriage has to be made of something more than trips to France. The vacations had been a distraction, allowing us to paper over the truth of our relationship.” The breaking point came when Kyle, her son from her first marriage, suffered a severe episode of psychosis, which ultimately led to a diagnosis of schizophrenia, a psychiatric condition that doesn’t typically manifest until young adulthood. Her son needed her now; she would have to marshall all her strength to care for him and find the medical help he needed. A husband who thwarted these efforts was not merely a source of suffering to her, but presented an imminent danger to her son.
…now, there was much more at stake than just a dysfunctional marriage. The fate of my son hung in the balance. …The profound needs of my son overcame my fears and gave me the courage to do what I should have done years earlier.
She left with Kyle, and a new chapter of life began. Despite the urgent demands and challenges which she and her son faced, this second half of the book felt empowering because of her fierce love and determination to learn about her son’s illness and create the best life possible for both of them.
Treatment for schizophrenia combines powerful medications–which can be quite effective at relieving the most disturbing symptoms–with learning to adapt to the special stresses that can exacerbate illness. The family members must learn to adapt right along with the person coping with the illness. De Vaney tells the story of this dedicated learning process with tremendous heart and insight. Sticking with the medication, once it relieves overt symptoms, is the biggest challenge, because, as she describes, people with schizophrenia have a hard time grasping their need for medication and the dire consequences of stopping it. Nevertheless, she always respected her son’s personhood as much as she worried about him. I have never read a more sensitive account of the ups and downs of living with a beloved family member coping with mental illness. De Vaney is wonderful at showing Kyle’s experience, as she understands it; this is not a book framed solely around the trials of a caregiver–at every turn, she takes pains to describe what Kyle’s experience must be like, while at the same time respecting that no one but her son knows exactly how he feels.
Even when life is punctuated by such crises, at some point a certain degree of stability returns; when this happened for de Vaney, she began tentatively to ask herself, will I ever go to France again? Could I make the trip alone? Her account of her first trip back is not to be missed. It is more than just another travel experience but her first steps toward a new independent life and a different career. And, not to be overlooked, she had some fantastic meals!
…duck breasts with warm, sliced pears; vin moelleux, a sweet white wine; and crème brûlée. The caramelized brown sugar on top crackled as the spoon broke through it to the luscious custard beneath, made even more decadent with exquisite vanilla ice cream. …
Dinner that evening was scrumptious. The entrée was langoustine salad, then rumsteck with red onion compote for the main dish, a glass of red wine, and for dessert, brioche with apples, ice cream, and Calvados (a Normandy apple liqueur that scorches the throat taken straight, but tastes good in a sauce), then coffee with tiny pastries.
Somehow her sense of humor was given breathing room when she was traveling on her own. Flaps with people she met or faux pas of her own were funny but not demoralizing or shaming because, this time, she was the captain of her journey. Her spirit opened up and her faith in God blossomed as well, a welcome support in her life with Kyle and in her new photography business.
As she says, she doesn’t know how the story will end. I’d like to think that the garden she chose for her cover represents a place of hope and interior peace she has found.
De Vaney’s beautiful photos of châteaux and other landmarks are included throughout the book. My favorite was probably the one of the Château d’Ô reflected in its moat. You can see slide shows of her photography at her website under “Images of France.”
Interview with Glenda de Vaney
Q1. Tell me about the cover image of a beautiful enclosed garden. I would love to know where it is and how you came to photograph it.
A. The cover photograph was taken at the Jardin du Manoir d’Eyrignac in the southwest of France. It is listed as one of the most beautiful gardens in France. I am always looking for a scene that I think will make a good photograph. I love this scene because it frames the Pavillon of Peace and the stone fence within the arched greenery. To me, it symbolizes a hidden treasure or the hidden truths of my story waiting to be discovered.
Q2. After 30 trips to France, where in France do you feel most at home – your “home away from home,” so to speak? Do you have a favorite town or region?
A. I never stay in one place longer than two or three nights – I am always on the move to the next thing, so I don’t really have a “home away from home.” But I do feel at home anywhere in France. I love all the different regions of France but, for this question, I asked myself, “If I could choose only one region for my last vacation to France, what would it be?” I decided it would be the Loire valley, because I love châteaux and this is where so many of them are located. It is also a green and beautiful area with many charming villages.
Q3. Your book recounts your own journey to find courage for a new life, but clearly you are writing about Kyle’s journey too, giving it voice. Your story bears witness to Kyle’s courage day by day. Is there anything further you’d like to add about that?
A. Kyle’s journey is really my journey too – to help him have the best life possible. I want so much for him to have a fuller life and to be in a place, mentally and emotionally, that will allow him to make it on his own after I’m gone. The longer he goes without another psychotic break, the better it bodes for him long term. Sometimes I feel as though he is walking a tightrope, that he could fall off at any time, and that I am on the tightrope with him. He could easily qualify for Social Security Income because of his disability and have more money, but he doesn’t apply for it. He wants to support himself as much as he can, so he doesn’t give up – he keeps working at his small eBay business doing the best he can.
Q4. Your bio mentions your volunteer work with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and your advocacy for those suffering from mental illness. What would you most like to say to parents whose children are facing similar struggles?
A. Two things: first, learn as much as possible about the illness. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are very serious, complex, and mysterious illnesses. In order to provide the healthiest environment for their child, it is crucial that parents educate themselves about the illness. Attending Family-to-Family classes sponsored by NAMI is extremely helpful. Statistics have shown that the more knowledge and understanding the parents have, and the more support they provide, the better the outlook for their son or daughter. And, two, never give up hope.
Q5. Was the journey described in Chapter 22, “The Last Trip to France,” truly your last? Have you made any new travel plans since then? Do you have more writing projects in the works?
A. “The Last Trip to France” was not really my last. In spite of the many frustrations, I couldn’t give up something that has given me so much joy. The last words in the book, “Ce n’est pas fini” (it is not finished), were a clue. I made a trip in 2013, taking copies of my book to give as gifts to the hotels I wrote about. In 2014, for the first time in the sixteen years we’ve been together since his psychotic break, Kyle asked me not to go to France and to my family reunion because he did not feel he was well enough to be alone. I didn’t go. Depending on Kyle’s health, I am hoping to make a trip this year. As for future writing projects, I don’t have any plans at the moment but I am open to all possibilities.
My warmest thanks to Glenda de Vaney for her time in responding to my questions and for her candid, informative, and heartfelt answers. I hope she does continue to write in the future!
Journeys Through France and Life
Glenda de Vaney
Release date: March 23, 201
at Journeys Press
Month-long trips to France twice a year – that was the life! Until real life intervenes and everything changes. Come on a journey through France with the author and her husband, eating delicious cuisine, seeing fabulous sights, mixing it up with the French. Stay on the journey as a crisis reveals that her son from a previous marriage has schizophrenia, and that her husband is not only unsympathetic, but something more.
Travel with the author as she faces her fears, and finds a way back to her true self. Through her experience, others may find insight regarding dark corners of their own lives. She puts a human face on the stigmatized illness of schizophrenia, while sharing her love of France, where she finds frustration, humor, and joy. [provided by the author]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Smitten with France, Glenda de Vaney has traveled there over thirty times to photograph châteaux, gardens, villages and whatever is beautiful. She presents slide shows on France and sells framed pictures. The author is a former volunteer for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and an advocate for those suffering from mental illness. She is also an avid table tennis player who strikes fear in her opponents’ hearts, or at least wishes she did. Glenda lives in a historic home in a suburb of San Diego with the younger of her two sons.
Visit her website.
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*Note*: I received an electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.