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The summer he turned 5, my brother was stung by a swarm of wasps down by a lake on the Eastern Shore. I can recall the incident vividly: Peter screaming in agony, his hot dog falling off the pier into the water, my mother rushing to his aid. But I wasn’t there. In fact, I hadn’t even been born yet. It was just one of those stories that, as Judith Hillman Paterson says in her memoir Sweet Mystery: A Southern Memoir of Family Alcoholism, Mental Illness, and Recovery, “were told so often I count them among my ‘memories’…”

Sweet Mystery combines a rich social history of Alabama and the story of a deeply dysfunctional family. Readers raised on William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and even Margaret Mitchell will be tempted to dismiss Sweet Mystery as another example of Southern hyperbole. Is everyone in Dixie descended from landed gentry who lost their fortune in the Civil War? But Paterson was lucky enough to possess a wealth of memories and the instincts of a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. “I never realized most people didn’t remember things with the precision and intensity I did. I just assumed that was the way we all were,” she says. Having a well-documented genealogy (her ancestors helped found one of the first schools for black children in the South) was also an asset.

On the other hand, a vivid memory might not be such an asset, considering Paterson’s childhood. Both her parents struggled with alcoholism and mental illness, her mother eventually committing suicide at 31. There are many dark moments in Sweet Mystery, and Paterson shields the reader from none of them. But the book is also filled with the everyday joys and adventures of childhood. While she wrote most of it in her cramped Capitol Hill apartment, Paterson found the solace she required for the more painful chapters in a Rosemont, Pa., seminary. “[The sisters] provided the space I needed and created an environment where spirituality and intellectual endeavors were respected,” she says. “They didn’t even seem to mind that I wasn’t Catholic.”

The author says that the response from her family has been surprisingly positive. “Most of the information I gathered from interviews with family friends and distant relations. My children were wonderfully enthusiastic and supportive,” says Paterson. “But there are some relatives who haven’t talked to me about the book, and their silence speaks volumes.”—Dan Avery