Author of Hang On
Teenagers travel in herds, so when I was seventeen a number of us accompanied a friend of ours to the police station to file a report. I don’t recall the nature of the problem – a stolen car, I believe – but we all went with him, piled together in someone else’s car, the girls squeezing themselves onto boys’ laps, and stragglers spread horizontally across everyone else, pressed up against the roof of the car. Eleven teens fit into a sedan in 1971 because cars were bigger then, and seatbelt laws were not yet in effect. Off we went.
The police station looked as if it hadn’t been renovated in decades. It was old and worn, and had that 1930s look about it, with tall, dark wooden benches, dirty gray-green paint, black-and-white tiled flooring, and dirty glass globe lights dangling from the ceiling.
Our friend spoke with a police officer while we hovered, affronted and indignant behind him, providing moral support for him in his predicament. When he was finished with his business, we all turned to go. As we did, I saw a little girl, about four years old, sitting alone on a bench looking terrified. Her hair was long and dark and messy, and her clothing looked dirty and slept in, but she was a very beautiful child. She wasn’t crying because she apparently was too stunned, or was beyond tears. She sat stiffly, her hands folded and her dangling legs crossed at the ankle. Her eyes were wide with fear and wariness. The most frightening thing about her was that she did not cry. What did that say about her, and her life, and why she was there?
Everyone was too busy to worry about a little girl as she sat there alone, looking very small. That, more than anything else, struck me – that the child was alone. How could it be that nobody was comforting that terrified little girl, or even sitting with her? Shouldn’t that be what one DOES? Without thinking?
I started to walk over to her – she needed a hug – but someone grabbed my sleeve and pulled me out the door. We were leaving now, and teens leave in herds. So I left, walking backwards, being pulled but resisting, still looking at that child, who has haunted me to this day.
She is the child I was thinking of, when I described Holly Salvino in Hang On. I made up her story: Her mother commits suicide, and everyone else abandons her. Where does she go next? To her abusive grandmother. And what happens to her for the rest of her life? Horrible things, and then wonderful things. I wanted to give that child love, so I did it in a book.
I merged her story with my own. She gets pulled into the world of Rock and Roll, and so was I. She has a mental illness, and so did I.
Rock and roll was like a drug, back in the 1970s. It had more glamour, excitement, mischief, danger, and sexiness than just about anything that had ever preceded it. Pumping rhythms, gyrating singers, screaming fans, smashed guitars – adrenaline surged through your veins at most concerts. This was the era when rock and roll production introduced lasers and pyrotechnics. This was when Heil Sound System’s “Talk Box” and other sorts of miraculous gimmickry came to be.
I was there, in the mid-70s. Like Holly, I had a roadie boyfriend, I was on the band bus, and I spent countless hours backstage meeting dozens of rock stars. I was flown to the Bahamas, like Holly. Like Holly, I was nearly sent home because my prepaid airline ticket wasn’t paid in full for some reason, so I’d given an airline all of my spending money and arrived in Nassau virtually penniless, with no phone number to call and no local references to give them. I thankfully slipped through customs and played Coconut Bowl on the beach with the band and some others. I also watched Bahamian’s elite drive up to hang out with the rock stars. I attended parties in incredible mansions when I was forced to, and hung out at the Traveller’s Rest restaurant and bar to escape the noise of it all, whenever I could.
The lead singer of “my” band was brilliant. He was nothing at all like the somewhat dense Angus Atkins. However, after I left the Bahamas I learned he had driven a particularly fretful rental car (one they all disliked – transmission problems, I believe) into the ocean in protest, and left it there. So he had his moments, just as Angus does in Hang On.
It was exciting, it was free, it was high-energy – if I were to pick a decade, I would pick the 1970s as my favorite. The clothing was stupid, but the entire decade was a party. Plus we were living in a very short window between wars, and before AIDS.
From another perspective, that decade is unfortunate. In the 1970s Holly’s mental illness will not be recognized as a condition until the 1980s, and there will be no effective treatment for it until the 1990s. This condition does not respond to medication, so her psychiatrist is of no real help to her. Nevertheless, she continues to see him, and continues to go hungry in order to pay him because she has bouts of very severe depression and thoughts of suicide, but has vowed to never kill herself, as her mother did. He is her only safety net.
I had Holly’s condition, when I was young. It is called Borderline Personality Disorder, and it covers a very wide spectrum of symptoms, with an equally wide spectrum of severity. Its symptoms “border” those of several conditions, all at the same time. It most typically impacts people with a high emotional sensitivity score, who also suffer some kind of trauma, neglect or abuse in childhood. If the sensitivity level is high enough, it takes very little (or even no) trauma to trigger symptoms. (When I was reading the Secret Life of Bees I imagined that the character “May” was one of these.) If the sensitivity level is lower, it requires a more extreme level of trauma for a person to show signs of it.
So each sufferer falls somewhere on the spectrum, from highly functional to non-functional, depending on his or her own sensitivity score and the trauma he or she experiences. People at risk for Borderline Personality Disorder are also those who most easily succumb to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The factors in play are very similar, and in some ways so is the treatment.
The good news about Holly’s (and my) condition is that symptoms improve as you get older, particularly if you make an active effort to confront and overcome them. In my case they are completely gone, and I leave a breadcrumb trail in Hang On for how I did that.
I was highly functional, and so is Holly. She holds a job and pays her rent. However, she is very lonely because her symptoms make it difficult for her to interact with other people and sustain relationships for very long. She has one or two friends who overlook her mood swings, and she has Trevor. The world of Rock and Roll keeps her afloat. But her isolation is palpable and painful, and her fear of losing the little she has is very real.
Hang On is sad, but it’s also funny. As I explained earlier, I gave that little girl in the police station “love,” and also shared with her some of my wonderful adventures. But I have no doubt that she grew up not-quite-wholly-intact. I wanted to show this, but I wanted to also give her hope.
I only wish I could have hugged her.
Title: Hang On
Author: Nell Gavin
Publisher/Publication Date: CreateSpace, Mar 2012
Watch for my review of Hang On before the end of the month.
There will be a giveaway!