In her beautifully written memoir, Worthy, author Denice Turner draws back the curtain and gives us a glimpse into the dominant forces in her world: the Chournos Family (her maternal family) and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (informally known as the Mormon Church). Each is fraught with unrealistic expectations of self-worth that will have readers shaking their heads in disbelief and laughing out loud.
This emotional, multifaceted story centers on Turner's mother, Helen, her debilitating illness and subsequent death in a suspicious house fire. The author's goal: track the source of her mother's pain and determine what led to her mysterious death. Reading through her mother's personal papers and journals, Denice realizes how little she knows about her mother, but recognizes the evolving signs of her illness: complaints about the family partnership ("a pit of hate and pathology"); cosmetic surgeries to maintain the perfect image; high doses of various prescription drugs just to get through the day; compulsive shopping; and voices telling Helen she is going to die. Turner writes: "Solving the mystery of my mother's pain is like getting to the end of a crime novel only to realize that the gun had been smoking on the mantle all along."
However, the greatest source of Helen's emotional pain is her life-long desire to know that she is loved by her father, Nick Chournos. A patriarch in every sense of the word, Nick emigrated from Greece as a young boy and made his fortune as a Utah rancher (thousands of sheep plus thousands of acres equals a very rich man). Sadly, he is an absent father, emotionally and physically, who expresses love by handing out $100 bills. Clearly, his wealth did not bring happiness as we read about his children's tortured lives. It feels as if the Chournos family is haunted by a demon or lives under a curse.
One of the sensitive issues that remain unresolved between Turner and her mother is Denice's decision to leave the Church—the cause of so much uncertainty about sex, body image, and a woman's role in society. Following her mother's death, Denice also walks away from her inheritance and bloodline responsibility to the family partnership. I admire her for leaving behind the unrealistic measures of self-worth that plagued her life and contributed to her mother's illness. Sometimes walking away is indeed the bravest thing you can do.
Denice Turner's humor—the family's "great deflector"—is peppered throughout the chapters. She describes the Chournos family reunions, full of cowboys and drama, as a "cross between Bonanza and All My Children." The contradictory nature of the Mormon Church is also fair game. Women are not allowed to bare their shoulders under any circumstance, but participating in a beauty pageant—including the bathing suit and stiletto heels competition—is acceptable. I found myself drawing smiley faces next to all the humorous lines—there are a lot of smileys!
Questions ultimately remain as to what claimed Helen's life: Was it the final battle with the family demon, drug interactions, an accidental fire, or some combination of these dark elements? What is apparent, however, is that author Turner faces many painful memories and goes to great lengths to write this memoir that reads like a mystery novel, including analyzing her mother's autopsy report. The first six words of Worthy kept me turning pages: "My mother's heart weighs 370 grams." I applaud Turner as she bravely approaches the grim subject of her mother's mysterious death and her ability to walk away from family pain, and a religion that caused her so much conflict during her life. The result of her effort is a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Denice Turner is a specialist in life story. She received her PhD from the University of Nevada, Reno, and teaches at Black Hills State University. She lives in Spearfish, South Dakota. Visit her website.
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