A captivating memoir of love, loss, mental illness and redemption.
Kennedy walked into her first day of first grade alone, with unkempt hair that both her parents had neglected to brush. So begins her saga of having a mother whose mental illness (eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder) resulted in multiple psychiatric hospitalizations. Her mother’s condition led to greater challenges than messy hair, of course, which included near-fatal episodes involving delusional beliefs. The book’s scope ranges far beyond this single issue, however; Kennedy paints a vivid picture of a family’s travails and triumphs. She describes unintended pregnancies, unacknowledged homosexuality, substance abuse, military service in Vietnam, attempted suicide and homicide. Kennedy grounds her family’s history in the zeitgeist of changing times, enriching the narrative by illustrating the impact of societal issues on her loved ones. Her sophisticated rendering of bittersweet situations evokes complex emotional reactions. Despite the masterful emotional portrayal, Kennedy sometimes skims the surface when she discusses her own grief. A grittier discussion of that personal topic might have improved the memoir, but it’s not an omission that brings down the book as a whole. Each character—portrayed with empathy and balance—speaks with his or her distinctive voice, adding a layerof realism to dialogue. Kennedy’s straightforward writing and economical prose lend density to her telling; every page feels significant. Apt, memorable phrases—“Her voice sat up straight” and “[L]ife was an illusion. Love was the real
living”—further animate the work. Kennedy’s experiences form a unique constellation, but the life lessons are universal.
Poignancy without pity, triumph without glory. — Kirkus Reviews
for Psych Central:
In the 1960s, when author Peggy Kennedy grew up, mental illness was a family secret. It was whispered about, handed off to hospitals, restrained, subjected to electroshock therapy and slews of sedatives and sent back home, when appropriate. Peggy Kennedy knows this all too well because her mother suffered from schizophrenia (her diagnosis was later changed to bipolar disorder) during a time when little was known about the disorder and crude treatment was the only option for reducing symptoms and restoring sanity.
Approaching Neverland: A Memoir of Epic Tragedy & Happily Ever After tells the story of Kennedy's mom and the entire family, her father, two brothers, Glenn and Patrick, and two sisters, Joan and Sue. I read this book in one weekend. Correction: I devoured it. I fell in love with this family and their triumphant and tragic stories. Approaching Neverland is beautifully written, and a genuine page-turner and emotional rollercoaster, and that's for the reader.
It opens with a 5-year-old Kennedy getting ready for her first day of school, desperately wanting her mom to help her, but Mom, according to her dad, needs rest today. During class, though Kennedy tries hard to be well-behaved and proper, one of the nuns pulls her aside, and takes her to the girl's bathroom to brush the knots out of her twisted and tangled tresses. After the nun tells Kennedy to simply remind her mom if she forgets to brush her hair again, Kennedy's eyes well up with tears. She yearns to tell the nun, "My mommy's sick and they might take her away." But she holds back, remembering what her brothers had told her: Don't tell anyone anything about their mother.
And so begins a messy journey into Kennedy's childhood, a childhood stained with secrecy, shame and growing up too fast. One of the messiest and potentially fatal moments occurs when Kennedy's mom decides that instead of going to school one morning, all the kids would go to Neverland to see Peter Pan. Thanks to the actions of a concerned neighbor, however, Kennedy's family is saved, and her mom is taken to the hospital, just one of the many hospitalizations her mom and family will endure.
Kennedy also addresses the stigma of mental illness, which is still, unfortunately, all too prevalent. Four decades after the events in Approaching Neverland, society has yet to react to mental illness in the same way and with the same empathy as it does to physical illness.
Having a mom at Napa State Hospital wasn't like when my classmate Marie's mother had gotten sick in kindergarten, and we all had made pretty cards for her. No one ever asked us how our mother was, or ever offered to say a prayer for her to get better. Mental illness scared people. If you had it, you didn't admit it. If your mother had it, you prayed that no one would find out. But everybody knew about my mother. I heard whispering at school, and sometimes kids would stop talking when I walked up to them.
Fortunately, we've begun to better understand how to treat mental illness. In her book, Kennedy gives readers a glimpse into the earlier crude treatments.
I learned later that she had electroshock treatment twice a week. Promptly at 7:30 a.m. treatment patients were herded, begging, pleading, crying, and resisting into the gymnasium and seated around the edge of the room...
One attendant stood at the head of the table to put the rubber heel in the patient's mouth so he couldn't chew his tongue during the convulsive stage. On either side of the table three other attendants held him down. After the electroshock, patients were given a heavy dose of Thorazine, which made them so foggy-headed and zombielike that they needed help with bathing and eating, and they had to be escorted around the hospital grounds.
As a mental health writer, I was struck by Kennedy's portrayal of her mom, Barbara. In many books, TV shows and movies even today individuals with mental illnesses are depicted as one-dimensional. Their disorder is intertwined with their identity. It becomes, "Oh, she's a schizophrenic," or "he's an anorexic." The illness overshadows a person's personality, talents and other traits.
Kennedy's book, however, shows a complete, three-dimensional person, who, yes, suffers from mental illness, but also is loving and creative, has a great sense of humor and cares deeply for her family. Moreover, despite what many think about schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, Barbara was a strong, resilient and multifaceted woman. In fact, during many instances, she becomes the family's rock.
As Kennedy learns to deal with her mother's mental illness, she gains various insights into how life must've been for her mom (also no doubt great lessons for readers). One lesson she learns after the family dog has passed away:
She turned. She'd been crying something I'd never seen her do. Anything Mom did out of the ordinary made me worry. I watched her eyes.
"He's gone, Peg." Joining her on the floor in tears next to Pogo's still body, I realized that Mom also existed outside my anxiousness; that she was a real human being with a wide range of emotion. Mom never yelled unless she was heading for a breakdown...But what if, on that first day, Mom was simply having a bad day and being testy? Didn't she have the right to express how she felt without everyone analyzing her tone while they worriedly studied her eyes? How many times had she held back her emotions for fear of being carted off to Napa [State Hospital] or Agnews [Insane Asylum], or at the very least, of alarming us kids? It can't be comfortable to have your family always watching to see if you're going crazy again.
But this story isn't just about Barbara Kennedy. It's also a journey through the lives of the entire Kennedy clan, including Peggy Kennedy. Because I don't want to spoil the book, and reveal the details of each family member's lives, I will say that the family has to cope with life-threatening illnesses, tragic losses, affairs, broken relationships and the trials and tribulations of growing up and finding one's place in the world.
There are no labels, no clichés and no stereotypes. Instead, readers will find a beautiful and heart-wrenching story about a family who deals with their struggles as a family with unwavering and unconditional love. This book is truly an inspiring and mesmerizing must-read.
Emily Siebert, Feminist Review - September, 2009
I think a lot of writers, regardless of genre, dislike it when people ask, "So, what's your book about?" I think they dislike it because oftentimes the inquirer (whether a bar buddy, an aunt, or literary agent) cannot take the time to sit down and feel the emotional pulse of the work. What they really want is for the writer to give them the SparkNotes version, the blurb, or the pitch. Then after the writer has sterilized, politicized, and dissected his or her work into socially relevant terms, or sensationalized the hell out of its plot points, the inquirer decides whether or not it's worth their time.
Good memoirs, such as Peggy Kennedy's Approaching Neverland, are usually ones that divulge personal issues discussable in broader cultural contexts. I wouldn't say this book is about the stigmatization or (mis)treatment of mental illness over the post-war decades, or even about the writer's coping with her mother's mental illness. I wouldn't say it is about how she and her family handled taboo issues, including infidelity, abortion, discovering sexual identities, AIDS, or any number of other juicy topics that recur throughout. Kennedy writes with such sincerity, and pulls the reader so close to her characters, that to try to compartmentalize and brand them with labels seems a disservice. By the end of the book, Kennedy has made the reader feel like one of the family, so I want to avoid even the politically correct pigeonholing of her beloved ones.
Of course, the English language is limited. Time is money and, as feminist activist (there's that pesky, inevitable labeling) Carol Hanisch said, "the personal is political." So what is the book about? To use Kennedy's words, "Death and life and sorrow and joy circling round and round in an eternal dance of being."
Okay, instead of belaboring what the book is or isn't really "about," I will say that Approaching Neverland is worth reading, re-reading, and sharing with others because it is beautifully human. The writing is earnest and palpable. The family's strengths, vulnerabilities, tragedies, and joys will have the reader crying at the bottom of one page, smiling by the top of the next, then crying and smiling by the bottom again. Basically it will make you one hot mess, so if reading in public, keep a tissue handy.
The bond among Kennedy's family is solid, and so is the one she creates between the reader and her story. Reading is an emotional excavation, as well as an important reminder that people are worth much more than their labels and some books are worth much more than their blurbs.
Independent Reader Review - November, 2009
"When I was 9 months pregnant with our third child, I began the journey into Approaching Neverland and even though I was only able to read a page or two at a time between chasing my other two children and falling asleep being so tired from the pregnancy, I did not want to stop reading the story. I brought the book with me to the hospital and attempted to finish it there but wasn't able to until I was home again. There have been many books that I've just skimmed through and got the 'gist' of the story, but I was determined to read this book's every word. What was important to me was the courage the mom and entire family had to hold itself together through all the difficult times. As I entered into post-partum life for the third time dealing with my own demons of Post Partum Depression and Anxiety, I was truly inspired by this family.Yes, a prescription drug can help daily life tremendously, but the love and support of family is essential. This family is incredible and I am so grateful every day for Approaching Neverland's words of inspiration. The attached picture is of Isadora Luz, our third child and first girl. Like the author and myself, Izziy is the youngest child and girl in a Catholic family." Mary Peterson
Maure Quilter, M.A., LMFT, The Therapist Magazine
I wholeheartedly recommend Approaching Neverland as a memoir to read, even study. It is a story of rare courage and candor. Statistics reflect that in nearly every family, a member is visited by some form of mental illness. The ways in which the writer's mentally ill mother experiences her terrors is only a small part of this story. Each of the five children unconsciously adopts an important position in this family. The quiet hard working Dad loves his wife and family, but seems to be in the dark and unable to figure it all out. Of course, this took place in an era devoted to denying family problems. During this time, there were few autobiographies or memoirs revealing the inner pain families experienced. I might be wrong, but I think the glorifying of suffering in silence was even more true in the old-fashioned Catholic families. Being raised in a similar belief system at an earlier time, I risk this generalization. The journey of the parents and five children is poignant, courageous, humorous and compelling.
Psychotherapists need to order this book NOW, read it and share it with clients and colleagues. Any therapist with any specialty at all will gain depth, insight and compassion from a deeper reading of this family story. There are strands of painful themes often overlapping each other. The perfect Catholic family deals not only with coping with Mom's bi-polar sieges, but the "coming out" of two gay older sons, and a lesbian sister. Sadly, AIDS takes the oldest son. The unsolved murder of the middle sister takes the reader to an even deeper level of grief, trauma and loss. How did this family not blow apart from all this pain?
The weaving together of love, suffering, and creativity in this book touched me deeply. The hard working, "married-way too young" Dad - seemed lost, confused and yet devoted to his wife and children. Each child seems to individuate and find their talents and paths. Amazing!
The children growing into young adulthood seem to flail about, some rebelling (normal), some experimenting, others fumbling through his/her own reading of life. There was not much guidance or understanding from the outside.
I wonder if the writer, Ms. Kennedy, the youngest child, ever realized she would in many ways be the family guide. Each sibling turned to her at one time or another for guidance.
I do believe anyone who has lived with a family member burdened with mental illness will appreciate and be comforted by this story of maturing under duress.
Living through their mother's episodes and hospitalizations carved each child into his/her gifted, amazing self. The delightful flavor in the story is the humor, and fun the kids and Mom share along with the crises.
I think families and professionals of all descriptions would be enlightened about the stalwart human spirit through reading the Kennedy family saga. The writer with her siblings' generous permission shares the human truth without romanticizing, dramatizing or omitting the funny events. Ms. Kennedy paid her own dues and shares the benefit of this with not only professionals, but families living through such pain and challenge. I for one, as a professional am grateful for this gift of truth, not only for myself and my work, but to share with others.
Reminiscent of JD Salinger
||Wayne W. Felton
More than an accounting of the effects of mental illness, Approaching Neverland is a story about how families grow and adapt and love each other in spite of overwhelming circumstances. Set in California in the 1960s, Ms. Kennedy's honest and insightful tale could only take place during this unique period and place in history. The family members are crisp and complete and I felt as if I had known each one for a long time. It is a pleasure to recommend Approaching Neverland to others who are interested in reading an uncompromising story about what happens when a talented, but otherwise average family, comes apart in fascinating, but unexpected ways.
"Approaching Neverland" is an unforgettable memoir. Peggy Kennedy's account of the tragedies facing her family showed both courage and compassion. I have read a number of great books where endearing characters have died. And I remember feeling like I should have cried but the tears never came. This book was different. It moved me so that I choked back tears of anguish and joy multiple times during the reading.
This candid story will be of help to many of us who have dealt with the difficulties of adversity. It gives us hope of the phoenix rising, where we can and will find the strength and beauty that can only come from the ashes of the past.
A wonderful book for new beginnings ...
What a time it was
Reading this book swept me back to coming of age in the '60s. I was riveted to the memories from a time when no one mentioned divorce, let alone parental mental illness or infidelity; no one mentioned family members facing confusion in their gender identification; and no one knew what new issues challenged, even threatened, our development to adulthood. This powerful memoir is told with humor, compassion and wisdom and reveals an undercurrent of abiding sadness. Was the modern dysfunctional family invented then? If only every such family had the same rich resources as the Kennedys: unconditional love and support between numerous siblings; persistent creativity; family loyalty; and, for some, resilience. There will always be families facing mental illness, confused children, and young adults in crisis: identities evolving and sorting out years after. Approaching Neverland is an affirming, human tale of one woman from such a family.
A Celebration of Triumph over Tragedy
From the moment I read the first page, I was hooked. Peggy Kennedy's beautifully written memoir is the story of her remarkable family and how she carved out a successful life for herself despite the challenges she faced growing up.
Like that other Kennedy family, Peggy's was marked by being blessed with great talent and promise as well as by suffering more than their share of heart-breaking misfortune. Creativity was king in the Kennedy household and each of the children was gifted with special abilities. However, their mother's mental illness was the underlying shadow that colored much of their early years and the secret that bonded the family in silence.
"Approaching Neverland" is a mesmerizing read from the moment you pick it up until the final page. Anyone who has ever faced significant loss or overcome great challenge will especially relate. Peggy's story is both a deeply moving account of a complex family and a celebration of triumph and overcoming the odds. A must read that will leave you smiling with tears in your eyes.
A Memoir of Epic Proportions
Unlike J.M. Barrie's fictional character Peter Pan who enjoyed never-ending childhood, Peggy Kennedy, as she eloquently recounts in her candid memoir, "Approaching Neverland," scarcely had time to be a kid.
September 1960: Five-year-old Peggy perches on a chrome chair, arms circling her cereal bowl. Fraught with first-day-of-school jitters, her feet nervously dangle above a zigzag sea of maroon, green and beige linoleum.
"She's tired this morning," her father says noticing Peggy looking for her mother. "She needs her rest."
Heart heavy and hair tangled, Peggy stares at her Cheerios.
Arriving at school under the wings of four siblings, she lingers in the hall while her brother rakes a comb across her ponytail. In class, on best behavior, hands folded in her lap, she's singled-out and escorted from the room. Her disheveled hair, it appears, betrays her family. It calls attention to the fact everything in the Kennedy home may not be as it seems. Peggy, however, knows the drill. She chokes back tears and the truth.
Home again, anxious to share her day, Peggy and her sisters and brothers are met with The Lone Ranger theme blaring, rooms topsy-turvy and their mother, Barbara, trotting around a "collection of objects, her head thrown back like an Indian circling a captured village."
Thus the reader begins a powerful, chaotic journey with Peggy and her family through the veiled ravages of mental illness. Children quietly shuffled back and forth to family members. Hushed hospitalizations. Undisclosed attempts by Barbara to whisk them all off to "Neverland." Once with near fatal consequences.
Such was the fate of a mental illness diagnosis 50 years ago. So little was understood by medical professionals, fearful patients and families knew only to secretly give it their best shot.
Best, however, does not trump loss. Peggy's brave, beautiful and often humorous account of a family's efforts to put the pieces back together, again and again, while continuing to endure more tragedy than anyone should ever have to, is a remarkable legacy to the people in her life and their capacity for love. Because, in spite of it all, time after time, even when love was not enough to change the circumstances, it triumphed.
Peter Pan's youth was everlasting. Peggy, through a willingness to examine and move beyond misplaced childhood to life well-lived, also savors forever. Her closing sentiment in "Approaching Neverland": "...sometimes, good things can last and last. And last."
WOOF: Women Only Over Fifty
Closet Skeletons That Last & Last,
Reviewed by Angela Henley for Reader Views (7/09)
Reading "Approaching Neverland" was enlightening for me as a social worker and as a person. This story begins in the 60s where mental illness and family problems, just "were not talked about" to others, it was considered "taboo." It is my belief that during this time period many true stories were written under the guise of fiction to avoid the stigmatism of "airing your family's laundry." It is with some reservation that I say that the same is not true today.
Our society is just coming to realizing the therapeutic nature of the creative arts, which includes the process of life journaling through writing, photographs and drawings. This process is used frequently by social workers in the field of foster care and adoption as a tool to help the children and adults affected by these events to sort out, categorize and accept the challenges that life has presented to them. This tool often bridges the troubled pasts of individuals to the present with the hope of a better and less chaotic future. It is a tool that used for individual growth and not very often shared. The sharing of such information helps professionals understand the challenges that they have not experienced themselves more deeply and intimately. This intimate book could be used in academia to further the knowledge of counselors and social workers working with similar situations.
Peggy Kennedy introduces us to her nuclear and her extended family members in such a manner that one finds them endearing. The reader ultimately has the same type of unconditional love for the family that the family members have and grow to have for each other. It is a book of understanding and ultimately forgiveness on many different levels. The life and death(s) that are chronicled in this book are revealed, revered and respected by the author.
The timely title "Approaching Neverland" is relevant in many ways. The mental illness that afflicted the mother needed to be understood, chronicled, journaled and rectified in the mind of the child(ren). The mother's mental illness also afflicted the children who had to grow despite the mother's wishes to not allow her children the opportunity to grow old both literally and figuratively. Even in our modern world where bi-polar is often spoken about and mental illnesses are more "accepted" the affects of the illnesses are not tolerated nor forgiven most of the time by society or the children that it ultimately affects. Many times families are dismantled, torn apart and new structures are put in place to help the children lead more productive and "normal" lives. Even through many years of education and studying it was only in "Neverland" that I would believe that these children could live "happily ever after" and realize that through it all they had actually had a "Wonderful Mother."
A top pick for those seeking memoirs on mental illness and its effects on parenting
A mother is supposed to be a beacon of rationality in a child's life. "Approaching Neverland: A Memoir of Epic Tragedy and Happily Ever After" tells the story of Peggy Kennedy and her mother Barbara. Barbara was a loving mother, but she was plagued by a mental illness that made Peggy's childhood a very strange one. Reflecting on her past and her unique relationship with her mother, "Approaching Neverland" is a top pick for those seeking memoirs on mental illness and its effects on parenting.
I finished the book but the book hadn't finished with me...
After racing through Approaching Neverland, I said to my partner of 28 years "you HAVE to read this!" I kept
asking her "where are you now?" and "what's happening now?" Over the next week scenes and situations kept running through my mind. I arrived home one afternoon to find another copy of the book on my side of the bed with a note that said "you obviously need to read it again Right Now, so enjoy."
It is difficult to find words to describe Approaching Neverland because it truly has everything a reader could
want and then some. It is hard to believe that one family experienced so much "Life" and handled it with love and grace and...humor. That 3 of 5 children were gay was amazing. That all of the Kennedy kids were creative and successful in life is even more amazing, and a testament to their love and cohesion as a family. Knowing that the 3 Gay & Lesbian kids were loved and celebrated along with their straight siblings made my heart ache with envy and gratitude for their great fortune.
You can believe that the subtitle accurately describes this story as "A tale of epic tragedy and Happily Ever After." Approaching Neverland is a terrific read for our community....and every other human community.
P.S. My partner and I became 1 in 18,000 when we were legally married in California lasst August on our 28th anniversary. ;-)
By Camille Strate
Reading memoirs, especially those that include words like "epic tragedy" may not be your very first choice when you're looking for a good read. To tell you the truth, I'd probably not have bought it either. I tend to lean toward books that are going to lift me up, not remind me of the less-than-joyful experiences of others. This book, however, is an exception to my rule. The fact that the author also included "Happily Ever After" in the title was enough to nudge me off my cozy little shelf and give it a read.
Peggy Kennedy, author and living proof that there IS 'happily ever after', hails from the San Francisco Bay area. She grew up during those turbulent 60s, when mental illness was a secret safely guarded by families who had to deal with the daily terrors of psychosis, and the state of medical treatments were nothing short of horrific. Back then, electroshock therapy was as common as Xanax is today. Fact is, they just didn't know enough to help these people, and the methods were often reminiscent of old Boris Korloff films. Not pretty, not very effective, and certainly not something folks wanted to talk about.
Ms. Kennedy's story is not so much about her mother's mental illness as it is about the bonds of family, the love and humor that brought them through their ordeals, and the amazing grace she managed to find when she finally reached "happily ever after". She and her siblings were a tight crew. They supported each other, even beyond their mother's mental illness. They lost one sister to murder, a brother to AIDS, and various other horrors that would certainly have broken the best of family ties. Not this family. Their courage and humor were their saving grace, even when it seemed as if there would never be light at the end of their very dark tunnel.
Approaching Neverland is one of those books that will move you, and make you really appreciate your life, regardless of how tough it may have been. It is both thought-provoking and inspiring. It took me a bit longer to read than is my norm, mostly because there were moments when I was so overwhelmed by what they went through. She tells her story with such honesty, such deep feeling, you feel as if you're right there with them, going through it all, hanging on by a thread.
If you've ever experienced any kind of family tragedy, regardless of what that tragedy may have been, you will certainly appreciate Approaching Neverland. And even if you haven't, there is great humanity in this work. Ms. Kennedy should be applauded for having the courage to tell her story, especially with such honesty. It is a book I highly recommend.
Life on life's terms
A story about life on life's terms, no matter what it throws your way. This family had beyond their share of heartbreak and tragedy. Three of the five kids are gay, yet that was NOT one of those issues......imagine that! The story moved me in so many ways, and as a lesbian, it was gratifying to read about these siblings unfolding in their complex lives without their sexuality labeling them. A memorable read!