Readers’ Comments:  September – November 2017

A brave and beautiful book!  Terry Tempest Williams, best selling author of Refuge, The Hour of Land, When Women Were Birds, and Leap 

An amazing American autobiography about a family with a history that is as diverse as our cultural, national and religious backgrounds. Narrated with tenderness, sincerity and grace, Joan Carol Lieberman’s fraught relationship with her mother helps her define what we all need–optimal distance to discover our own unique path in life. Her ability to illuminate this is a true gift to her readers.  Ruth Wariner, best selling author of The Sound of Gravel

Exquisitely written and crafted, Optimal Distance is a delight to read–an autobiography that is compelling and astonishingly personal. It is a special gift for anyone who has lived up close with mental illness. There are literary nuggets on practically every page which keep the reader looking for the next ones. Tom Tureen, Chairman, Coachella Clean Fuels, San Francisco, California

There are many memoirs available to us right now, but relatively few autobiographies.  Perhaps it is simply too difficult to tell a life in all its dimensions in these complex times.  But this is what Joan Carol Lieberman has done, with a large measure of success.  Her story goes from a childhood in Mormon Utah to single motherhood in Berkeley to a rough pioneer existence in Idaho.  From there in 1968 she came to Boulder, Colorado, where she married, raised her children, and has made a home.  Central to her story is the need to understand and survive her schizophrenic and deeply destructive mother.  An incident from Lieberman’s infancy makes the destructiveness horrifyingly obvious.  Though she has struggled with this relationship all her life, the aftermath of her mother’s death reveals that she has finally reached some moment of peace with it.  Joan Carol Lieberman has always seen herself as an outsider.  Not a Mormon and not a Jew, but a Gentile as Mormons and Jews refer to those outside their religion.  It is as an outsider that she tells of going to Florida to nurse her dying Jewish mother-in-law.  Written in vinegar and honey, this account of a particular Florida milieu is simply brilliant.  It is funny and horrible and anti-Semitic in the best sense of that word.  A major aspect of Lieberman’s life journey is her thirty year and continuing struggle with cancer, which led her to understand so many different layers of our medical system.  She has lived with cancer, but she has never let it define her.  This is a rich, courageous, sometimes outrageous life.  There is perhaps too much unimportant detail based on the author’s phenomenal memory.  But in our age of the shallow and the trivial, there is much here for readers to experience and enjoy.  Charlotte Smokler, Boulder, Colorado 

Optimal Distance, A Divided Life, Part One  was hard to put down.  You enter the author’s life and are experiencing events right along side her which are frightening, funny and heartbreaking.  I was able to relate to some aspects of her life, but many were new to me, such as Mormonism and being a cancer survivor. The pictures the author paints with her words are so vivid. I found myself replaying them in my mind over and over. I highly recommend it to other readers.  Jennifer Breman, Denver, Colorado

Part Two of Optimal Distance is a perceptive, intellectually rich, and luminously written account of reckoning with faith, the specter of death, and family in all its disappointments and deep joys. It is the rare person who has both such a remarkable life story and the chops to tell it beautifully; Joan Carol Lieberman is that person. In this concluding part of her autobiography, the author traces the years after her mother’s passing, an imposing figure whose paranoid schizophrenia clouded so much of the author’s early years and shaped her sense of self. Once the veil is lifted, the author finds herself running several new gauntlets at once: having a son as a forty-something mom, confronting a terminal cancer diagnosis and its equally harrowing radical treatment, caring for the children of another family asea in the crisis of cancer, managing a career, and finding peace and optimal distance with the family and friends around her. She writes with equal parts compassion and insight into the lives of those around her, and with an abiding strength that marks the trajectory of her life. I finished both Part One and Part Two  wanting to be more like Joan Carol Lieberman: keenly perceptive of the full spectrum of life’s sorrows and pleasures, but stepping forward to embrace it all with courage and wit and a most capacious heart.  Katja, New York City, New York

Optimal Distance is an epic story and the author has written it with tremendous skill, humility, wisdom and wit–the latter being a delightful relief given some of the very serious matters her story addresses. The critical theme is mental illness, in particular, schizophrenia. Spanning the years from the 1940’s to the present, it is a profound and honest history of how Joan Carol Lieberman survived her mother’s paranoid schizophrenia from the time she was an infant. It is a two-part work which brings the reader beyond the death of her mother through the author’s twenty-eight year battle with metastatic breast cancer and closes with her psychological  preparation for her own death. In a world filled with a plethora of mediocre memoirs, this is a rare autobiography, one that is exceptionally researched and documented. It should be on everyone’s must read list.  Michelle, Bakersfield, California

Optimal Distance is a truly gripping read that left me feeling a new sense of awe and wonder for the amazingly beautiful and deeply tragic thing we call life. From the author’s candid descriptions of the horrors she endured as a child to her journey developing a life of her own–with myriad setbacks and pitfalls–it was as if I were inside the embodiment of resilience. Joan Carol Lieberman has humor, clear-sighted reflection, and a deep sense of duty. She has lived a life of fortitude and grace, all described in moving, wondrous prose. Reading Optimal Distance led me to my own excavation of self. I have never written a review before, but this autobiography is truly a must read.  Laura K. Hink, Portland City, Oregon

I am reading Optimal Distance and absolutely loving it. Joan Carol Lieberman is not only brilliant, she is also an extraordinary writer. The words float from one sentence to the next! I simply can’t get enough! Her amazing story was worth waiting for. Nina Wexler, New York City, New York

I read Joan Carol Lieberman’s autobiography, Optimal Distance, both Part One and Part Two within a week. Dividing the narrative into two parts was an excellent decision. She has not only delivered her life experiences with extraordinary honesty and openness, but she has developed them thematically, richly interweaving her own experiences with historical and political events, lit by her humor which shines throughout. The author clearly illustrates how difficult it is to achieve “optimal distance,” but what she shares with readers is both informative and empowering. She forthrightly admits to the limits of the human condition, while still holding out hope for growth beyond those limits. Most importantly, she has brought her psychologically naked self to the page without trying to manipulate or dilute the imagery. Bringing schizophrenia to light in a highly personal way through her family’s story, Lieberman helps us understand how the first half of her life was shaped by mistaken psychiatric theorists like Dr. John Nathaniel Rosen and how the treatment options, particularly for schizophrenia, remain draconian. Research in the fields of neuroscience and the chemistry of the brain, along with the author’s new-found interest in epigenetics, are still in their infancy.  Hopefully, Optimal Distance will lend its intelligence to forward movement. Peter, San Antonio, Texas

Wow! Powerful writing about schizophrenia, a subject mostly hidden in our society.  Lieberman’s story is not depressing, but rather uplifting and a tribute to the human spirit.  Susan E.E., Unknown Location

Joan Carol Lieberman’s two part autobiography is absolutely magnificent–agonizing, fascinating, FUNNY, hard to put down and gorgeously written. I finished Optimal Distance with gratitude and admiration.  Judith Mohling, Boulder, Colorado

I have just finished reading the last page of Part Two of Optimal Distance, A Divided Life. It was one of those feasts that are so filling one takes a walk, or sleeps, before sitting down to the next course. Joan Carol Lieberman has put on paper things I feel about nearing the end of my own life, emotions that rise at sometimes unexpected moments just like the ones she describes. The same moments that were savored for a different flavor ten years ago now bring tears to my eyes when I realize sharply how little time remains. And like the author, fear is absent for me too. I am grateful that she has written her life story with such grace. The brief mention of each person or group she holds dear are woven seamlessly and unselfconsciously, without ever being maudlin, an exceedingly difficult balance to create. Finally, I thank the author for feeding the bear she named Big Boy. I am also grateful that her husband Bob insisted that what was begun must be finished.  Katherine,  Los Angeles, California

I could not put this book down. The opportunity to share the life of someone raised by a paranoid schizophrenic mother is rare enough, but irresistible to find an account written from diary entries nearly as old as the author in graceful, expressive prose, and salted with flashes of gallows humor. I was moved to tears by the journey of the child through a maze of daily obstacles that often led to life threatening events. I find this woman’s survival inspiring. The book is a firsthand account of how a child develops strategies to stay safe, and how our personalities are shaped by both the dangers we face, and the people who offer protection and relief at different points in our journey. That Joan Carol Lieberman’s father failed to protect her because he had developed his own strategies for survival seemed unforgivable to me, until I read Part Two of this remarkable autobiography. I highly recommend reading both Part One and Part TwoOptimal Distance is annotated with some references to writings on the character of paranoid schizophrenia, the causes of which are still being debated. However, in the days of the author’s childhood, little was understood, let alone recognized. Nevertheless, through dogged, lifelong research and revisiting the sites of her abuse, Joan Carol Lieberman pieces together for us the narrative of her perilous childhood and early womanhood, delivering a gift from which we all can learn. Because of her often isolated state, the author developed an affinity for animals that has continued all her life. Her descriptions of encounters and relationships with both domestic and wild animals helped to explain not only why some humans are drawn to animals for consolation, but how animals responses affect humans. This is an ancient primitive connection that is a part of life on earth. Those relationships are gifts within the book, and though there are very good photos provided, the author’s descriptive prose creates its own vivid images.  Eleanor Cobin, Santa Monica, California

I can’t get Part One of Optimal Distance out of my head. It is extraordinary. I would like to hear it read aloud. It is exact, full of specificity, not “remembered” but recorded– as Joan Carol Lieberman did in her diaries, but with information. She is her father’s daughter. He taught her something supremely important about exactitude, order, discipline, scholarship,  perseverance, and determination. It is all in this narrative. What a mind. What an accomplishment this book is. I can see it as a movie. Berkeley in the 60’s, Idaho vs. hippies. It has relevance today and is intense, vivid, and graphic. I’ve read memoirs. Lieberman’s autobiography is different because she so diligently and exquisitely recorded her experiences. I see her entomologist father as her model. What a wonderful man–going back to hunt for the cats in Oregon after the truck accident, being there for her, helping his granddaughter Olivia record the pond life, learn to garden, identify birds, and to later teach her math and science. I am deeply touched, astonished, and feel blessed to have read Optimal Distance. The author’s courage! Her zest for life. Bravissimo!  Martha Armstrong, Hatfield, Massachusetts

I’ve been trying to find the words to thank Joan Carol Lieberman for writing both parts of Optimal Distance. I was awed by what she has accomplished and overcome in life and touched by her honesty and clarity. Life deals with us in so many different ways and I see her as an amazing example of how to overcome life’s roadblocks with strength and forward moving energy. Reading Optimal Distance has been a profound and moving experience for me. Sherry Damico, Grants Pass, Oregon

As a clinical psychologist, I read with great interest and care the autobiographical account of Joan Carol Lieberman’s upbringing by a paranoid schizophrenic mother. Both Part One and Part Two of Optimal Distance, A Divided Life highlight the incredible resilience of the author, while also reminding readers of the small movement society has made toward understanding and treating biological mental disorders. The author is in no way a victim, describing in both poignant and humorous detail her rocky road to adulthood. Her miraculous desire to achieve independence and intellectual achievement, while finding love and meaning is inspiring. Stumbling and striding forward through a thrilling and unpredictable life, Joan Carol Lieberman has given us a wonderful reading experience. Michael, Long Island, New York

I am so grateful that Joan Carol Lieberman had the courage to tell her story. She has given me and my sisters insight into our mother, Bea Wallway, that we did not have. She has also given a voice to the many children and adults who have lived with a parents with serious mental illness. I so wish that my sister, Mary Kay, had been in contact with Joan Carol regarding cancer.  It was so hard for Mary Kay to talk with me and my other sisters about what she was experiencing during the final stages. I will always regret that the end was so hard and that in spite of us being there, she seemed so alone. It would be wonderful to sit down with Joan Carol Lieberman. I hope she knows how much we three surviving Wallway sisters appreciate what she has written and shared. I do know that she held a special place in my mother’s heart. If I were still teaching mental health nursing, Optimal Distance would be required reading. I do plan to recommend them to colleagues and just purchased two sets for friends. One lived in Southern Utah during the atomic testing. She has had breast cancer and lost a sister to breast cancer.   I had never before seen the Delta death certificates for my twin siblings until I found them in the Endnotes for Part Two. Joan Carol Lieberman has given my sisters and me such a gift. Donna Wallway, Ashland, Oregon

Simply a stunning book. Both parts set out the reality of living with mental illness and the drive to overcome the ignorance and absence of treatment for someone with a mental illness. It is so timely, as we are being called to acknowledge the awful consequence of the systemic failure of our nation in dealing with the many diseases that ‘disorder’ and ravage our minds. Our unwillingness as a medically brilliant society to provide funding and support for all levels for treatment is becoming immoral. The author’s honest and intelligent presentation of her family’s experiences opens up so many avenues to begin to understand it intimately. Kim Federici, Pipe Creek, Texas

A longtime friend and colleague was kind enough to share Optimal Distance with me. I have been profoundly affected by Joan Carol Lieberman’s writing. As I read both Part One and Part Two, I let her distress and resilience settle in my heart. Thank goodness for Bea Wallway. I now associate rick rack and vanilla with lifesaving comforts. As a psychiatric nurse I have heard many stories of abuse and survival and feel deep compassion for any child who survives torture. The author’s writing brings such deep insight into living with a mentally ill parent. Her image of trying to find an optimal distance is such a healthy concept, one clearly central to her success in her adult life. I thank her for taking the risk to tell her intimate stories, stories that give such credence to her lived experiences. I hope that Joan Carol Lieberman finds some comfort in knowing that her work has reached people who deeply appreciate her amazing journey. Her father, Frank V. Lieberman, will always remain a hero in my book. What a kind and generous man. His gifts reach far beyond his family and I thank the author for sharing him with us. I have recommended Optimal Distance to many friends and family. Karen Nollenberger, Ashland, Oregon

I finished reading Part One of Optimal Distance at the end of the summer.  I loved it!!! I was mesmerized.  Then life got in the way. Other obligations kept me from reading Part Two until now. Now that I have finished both parts, all I can say is wow!  What an absolutely phenomenal book. Joan Carol Lieberman is a living miracle. Somewhere in this book is a movie about pain, survival, love, determination, independence, friendship and life. Optimal Distance teaches us to not sweat the small stuff. To have humility and to be grateful. Thank you for writing this amazing book–an incredible contribution to our world of literature. Nina Wexler, New York City, New York

Optimal Distance, A Divided Life is an extraordinary, magnificently written and brutally honest autobiography which provides readers with deep insights into all aspects of our lives. Reading it changed and enriched the ways in which I experience the world.  I highly recommend starting with Part One before reading Part Two to fully understand the many magical mysteries of Joan Carol Lieberman’s life. Fellow Traveler, Escondido, California

I bought both Part One and Part Two of Optimal Distance, A Divided Life the moment they came out with every intention of reading them right away. And then life happened; school started, work got busy, real estate decisions loomed, etc. That time was my loss. I judge books almost exclusively on how quickly I want to read them and how able I am to put them down. I read Ellen Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels this summer in about two weeks, but have been trying to finish Wolf Hall for about seven years. I finally picked up Optimal Distance last Saturday and for two days I couldn’t put it down. It is compelling and powerful. The writing is absolutely propulsive. Both as a beautiful piece of writing and also as a document of a fascinating life, I highly recommend this book. Henry Smokler, West Palm Beach, Florida

Optimal Distance is a brilliant book. Because of the way it is written, readers feel that they are experiencing these events along with the author. Some situations are funny, some heartbreaking, and some almost unbelievable. An amazing accomplishment from a brave woman whose inner journey is revealed as much as her outer one. Leonard King, Washington, D.C.

Both Part One and Part Two  of Optimal Distance are extraordinary–filled with wisdom about dealing with end-of-life illness and death, the importance of others to one’s own life, while revealing her incredible personal strength and insight.  Because of the author’s diaries, she has put together detail unlike any I’ve seen in other autobiographies.  The only thing I missed was more detail about her successful consulting career–work which most women of her age would have found difficult to achieve.  Optimal Distance is so well written that both parts are difficult to put down.  The author is wise and brilliant–a combination that is not often found.  Jean Dubofsky, Boulder, Colorado

Optimal Distance is a rare bird, and a colorful one at that.  Joan Carol Lieberman combines serious research into homicidal-suicidal paranoid schizophrenia and its explication with a personal narrative grace that keeps you turning the pages.  Paul Swift,  author of A Jesuit’s Journey Through the Turbulent 1960s, Tybee Island, Georgia

Imagine growing up with a mother who is mentally ill and no one does anything about her bizarre behavior.  How do you know what is normal? How does a child learn to handle life with a mother who doesn’t know how to properly protect her from the difficulties of growing up and instead creates difficulties at every turn? What happens when people are convinced that they will become schizophrenic because that is what the latest experts tell you is your fate?  Joan Carol Lieberman’s engrossing memoir shows how one such woman navigated her childhood and early adult years to not only become a competent professional, but also a loving mother and wife.  Joan Carol has given us the gift of this candid look at her fascinating life.  The short chapters help the story move along and the photos liberally sprinkled throughout the chapters add a beautiful dimension. People with mental illness suffer and their families suffer with them. Here is one person’s story that shows love and grace and a life well lived in spite of it.  Donna Barton, Suffield, Connecticut