Study Guide

Homecoming Mental Illness

By Cynthia Voigt

Mental Illness

"Is Momma crazy?"

Dicey turned her head to look at him.

"The kids said so, at school. And the way the teachers looked at me and loaned me their own books and talked to me. And Maybeth. Craziness can run in families."

Dicey felt a great weight settle on her shoulders. She tried to shrug it off, but it wouldn't move.

"Dicey?"

"She loves us," Dicey muttered.

"But that's the only reason I can think of that might be true."

"There's nothing wrong with Maybeth. You know that."

"It runs in families. Hereditary craziness."

"Well, you don't have to worry about it, do you? You're the smart one, with A's in school and the science projects that get entered in the state contest."

"Yeah," James said. He settled his head back on the seat. (1.1.73-83)

James is definitely the thinker in the family, and he's given this a lot of thought. Why would Momma run off and leave them? There has to be some reason. But he isn't just worried for Momma, he's worried for his family. Maybe they all have a little bit of craziness in them?

Maybeth spoke when Dicey didn't. "Momma's gotten lost. That's what I think."

"How could she get lost?" Sammy asked. "She knew where we were."

"Not lost from us," Maybeth said.

"Lost from who?" Sammy asked.

"Not lost from anyone," Maybeth said. "Just lost." (1.3.105-109)

This is a pretty good description of what has actually happened to Momma: She's lost her way; her brain has just stopped working like it should. Poor Momma.

"I think she got so worried about so many things, about money and us, about what she could do to take care of us, about not being able to do anything to make things better—I think it all piled up inside her so that she just quit. She felt so sad and sorry then, and lost—remember how she'd go out and not come back for hours? I think she got lost outside those times, the way she was lost inside."

"Amnesia," James suggested.

"Maybe. So she decided that she'd ask Aunt Cilla to help us, because she couldn't help us anymore. And maybe, when she went off into the Mall, maybe she'd run out of money and she couldn't take us any farther and all the things that had piled up inside her head sort of exploded there. And she just forgot us. Like amnesia, where you forget everything, even who you are. She couldn't stand to think and worry anymore. Everything she thought of, every place she went to, it all looked so sad and hopeless and she couldn't do anything about it—so it all exploded and left her brain empty." Empty. That was the way Momma had looked those last months. As if she were far away from them. (1.9.21-23)

Dicey learns the toll that caring for little kids with no resources takes once she's in charge. It's pretty interesting that she doesn't blame Momma, but instead sympathizes with her. Their situation had been rough, so it makes sense that Momma might not have been able to handle things mentally.

"Yes, I think so, in some ways. One wonders," he said carefully, his light brown eyes resting on Dicey's face, "if there isn't a strain of—mental weakness."

Was he reading her mind?

"Your grandmother's isolation—she has no phone, so the priest drove out from Crisfield to talk with her. She wouldn't let him into the house. She apparently screamed aloud so that she wouldn't hear what he was saying."

Dicey remembered Momma's strangeness and James's idea that craziness was inherited.

"I mention this to you because I want to tell you that, if it can be inherited, you have probably not inherited it. In my opinion," Father Joseph said.

"Are you sure?"

"No, of course not. But remember, you've already been through more trials than most people endure in a lifetime. You and James, you two at least, seem to have the strength and resilience to go on. Isn't that what sanity is?"

"I don't know," Dicey said. (1.11.53-60)

If Momma broke down because of their tough circumstances, Father Joseph could be onto something here. Dicey and James obviously have what it takes not to go out of their minds, but Maybeth and Sammy are having a tougher time adjusting to the difficult stuff in their path. 

Dicey took the photograph. She looked at the vacant-faced woman lying in a bed, her hair cut off short and her hazel eyes staring at the camera without any expression, as if the camera and photographer were not there. Her face looked so flat and empty, so far away, as if it hung miles above the earth and could not be bothered by anything happening on the little planet below. (1.12.140)

Poor Momma. It's pretty interesting that Momma looks so distant. This is what Dicey had been sensing—Momma was drifting farther away from them every day—and now she is finally gone. Nothing can bother her now.

"What do you know about our grandmother?" James asked her.

"I think she's poor," Dicey said. "And maybe strange."

"Strange? Like Momma? Crazy?"

"Strange like all the Tillermans," Dicey said. (2.2.168-171)

These kids are used to crazy. Dicey knows that their family isn't quite normal and she's prepared to find someone who's not quite right in Crisfield. But she just has to check it out, anyway—just in case.

"Maybe I am crazy," her grandmother said. "You know?"

Dicey was beginning to think she might be.

"Maybe not. Do you feel sorry for me?"

"Why should I?" Dicey asked.

"Old, alone, crazy—the farm falling down around me. My husband dead these four years and more."

"I'm sorry," Dicey said.

"I'm not. I'm happy since he died." (2.7.184-190)

One nutty grandma coming up. It seems that Abigail is living up to all the warnings people have been handing out about her. She's happy that her husband died, so maybe this lady is bonkers.

"That's right," her grandmother said. "I remember now. It was in the letter. I'm not crazy."

"I know," Dicey said. (2.8.21-22)

Ah, crazy like a fox. So Abigail's just been <em>acting</em> strange to put Dicey off. Now, she insists she's sane, which is probably true. Of course, Dicey knew this all along since she lived with a mother who has a mental illness. She knows what it looks like first hand.

"Momma's in a mental hospital in Massachusetts," Dicey said. "She doesn't recognize anybody. She doesn't do anything. They don't think she's ever going to get well."

"Who don't think?" her grandmother asked.

"The doctors," Dicey said.

"They don't know," Sammy said. "She might. Isn't that right, Dicey?"

Dicey nodded.

"So you know better than the doctors," his grandmother said to Sammy.

Sammy's jaw went out and he didn't answer. (2.8.205-211)

Oh, Sammy. Always sticking up for Momma. Here, he insists that Momma can get better even though everyone has said she won't. A little catatonic state won't keep this kid from getting his hopes crushed.

"She's mean," Sammy said. "She's not like Momma at all."

"That doesn't matter," Dicey repeated. "Besides, she's not really mean, not like Mr. Rudyard. Is she?"

"How do you know?" Sammy demanded.

"Remember when James took that money?" Maybeth asked him. "Remember how Dicey's face got all red and hot and she told us we had to go, and she told James he had to obey. Remember? That was like our grandmother. Mr. Rudyard was cold." (2.9.20-23)

So, there are different kinds of mental illness. If Abigail is a little crazy, Maybeth realizes it's not the bad kind. She's not the kind of person who would hurt them—like Mr. Rudyard—so she's okay, even if she might be a little wacky sometimes.

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