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: