In 1946, Judith Paterson was just nine years old when her mother died of a virulent combination of alcoholism and mental illness at the age of 31. Sweet Mystery is Paterson's harrowing account of her memories of her mother, told with eloquence and understanding. Set largely in Montgomery, Alabama, the story plays out against a background of relatives troubled almost as much by southern conflicts over race and class as by the fallout from a long family history of drinking, denial, and mental illness. First published in 1996 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Sweet Mystery has received critical acclaim in the national media. The Washington Post called it "a beautifully written, excruciating collision of form and emotion, joy and pain, willpower and self-examination, control and surrender." And the Boston Globe characterized the memoir as "a brilliant...feat of memory augmented by research." In building historical context for her story, Paterson searched in attics and kitchens and county courthouses in Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama. Along the way, she discovered not just the regional but also the national heritage of an extraordinarily gifted and deeply troubled family.
While rich in the details and the flavor of small-town life in the South during the 1940s, Sweet Mystery transcends time and regionalism to evoke universal American themes. Ultimately, it confirms the damaging effects of early trauma on children as well as the innate and familial human strengths that enable some children to survive, grow up, and heal.