The stuff that families are made of.
Inspired by my own experience with home renovations and a fascination with large families, this week I decided to read Rise: How a House Built a Family by Cara Brookins. At its heart, Rise is the tale of a single mother of four rising from the ashes of an abusive relationship and embarking on the adventure of building her own home in the hopes of regaining some of the peace and security that domestic violence inevitably steals.
Something about the home building process has always seemed almost mystical to me. About a year ago, I watched two homes go up across the street. The workers broke ground, laid the foundation, and built the frames. I watched their methodical progress, and then, all at once, it seemed to cross a magical line from construction project to home. I couldn't help but walk over to peek through the windows. Though I understood in theory how a home was built, it still seemed like there was an unknowable middle step between the building of it and the living in it. Of course, it's a bit silly to think that way, but it always gave me the impression that home-building was out of reach of normal people, that it required a group of highly skilled and specialized laborers. So, when I came across Rise, I was immediately interested. How had an individual, much less a single mother of four, managed to build a house with her own two hands? Spoiler alert, it had a lot less to do with mysticism, and a lot more to do with back-breakingly hard labor.
The book rotates between two narratives, Cara's past and present. The latter is what is described in the summary. It tells the story of how she was inspired to begin building, and then follows her as she struggles to make her dream house a reality. Anyone looking for an uplifting tale could probably read just these chapters and get a complete and enjoyable story. On the other hand, the past narrative describes the realities of the abuse that Cara went through. These dark chapters give the lighter ones more depth and meaning, but they are sometimes hard to read. They contain violence and fear and left me with questions that had nothing to do with home-building. The transitions can be jarring, and there were times I had to stop reading for a minute to readjust from one tone to the other. However, the two narratives work well together, giving the story power and urgency.
For a memoir, I was surprised by how much I learned. Cara goes into quite a bit of detail about the building process, from the banks and permits all the way to tardy electricians and on the job accidents. Rise went a long way toward demystifying the building process for me, though it in no way diminished the sense of accomplishment. I found myself cheering for her family's successes. Construction aside though, Rise was also eye-opening in regards to the treatment of domestic violence and mental health within the legal system. At the hands of her mentally ill abuser, against whom she had a restraining order, Cara was subjected to many instances of trespassing, property damage and threats. Without describing the specific events of the book, I will say that Rise made me aware of a huge flaw in our legal and healthcare systems. When a mentally ill person is arrested for a crime, they are either put in jail or sent to a hospital. In jail, they typically aren't treated properly and deteriorate so that when they return to society they are often worse than when they went it. When they are sent to state hospitals, they are typically only kept long enough that they are stabilized with medication and then released, where many quit taking their medications, either by choice or because of difficult circumstances like financial strain, and then reoffend. In neither case is the mental illness addressed properly, and, especially in the case of the hospital, it leaves victims in danger.
Rise left me with a strong drive to push for changes in these systems. Victims of domestic abuse deserve the right to live peaceful and happy lives, without having to live in terror. Equally, those suffering from mental illness all deserve the chance to be properly treated. While the book doesn’t necessarily confront these issues head-on, it's impossible to read it and not consider them.
With that in mind, Rise is not a light read. It left me with a tangle of complicated thoughts, both positive and negative. But, it is a good read. Mental health concerns are something we should all be more aware of, particularly because it's estimated that over 42.5 million adults in America deal with mental illness each year. More positively, I was also inspired to consider the meaning and value of family, which I suspect is also something we should all spend more time thinking about. Even when times are dark, perhaps especially when times are dark, family, whether related through blood or chosen through love, are the ones that we can look to for support and assistance. Rise is a poignant reminder of that.
You can find Rise: How a House Builds a Family by Cara Brookins here.
Also by Cara Brookins: