Monday, May 25, 2015

Book Review: Mad Mary

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Mad Mary
Author: Liz Curtis Higgs

Author's web site:
Date: 2001
Publisher: Water Brook Press
ISBN: 978-1578564477
Length: 304 pages
Quote: "Mary Magdalene has been knocking at the door of my heart for three years. She got squeezed out of Bad Girls of the Bible when I realized I needed more time to research her complex story. Then she was dropped from the roster for Really Bad Girls of the Bible because Tamar and Bathsheba took up more than their allotted pages. (Pushy, huh?) Now I know the real reason why Mary M waited so patiently in the wings: She deserves a book all her own!"
Liz Curtis Higgs achieved bestseller status with a series of Bible character studies that begin with a retelling of the story in the form of a contemporary novel or short story, then study the Bible texts and invite readers to apply them to their lives. Mad Mary is her take on Mary Magdalene.
The thing about the New Testament stories is that they were written at a time when it was prudent to blur the identities of people. Various customs made this easy to do. Lots of people had the same name. To help friends tell them apart, they might be called by some unofficial nickname instead. When people were telling stories, it was polite not to use the names of people present but say, “A certain man came in...” or, “A woman said...” It was polite to ignore the opposite sex as completely as possible; if a man needed to mention a group of women he could of course refer to the group, but if he needed to mention meeting his friends, a married couple, he would politely mention only the husband.
So, although there’s a long tradition of identifying at least four stories that don’t specifically mention Mary Magdalene as possible parts of her story, there’s no biblical basis for it. What we know for sure about Mary Magdalene is that she was delivered from “seven devils,” which was probably a figure of speech referring to a specific pattern of mental illness; she travelled around with a group of female disciples of Jesus, and she was the first to proclaim the Resurrection.
Liz Curtis Higgs spends some time debunking the vulgar image of Mary Magdalene as, shall we say, a vulgar young woman. She argues that (1) Jesus was not a philanderer; (2) the symptoms attributed to “devils” were violent, frightening, often associated with physical illness, but not sexy; and (3) Mary Magdalene’s being mentioned at the head of the list of the women disciples suggests that she may have been the oldest of the group of women. Young women weren’t expected or allowed to do much, in this historical period, except marry as early as age thirteen, have as many babies as possible, and more often than not die before age thirty. Women who achieved middle age had much more freedom and respect than younger women had. And if Mary Magdalene was older than Mother Mary, she must have been at least fifty.
She briefly discusses the other stories about female followers of Jesus who could just conceivably have been Mary Magdalene, but probably weren’t; if the Gospel writers were free to mention Mary Magdalene’s name because she’d already died old, which is likely, they would have had no reason to omit her name from the discussion of women who were sinners or adulterers or even physically disabled. Some scholars think the same woman was known to the same people as Mary Magdalene (Mary from Magdala, or Mary the Tower) and Mary of Bethany; Mad Mary dismisses that theory.
What we know about Mary Magdalene is that, although her “devils” could have been more tolerable things like epilepsy or delirium tremens, she may have been insane. Whatever her past had been, it wasn’t pretty. But she had been healed and forgiven, despite her fellow disciples’ lapse of faith when she reported an impossible bit of Good News. Can’t you just hear their thoughts? “Jesus is gone, and now poor old Mary’s going...” Jesus had a sense of humor; we’re never told that He smiled, but we’re shown that He cracked jokes. (Read His speeches, outside of church, in a modern translation that strips them of that "churchy" feeling, and people will laugh.) He probably thought letting Mary Magdalene carry the Good News was a hoot. And enlightening, especially for pushy Peter.
Higgs’ presentation of a contemporary story she finds similar to Mary Magdalene’s is more dubious, although it's praiseworthy as a challenge to Christians to overcome our fear of psychotic patients. Higgs doesn’t try to show us a modern character with the symptoms of first-century “devils.” Few of us have seen a person with that kind of condition, although they still exist; they’re seldom let out of the institutions. Instead, Higgs presents a fictional “Mary Margaret Delaney” with a combination of more familiar conditions: depression, guilt, obsessive-compulsive disorder, multiple personality disorder, memory loss, kleptomania, religious mania...all of which are cured overnight by one prescription! And then she becomes a normal, if unconvincingly docile, old Catholic who only needs to become a Baptist and everything is rosy.
That’s what the Lilly Pharmaceutical Company would like us to  believe can be expected from Prozac or the related formulas that do, in fact, give most users a mild but reliable “high.” In real life it’s not so easy. The side effects of feel-good pills include pain, physical disability, and violent insanity. Not, in any way, to be compared with the miraculous healings that attracted attention to Jesus.
What would have an effect like the effect Higgs gives to her character Delaney? The placebo effect would. If Mary Delaney had never had a true psychotic condition, but had merely been a person who enjoyed emotional melodrama, then she would have bounced back from a depressive mood with a chirpy, perky mood.
If she’d been psychotic, medical treatment would have worked differently. As Peter Breggin put it in Toxic Psychiatry, there is no real cure for schizophrenia. The antipsychotic drugs damage the brain, in unpredictable ways, and sometimes happen to knock out the neurons that are producing psychotic symptoms. Mary Delaney might or might not have seemed more lucid on medication. She might have been equally confused, or more confused, but had less energy. She might have developed painful physical symptoms. She might have become more cheerful; she might have become bland; she might have become murderous or suicidal.
When a patient attempts suicide, is hospitalized and medicated, and seems lucid and cheerful three days later, one of two things has happened. Either the patient is simply having an emotional reaction (which may not be part of a bipolar cycle, but is characterized by intense despondency followed by near-manic levels of relief), or a miracle has occurred. The Bible story of Mary Magdalene is about a miracle. The fictional story of Mary Delaney, however, can't rely on a fictional miracle, since fiction writers can’t claim to understand why a miracle occurred when, in fact, none did.
So, as often in this writer’s "Bad Girls" series, I like Higgs’ historical and religious insights into a Bible character better than her fictional parallel story. Whatever the real Mary Magdalene had lived through, her historical function was to call attention to the life and teachings of Jesus. In between chapters of psychodrama, Mad Mary is true to the life of its historical subject. Higgs doesn’t shy away from the blunt, sarcastic, shocking, subversive, and radical qualities of Jesus’ teaching. 
What she does with the Gospel story of Jesus is particularly interesting. In order to “translate” the story into a realistic contemporary novel, Higgs re-visualizes an ordinary Christian in the place of Jesus; the preacher who rescues Mary Delaney is mortal and, when he dies, will stay dead. And if you think that’s impious, think about some of the outrageous things the Bible writers had to say to ordinary Christians about praying in our Savior’s Name, and being collectively His living Body, and killing our carnal nature so that His Life can live on in us. We are not likely to confuse ourselves with Jesus but we may find ourselves acting His part in life. In her nonfiction discussion of the Gospels, Higgs accepts the most literal, fundamentalist version of the Resurrection story, with no attempts to look for more mundane (or heretical) interpretations of a cosmic mystery. Readers are brought to confront the mystery of Jesus being at the same time fully divine and fully human. The high point of the historical Mary Magdalene’s story is, after all, that she was the first to testify to His supernatural existence. Higgs won’t let non-Christian readers who picked up the book for the story put it down without reading Mary Magdalene’s testimony.
Mad Mary is recommended to just about any reader, but especially to women who are interested in understanding what the Bible actually tells us about women in the early church. A great deal of theologically and historically dubious literature has been written about Mary Magdalene; Higgs tries to strip away the Pagan influences, “goddess cult” incursions, and erotic fantasies, and present what can reasonably be understood from the Bible’s record of the first Christian evangelist. For Christian readers this book will be interesting, and likely to inspire further study and discussion.
For non-Christians...I can’t say how it’s likely to affect any given individual, but if you’re ready to try to understand what Christians teach about Christ, Mad Mary could potentially be the book that enlightens you. Phobics beware! This book just might make a few of you into Christians.

For those who don't already know: The Fair Trade Books system is this web site's way of supporting the rights of living authors. When (if) we sell books online, for a minimum cost of $5 per book + $5 per package for shipping, if we're able to find the author still living we send the author or a charity of his or her choice 10% of this total cost, or $1. (Yes, if you buy four copies of Mad Mary, that means you send us $25 and Higgs or her charity gets $4.) The official, published e-mail address for this web site is salolianigodagewi @; this refers to our virtual Message Squirrel, who reroutes e-mail to our unpublished private e-mail addresses as appropriate. And, yes, it's possible to purchase books that haven't yet been reviewed here as Fair Trade Books if they've been out for a while and are more likely to be available secondhand than new; instead of buying four copies of Mad Mary you might want to buy one copy each of Bad Girls of the Bible, Really Bad Girls of the Bible, and Slightly Bad Girls of the Bible, and we can do that too.