A pea-green iguana cloaks the neck of a thin man dressed in chains and leather, striding along the train tracks. The iguana’s golden eyes stare over one shoulder; its thick tail twitches over the other. I have seen this man before, but with a rifle, and a baby bundled in fuzzy blankets, over his shoulders. I worry about the man on the tracks. Trains, like bullets, arrive ahead of their sound. I wonder if he can feel vibrations through his heavy boots and why he does not use sidewalks.
It is not normal to see a man walking down train tracks with either an iguana or a baby. I wonder if this man, his iguana, baby and gun are homeless. In America, 600,000 people are homeless, and 200,000 of them are either schizophrenic or manic-depressive. I wonder what will happen to them in the wake of sensationalized reports of crimes committed by persons with a psychiatric history, such as Michael McDermott, described in Newsweek as a “depressed programmer” and “a little bit weird,” Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
The chihuahuas, uniformed in blue serge with tiny brass buttons, guard and bark at the doors. No one is there. Grandma addresses the hissing registers where ghosts who want out could easily squeeze through the mesh. She lights incense in Buddha’s lap because ghosts avoid smoke, especially sandalwood. She says coffins are lined with sandalwood, that burials and graveyards and funerary urns are a bad idea if you are a spirit, they are so hard to escape. Grandma hears phantoms screaming and crying, but she does not want them flitting about. She is not afraid, but she likes to keep a neat house. They are pranksters, and once they get out, you never can find anything: Stamps disappear, food is gone from the freezer, and money vanishes. I am here, a gaping 5-year-old because once again my mother has fled my father with her three small children and come to this place of featherbeds and sugar cookies, tarot cards, tea leaves and tales of levitation.
My grandmother s house is a gallery of paintings by her three children and her first husband. I have favorites, one by Mother of three charging horses, one by all of them of a black carriage resting on its shafts littered with falling leaves, and one by my grandfather, a curved canvas showing a place that might be the Arizona desert with real cacti and sand in the front. My grandmother plays the violin, my mother the piano. There are hats, gloves and rules of etiquette and deportment.
In the basement is an incinerator where a door opens to reveal the flames of hell. Stuff becomes ash. There is a mangle where Grandma presses clothing and linens, and vapor escapes in swirls, like long scarves. She comes at me with a hot curling iron. I smell my hair cooking into bananas, feel my skin shrivel in the heat. I picture the righteous coming for the outcast with hot tar and feathers, Puritans with their flaming torches and branding irons, Nazi ovens. I have already learned about all of them. I decide to cut my hair.
Grandma’s food is boiled or pressure-cooked, and much of it is organ meat—brains, kidneys, liver, tongue—and mushy vegetables— turnips, parsnips, rutabagas. Steaming demons are everywhere, and I cling to her legs. I do not know what is safe. I do not know what to be afraid of.
Back home in the silver Airstream trailer, I have the upper bunk. I try to sleep, but evil clowns with glowing gums and polka-dot suits dance on my guardrail. They want to kill me. Even when I close my eyes, they are there. My mother says they are only moths, but she is wrong. She did not see the ghoulish octopus floating in my room that escaped from my dream to grope me with slimy tentacles. She never sees what I see, never believes what I tell her. No one does. This is 1954, four years after science discovers schizophrenia is not the result of bad upbringing, moral weakness or willful misbehavior, and a decade before my grandmother will commit suicide and my father will be diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic.
When a family tree is riddled with madmen like a magnolia on a Civil War battlefield, it’s hard to get a sense of where pathology ends and eccentricity begins. It’s a shifting ground defined according to time, one diagnosis replaced by another, a pathology du jour. It’s only because we do not believe in changelings anymore that we do not burn the bewitched. In the United States, 1 percent of the population is schizophrenic, their care costing $30 billion a year, and another 1 percent suffers mental illness.
My father enlisted and was attached to the 45th Infantry Brigade, the Thunderbirds, described by General George Patton as “one of the best, if not actually the best division in the history of American arms,” the 180th Division, made famous by Bill Mauldin and Ernie Pyle. He shipped out to Oran, a city on the northwest coast of Africa, and spent the next two years at the front hiding in foxholes or engaged often in hand-to-hand combat from Sicily to Central Europe. His was the group to liberate Dachau. He was among those trapped on Anzio Beach. He suffered shell shock. One minute he was sitting next to another guy, and the next minute the guy had been replaced by a smoking crater littered with badges and bones. Post-traumatic stress disorder would not be an available diagnosis for another 30 years.
My father stayed on as an MP guarding relief trains in Germany. He is still haunted by visions of men disappearing in puffs of smoke, of hungry Fräuleins harvesting roots with bent forks. He came home a front-page hero, settled in Detroit, married, and bought a huge Mack-truck cab. He was a gypsy driver, a long-distance hauler responsible for loading and unloading tons of cargo. Sometimes at home he would make pulled taffy, and the muscles of his arms and neck, chest and back would pump like huge, hydraulic pistons while he stretched the sweet, white, chalky candy pliable in his powerful hands. After it dried into hard ropes, he’d crack it into pieces, slamming it down on the counter.
My mother and father told me the elderly man who gave kids money for candy was dangerous. I ignored their advice. They said I should steer clear of the fuming, bubbling sewage-treatment plant in the center of the park. I did not ignore that advice. I would dream that I fell over the Cyclone fence marked with Danger signs into the foul and foaming scum. Sometimes I dreamed I was abandoned in a car that plummeted down an embankment, hurling me to my death. I would feel myself falling through the bed night after night. I dreamed I was trapped on Detroit’s busy train tracks and had to glue myself to the steel rails in order not to be killed by the Erie-Lackawanna. I had nightmares about being alive at the same time as dinosaurs; I was constantly in danger of being mashed. I was so small.
I was too young to know that my home, hazed with cigarette smoke, was atypical and dangerous. I would fall asleep to yelling and crying, demons and clowns, wake up to blue lights and scuffling and go to school. My mother, makeup hiding swollen eyes and a split lip, a grass-green anole chained to the pocket of her blouse, would appear at my classroom door. We would spend time with my grandmother and her ghosts.
No one ever said, “Your father is dangerous.” To my young mind, if my father was not dangerous, and other things, like earthquakes, were menacing, I would see the clay mud of the trailer park crack and cup in the August heat and be terrified of falling into the great fissure and being lost forever. I would not walk there.
In summer in our bare feet and high-water pants, we looked like leftovers from the Great Depression. Like the Dalits, the Untouchables of India, whose very shadows and the winds that touch them are despised, we were shunned, always the new kids, never in the right clothes, begging for food. In third grade my teacher accused me of extorting food from a classmate; I was afraid I would be arrested. I stalked kids who had snack boxes of salted sunflower seeds. We were like the Musahars, the rat-eaters detested by other Untouchables. Everyone believes there is a bottom rung on the social ladder, and no one wants to be there.
We moved from trailer park to trailer park until we moved to another state. Gone were my grandmother s featherbeds, the Mack truck and my red-haired boyfriend who knew all the words to “Home on the Range.” A fourth sibling was on the way. With my father s short list of references and extensive police record, it was a long and hungry time before he found work. I learned you can eat raw acorns without getting sick.
I played cowboys and Indians, hiked to a nearby pool, and smoked my first cigarette with the other kids. I was 10. I saw my father grab my little brother by the arm and fling him like a dead animal against a wall because he had lost a penny. I befriended the park owner s only child, a girl with long, dark braids and freckles, who played the accordion. I saw my father beat up her dad; I had run to them for help. His daughter and I hid under her bed while he barred the doorway. Like circus men who hammer tent pegs into parking-lot tar, my father pummeled him, breaking his glasses, his nose and cheekbone while we watched shards of glass and a few teeth slide toward us in a pool of blood. The park owner was sorry, but we had to move.
We spent the next winter with the trailer propped on cinder blocks next to the cellar hole where my uncle intended to build a house. Meanwhile he and his wife and his half-dozen kids lived in the garage where they probably would have stayed had it not burned down that winter. The heat from the fire melting the front of our trailer threatened to explode the propane tanks. My father turned off and disconnected the tanks, then rolled them to safety. We lived that winter without plumbing while my father cleared nearby land and in spring shoveled a well by hand, digging foxholes finally paying off. While we skated in the cellar hole, my fifth sibling was born.
The town had no high school or public transportation. There was a tuition plan, which a handful of eighth-graders took advantage of. We rode in and out of the city with our parents on the way to and from work, hanging out on the streets before school and in the shops after.
My freshman year I’m learning biology, Latin, geometry. My family has been in the same spot for three years. I have friends. We keep chickens for eggs. Rats move in. I baby-sit for a neighbor who raises broilers and knows what to do about rats. She gives me a yellow box of warfarin. It will make the rats’ blood boil, and they will die. My father sees and seizes the poison, grabs my hair, and shakes the box over me. He’s going to make me eat it. I don’t really know why he doesn’t. I don’t know why he does any of the things he does, good or bad.
Back in Michigan my mother’s mother has committed suicide, and her father is not well. My father’s mother has died, and his father is in the county nursing home. We need a telephone, just in case. I meet a boy in the hallway at school and give him my number; he calls. I’m chatting on the phone, a white Princess that hangs in the kitchen. My father snaps the phone out of the wall and wraps the cold, white coils around my neck. It’s hard to breathe between the welts.
I’m old enough to drink coffee. I fetch the percolator. My father grips it, splashing me with boiling coffee that stains my clothes and blisters my skin. He threatens to pour the whole pot over me. I feel myself split like Hydra, one part wanting to shrivel into oblivion, the other to grow into a powerful monster. I’m fascinated by Siamese twins, and I really don’t care anymore about kingdom and phylum and the sums of angles and the conjugation of verbs. The air around me shimmers with toxic fumes; the septic backs up into the trailer and everything stinks. I have seen the silver revolver. I have seen the Smith & Wesson. Pamela Mason s body has been found behind a neighbor’s house, and a friend of my father’s has been stopped with a bloody hunting knife in the glove compartment of his car after the murder of Sandra Valarde. I know teen-agers can die deliberate, sudden, violent deaths.
The dawn of my 16th birthday I tell my father I don’t want to go to school. I walk to a police station in the morning and run through the woods to the home of the neighbors in the evening, escaping my father and his deer rifle. He is arrested, tried, found incompetent, and sentenced to the maximum-security section of the state mental hospital. It’s as quick as that.
I’m learning first hand about discrimination. It settles like atomic dust on the families of troublesome people. In Early Ages, Mrs. R. assigns each student a book, most a couple of hundred pages long. She assigns me a fat, two-volume set, then complains my handwriting on the report is too small. She gives me a failing grade. She does the same thing to Shirley J., whose brother, Lance, is a well-known local lunatic. Mrs. R. singles us out, asking impossible questions—Who was the Supreme Padishah of Persia in the 11th century? What river flows from the Arno to the sea? What is written on the 12th scroll of the Apocrypha? She smirks when we cannot answer. The only thing Shirley and I share is our notorious relatives, seen on the 6 o’clock news and discussed in the evening edition.
Some of my family visit la-la-land daily. Those who learn the secret of keeping quiet pass as normal. Shhh. When people read about the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world, they are repulsed and retreat, leaving their care to the courts, the state, the prisoners, but somewhere are relatives who hide and perhaps change their names to pass inconspicuously. Their history is baggage. The trick is to make the baggage history.
Spinach with roasted goat cheese and red peppers, pumpkin soup and chocolate paté. My husband and I are lunching with another couple we have only recently met. We are all college-educated liberals, older. Conversation wanders around the usual topics of politics, education, how you met your spouse, then ambles into the dangerous turf I prefer to avoid. I’m asked about my parents. At my age most people don’t go there, and I have developed answers that satisfy without exposing too much, a trick I learned long ago at another restaurant. The man whose birthday we were celebrating sat at the head of the table, and the group discussed what parents did for a living. Astrophysicist, neuro-surgeon, diplomat.
By this time I had outlived the shame of my father’s incarceration, my stepfather’s reputation as a pervert and the experience of being a social pariah, as welcome with my holey socks and hand-me-downs as a leper ringing her bells. “He’s an engineer.” The word engineer falls over a conversation like a blanket over a birdcage. After a moment of silence, the group sputtered on to another topic. I had succeeded in passing as normal.
What do you say when a date asks about your family? Daddy’s had enough electroshock therapy they may let him out soon. My stepfather is a 7-foot pedophile. Mother is in the hospital having either another baby or another “nervous breakdown,” a diagnosis that no longer exists. You just keep quiet, learn the lingo of the successful in society, and distance yourself as rapidly as possible. Sometimes I feel like an orphan with amnesia, moving from the land of the insane to the land of the sane, leaving behind fatherland and mother tongue.
I wonder about the man with the iguana, wonder who of the people walking by has been found in a Dumpster, a closet or reeds by the river. I wonder if anyone would recognize a Moses today. I look at the homeless men asleep under the overpass, hitching rides, pedaling bicycles, all they possess balanced on the handlebars, and wonder what to say, what to do. Do they strangle canaries with their bare hands because they warn too late of bad air and ozone? My father does. He can barely eat because all the food is poison, all the water tainted. He smokes and drinks from a paper bag and gets lost in his dream world. He no longer cares if anyone believes him or that no one is listening. There’s a crowd in his head, and he’s still trying to sort out the good guys from the bad. His mood swings are swift, unexpected and dangerous. His life crashes to a halt daily. All his delusions are vivid and smell of crankcase oil and spilled wine. The noises made by the wind and cars and dishes have secret, intended meanings.
Until the 1960s schizophrenics were locked up, shocked and lobotomized into oblivion. Now they are left to the asylum of poverty, anonymous and forgotten. My uncle searches for another brother in the Bowery and learns the hard way that “bums” recognize and look out for each other.
Diversity implies immigrants, foreigners who come with their children and parents, ocarinas and mandolins, colorful clothes and peculiar foods. There is little difference between growing up in a deranged family and being an immigrant, but the nostalgia we feel exists in our imaginations, not our memories. There are no block parties, no celebrations of Day of the Demented, no parades, no marches for pride, no books, “Psychotic Like Me,” no culture of the insane.
It is not interesting or politically correct to mention that most murders are committed by white, heterosexual males with no history of mental illness. Reading a Justice Department report in reverse, 96 percent of the murders committed in 1998 were committed by people with no history of mental illness. According to a report published in 1990, 90 percent of the people who physically assaulted another person were not mentally ill. Two recent articles, one published in Lancet and the other in Science News, cite studies that reveal a steady decline in the number of homicides committed by the mentally ill, and that the mentally ill, unless they abuse drugs or alcohol, are no more likely to commit a violent crime than anyone else. Both the general population and the population of persons with a major mental illness see an increase, three- and fourfold, in violent behavior if they abuse drugs or alcohol. Finding ways to curb substance abuse would do more to eliminate crime than eliminating the mentally ill. After sensationalized events such as the Columbine High School or Wakefield, Mass., murders, there is a tidal wave of interest and outrage, scapegoating aimed at people with a history of mental illness.
In 1907 Indiana passed the first mandatory sterilization law against criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles; by 1980, 30 states had adopted mandatory sterilization. In 1912 the first International Congress of Eugenics took place in London—not Berlin—and psychologist Henry Goddard determined, after administering IQ tests to immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, that the majority of Jews, Hungarians, Italians and Russians were feebleminded. In 1922 H.H. Laughlin, expert eugenics agent to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, listed the following people for mandatory sterilization: the feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, diseased, deformed and dependent.
In 1935 Dr. Alexis Carrel, a French-American Nobel Prize—winner, wondered why society did not dispose of criminals and the insane in an economical way; he suggested gas-filled euthanasia chambers. In 1937 Professor Ernest A. Hooten of Harvard stated for the New York Times, “I think that a biological purge is the essential prerequisite for a social and spiritual salvation.” By 1945, according to the AMA, 42,000 people were sterilized in the United States between 1941 and 1943.
In 1970 psychologist James V. McConnell, concerned only with the individual’s economic contribution to modern industrial society, said in Psychology Today, “We should reshape society so that we all would be trained from birth to want to do what society wants us to do.” In 1979 the Repository for Germinal Choice in Escondido, Calif, began collecting elite semen from Nobel Prize—winners and others; in 1982 the first baby from this sperm bank was born.
On any given day, 40 percent of the mentally ill are untreated. Most are delusional, harmless oddballs, highly creative, whether believing the hum of the phone wires is Napoleon trying to speak to them or that they are the true heirs to the thrones of England or Spain or that they are writing some of the world’s finest literature. A few, like my father, are dangerous. Since de-institutionalization began in the 1960s, 90 percent of hospital psychiatric beds have been eliminated. Instead of an increase in services for the mentally ill, there has been an increase in suicide, incarceration and assignment to nursing homes where Medicare and Medicaid pick up the bill. One third of the nation’s 600,000 homeless people are schizophrenic or manic-depressive, and a similar number are in jail for misdemeanors. According to the Southern Poverty Law Report, 16 percent of the prisoners in the United States have serious mental illness; many remain untreated. After an eight-year court battle, Alabama officials agreed to comply with the law and provide for the needs of mentally ill inmates, who until September of last year, were simply stripped and locked in isolation cells.
In this age of memoir, this age of vicarious living, it is hip to have been disadvantaged, to rise not only from poverty but also from hideous circumstance—unless it involves mental illness. Those with a psychiatric history remain the untouchables of our society, the ones singled out in news reports. We ignore or make fun of or steer clear of the dysfunctional who roam parking lots, sleep in doorways, or bum cigarettes until there is an incident and the cant of modern culture cries out for punishment—the death sentence, lobotomies, electroshock, eugenics—to eliminate the uncomfortable nuance of difference, to fine-tune society.
In 1892 Gottlieb Burkhardt performed leucotomies on six patients with a history of hallucination and agitation. Two of them died. Leucotomies did not catch on until 1936, when Dr. Moniz of Portugal promoted the surgery. He retired four years later after being shot and paralyzed by one of his ex-patients; in 1955 he was beaten to death by another. That same year Drs. Freeman and Watts standardized the procedure and introduced the word lobotomy.
Dr. Freeman demonstrated lobotomies at the University of Virginia in 1948. He plunged the ice-pick-like instrument in through the eye socket, lifted the eyelid to slide it over the eyeball, then stabbed it in suddenly and moved it from side to side to sever the prefrontal lobe, a procedure so ghastly that seasoned surgeons like Dr. Watts could not stand the sight of it. Dr. Freeman had each operation photographed with the instrument in place.
After World War II, asylums filled with mental cases, thanks to morphine, plasma and penicillin at the front. In the years between 1945 and 1965, 50,000 lobotomies were performed in the United States. Although Dr. Moniz won the 1949 Nobel Prize, scientific evidence for the benefit of the surgery did not develop. One third of the lobotomized patients improved, one third remained the same, and one third became worse, like Phineas Gage, a 19th-century railroad foreman. He suffered an accidental lobotomy when a spike with which he was tamping dynamite was blown backward through his skull. Although he survived, he became a notorious, antisocial psychotic. Researchers reported in Archives of General Psychiatry that based on MRI scans of their brains, a group of men with antisocial personality disorders, a condition characterized by violence, had smaller prefrontal cortexes than a control group, further proving lobotomies counter-intuitive.
My father was not lobotomized, but he did receive electroshock treatments in the state mental hospital. In ancient times, electric eels, skates, rays and chimeras were used to mediate mental illness. In 1938 Ugo Cerletti observed slaughterhouse workers shocking pigs to death instead of bludgeoning them on the head. After destroying numerous dogs while experimenting, Cerletti began treating schizophrenic patients with jolts of electricity. His first subject was a homeless man speaking gibberish. He shocked the man several times until he cried out to stop or it would kill him.
My father was in the state hospital at the same time the real Sylvia Plath and the fictional McMurphy in Ken Kesey s 1962 novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” underwent electroshock therapy. In the novel a character, Harding, says of the treatments, “The thing is, no one ever wants another one.” Later Harding tells McMurphy not to worry because “It’s almost out of vogue and only used in extreme cases nothing else seems to reach, like lobotomy.”
Doctors have changed the name to electroconvulsive therapy and use sedatives and muscle relaxants so patients do not remember what happened and are less likely to suffer broken bones. Up to 30 shocks may be given to treat a patient. In Texas, the only state to keep track of shock-therapy statistics, there is a 360 percent increase in ECT treatments for people who are 65 as compared to those who are 64, the difference being that Medicare and Medicaid will pay for it.
We accept as human, as we should, the elephant man, the hydro-cephalic, the thalidomide-damaged, the hideous and different, and reserve our jokes and hatred for the mentally ill. By the time I went to college, an Ivy League school, I had learned to keep my mouth shut. Shhh. I listened to the nature-nurture debate, read that people who are neglected or exposed to traumatic events as children were being set up for problems later. I vowed that with my genetic overload, I would never have children because I was doomed to be a bad and dangerous parent. Years later I became more optimistic. My kids have inherited creativity—think Dali, think Hunter S. Thompson, Ralph Steadman, Edward Gory, think Florida ballot, think faulty wiring— but they have learned to turn this to their advantage. They think their grandpa is weird, but they are not afraid of him. They listen to his rants, and they are glad when he brings gifts, spaghetti sauce he has made, a microscope, a treasure box of old coins. They recognize his complex history, appreciate the contributions he has made, laugh at his terrible puns.
My father lives with an overweight beagle in a small apartment on a quiet street. There is a yard spilling down to the river where he plants a garden of tomatoes, peppers and summer squash, which he shares. He has a white SUV but rarely goes anywhere. Whether we visit or talk by phone, phrases catch in his verbal tornado: “tapped phone lines,” “drop cement blocks on their head,” “matzoh-ball soup,” “friggin’ bastards,” “Sewer Crates” (Socrates).
Imagination and mania both possess a fine-tuned, overly sensitive nervous system, disinhibition, ragged clothes or angel wings, palaver or philosophy, scatology or foul language, and hypomania, an ability for absorption associated with superior powers of concentration, especially pronounced among writers, especially poets. Examples are Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and Theodore Roethke, who could live with their manias and hypomanias; and Sylvia Plath, John Berryman and Anne Sexton, who could not. Would we cross the street if we saw them coming, close the door if they knocked?
People touched by manic fire are sharing their stories. Chris Marrou, news anchor for KENS-TV in San Antonio, Texas, and a sufferer of anxiety attacks, said in a Newsweek column that he tried to tough it out, that “being a macho Texan,” he “didn’t need no stinkin’ pills” until he could no longer function without intervention. Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of medicine, author of “An Unquiet Mind” and a manic-depressive, cautions, “Being open is the sort of thing that I advise people to think very long and hard about.” Greg Bottoms, brother of a schizophrenic and author of “Angelhead: My Brother’s Descent Into Madness,” says, “Our true stories…are often the ones that we wish most to forget—a kind of apocrypha from our lives that we keep secret and attempt to excise from the narrative of the self.” They are opening doors for Iguana Don.