• 1996, 1997, 2001, 2019
  • Farrar, Strauss & Giroux; Noonday Press; University of Alabama Press
  • Hardcover, Paperback, eBook

Sweet Mystery: A Book of Remembering

From the University of Alabama Press, a new 2019 edition of the best-selling memoir that combines sorrow and joy, anger and forgiveness, suffering and healing, affirming the resilience and strength that imbue the human spirit.

When Duke Paterson saw Emily Hillman for the first time in Montgomery, Alabama, he thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world. The year was 1935, and eight months after their elopement, their first child, Judith, was born. Handsome and headstrong, Duke was twenty-three. Delicate but just as determined, Emily was shy of twenty-two. Together they formed the picture of an all-American family: bright, carefree, with boundless possibilities. But off-camera, their marriage was racked with doubt, riven by anxiety, and soon shattered by the devastating effects of alcoholism. Judith Paterson was just nine years old in 1946 when her mother died of a virulent combination of alcoholism and mental illness at the age of 31.

Sweet Mystery: A Book of Remembering is Paterson's harrowing account of the memories of her mother, told with eloquence and understanding. Set largely in Montgomery, Alabama, the story plays out against a backdrop 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.

While rich in the details and 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 strengths that enable some children to survive, grow up, and heal.


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Praise for Sweet Mystery

"Sweet Mystery is a remarkable story... fascinating, but what makes it special is its compassion. Paterson tells her story with sadness and anger but also with great love. She watches her mother losing her fight with alcoholism, and despite the reality of what that meant to her as a daughter, still asks, 'if it doesn't perhaps take much, or more, courage to wage a battle that is lost than to fight with hope for something that might be won.'" Susan Kelly, USA Today

"[B]eautifully written... Paterson's clear mission here is to concentrate on the process of remembering, to discern true memories from the idea of memories or the memories of memories. This is a grand excursion backward, warts and all... The dragon was not the Old South (although with this book Paterson can lay clear claim to the status of Southern Writer) or slavery or class or cotton or your mother's underwear; it was booze and pills, and it burned a hole that could be filled only with the passion of teaching, of writing, of turning her attention to others and sharing her grotesques with us." Robert H. Williams, The Washington Post

"[Paterson's] psychological insights are sound.... For readers who have had similar experiences, this book could offer the comfort of sharing the survival of the horrific." Andrea Cooper, for The New York Times Book Review

"A cathartic reconciliation with the past... [Paterson's] lyrical, sensuous prose brings memory vividly to life and articulates with understated power the rage and sadness of the adult survivor of childhood trauma. Sweet Mystery is a courageous account of personal suffering and recovery that forcefully affirms the necessity of confronting the past." Steven Hill, for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"[A] dauntless, poignant account of a troubled early childhood... Sweet Mystery is a carefully researched and eloquent meditation on the causes of a specific family's turmoil. It's a story not only of one child's heartbreak but of her resiliency and healing. What distinguishes Paterson's memoir from others is her vivid documentation of happy times as well as the episodes of confusion and pain. [A] rare, amazing grace of a book." Marianne Gingher, for The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)

"This book is for all who appreciate eloquent writing of bittersweet memories, as well as those struggling with the legacy of a painful childhood." Publishers Weekly

"This delicately written memoir works on a number of levels—as the story of Paterson's desperately unhappy parents and as a clear-eyed look at how the afflictions of one generation are visited on the next. It is most notable, however, for its unflinching descriptions of a child's suffering." Booklist

"A remarkable work ... tender, excruciating, compelling." Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird

"Judith Paterson's Sweet Mystery evokes the ghosts of Truman Capote's troubled childhood with all its bittersweet traumas, memories, and redemptions. It is a story for anyone whose curiosity hearkens to the sweet mysteries of the past." Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump

"The sweetest mystery of Judith Paterson's stunning memoir is how she steeled herself to delve so deeply into her own buried memories to produce this unflinching history. Sweet Mystery should earn her a place on the shelf with Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and Frank Conroy's Stop-Time." Elizabeth Benedict, author of Slow Dancing and editor of the anthology What My Mother Gave Me

"Judith Paterson links the great casualties of the American Civil War to the personal casualties of lovelessness in this brilliant family memoir, in which utter terror and unconditional forgiveness are inextricably combined. I stayed up until two in the morning reading this one." Carolyn See, author of Dreaming: Good Luck and Hard Times in America

"Judith Paterson writes with remarkable insight about a flawed but loving family. And her details of growing up in the South are right on the money, even down to the RC Colas!" Alfred Uhry, author of Driving Miss Daisy

"Here is an autobiography to be read again and again, a window open onto a child's world of horror and victory, a world that included the South itself with its implacable society and its restless quarrel with changing times." Richard Marius, author of Bound for the Promised Land