Author reveals childhood of horror behind suburban facade

  • Looking very much like a suburban family in the 1970s, this family hid dark secrets, says Paolina Milana, the middle daughter. In her new memoir, Milana explains how their mother, suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia, often threatened to kill them all. Her book offers understanding and hope, she says.

    Looking very much like a suburban family in the 1970s, this family hid dark secrets, says Paolina Milana, the middle daughter. In her new memoir, Milana explains how their mother, suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia, often threatened to kill them all. Her book offers understanding and hope, she says. Courtesy of Paolina Milana

  • The secret horrors of her childhood, her mother's terrifying mental illness and her rape remain a part of who she is, but Paolina Milana says she's learned from her past. The 50-year-old author celebrates the publishing of her memoir, "The S Word," with a book signing Monday in the suburbs.

    The secret horrors of her childhood, her mother's terrifying mental illness and her rape remain a part of who she is, but Paolina Milana says she's learned from her past. The 50-year-old author celebrates the publishing of her memoir, "The S Word," with a book signing Monday in the suburbs. Courtesy of Paolina Milana

  • Middle daughter Paolina Milana says she worried throughout childhood that she and her siblings would be murdered by their mother, who struggled for years with undiagnosed schizophrenia. Her new book explains how her suburban family survived.

    Middle daughter Paolina Milana says she worried throughout childhood that she and her siblings would be murdered by their mother, who struggled for years with undiagnosed schizophrenia. Her new book explains how her suburban family survived. Courtesy of Paolina Milana

  • Her traumatic childhood grew into a troubled adulthood until Paolina Milana found a lifesaving Arlington Heights therapist. Author of a new memoir, Milana also is the communications director for a national charity and a requested speaker on mental health issues.

    Her traumatic childhood grew into a troubled adulthood until Paolina Milana found a lifesaving Arlington Heights therapist. Author of a new memoir, Milana also is the communications director for a national charity and a requested speaker on mental health issues. Courtesy of Paolina Milana

  • Behind that hint of a smile, Paolina Milana hid the dark family secrets that stemmed from her mother's mental illness. Having learned to live with her past, Milana has written a memoir of her suburban childhood titled, "The S Word."

    Behind that hint of a smile, Paolina Milana hid the dark family secrets that stemmed from her mother's mental illness. Having learned to live with her past, Milana has written a memoir of her suburban childhood titled, "The S Word." Courtesy of Paolina Milana

 
 
Updated 6/27/2015 11:33 AM

That suburban concept of "childhood innocence" doesn't register with author Paolina Milana, who spent her early years worrying that her classmates, families at church and everyone would find out her family's dark secrets.

Milana's more pressing fear then was that Mamma, with undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia, would make good on those frequent threats to kill her, her three siblings and their dad. Or that Papa might kill Mamma first. Or that Mamma actually might drink the coffee Milana poisoned. That last flirtation with murder might have been part of Milana's reaction to being raped at age 14 by an adult male friend.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Adulthood provided no immediate haven, either, as Milana carried all that childhood baggage with her. She ballooned up to 365 pounds after her father's unexpected death from a heart attack, the stress of dealing with her mother's cancer, and the sadness of her baby sister's schizophrenia. That's when Milana made plans to kill her mom, sister and herself.

Today, a much different Milana will host an official book party in Mount Prospect for her memoir, "The S Word," with her former 8th-grade classmates, many of whom are part of Milana's book. On Monday, Milana will be signing copies of "The S Word" at 7 p.m. at Creative Coworking, 922 Davis St., Evanston, in coordination with The Book Cellar of Chicago, as one of five authors on a She Writes Press book tour.

"And on Tuesday, I see my former shrink in Arlington Heights," says Milana, who credits that psychotherapist with saving her life.

Now 50, Milana, a former resident of Algonquin, St. Charles and Skokie, is happily married to Joe Edwards, writing books and working as the chief communications officer for the St. Baldrick's Foundation, which benefits childhood cancer research. The 12 years she spent writing the memoir of her childhood gave her a greater understanding of the issues for everyone in her life.

"It really is a book about people doing the best they could wherever they are at. When you are in the middle of it, you don't even realize you're doing it," Milana says. Reading news accounts last week of the 14th anniversary of Texas mom Andrea Yates drowning all five of her young children, Milana says she appreciate the struggles of her own mother, who left Sicily as a teen and was a gifted seamstress until her schizophrenia interfered.

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"She used to hear voices telling her to kill us, and she fought that," Milana says. "The night she escaped from the (mental ward) of the hospital, I really did think that was it for us."

As a young woman forced to take care of her widowed mom and young sister, Milana remembers hatching a plan to end all their lives. Leaving her health club in Rolling Meadows that night, Milana seemed so troubled that the manager drove Milana to her therapist.

"As much as I've endured, someone is looking out for me," says Milana, who says that therapist not only saved her life, but changed it. The breakthrough came with a simple question: "When are you going to stop wishing for a better past?"

Milana's mother died in 2008 and her sister, who lived in a mental health facility in Elgin, died of a heart attack last year. Her other sister has a family in Arlington Heights and her brother lives in Algonquin.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Now that she knows so much more about the issues of mental health, Milana says she wishes she could have had those conversations with her mom.

"It still hurts. It still makes me cry," Milana says, adding that she now is equipped to cope with those feelings. "I do miss my mother and my sister, especially when I read my own story, turning the pages of my own book, sometimes, having to stop in disbelief at the words on the page and the scenes that unfold. Were we really that stupid?"

Hindsight makes the problems far more obvious than they were at the time.

"Coming to terms with my own world took me a long time and nearly killed me, and others around me," Milana notes.

She discovered her talent for writing as a student at Iowa State University, before she quit to take care of her mom. She later received her bachelor's and master's degrees in communication from North Illinois University. She wrote stories for the Daily Herald and other publications and worked in public relations for charities and corporations before turning her attention to books.

She has another book in the works that picks up where "The S Word" ends. But her next soon-to-be-published book is titled "Blueberry Hill Cottage: Finding My Way Home." It tells the story of how she found her home, husband and new life in California.

"I needed a break from crazy," Milana admits.

But she no longer runs away from those issues or pretends they don't exist. She speaks to families and groups dealing with mental health issues. She talks about her own triumph over obesity and body image. And she wrote an emotional and honest book that she says might help other families going through similar things.

"You can let the past ruin your future, or you can take it for what it was and learn from it," Milana says. "This is a book about forgiveness and redemption across the board."

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