I HATE YOU, MARY SULLIVAN
By Barbara Jean Williams
In her memoir I HATE YOU, MARY SULLIVAN, Barbara Williams explores her fraught relationship with her immigrant Irish grandmother Nana, set against the backdrop of mid-20th-century America, offering a complex family history of generational trauma and familial bonds.
Generational trauma—the transmission of emotional and psychological wounds from one generation to the next—ripples down from descendant to descendant like aftershocks of an earthquake, imprinting anxieties, emotional triggers, and behavioral patterns into our very genes. Children and grandchildren often find themselves dealing with inexplicable mental health issues, unaware that these struggles are ghosts inherited from their forebears.
In I HATE YOU, MARY SULLIVAN, Barbara J. Williams wrestles with the complexities of familial bonds and multigenerational wounds in a tale that spans from “Irish Hill” in Montclair, New Jersey, to the bustling metropolis of San Francisco. Barbara grows up in a household that reveres the stern tenets of the Catholic Church, a moral compass that will later influence her journey into psychiatric nursing. However, the gravitational center of her story remains her grandmother, Mary Sullivan, or Nana—an enigmatic figure riddled with persistent anger and impatience. Nana’s life in America begins when she disembarks at Ellis Island in 1907. In 1930, she loses her husband, Lawrence, to an unforeseen post-surgery infection. The sweeping tides of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War embed further layers of trauma into her psyche. While America offers Nana economic stability, an elusive treasure she had never before possessed, it does little to alleviate her enduring struggles with depression and anxiety.
Nana becomes a cipher for the multigenerational trauma that Barbara later seeks to explore through her career and personal voyages—including a pilgrimage to Ireland that uncovers her grandmother’s history as a survivor of the Irish Famine. In an effort to comprehend the depths of her family’s pain, Barbara turns to the field of epigenetics and engages with the theories posited by Thomas Moore in The Planets Within, which delves into the complex interplay of external circumstances and inner emotional landscapes—suggesting that both are crucial in shaping human experiences and behaviors. As Barbara becomes convinced that her family (herself included) is haunted by a cycle of generational trauma, her memoir becomes more than a personal history. It evolves into a quest for understanding, a nuanced investigation into how inherited trauma manifests and perpetuates itself through succeeding generations.
I HATE YOU, MARY SULLIVAN offers a wealth of period details, capturing the zeitgeist of America in the 1950s and 60s and providing fascinating glimpses into rural Irish life. The writing style is clean and straightforward, almost journalistic in its matter-of-factness:
“On May 22, 1913, six years to the day she arrived in America, Nana married Lawrence Sullivan in Saint John’s Church in Orange. I wonder if that date was chosen purposely to celebrate the anniversary of Nana’s arrival. Lawrence had emigrated from Kilvemnon, County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1909 aboard the RMS Baltic. One of twelve children, he’d been employed as a farm servant in Ireland. His final destination was Orange, New Jersey, where his brother Joseph lived. Perhaps Nana and Lawrence met at a dance or social gathering of young Irish immigrants.”
But where it lends clarity, it often strips the narrative of vibrancy—the kind of stylistic flair that could elevate it to the level of similar explorations of immigrant experiences and generational trauma, such as The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls or Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. The narrative often finds itself confined within its own polite boundaries, unwilling to venture into emotionally challenging terrains—though this applies mostly to the parts regarding Nana and her family in Ireland. The writing does feel more lively when the author relates her own experiences as a young college graduate living in 1960s San Francisco, or later when she moves back to New Jersey to work in a methadone clinic.
One cannot deny the book’s historical charm, and Williams’s discussion of intergenerational trauma and epigenetics makes for an engaging introduction to the topic (the book helpfully includes a bibliography for further reading). However, Williams seems reluctant to unearth the more uncomfortable aspects of her family’s history, and the result is a reading experience akin to flipping through a family photo album with a courteous but distant relative: a touch nostalgic, reasonably charming, but lacking the candor to make the story resonate deeply.
Despite its flaws, I HATE YOU, MARY SULLIVAN by Barbara J. Williams offers an interesting glimpse into one family’s struggles with generational trauma.
~Edward Sung for IndieReader
Cape House Books
I HATE YOU, MARY SULLIVAN
By Barbara Jean Williams
Barbara J. Willams’s memoir, I HATE YOU, MARY SULLIVAN is a poignant journey into understanding. The author’s grandmother, Mary Sullivan, lived with the family for 20 years and their relationship with often stormy. Fifty years later, Barbara revisits the relationship with her skills and knowledge in nursing and psychiatry, and travels to her grandmother’s homeland to fully understand what drove her to break ties with it. By turns funny, difficult, and full of lush sensory description, the memoir is beautifully written.