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Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Ladies’ Gallery by Irene Vilar, a Book Review


A review of this memoir had been planned well before the author’s legendary grandmother Lolita Lebrón died in early August. I almost cancelled the review as a result. I did not want this to be viewed as yet another eulogy about the woman who in 1954 led a small armed group into the visitor’s gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives. There, after a cry of “Long Live a Free Puerto Rico!” Lolita Lebrón and her companions opened fire, wounding five lawmakers. For that act, which I do not condone, she served 25 years in prison.

Then I realized that I probably would not have read The Ladies' Gallery except for the fact that the author was Lolita Lebrón’s granddaughter. The book is a commendable addition to the body of mental illness memoirs, but what makes it unique is the behind-the-scenes insight into the family of a mythic figure in Puerto Rican history. This memoir is, at times, disturbing because suicide and mental illness figure prominently across generations. It could also be considered a cautionary tale about the perils of pursuing zealously a consuming dream; in Lebrón’s case, the independence of Puerto Rico.

In The Ladies’ Gallery, Irene Vilar alternates italicized sections focused on the author’s prior mental illness with non-italicized sections focused on her unique family history. We discover that when Lolita Lebrón moved to New York in 1941, she turned over her infant daughter Gladys to her mother and then barely saw her again. Thirty-seven years later, Gladys herself will abandon her own daughter Irene Vilar by throwing herself from a moving car. The author, then eight years old, would try to stop her mother, only to be left holding a remnant of lace. Vilar later navigates her own journey with suicidal depression.

The Ladies’ Gallery is a sometimes emotionally raw voyage into desperate mental illness. It also provides a unique view of the lasting impact on a family when a member becomes a controversial and iconic public figure. The intertwined tale of three generations of women is told with honesty and pain. Lolita Lebrón looms large in this tale. About her grandmother, Vilar says, “My grandmother obviously saw herself as a martyr for the liberation of Puerto Rico.” The cost of that martyrdom for Lebrón's extended family was huge. In the end, Vilar compares her grandmother, mother, and herself to Homer’s Sirens, about whom she says, “The song of the Sirens is the great paradox that suicides and madmen know.”

Of potential interest:

4 comments:

Judy Croome said...

Oh dear. I'm not really a fan of biographies, especially not depressing ones. I have ostrich tendencies. I'm not really keen on knowing about bad things. :(
Judy
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Efrain Ortiz Jr. said...

Nice review. I agree, I don't condone violence as a means to achieving a goal. I think Lolita learned that in later life, as she continued fervently in her support of Puerto Rican Independence, that there were peaceful means to follow. Aside from that, with this review, I will take a look at the book but I also find it difficult to read material which may become somewhat depressing.

Sun Singer said...

I like your review, for it invites us to look into worlds we may not know and that we may not want to look into. But we need to look.

Malcolm

Judith Mercado said...

Judy: I know, I know. TLG was not a comfortable read but in keeping with my intention to highlight matters pertaining to Puerto Rico, I felt this was a unique perspective deserving of attention.

Efrain: Yes Lolita did mature. I wish somebody would write a biography worthy of her. She was a unique woman.

Malcolm: Taking my readers into worlds they might not have known is not a bad thing to have accomplished. And yes going there is sometimes not comfortable.