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Swallow the Ocean: A Memoir

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Charismatic, beautiful Sally Flynn was the center of her daughters' imaginations, particularly Laura's. Without warning, life as they knew it changed as paranoid schizophrenia overtook Sally. Whether it was accusing Laura’s father of trying to win her over to the side of Satan, or buying only certain products that were evil-free, glimmers of her mother’s future paranoia grew brighter as Laura’s early years passed. Once her husband left the family and filed for divorce, Sally’s symptoms bloomed in earnest, and the three girls united in flights of fancy of the sort their mother had taught them in order to deflect danger. Set in 1970s San Francisco, Swallow the Ocean is a searing, beautifully written memoir of a childhood under siege and three young girls determined to survive. In luminous prose, this memoir paints a most intimate portrait of what might have been a catastrophic childhood.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published January 28, 2008

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Laura M. Flynn

3 books9 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 199 reviews
Profile Image for Karen.
87 reviews20 followers
February 24, 2013
A brave and honest memoir about being the daughter of seriously mentally ill mother.
In her acknowledgements, the author mentions how the book took shape after chapter 19 was published in excerpted form. I found this interesting because I felt like chapter 19 was the chapter that had the most precision, insight and intent. It did not connect with the pace or tone of the rest of the book and I so wish the author could have maintained that level of descriptive quality and honesty.
I felt like the book languished in painstaking detail of the children's daily activities and games. I know that children express emotion with play but there is all too much of these meaningless details in this book.
Like the book Glass Castle, the mother in the story is certainly an interesting balance of likable at times and evil other times. A true human being. I was frustrated that there was no intervention on behalf of the children. Nothing monumental ever really takes place. The characters were not as deep and complex as I wished.
I never got an indication of how Laura's childhood shaped who she is today and why. Just like the children's determination to endure their situation I continued reading although I had no reason to turn the pages.
However, I admire the sister's solidarity and strength and I am glad everyone survived unscathed.
Profile Image for Juliette.
482 reviews39 followers
October 22, 2009
I am a sucker for any memoir about the 1970's. It's even better if a memoir is set in San Francisco, and it is the icing on the cake if Patty Hearst is mentioned in the story. I am also a sucker for memoirs about mental illness. Swallow the Ocean contains all of these elements. Overall, the writing is solid and the story is gripping. However, I found my eyes glossing over during each section describing (in great detail) the games the author played as a child with her neighbors. Three pages describing a game of kicking a pyramid of cans over? Boring. Several more pages describing the riding of big wheels down a hill? Snore. I imagine the hard part about writing this memoir was that the author was recounting her life with her mother (who has schizophrenia), but only lived with her mother until she was eleven. I'm sure it was hard to remember a lot of the details that would be interesting to adult readers. I loved the parts about her family trips to the beach and the connection to the ocean and its similarities to living with someone struck with schizophrenia. Sad but hopeful.
Profile Image for Leslie Zampetti.
1,030 reviews1 follower
February 3, 2009
Both poignant and matter-of-fact simultaneously, Flynn's memoir of her childhood spent coping with her mother's schizophrenia is well-written. Her story examines how children know something is wrong and how they cope, despite not having the intellectual knowledge of adults with regard to mental illness. Although she waits till the end to bring up statistics and concerns about untreated schizophrenics and attitudes toward mental illness in society, her points are given more weight by the apparent ease with which her mother continued to navigate society while obviously quite ill and the amount of time it took for hr father to gain custody of the author and her sisters.

Recommended for those who've read An Unquiet Mind, the recent Hurry Down Sunshine (this is better), and other works of that ilk.
Profile Image for Lizzie.
511 reviews24 followers
February 18, 2015
So-so memoir of growing up with a mother who was paranoid schizophrenic. Her father left and wasn’t able to get custody for several years. She does a good job of describing daily life with her mom and sisters, her mom’s many restrictions based on paranoid delusions, and the girls' ambivalence about wanting to get away and live with their dad. A running theme about a story the sisters make up about their dolls who are captives and the dolls' schemes to escape became a bit tiresome.

I had a lot of questions that didn't get answered: How did they learn to live "normal" lives where people have clean houses and don't have arbitrary restrictions on what they can eat? How has her childhood affected her life now - was she able to cast off much of the abuse, or does it haunt her? When her mother rammed her father's car after he got custody, did anyone press charges? (It didn't sound like it - why wasn't she prosecuted?) And finally, why do the girls still maintain contact with their mother? People I know who have relatives with this kind of intractable mental disease seem happy to have them out of their lives. I know it's complicated, but...
Profile Image for Bridget.
22 reviews9 followers
November 10, 2008
This book is lovingly written and is an inspiring portrait of a family struggling to manage living with schizophrenia. I fell in love with each and every one of the main characters and deeply admire their fighting spirit and their ability to survive and come out the other side relatively intact. This book took me by surprise, I didn't expect to have my heart cracked open by this extraordinary family.
Profile Image for Candy.
236 reviews80 followers
March 12, 2011
Imagine you're just a little girl. Now imagine you're a little girl with a mother with schizophrenia. Now imagine you're a little girl with a mother with schizophrenia and a father that has to get out of the situation. You've just summed up the early life of Laura Flynn.

**** Warning: There's spoilers in here. I cannot review it without them, so... be warned ****

This is a hard book to read at times. Laura grew up in the 70s where the kids' custody were pretty much always placed with the mother. I must give her father major props for doing the best he could and giving the kids the most normal life he could when he had them and continuing to fight the good fight. He could have easily turned his back on the entire situation. He also seemed to be very open and kept talking to his kids.

It's super well written. Parts of it have a feeling of being in a fog, of looking at a scene play out from behind smoky glass. You see it, but you aren't completely sure if you can believe what you are seeing. I also really liked that the author made sure to say what things everyone remembered, but at the same time say "I remember this, but my sisters do not.." It felt honest. It felt real.

I found parts of this tough to read, I wanted to barge into that house and make those girls some spaghetti with garlic bread and play Battleship. I wanted to call someone and MAKE them come help with the situation. I wanted to talk to them as adults and know more about how they are coping with some of the crazy things that happened and how they are able to still maintain relationships with their mother. I wanted so much. I think this is the mark of a good memoir though. I felt invested in these kids and their lives.

One of the quotes I wrote down from this book was "There’s almost no limit to what you can shelter within you." and I think that sums it up pretty well and was quite insightful and painfully true. What I was left wondering is if the author continues to hold all of that in or if she's managed to let some of it go. She seems to gloss over her own life and feelings today. I get that it was more of a memoir of her life with her mother, but I really wanted to know about where she is in her own life today.

Let me end by saying that I'm not sure I agree with one of the key statements of this book. Towards the end, she tells us of her mother's life today and says "Isolation was the route she’d chosen and one we had accepted, to some extent, all these years. We had to ask ourselves, if she’d indeed been suffering from a disease of an organic nature all along and we’d never forcibly intervened before, how could we justify hospitalizing her now when she was too weak to defend herself?" I'm not sure I agree. Knowing how her mother chose to live and how they've allowed her to live doesn't make it right. I really wanted this book to end with her mother getting help. I realize that it's easy for me to say and I've never been in the situation myself, so I'm trying hard not to judge, but part of me really wanted something different for Sally.

I recommend this for anyone that enjoys memoirs, but also for those that may be dealing with mental illness in their own family or just has an interest in.
Profile Image for Sarah.
44 reviews5 followers
January 30, 2012
I'm really drawn to the tragic-upbringing memoirs and having read quite a few of them at this point (this probably isn't the greatest sign), I've become a little "been there, done that" about them. Emotionally immune. I realize these are people's lives and feelings and I shouldn't picture the events of their childhoods as mere tropes in a well-worn narrative, but it's hard to fight the urge to be somewhat hardened.

That said,this book took me completely by surprise. It's from a smaller publishing house, the cover image is slightly pixellated, which lends it this initially somewhat-cheap feel, but Flynn's writing is compelling and at times phenomenal. While I've read plenty of memoirs of mentally ill parents (like The Glass Castle), I was never quite drawn into the story the way I was while reading Swallow the Ocean. The use of water imagery, if sometimes a bit heavy-handed, was apt and poetic and highlighted a young girl's desperate attempts to survive in a life increasingly dominated by her mother's erratic behavior. And while clearly this was never going to be a feel-good story, the ending was especially heartbreaking. I almost cried human tears.

A few things that slightly annoyed me, though: while I appreciated that Flynn was trying to juxtapose her childhood self with her older, adult self looking back on these events, at times the temporal shift felt awkward. In one sentence, she'd be five years old; in the next, she'd be speaking as if in present day. Either I got more used to this or she got better about it, but the second half of the book was a much smoother read. And although I understand that in one scene where she hypothetically, retroactively enters her mother's mind to describe her motivation during a scene from Flynn's childhood, she's doing so to convince us that her mother is a product of a disease and not a monster, I found these fictionalized "thoughts" distracting. During the final pages of the book, as Flynn muses about the disease and how it manifests itself over time, I feel she hammers this point home handily.

All in all, a very well-written, heartfelt memoir with a few minor weaknesses.
Profile Image for Heidi.
1,065 reviews32 followers
November 25, 2012
I love memoirs by people who had (ahem) "interesting" childhoods but overcame their past to become happy, capable adults. So many memoirs start out promising, but then turn into tedious navel-gazing by narcissistic adults who insist they'll never, ever find happiness in life because their mother made them wear hand-me-down clothes in the 4th grade. (Baby Boomers, I'm looking at you.)

I'm happy to say Swallow the Ocean wasn't that kind of memoir. Laura had an "interesting" childhood. She had the perfect nuclear family: two parents and two sisters (one older, one younger) who she was very close to. However, her mother was a paranoid schizophrenic who just...got worse. Laura and her sisters tried to hold everything together as their family crumbled around them.

Sad, but also uplifting and encouraging, Swallow the Ocean is a story about resilience, family, and the ties that bind.
Profile Image for Jaylin.
93 reviews6 followers
July 31, 2010
Interesting topic. What drove me crazy about this book is she spent more time talking about games she and her sisters played in drawn out detail. It was ok one or two times but it was so many times that it drove ME crazy. I felt so bad for her mother. Her husband left her, the kids left her, her family wasn't there for her. She had no one. Also; yes her mother was crazy but this author wanted to paint a story of how bad her life was. You want bad; read cup cake brown. That's bad. Her mother loved her and tried as hard as her brain would let her. Perhaps I could have gotten a better idea if she spent more time on the topic rather than how much she played with dolls and games.
Profile Image for Steven.
Author 1 book4 followers
July 21, 2020
A moving and beautifully written book.
316 reviews10 followers
May 29, 2008
Had been hearing about this book, and caught the tail-end of an interview with Laura Flynn on MPR a few weeks ago. Why is it that reading about and/or observing other people's major family dysfunction is always so compelling? This book reminded me, in some ways, of "The Glass Castle" by Jeanette Walls (any of you read that? I'd recommend it, too--and if you're a mother, you'll always feel like a hero afterwards because her mom was the WORST). Similarly, I felt like Mother of the Year when I made sloppy joes for supper tonight after finishing the book--and I also feel much better about the scattered piles of books and papers in my house after reading of the mess Laura and her two sisters lived in as their mother descended ever deeper into her paranoid schizophrenia. This book was also--well, fun isn't quite the right word--but, "fun," because the author is just one year younger than me (and thus, most of you) and she drops great details and quantities of period social/cultural references in her account of her childhood from 1969-77. Left me wondering why one of us hadn't written this! Oh--maybe because our mothers weren't paranoid schizophrenics? Maybe one of you knows Flynn from graduate school or the Cities?? I started out feeling kind of jealous of Flynn, but ended up feeling rather sorry for her and the impact her mother had on her life, even continuing to the present. Makes me think I should sometime start writing about my own family's dysfunction as I grew up--apparently that topic holds endless appeal for readers of all stripes. Well-written.

And would somebody please tell me what Guy's occupation was in Fahrenheit 451 so I can advance in that never-ending book quiz? Thanks for the help!
Profile Image for Kelly.
307 reviews31 followers
July 22, 2011
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If you get irriated by diet junkies and Go Green! hornets, then you would have hated me back in '09. I'm lucky my body doesn't suffer worse symptoms from lack of H2o intake, but I was pretty much full of it back then. As a senior proposal I decided to go haunt the libraries for information about the world's waters, what we are and are not doing with them, and povery water supply. Book cover hunting can always go ary, like pretty much everything else. Flynn was the slowest of my casualties, one of the those kind of books where you don't realize you are wasting your time until it is too late. Sort of like being an all-around perservering coach to a brick wall. You'll get there! Just talk to me!.
How about we re-design book covers so this can be avoided? Time is a precious commodity. You can get dumbcluck just about anywhere.

Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,115 followers
September 28, 2014
This was required reading for a course I'm auditing in creative non-fiction.

It's clear that the author doesn't remember everything about her childhood. This isn't a criticism, because who does, but I think because of this she may focus a bit too much on repetitive details of playtime, trips, etc. At the same time she does manage to capture the descent into paranoid schizophrenia her mother experiences through the half-understanding a child would have. The book is definitely a capture of a specific place and time, when keeping children with their mothers was often the default in custody cases and mental illness was not treated with the weight it needed to be.

I think the most powerful parts are when suddenly she steps back and says something about the world her mother created or believed, when it is obvious this isn't reality. Showing the mother from the mother's perspective, rather than from her own.

I'm looking forward to the two days of class discussion we will have, and will probably have more to say about it after that.
Profile Image for Kathryn.
137 reviews
July 20, 2013
Just because you have a sad childhood, doesn't mean it will make an interesting book. Too many meaningless details of the games she played with her sister rather than discussing their relationship or anything of substance.

There were glimpses of good good writing but overall, as I was reading it, I'm thinking "So what?". Some of the stories made you feel the pain the child endured at having a mentally ill mother, others were endless descriptions that did nothing to provide any insight to any of the characters. Being the same age as the author, I did enjoy the references to everyday items no longer commonplace today.... typewriter paper, the clothing worn during the bicentennial, sweet-n-low or Keds but other than giving me a sense of nostalgia, I found this book unremarkable. People sometimes have sick parents, parents that die or are mistreated. It's life. Not everyone's life is worthy of an autobiography.
Profile Image for Anita NotherBook.
204 reviews13 followers
April 21, 2010
The founder of my writer's group lent me a copy of this book; she was in an MFA program with the author. The story is gripping and is a hard but addicting read, written by the daughter of a schizophrenic mother. I also liked the writing and the memoir's style. It starts off by immersing you in a vivid scene and then steps back and shares more of the story. You really feel like you are a child experiencing these horrible incidents. The only downside of this style is that sometimes the chronological details get murky and I wanted to know more about certain things that the author seemed to skip over. But in general I really liked this book-- it was more interesting than fiction because it was real, and sad. I think that even people who don't usually read non-fiction/ memoir would enjoy reading this book.
Profile Image for Lisa  Carlson.
610 reviews13 followers
April 25, 2011
Told in the first person this is a remarkable story that confirms children are resilient. Flynn and her sisters deal with a mother who is tragically falling apart with schizophrenia. When I refer to tragic I mean her mother is a different state of mind which leads to an overly protective and unusual childhood. Divorce compounds the situation as Flynn's father is distanced from what is going on and makes getting custody of his children more difficult. You don't have to experience schizophrenia to be moved by this story; loved this story! The author is a humanitarian and teacher. The writing is excellent.
41 reviews6 followers
December 31, 2011
Very good memoir. Her writing style seems to follow the writting advice in "Shimmering Images," demonstrating the extraction of details from memories. She explains how she and her sisters adapted to their mother's illness, each differing in stage of life, personality, and experience with normalcy. On the motivations of her mother, she does tell you what is going on, compassionately conveying a condition which still perplexes and saddens her, however, her attention is mostly concerned with conveying her own experience and feelings as they were in the moment, which is more than enough to move the narrative along.
Profile Image for Susan.
117 reviews1 follower
July 10, 2009
A decently written memoir about a mother who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Written by the middle of three daughters, set in San Francisco in the 1970s. The writing style is actually quite good for a memoir, and the emotion is quite genuine. I guess my only complaint is that it is not a terribly riveting book. It has a particularly slow start until the mother starts showing symptoms. It would probably be most interesting to someone who has a parent with a mental illness. Not exactly a page-turner, but a good, solid read overall.
Profile Image for Caryn.
Author 1 book2 followers
January 27, 2014
I wanted to read this memoir before starting a class taught by its author. It's a stunning book that envelopes you in the pain of growing up with a mother descending into mental illness. It breaks your heart while ultimately lifting it in a beautiful, powerful testament to human resilience. It's a breathtaking book that will be close in my heart for a long time to come. I did not want to stay up this late tonight, but I could not put it down.
Profile Image for Caroline.
1,502 reviews12 followers
January 25, 2014
Well written memoir of a mother's schizophrenia. I am really impressed by the way she was able to capture the negative symptoms - wooden withdrawal, lack of empathy. She also conveys the powerlessness of childhood, and the personal effects of chromic fear. I seldom comment on other reviews on good reads. I do think that here is evidence that perhaps this has been assigned for a class... perhaps a class for people with mental illness.
21 reviews
June 15, 2012
I was a little bored. I really wanted to know the ins/outs of how the author felt about her mother's schizophrenia, and what I got for the first 50 pages was description about her childhood friends and neighborhood. This one will probably get sold to half price books.
Profile Image for Meredith Henning.
Author 3 books38 followers
November 3, 2008
This is a beautifully written book that was a most engaging read. I hope she writes another book as this one was excellent.
Profile Image for Vikki.
542 reviews
November 16, 2013
I had to give up on this book...couldn't take the pages of kick the can and childhood games.
Profile Image for Julene.
Author 12 books53 followers
May 14, 2023
Swallow the Ocean: A Memoir, by Laura M. Flynn is an excellent recounting about three girls and their schizophrenic mother, their father left and filed for a divorce. Place & time is San Francisco in the late 1970s. The oldest girl leaves first, running away to her father, she got most abuse from her mother. Two sisters left behind, one three years younger than the oldest, the other three years younger. The mother is able to get custody in the first attempt the father makes for the girls. In the 1970s the court was lenient to the mother. He makes another attempt, which takes a long time, eventually the two remaining girls are able to move to his house permanently. Flynn gives an excellent view into their lives behind closed doors. "You were either with her or against her, and in that demand for absolute loyalty lay an unspeakable need. She was our mother; the whole of her will was bent on holding us to her."

In the final two chapters she presents facts about schizophrenia. “There’s an emotional numbing, a kind of dulling down, they say, after years of schizophrenia. Typically delusions, hallucinations, and agitated behavior decrease with age, almost as if the disease burns itself out over time. What remains is ghostly. The psychiatric terms are chilling and, in this case, accurate: catatonic mannerisms, flattening of affect, robot-like fixity, petrification of attitude and reactions, poverty of ideas, passivity, a narrow range of modes of behavior.
“A popular misconception is that the flatness results from years spent in institutions or on medication. But my mother’s never had the drugs. She’s part of the control group, and it’s a bigger group than you might think. Statistics on the numbers of untreated mentally ill are hard to come by, but on survey in Baltimore found that fully 50 percent of people who suffer from schizophrenia received no medications or ongoing psychiatric care.”

This is a compelling story. Each of them had a theory about where the mother's schizophrenia came from. The father believed it was when she started meditating and reading Edgar Cayce books; their grandmother blamed her "crazy diets" and not enough vitamins; the daughter/writer blamed it on the apartment they moved into when she was six, then later as a feminist that if it had been a different time and her mother had worked it might have been different. She then writes, "In the end, these things we tell ourselves, the names we give the loss we cannot fathom, the demon we fear may still come back for us, are as sad and as small as a child's sea-soaked clothing trying to absorb an ocean."

Anyone who wants to understand schizophrenia better needs to read this book.
Profile Image for Cathleen Kealey.
22 reviews
February 22, 2020
Wonderful word choices keeping me engaged in story. A testimony more common than we know- children living with parents with serious mental illness. Parents who are unable to see their sick, due to anosognosia, which is part of the illness (more than a coping skill of denial, it is the complete inability to comprehend they are not well- a physiological component of the diagnosis. )
Laura's had multi-generational support, a father who provided respite, validation, sanctuary, and a mom- who cared deeply for her. The resources of money, a home, and food (though questionable at times), are more than what many families may have. Her father provided perspective in helping her understand it is an illness, and did not succumb to name calling, labeling or derogatory slander against the gripping diagnosis.
A life lived with modest drama which highlights the ongoing need for options to care. I wonder what would have been, if psychotropic medication would have been part of her mom's life. Would her mom been able to be the mother she acted to be before the grip of schizophrenia?
Thank you Laura for telling your story- your words stay with me.
Profile Image for Stacy.
58 reviews2 followers
July 18, 2021
I really enjoyed the experience reading this book overall. I'm oddly skeptical of reading books set in past time periods, just a personal thing for me that I can't connect with that easily as a gen z person, but this book really surpassed that barrier for me with all its descriptiveness and I could relate to many of the activities children do to entertain themselves.

This book really expertly portrays how children just make sense of the home life they're born into without realizing how dire of a situation they may be in. I really related to the tendency of doing everything you can to hide away what you're ashamed of and try to exist as someone with two different lives depending on where you are and who you're interacting with.

I really could not put the book down in the middle section where everything starts to fall apart in the author's home life and the battle between the children and the parents who each have their own view of what would be best for their family.

I wish there could have been a nice bow-tie ending just because the whole situation was so tragic, but real life doesn't like to give that kind of stuff out easily.
479 reviews5 followers
November 11, 2018
Well written memoir of growing up with a mother who is paranoid schizophrenic. I especially liked that she showed how as a young child, she just accepted everything going on as normal and the struggle to pull herself out of her mother's disturbed perceptions and finally to let go of her loyalty to her mother, in order to live her own life. Very nice at understanding what is happening in a schizophrenic's mind and also showing the progression of the disease. Through the book, the mother (who refuses all treatment and is never considered holdable), becomes more floridly psychotic, and eventually progresses to a "burnt out" schizophrenic -- calmer, with fewer overt symptoms, but very flat, unable to connect, terse. It is nice on the resilience of this family and showing how hard the mother worked to keep it together and provide care, even through the worst of the symptoms.
Profile Image for Andrea.
349 reviews1 follower
June 11, 2019
A dark but good story about three young girls (author is one of them) growing up in the 1970s with a mother battling schizophrenia (carefully chosen language there based on a part of this book). Kids today (yes, I know I sound like an old woman) thankfully will never fully understand the hushed stigmas associated with mental illness... the pain of undiagnosed afflictions, the acceptance of painful and unsafe situations. These girls endured so much... starting with “fun” imaginary excursions that overtime turned into hoarding, manic, paranoia. Language choice by author poetic and raw. Painting a picture both hypnotic and terrifying its downward spiral.
Profile Image for Deanna.
11 reviews
June 23, 2021
This is such a beautifully written, moving memoir. I found myself staying awake way too late at night reading it; I could not put it down.

In Swallow the Ocean, Laura M. Flynn shows readers how her mother's mental illness shaped her and her sisters' lives, and she reveals to us the parts of her childhood that she had to keep hidden as a child. As I was reading this, I felt like I was right there under the blanket fort with Laura and her sisters as they played dolls, and right there when the tension grew in her home.

This is the sort of book that stays with you. It will be on my mind for weeks, I am certain.

38 reviews
June 28, 2022
I didn't understand this at all. She'd mention casually that her mom thought she was in contact with JFK or that she talked about devils. Then she'd spend 4 pages talking about how her mom didn't always cook nutritious dinners or clean the house. Ummm the schizophrenia is the interesting part! Tell me about her mumbling secrets to JFK! I don't care that sometimes you had to eat cereal for dinner. I don't even have schizophrenia and my kids sometimes have to eat cereal for dinner too. That's not very shocking.
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