I could have chosen this book for the title alone, but its acquisition was more about securing myself a more diverse range of voices than that currently available in my library. Which is an admission that I bought this book, quite recently, despite my book buying ban and my many efforts to find sufficiency in my unread books. For once, though, the purchase was not an impulse. I realised that if I was going to manage to continue to slow the pace of reading and work my way through my extensive TBR list I needed to maintain some pockets of diversity to which I could turn in moments of need. Or that’s how I’ve justified it to myself anyway. In this case I’m very pleased I allowed myself this little lapse because it is a wonderful read.
A Message from God in the Atomic Age is a memoir written by Irene Vilar, a Puerto Rican writer who also happens to be the granddaughter of the Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebron, a national hero to many. Lebron is famous for having, with three other Puerto Rican nationalists, entered the US House of Representatives and opened fire from the gallery, an event in which five were wounded though none killed. Lebron was sentenced to 56 years in prison, of which she served a total of 25 before being pardoned by President Carter. Whilst the act was violent and intended to threaten, Lebron had no intention to kill. Her expectation was that she would, herself, be killed in the attack, becoming a martyr for the Puerto Rican nationalist cause. Her intention was explained in a note she had written herself and carried in her purse which read “My life I give for the freedom of my country”, her expectation was death and self-sacrifice for a free Puerto Rico. Vilar describes, quite beautifully, the scene as Lebron mounts the stairs of the Capitol expecting to meet her end:
“In the afternoon, Lolita is climbing the steps of the Capitol with her three companions. Holding on to her gold-crested purse, which must have showed up sharply against the starched skirt, she advances, step by step. In the purse she carries a gun and a letter that she herself wrote in English. It is a cry of conflicting voices, humble and arrogant, that she hears and answers. But before we may know anything more of those voices, we must wait. Right now she has everything to lose and nothing to regret. Now the only thing that exists is the steps, the scenes of her life that must be passing before her eyes, before and after, obsessive, like a film now that she can’t do anything else but go forward, climb those steps, one after another and another – how many more? Hundreds, a thousand, the whole colonial past of America was there, its cruelties, echoing at each step, unchanged, unforgotten: Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti…and, of course, Puerto Rico, one of Spain’s first New World colonies, one of America’s last.”
But this is not just a story of the famous Lolita Lebron, rather it is the story of three generations of women, each of whom carried death in their souls. Vilar’s own story is the crux around which the rest of the story flows. When we join Vilar, she is being committed to a mental institution in Syracuse after having attempted suicide. Vilar had moved to the US to study, but isolation, poverty, and a sense of disconnection all led her to attempt to take her own life. Or perhaps that’s a simplistic way to look at it, because there is no leading here, no certain path, instead we follow Vilar’s attempts to unpick the threads of her life which led her to committal. This inevitably includes her own grandmother’s apparent death-wish, the steps that led her to abandon her small daughter and pursue the nationalistic path, sacrificing her life to the idea of freedom, as well as Vilar’s own mother, Gladys, the abandoned child of a famous, revolutionary mother, who herself took her life by suicide when Vilar was only eight years old. For her mother had jumped to her death from a moving car, a car in which Irene was riding in the back seat, knowing something was wrong and knowing there was nothing she could do about it. She watched her mother tumble to her death, and then carried the ghost of it, the ghosts of all the women that had entered her life, around with her in a life which grew increasingly transient.
What follows is both moving and beautiful, unsettling and compelling. Vilar extrapolates her mother’s story, the way in which her life was affected by the abandonment by Lebron, the difficult marriage, the ongoing battle with depression and self-destructive tendencies. These tendencies Vilar seems to have inherited, whether by blood or by exposure. Vilar’s own descriptions of her feelings, her experiences, the confusion and the disconnection that arose during the lead up to her suicide attempt and subsequent time in the institution are extraordinary, creating a genuine sense of something off, something irreconcilable, she feels herself a creature, a thing, a non-person. One can only wonder if this, too, is how her mother felt:
“As if born out of the hospital colors, that larval feeling began, a small, curled-up creature that the mirror was giving back to me. An anomalous creature, somebody who had been given pills to take. It was clear that I was that somebody and that something in my body had broken down. The orderlies straightened up the bent thing; it walked. I thought they were taking me to an operating room, to cure me, to remove death from inside me, to id me of the ghosts, the ones I imagined I’d eluded by coming to Syracuse. They were going to give me back the joy of living. But instead they led me into an elevator and brought me to a room where a bright white light shone over a woman who was also dressed in white, sitting at a desk with my belongings…”
And then there’s Lebron. After Gladys’s suicide Lebron is permitted back to Puerto Rico to attend the funeral. Here we see Lolita the hero, but also Lolita the grandmother and Lolita the absent mother, absent by choice rather than compulsion. There’s a sense that eight year old Vilar cannot reconcile the woman who is her grandmother with the legend who attracts both supporters and detractors. In her time in prison, Lebron had become increasingly religious. The compelling title ‘A Message from God in the Atomic Age’ is the title of a collection of poems written by Lebron whilst in prison after what she believed was a vision from God. Lebron increasingly withdrew, confusing her supporters with her religious fervour which didn’t fit with the left-wing idealism displayed by her act. Vilar herself is both confused and intrigued by her grandmother better able, perhaps, to separate the idol from the flawed yet idealistic woman who may, or may not, have been the source of Vilar’s mother’s suffering.
A Message from God in the Atomic Age is a stunning and absorbing book, beautifully written, meandering and yet at times shattering with painful clarity. The entanglement between these three women, the impact they had on each other’s lives, the consequences of the actions of one on the behaviour of another, is quite stunning at times. The depiction, when it comes, of Gladys’s death is painful and horrifying to read, and it is hard to imagine being an eight year old girl clinging desperately to a mother who wants nothing more than to end, for everything to end, to know that your love and need for them is simply not enough. Vilar is unsentimental about her own mental illness, she does not try to explain nor justify it, as she should not (I’m never quite sure why we imagine we can think ourselves out of mental illness, any more than we can think a broken leg better), neither does she blame or try to attribute blame. She sees her experience, the experience of her mother and her grandmother before her as a complex interweaving of events which entangle them and, to an extent, condemn them to suffer similar fates. I’m not sure by the end that she had either closure or clarity, but the journey, her attempts to untangle the mingled threads, is as beautiful as it is revealing and I, for one, feel enriched by having read it.