Learning How To Fly is a memoir about one woman’s chaotic, violent childhood and the mental illness that has followed her into maturity. In the book, Ruth L. Midsummer paints a powerful portrait of an abusive father, siblings confined to mental hospitals, and her ability to dodge the “monster,” a genetic predisposition to mental illness. As her teenaged children succumb, the narrative shifts to their struggle to maintain sanity and the family’s reliance on their born-again Christian faith.
Midsummer’s comfort with words is apparent as she tells chronological, conversational stories about her experience as an Air Force flight attendant. As a WAF, she writes, she was promoted and “was flying high in more ways than one. And when one is flying too high, one is apt to crash.” The “crash” she mentions came when she learned about the plane-crash death of a girl in her squadron and her hands began trembling uncontrollably in the aftermath — but it could as easily have been describing the cycle of her adult life.
The pace of these well-developed scenes creates a dramatic tension that is enriched by the perspective of age. But as the author leaves her days as a wife and mother and approaches the present day, she begins to rush. Instead of developing a few evocative examples of her midlife emotional turbulence, she drifts into a jumbled, wearying stream-of-conscious recitation of hospital admissions, suicidal bouts, violence, misfortune and health crises. The reader struggles to keep the characters straight, let alone develop empathy for them.
The average reader will be disappointed to reach the end of the book without finding the inspiration and ultimate triumph over genetic obstacles they had hoped for. Those familiar with insanity may gain some comfort in the simple fact that the author has, with the help of God, survived her terrible ordeals.
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