Character Development Through Mental Illness in The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry.


The development of the main character Sophya “Towner” Whitney is greatly influenced by her extended struggle with mental illness. The novel starts off by Towner claiming “Never believe me. I lie all the time. I am a crazy woman.” (Barry 1). Towner lives in California in the beginning of the novel. The rest of her family resides in the town of Salem, Massachusetts. Towner moved “as far away as I could without falling off the end of the earth.” (5), after her sister Lyndley’s suicide. Devastated by her sister’s death, Towner checks herself into a mental institution. Years later, Towner is in the hospital once again after having a hysterectomy. She gets a call from her brother Beezer, and he tells her that their Great-Aunt Eva is missing. Towner decides to return to Salem. Shortly after her return, her Aunt’s body is discovered. After the funeral, Towner must face complicated relationships with her agoraphobic mother, victim of marital abuse Aunt Emma, religious extremist leader Cal, and recovering alcoholic police officer Rafferty. Her relationships and conflicts with all the people she interacts with is greatly shaped by her mental illness. She distances herself from intimate relationships and spends a majority of her time in solitude remembering her relationships with her deceased Aunt and twin sister. Her mental illness affects her everyday activities during her visit to Salem and influences her development as a character throughout the entire novel.
When Towner returns to Salem, she sees her mother for the first time in 15 years. Her mother, May, suffers from agoraphobia and has seldom left her home on Yellow Dog Island in the past 20 years. May helps women who are seeking asylum from their abusive husbands. May’s sister Emma also lives on Yellow Dog Island and helps the victimized women. Emma had previously been married to Cal Boynton who had nearly beaten her to death. May did not attend Eva’s funeral, which put tension on Towner’s already distant relationship with her mother. When the family gathers at May’s house to read Eva’s will, tensions are strained even further when it is discovered that Eva has left everything to Towner. While she was in the mental institution, she signed up for shock therapy. Because of the therapy, she lost much of her short term and long term memory. Being given all of Eva’s possessions allows towner to look at photographs and read journals. By sifting through all of the belongings, Towner is beginning to fill in the blank spaces of memories she has lost. As a result, she relies again on her medication. “I keep a Stelazine pill in my pocket. It’s old and expired, and it might kill me if I took it. More likely it would do nothing at all. Still, it's my insurance policy, my lifeline to sanity. In case of emergency, pop pill” (93). Towner’s life in California, away from Salem, had been very relaxing. Yet returning to her hometown leads her to rely on the one antidepressant pill she has left. She compulsively carries it everywhere and holds it when she becomes stressed. She lays in bed for hours on end just looking at the ceiling. She isolates herself from other while she sifts through Eva’s belongings. All of these symptoms are typical of depression. Towner is suffering, and that is changing who she becomes as a person.
The town of Salem is plagued by tourism motivated by the Salem Witch Trials in the seventeenth century. What many of the tourists believe to be a show, is the Calvinist group. They walk around town wearing robes with rope cinctures tied around their waists. They are a group of religious extremists led by Cal Boynton. Cal was married to Towner’s Aunt Emma and was extremely abusive. On several occasions he beat her within an inch of death. Until he had a “religious awakening”. Now, Cal leads a group of people who terrorize the town. Cal and Towner have unresolved conflict with each other. After her return to Salem, she avoids the Calvinists at all costs. Whenever the Calvinists see her, they chase after her and demand to know what demon is possessing her body. Towner spends her days in fear of Cal. She knew he would come and find her one day. When he finally did, he attacked Towner. He grabs her hair and demands she “Kneel and pray” (215). He keeps repeating that phrase over and over while attacking her. After this encounter, Towner is more afraid than ever before, even though Cal had been detained and sentenced to 30 days in jail. The attack leaves Towner severely traumatized. Her mental illness is becoming even worse so she decides to sever all relationship and return to California.
Before Towner leaves for California again, she visits her mother on Yellow Dog Island.
“Towner needed to get away from this place. It wasn’t. Sometimes running away was exactly what you should do. The only thing you could do… If there was one thing May had learned from working with abused women and this new Underground Railroad, it was that sometimes the only thing you could do was run away and never look back.” (340)
Towner needs to leave. Her mental state can not take living in Salem any longer. There are too many memories that haunt her, which are causing her to suffer greatly. As she is about to leave, Towner discovers her twin sister never did commit suicide, and May is not her biological mother. Her twin sister died as a result of a severe beating from Cal, which caused Towner and Lyndley to be born prematurely. Only Towner survived. Her mental illness caused her to hallucinate years of interactions. She created a whole person in her mind and believed it was real. She had fights with her sister, went on trips with her, and even believed she witnessed her suicide. Her mental state deteriorated so rapidly when she learned the truth.
“I am seeing three different psychiatrists as well as a researcher from Harvard who is doing his doctoral thesis on precognition and has taken an interest in my case. To the best of my knowledge, no diagnosis has been made. Dissociative disorder is certainly part of it. And survivor’s guilt. “ (380)
Towner stays in Massachusetts and is surrounded by friends and family while she tries to distinguish what is real in her life from what has never happened.
Mental illness greatly shaped Towner’s character. She disassociated herself from many relationships she made while back in Salem, she isolated herself, and she suffered. Throughout the novel, Towner becomes increasingly depressed, paranoid, and anxious. The decisions she makes all revolve around her mental illness. Mental illness is extremely hard to treat. It consumes individuals, destroys relationships, and makes everyday tasks almost impossible to accomplish. Mental illness can cripple people, just like it crippled Towner.


T.H. 2016