Review in Vermont Woman Newspaper (Sept./Oct. 2015 edition) by Kate Mueller - download pdf here.

Review in Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche Publication - download pdf here.

—  Patrica Reis, "Translate This Madness", published July 31, 2015

Review in Providence Journal by Betty Cotter:

“According to Archetypal Psychologist James Hillman, it is the work of the soul to create meaningful experience out of the facts of one’s life. In Martha’s Mandala, Oliver-Smith entwines strands of her own personal journey of self-discovery with an imaginative accounting of her grandmother’s life-work: to give beauty and coherence to the dark and mysterious voices that shattered Martha Bacon’s psyche as a young mother; to find a quiet center and create a peaceful “home” amidst the tumult of an extraverted lifestyle of uncertain privilege and patriarchy; and to proceed throughout all of her life’s circumstances with a private diligence and faithfulness to her own Truth. ”

— Jennifer A. Fendya, PhD, Psychologist, Curator of Art, CG Jung Center - Buffalo

“Parsing the complexity of a family influenced by mental illness, Martha Oliver-Smith subtly weaves her grandmother’s story into her own as both women work to solve the perplexing problem of the split self. Her grandmother’s symbolic watercolors “made out of her darkness” evolve beautifully in the telling as talismans of solace and balance. ”

— Kathryn Abajian, essayist and memoirist, author First Sight of the Desert: Discovery of the Art of Ella Peacock.

“The limitations upon the creativity of women – both imposed and self-imposed – chronicled in Martha’s Mandala, is genuinely heartbreaking. Here we glimpse some of the 20th century’s most important figures – notably Carl Jung – who the reader must re-evaluate in light of this story of family privilege, patriarchy, and downfall. Martha’s Mandalas – beautifully written as text and elegantly produced as object – offers us a glimpse of the author’s grandmother – a member of the American aristocracy, a witness to history – and what might have been, had her considerable artistic and intellectual talents been recognized by the influential men around her, which they were not. This concise and insightful memoir makes us take stock of the “progress” women – especially creative women – have, or have perhaps not, gained. Read this and get (retro-)actively outraged. Read this, and appreciate the work of THIS author who is now the important voice of the women in her family, now telling her grandmother’s story. ”

— Sue William Silverman, author, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

“Martha Oliver-Smith has created out of her grandmother’s long buried artifacts, out of her grandfather’s Pulitzer Prize winning remnants, a work of art. It is mesmerizing. She does not hold back. Her portraits of herself, her family, her grandparents Martha and Leonard Bacon, C.G. Jung, Toni Wolff, Georgia O’Keefe, Randall Jarrell, and others, emerge from those halcyon days of the twenties through the fifties as expressionistic gems with amazing power. They are stark in their ambiguity and sometimes bleak in their accuracy allowing us to glimpse a bygone era as through a glass darkly. But these portraits teach us about ourselves, the foibles of our character, what it takes to be human for such a brief time. Some of us shine brightly like a star, in others the glow is mostly hidden. But in all of us there is a flame glimmering, beckoning to be seen. ”

— Kirk Gooding, MD, MC, poet and artist

“In this slim, elegant volume, Martha Oliver-Smith recreates the artistic and psychic life of an utterly unique woman, her grandmother, Martha Bacon. Blending memoir, illustrations, research, and re-imagined events, Oliver-Smith evokes a life at once tragic and beautiful, lively and profoundly lonely. Martha’s Mandala explores the past of a literary family in a book that is elegiac, and unforgettable. ”

— Laura Kalpakian, novelist and memoirist: author of The Memoir Club

“Martha Oliver-Smith has given us a multifaceted gift. Through her rich and vibrant recounting of the life events and psychological dimensions of her grandparents, new reflections on our own inner tensions and energies emerge. Her grandfather an extravert, intellectual, and Pulitzer Prize winner traveled to Zürich to be analyzed by Jung and his students. Her introverted grandmother reared children, and complied with the social expectations of a woman of a noted family in the first half of the 20th century; parallel to the outer ordered life, she experienced an inner solitary experience of individuation that was frightening, painful, and expressed in part through writing, drawing and painting (Martha’s mandalas). When her work began in response to a “crack-up” she did not know of Jung’s theories nor of his interest in mandalas). Jung did eventually see her paintings on a visit to the States when he spent a weekend in the family home.

Ms. Oliver-Smith’s book, with new information, gives us a glimpse into the circle of persons who traveled to Zürich to work with Jung in the pre-World War II years and of events involving Carl and Emma Jung in their time in the States. In Martha, who identified herself as a feminist, we feel the conflicts and struggles of women in the last century where the inner life and social changes were too often discordant.

This history and reflection stands on its own as a rich psychological biography; of greater value is that it may open doors for each of us to personal and archetypal elements in ourselves that determine our lives, our relationships, and our connection to that which is present “called or not called”. ”

— Frances M. Parks, Ph.D., ABPP, Graduate, C.G. Jung, Zürich

“Martha’s Mandala is the deeply moving discovered and uncovered biography of the inner life and struggles of the author’s grandmother. Martha Bacon, a highly intelligent and talented woman torn between a life of duty and forbearance and the urgings of her artistic daemon seeking expression through the living of a larger life, is a woman whose life – and lives – are locked inside herself, a psychic split that manifests in voices which emerge during the stress of young motherhood. During her “illness”, she has a vision of a white flower, a mandala that marks the beginning of her healing and points her to a path towards wholeness that confronts her for the rest of her life. For an analyst and student of Jung, the book offers a rich account of Jungian theory and understanding applied to the life of a family over several generations. The book adds to Jung history and imagination including its parallels in places to The Red Book. It includes correspondence between Jung, Toni Wolff and the Bacons and recounts the couple’s travels to Zurich where Leonard (Patty’s husband) is analyzed, as well as a weekend visit by Jung and his wife to the Bacons’ home in Rhode Island. This aspect is interesting and enjoyable but also sad, for I found myself wishing that Patty were the one to be analyzed. Martha’s Mandala is also an autobiography of the author and her own encounter with her relationship to her family and herself. Through her work, she comes to terms with, embraces and frees herself from her psychic inheritance in a way that is reflective, sensitive and loving. Martha’s Mandala continues its healing and individuating effect over successive generations.”

— Michael Marsman, L.C.S.W.-R, Jungian Analyst

Martha Oliver-Smith of Albany has written something like a memoir, except it’s not really about herself.

The main character of Martha’s Mandala is another Martha, the author’s maternal grandmother, Martha Stringham Bacon, who went by the name of Patty. Ms. Bacon was a talented artist and writer who lived mostly in the first half of the twentieth century, but you had to personally know her to know any of that. She was better known during her life as the wife of Leonard Bacon, an accomplished writer who won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for a collection called Sunderland Capture.

With the help of Ms. Bacon’s letters and journals, Ms. Oliver-Smith reconstructs, and partly re-imagines, her grandmother’s life for a book that’s meant to not only bring to light Ms. Bacon’s inner struggles to find her center as an artist, but also to do justice to the artwork she did create.

The book opens with the author as a pregnant 18-year-old in 1965. When her grandmother asks her what she’d like as a gift in honor of her impending shotgun wedding, Ms. Oliver-Smith requests a painting — one of the many that Ms. Bacon has tucked away in her aging home, out of sight.

After some thought, Ms. Bacon gives her granddaughter a mandala.

Mandala is a broad term for a spiritual symbol that is created to represent the universe — or the self, or both — and it usually includes circular designs and a definite center point.

In Martha’s Mandala, the reader comes to understand the mandala as a representation of the mandala maker’s inner self, or how she sees the world, and as an opportunity to make art that reflects life.

When Ms. Bacon gives her granddaughter the mandala, the young woman knows it’s her grandmother’s final mandala — one of 13 she painted in the 1930s, as part of an effort to understand a psychotic shift that began for Ms. Bacon in 1922.

The mandala — whose center is an open white flower, depicted on the book’s cover — represents her creative spirit, Ms. Bacon tells her granddaughter.

“I knew I had to care for the painting, but I had to learn how to use it for its intended purpose,” Ms. Oliver-Smith wrote. “The final task, which I would come to understand as I grew older, was a compelling desire to discover the mandala’s story, and to complete the task of telling that story.”

With that, the book’s trajectory is clear, and its insights and meanderings along the way are a worthy ride.

In telling Ms. Bacon’s story, a frequent point is a certain disappointment in her body of artistic work, in not letting herself be an artist and writer to her fullest potential, for various reasons.

It may be hard for some modern women to understand why Ms. Bacon didn’t simply work on her art more, if that’s what she really wanted. But not only were gender roles more closely observed in her day, but she was also living with a husband with a big personality, one who loved to go out, recite poetry, host people in his home, and all this came with responsibilities for his wife.

“It was in her nature and conditioning to defer to him,” Ms. Oliver-Smith wrote about her grandmother.

Ms. Oliver-Smith’s disappointment in some of her grandmother’s choices is clear. Ms. Bacon’s own disappointment seems to wax and wane. In one of her journals, she wrote:

“I am a feminist who is strongly inclined to the idea that Woman’s Place is in the Home. Perhaps there would never have been a rebellion against that theory if it had not been accompanied by the belief, implied or expressed, that the tasks of the home were suited to their inferior abilities. Women’s answer to that was to turn that work over to hired people whose abilities they considered really inferior, and free themselves for more ‘important matters.’”

But in another journal entry from a different time in her life, she wrote:

“Today has been another afternoon, completely gone, another tea with Leonard’s lady cousins and the wives of his men cousins. After the morning’s chores and duties, she should have been painting or writing. She sighs aloud. The voice whispered to her all afternoon. While part of her knows that she is here to do one kind of thing — tea with the cousins’ wives, meals, housekeeping — another part knows equally well that she is really here in this world for something quite different. She would not presume to call herself an artist, yet here, as ever, was this force that drove her to painting, drawing and writing. Why does she always feel as if she were two people opposed to one another?”

This division of the self culminates for Ms. Bacon in the fall of 1922, when at the age of 31 she experienced what some called a nervous breakdown.

One day at home, voices in her head advised her to kill her children, while holding scissors in her hand during an afternoon of helping her daughters with their paper dolls. She didn’t harm her three daughters. Instead, she wound up on a long “rest cure” at a hospital. There, one day, she had a vision of something beautiful emerging from a dark chasm that seemed to be deep inside her.

“One immaculate petal gradually frees itself and springs up. In slow motion, it exposes its creamy surface and releases a faint sweet breath; then another petal unfurls, and another until there are four.”

That white flower is the one she eventually paints at the center of the mandala she gives to her granddaughter.

Ms. Bacon returns home, back to her same life, with the voices mostly subdued, but never gone or forgotten.

Much of the book sees her trying to sort through her experience. She worked on many drafts of her story, a formal essay called “The Friend in the Unconscious.”

Her mandalas were something like an exercise in wading through herself.

“Over the years, the images of her ‘tidal wave’ turned into 13 different mandalas. She filled circles, some small, some large, with star clusters and wings, rivers and mountains to illustrate the path of her experience from madness to self-integration,” Ms. Oliver-Smith wrote.

Though the voices in Ms. Bacon’s head never fully subside, she does manage to come out on the other side of what must have been a harrowing experience. She eventually comes to see what she once called her “crack up” as a mystical experience. Ms. Bacon and her family were — and maybe still are — adherents to the psychiatrist Carl Jung’s concepts. Mr. Jung’s concepts are present throughout the book, as are his words at times, as he was personal friends with the Bacons. At some point later in her life, Ms. Bacon begins to wonder if her breakdown was actually a spontaneous Kundalini awakening, an energetic and spiritual experience that is said to travel up through the spine right to the crown of the head, and leads to enlightenment. Whether that’s true or not, the idea of a Kundalini awakening likely came to Ms. Bacon through her familiarity with Mr. Jung.

Ms. Oliver-Smith’s view of her grandmother is not entirely forgiving. Ms. Bacon’s view of herself sometimes is.

A journal entry from her later years, after her husband’s death:

“Most of my time has been spent simply living — extraverting — as Jungians say (I am a Jungian I suppose). Family responsibilities, wars, life-breaking wars, illnesses, travel, years of Christmases, etc. etc.”

Ms. Oliver-Smith attempts to sort out her grandmother’s life, partly in an attempt to sort out her own. Near the beginning of the book, Ms. Oliver-Smith sits in her living room, after her second husband has abruptly left her in 2001, and finds herself staring at her grandmother’s final mandala hanging on the wall.

Though she never makes full sense of the problem that seemed to plague her grandmother — how to reconcile her sense of responsibility to her family with her artistic calling — Ms. Oliver-Smith does a careful job of presenting Ms. Bacon’s story as one that’s as complex as her final mandala, “one that tells a story filled with ambiguities that elude an explanation.”

Though Patty Bacon may not have been as well known as her husband, she was obviously an artist in her own right. Her artwork appears throughout the book. Besides the mandalas, there are drawings and paintings, some of which inspire close study and appreciation. Some of them are even sort of funny cartoons. Her range and subject matter is wide. And though she may never have been a noted writer, the reader comes to appreciate her as an essayist and careful journal writer who offers great insight and sharp truths.

Ms. Oliver-Smith succeeds in what seems to be the mission of her book — to bring her grandmother’s story and work out from the darkness, where they can be studied and maybe even appreciated.”

Article in the Hardwick Gazette:

Hardwick Gazette Article