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Relative Stranger: Piecing Together a Life Plagued by Madness

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Recalling Jeanette Walls's A Glass Castle, Relative Stranger is an emotionally honest, gripping memoir of one woman’s attempt to piece together a humane portrait of her dead sister and the struggle of mental illness. After learning that her older sister Catherine, who had vanished long ago, had been “inhabiting the identity” of a man called “Stevie,” Mary Loudon plunges in Recalling Jeanette Walls's A Glass Castle, Relative Stranger is an emotionally honest, gripping memoir of one woman’s attempt to piece together a humane portrait of her dead sister and the struggle of mental illness. After learning that her older sister Catherine, who had vanished long ago, had been “inhabiting the identity” of a man called “Stevie,” Mary Loudon plunges into a kind of post-mortem investigation to understand who her sister was. Interviewing doctors, nurses, social services representatives, nuns, cafe owners, grocers and ministers, Loudon paints an explicit, clear account of how schizophrenia affected a promising young life while exploring the assumptions people make about mental illness. Relative Stranger stands as an honest and uncompromising challenge to the ways in which we think about one another and what it means to love, to lose, to die and above all to belong.


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Recalling Jeanette Walls's A Glass Castle, Relative Stranger is an emotionally honest, gripping memoir of one woman’s attempt to piece together a humane portrait of her dead sister and the struggle of mental illness. After learning that her older sister Catherine, who had vanished long ago, had been “inhabiting the identity” of a man called “Stevie,” Mary Loudon plunges in Recalling Jeanette Walls's A Glass Castle, Relative Stranger is an emotionally honest, gripping memoir of one woman’s attempt to piece together a humane portrait of her dead sister and the struggle of mental illness. After learning that her older sister Catherine, who had vanished long ago, had been “inhabiting the identity” of a man called “Stevie,” Mary Loudon plunges into a kind of post-mortem investigation to understand who her sister was. Interviewing doctors, nurses, social services representatives, nuns, cafe owners, grocers and ministers, Loudon paints an explicit, clear account of how schizophrenia affected a promising young life while exploring the assumptions people make about mental illness. Relative Stranger stands as an honest and uncompromising challenge to the ways in which we think about one another and what it means to love, to lose, to die and above all to belong.

30 review for Relative Stranger: Piecing Together a Life Plagued by Madness

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kyla

    Please reference my review of Debra Marquart's "The Horizontal World" re: self-indulgent memoir writing. Could have been cut by at least 100 pages, blow by blow reports of interviews the author had with priests who scarcely knew her sister shed little light on the real impact of mental illness in a family. Had to force myself to finish it out of some perverse need to finish every book I start. I regret that trait. Please reference my review of Debra Marquart's "The Horizontal World" re: self-indulgent memoir writing. Could have been cut by at least 100 pages, blow by blow reports of interviews the author had with priests who scarcely knew her sister shed little light on the real impact of mental illness in a family. Had to force myself to finish it out of some perverse need to finish every book I start. I regret that trait.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Randy Mcdonald

    When British writer and journalist Mary Loudun found out that her older sister, Catherine, had died, alone in a Bristol hospital of breast cancer at the age of 47, she wasn’t very surprised. Catherine had lived a hard life, suffering from schizophrenia and almost entirely cut off from her family. Despite this, and despite their difficult relationship, Mary wanted to know more about her sister, and so, when Mary went to Bristol to pick up Catherine’s body, she decided to investigate her sister’s When British writer and journalist Mary Loudun found out that her older sister, Catherine, had died, alone in a Bristol hospital of breast cancer at the age of 47, she wasn’t very surprised. Catherine had lived a hard life, suffering from schizophrenia and almost entirely cut off from her family. Despite this, and despite their difficult relationship, Mary wanted to know more about her sister, and so, when Mary went to Bristol to pick up Catherine’s body, she decided to investigate her sister’s life. Over the following days and weeks, she talks to as many people as she can find—Catherine’s doctors and nursers, her social workers and priests, her friends and neighbours–to try to figure out who her sister was. The book’s honesty is impressive. In her emotive, clear writing style, Loudun describes everything she finds in her walks around London, describing to us how she wept in her sister’s cluttered apartment and her difficulty understanding his sister’s transgendered identity, cleaning out her apartment, and asking her nurses whether she felt any pain towards the end, and the very troubled relationship of Catherine to a family that she was separated from by her schizophrenia. Most important for Loudun was her search to find out just who cared for her sister, trying to find out who cared and trying to find out whether her sister felt alone—whether she felt happy. On one level, this book is a moving account of one woman’s quest to learn about the sister she never really knew; on another level, the book’s power comes substantially from the way that everyone can empathize with her situation. Don’t we all have relatives we love who we just don’t know, cleaved from them as we are by a bad past or the separations forced by geography and time? The fear that we don’t know someone we love well enough, and that we might never have the chance to know, is something that I feel. I suspect that many others do, too. If only for this insight, I’m glad for this book, but that insight certainly isn’t the only thing to recommend the book to an interested reading public.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sarah J. Walker

    God knows I like books about madness...I blame my family.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Shazza Jones

    This book was ok,i just found it a very heavy read.It was pretty boring really,lots of unnecessary text,but as i said it was ok.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    I found this to be a very unique and interesting biography. Mary Loudon searches for her sister Catherine, after she's dead. Catherine, a long time schizophrenic has cloistered herself from her family for many, many years. Earlier on, there were the odd letters and phone calls but as time passes these become rare as Catherine crawls further and further into a shell, away from her family, and living a secluded life. Mary as the younger sister, often wrote letters to Catherine in the various places I found this to be a very unique and interesting biography. Mary Loudon searches for her sister Catherine, after she's dead. Catherine, a long time schizophrenic has cloistered herself from her family for many, many years. Earlier on, there were the odd letters and phone calls but as time passes these become rare as Catherine crawls further and further into a shell, away from her family, and living a secluded life. Mary as the younger sister, often wrote letters to Catherine in the various places she took up residence to tell her how the rest of the family was doing, what pets they had, which had passed on, snippets of images from their lives and offers of visits, if Catherine was up to it. Rarely did Catherine agree to the visits. Once Mary learns, through her mother, that Catherine has died from cancer at age 47, she embarks on a journey to "find" her older sister and to "get to know her". Tracking down people who knew of Catherine was difficult at first as Catherine had been going by the name Stevie instead of Catherine, Cathy or Cath. With Catherine now dead, Mary feels somewhat at fault for her older sister's life and feels she and her family sort of abandoned Catherine because she was too difficult, too complicated and too complex to deal with. It was easier to carry on with their own lives and let Catherine carry on with hers, after all she wasn't the one who wasn't trying to keep in touch. What she begins to realize during her search and discussions with various people who knew Catherine, is that Catherine knew a whole lot more about Mary and her family, then they knew about Catherine because Mary had often written letters regaling Catherine with their family's history and not vice-versa. What Mary learns more than anything on this journey of "getting to know", is her surprise at the person she REALLY gets to know...herself! From dust jacket: "RELATIVE STRANGER is the riveting story of Mary Loudon's search for her dead sister, whom she had not seen for the last twelve years of her life. A heartrendering account of the devastation that schizophrenia can visit upon a person and a family, it will leave no reader unaffected. RELATIVE STRANGER offers a profound and uncompromising challenge to the ways in which we think about one another. Perhaps most compelling of all is the author's internal journey as she faces head-on her sister's illness. As Loudon dissects our definitions of sanity and identity, and unpicks our assumptions about familial responsibility, she challenges everything we believe about what it means to love, to lose, to die, to live and above all, to belong. RELATIVE STRANGER is Mary Loudon's most provocative, incisive and moving book yet." Excellent!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Pam

    I thought this was a very courageous book. The author already knew that she was open to callous remarks or condemning opinions from her interactions in the time shortly after her sisters death - so to put this book out there takes strength. As I was reading this book - I can't count the times that I found myself nodding my head - yes, that's what it's like. My Mom has a sister that is currently in a nursing home - with schizoid behavior. My Mom and her other sister have struggled all their lives I thought this was a very courageous book. The author already knew that she was open to callous remarks or condemning opinions from her interactions in the time shortly after her sisters death - so to put this book out there takes strength. As I was reading this book - I can't count the times that I found myself nodding my head - yes, that's what it's like. My Mom has a sister that is currently in a nursing home - with schizoid behavior. My Mom and her other sister have struggled all their lives to have a relationship - to do "what is best" and to try to minimize the impact of my aunt's illness on their parents as they were aging (they are both gone now). One wouldn't believe the things strangers feel knowledgable enough to say to other family members. It is definitely a damned if you do and damned if you don't situation. Trying to keep my Aunt "safe" was a neverending struggle. She did not have the need for a clean enviroment or personal hygiene. She also is a very intelligent and witty person, like Cathy in the book. And, like in the book, although she seemed to always have her guard up for her sisters - it wasn't until after her parent's were gone (she had never left home) and she found herself in a nursing home - due to housekeeping and hygiene issues - that her sisters began to hear about what a pleasant, cheerful person she was - from the personnel. I truly believe that my Aunt is happier now - than she has been in decades. (She is not in the nursing home against her will - she could sign herself out.) I don't think I could recommend this book to my Mother. She is still dealing with the guilt, anger, shame and grief - from not being able to have the relationship she wants with her sister - it is much to close to home.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Kay

    This is the biographical story of Mary and her sister Catherine. Mary has not seen her sister for many years when she hears that she has died. Catherine had chosen not to see her family at all and rarely kept in touch, she suffered from schizophrenia. When she died Mary went to visit her home and tried to find out more about her sister and how she had lived through the years. It is fascinating to uncover what happened and to learn more about this condition. It is told simply and without judgemen This is the biographical story of Mary and her sister Catherine. Mary has not seen her sister for many years when she hears that she has died. Catherine had chosen not to see her family at all and rarely kept in touch, she suffered from schizophrenia. When she died Mary went to visit her home and tried to find out more about her sister and how she had lived through the years. It is fascinating to uncover what happened and to learn more about this condition. It is told simply and without judgement, trying to accept the facts and just tell them. It did make me slightly uncomfortable though, as Catherine had chosen to be apart would she have liked her life to be dissected and discovered?

  8. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

    I found this book very engaging - it tells the story - in memoir kind of fashion - of a sister's journey to learn about her estranged mentally ill sister following her death. I felt the story, uncovering the habits and life choices of a person with mental illness, was told with dignity and kind of fascination of the other. I feel this book captures the reality of how mental illness in one family member impacts everyone. The part about the father traveling alone to India to find and attempt to assis I found this book very engaging - it tells the story - in memoir kind of fashion - of a sister's journey to learn about her estranged mentally ill sister following her death. I felt the story, uncovering the habits and life choices of a person with mental illness, was told with dignity and kind of fascination of the other. I feel this book captures the reality of how mental illness in one family member impacts everyone. The part about the father traveling alone to India to find and attempt to assist his daughter to seek a path to health - and his respect of her own decisions - particularly moving.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Chapman

    I have tabbed many pages in this book because I really liked some of the insights into mental illness, and how society (in general) sees the mentally ill. Mentally ill people aren't missing something; they are still whole people. Is it ever possible to have a society that can accept deviation from norms? Or does the very definition of society require conformity? I found some parts a bit tedious but overall it is a book worth reading. I have tabbed many pages in this book because I really liked some of the insights into mental illness, and how society (in general) sees the mentally ill. Mentally ill people aren't missing something; they are still whole people. Is it ever possible to have a society that can accept deviation from norms? Or does the very definition of society require conformity? I found some parts a bit tedious but overall it is a book worth reading.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie

    The author searches for information and truth about her sister's life after her sister's death. This really was a heart-wrenching read, about Mary Loudon's quest to find and understand her sister Catherine's life with schizophrenia. Difficult to read sometimes, and maybe too long, but riveting. The author searches for information and truth about her sister's life after her sister's death. This really was a heart-wrenching read, about Mary Loudon's quest to find and understand her sister Catherine's life with schizophrenia. Difficult to read sometimes, and maybe too long, but riveting.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Heather

    A memoir about a family member with mental illness is right in my wheelhouse, but this got kind of intellectual and and kind of boring. It's pretty impressive that it could make me put it down, but that's what I'm doing. A memoir about a family member with mental illness is right in my wheelhouse, but this got kind of intellectual and and kind of boring. It's pretty impressive that it could make me put it down, but that's what I'm doing.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Lasuggeritrice

    L'immaginazione può dare emancipazione e liberazione là dove la vita non può. Ma che cosa succede quando la mente è il luogo dal quale si vuole essere liberati? L'immaginazione può dare emancipazione e liberazione là dove la vita non può. Ma che cosa succede quando la mente è il luogo dal quale si vuole essere liberati?

  13. 5 out of 5

    Patricia Bullock

    The author goes on a journey to find about her estranged sister's life ~ after she finds out her sister has died. The author goes on a journey to find about her estranged sister's life ~ after she finds out her sister has died.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Babete

    Um retrato lúcido e comovente sobre a experiência pessoal da autora; um olhar diferente sobre o que significa ter alguém na família que é doente mental, impressionante!

  15. 5 out of 5

    Ruth

    It was ok.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Zabetta Camilleri

    Beautifully written. Amazing how she manages to portray the fact that an individual can still be great even if s/he do not prescribe to what society defines as normal.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Panda

  18. 4 out of 5

    M'lady Fahy

  19. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn

  21. 4 out of 5

    Karin Garda Lorenc

  22. 4 out of 5

    Nicole

  23. 4 out of 5

    Wendy Marshall

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kelsie

  25. 5 out of 5

    Lauren Rose

  26. 5 out of 5

    Debbie

  27. 5 out of 5

    Candice

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ronda

  29. 4 out of 5

    Alister Moodie

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

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