Father, Have I Kept My Promise?: Madness as Seen from Within – Edith Weisskopf Joelson

Emigration From Childhood

If the answer was” A gentleman,” my mother would be justified to assume that the maid had asked him to take a seat in the spacious foyer. Then mother would go immediately to ascertain the gentleman’s identity and the purpose of his visit. Depending on the circumstances, she might ask him to join us for dessert and coffee.

If, however, the maid’s answer was “A man,” my mother could be sure that the maid had left him standing outside the door. In that case my mother would order the maid to get the man’s name and ask him what he wanted without ever permitting him to enter. In most cases the man turned out to be a poor Jew who had been sent by the Jewish welfare agency to ask for money. The maid would be asked to bring Mother’s purse and, with a facial expression which people assume when they smell a bad odor, Mother would take a sizeable bill out of the wallet and hand it to the man-carefully, touching it with two fingers only, as if the bill itself would be covered with the repugnant dirt associated with poverty.

A similar course of events would take place if the visitor turned out to be a female. Then the question would be: “Is it a woman or a lady?”

Apparently there were no borderline cases, since the maid never hesitated when answering these questions.

Thus I learned that there were gentlemen and ladies who are fully human and are to be treated as such. And then there are the common people, men and women, who are to be supported by charity if necessary, but are to be viewed as lower forms of Homo sapiens. Among these lower’ forms there was a further hierarchy. Poor Jews were a wee bit lower than poor Christians, and among poor Jews there was a caste of “untouchables”: the orthodox Jews with long beards, sideburns and caftans who had been driven out of Poland or Russia by cruel persecution and who sought refuge in the Jewish district of Vienna called Leopoldstadt. They often could not speak any language other than Yiddish or Hebrew. Some of these tried to live on meager profits from selling “sundries,” which they pushed through the streets on carts. Mother warned me never to touch these wares because they were full of germs.

Father, by contrast, did not share Mother’s snobbishness; in fact he tried to teach me values in direct opposition to her artificial ones. He tried to teach me to love and respect all people and to honor God. Father never joined us on our trips because he was too busy. Although he worked long hours as an attorney to support Mother in the style which she enjoyed, he managed to spend time with his daughter, whom he loved with a bashful intensity. We used to take walks in the Vienna Woods and engage in long and serious conversations which my father skillfully adapted to my changing age.

He often said: “The most important thing is to be a good person.” And seeing my questioning look, he would elaborate: “You must not only think of yourself. You must love your mother, and your teachers, and your friends. And, above all, you must love God.”

One time he had told me about the meeting between Moses and God on Mount Sinai and how God gave Moses ten commandments which every human being must obey. “What are the commandments, Daddy?” I asked, and Daddy stated one or two commandments which were easy to understand when I was little, and more complex ones as I grew up, until he had covered all ten.

When I reached the age of fifteen, he reiterated the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” and asked me whether I thought it was all right to kill the enemy during combat. I said, “Yes,” and Father looked at me very sadly.

I wanted to be moved by his words, but I could not do it because I felt the image of my mother looking over my shoulder, and like Mother, I thought Daddy was old-fashioned. Why couldn’t he be smooth and elegant like she was? I would even imagine hearing her say during our long walks (a familiar say,ing of hers), “Herb, don’t you know that one doesn’t talk to children like this?”

When they went to a restaurant or to a resort hotel, Mother would always correct Daddy and say things like: “Herb, don’t put the tip on the tablecloth, put it on the silver tray and add another schilling.”

It almost seemed that Moses and the Ten Commandments had lost their power over me because the man who taught me the words of God did not have good table manners!

But later the seed that Father put into my mind began to disturb my peace: A rumble of this disturbance became faintly audible to me in the first part of the 1940s, when World War II was raging: when I taught middle-class students rather than debutantes from upper-class families; when blacks became my students as well as my colleagues; when Gustav Ichheiser, a friend of mine, made value-laden statements which demanded agreement or disagreement. The rumble became louder and louder until it turned into the song, the march, the hymn of my existence. I found that I could not stand in front of students whose eyes are asking whither with such urgency, and teach them what is without suggesting what ought to be. My thoughts began to wander more and more towards moral and spiritual values and towards the man who had instilled me with these values long before I was mature enough to understand. And, as I emulated Father’s fierce sense of fairness and justice, I finally could love him. But it was too late. How happy we could have been if we had shared this love when he was still alive. Then, one day, my feelings became so strong that I felt compelled to write a letter to him, a letter which I finished fifty-three years after his death.

Dear Father,

My first remembrance of you goes back to when I was four years old and you visited me in the hospital in Vienna. My head was wrapped in white bandages covering both ears, which hurt badly from a double mastoid operation. You had been drafted into the Austrian Army to help fight World War I. My mother called you long-distance to tell you that I had to be operated on and that I might be deaf for the rest of my life. And then you came back to see me!

I remember so well. I remember how you looked in your uniform, which was all blue-not light blue and not dark blue, but something inbetween. Your jacket had a stiff, navy-blue collar that went up to your chin; and there was a soldier’s cap on your head-and now the most important thing: you wore a belt with a long, shining sabre attached to it. And somewhere there was something red on your uniform, but I can’t remember what it was. I believe you were a lieutenant. Oh, and then there was the moustache-so beautifully groomed-and when you kissed me it tickled.

I felt as if Saint Whoever had descended on a cloud to visit. I was so proud, Vati (a diminutive of Vater, meaning Father)-that you would leave World War I, where you were supposed to smash the French, the British and the Russians, just to come and worry about whether I could hear or not. Well, it turned out I could-the surgery had not damaged my hearing.

Then you disappeared and all there was left was Mother and my two brothers. It was hard being in the hospital and knowing you were so far away. When you were home I always felt protected, but now I was scared to death that my big brothers would take my toys away and that Mother wouldn’t help me because she always sided with the boys.

I have no memories covering the next four years of your life. You must have written letters to Mother, which she must have read to us, but I cannot recall any such letters.
We children were very patriotic, and that might have been in part because we thought that the side on which our Vati fought must be the right side. We sang some wild songs against Charlie (Charlie was a slang word we used for the Americans; it means the enemy against whom we fight a war. But now I am getting all mixed up because you and I and all pf us, the Austrians and the Germans, we were Charlie in World War I.

But most of our wild songs were not directed against the Americans, because we knew little about them and because the songs had been made up before the States entered the war in 1917. Here is an example of our songs:

Jeder Schuss einen Russ,
Jeder Stoss einen Franzos,
Und die Flotte ist nicht faul,
Schlagt den Britten um das Maul.
(Every shot a Russian,
Every hit a Frenchman,
And the Navy never rests,
Hits the mugs of the British pests.)

We also played war games with tin soldiers and, of course, our side always won.

I guess it was the governess who made us do these nasty things (at least they seem nasty now). She created patriotism in us by what psychologists call conditioning. It worked this way: there was a fortress named przemysl, located in what is now Poland. The fortress belonged to us. Then it was conquered by the Russians; that day the governess did not give us any dessert for dinner: Soon we reconquered the fortress and received one of our favorite desserts: strawberries with whipped cream.

Other fortresses were conquered or lost, and accordingly, we received an outstanding dessert or no dessert at all. It did not take too long until we became bloodthirsty patriots.

Toward the middle of the year 1917, Mother received a telegram from the war department saying that you had been captured by the Russians and had become a prisoner of war. From then on we spoke about you, Vati, from morning to night, and usually in great fear that the Russians would mistreat you.

Then, in 1918, only a few weeks before the armistice, an event of such enormous power occurred that it has reverberated in my memory ever since.

On that day the doorbell rang. It might have been morning, afternoon, or evening. It was the maid’s day off, and I was asked to see who was there. I opened the door without removing the chain, as I had been taught to do. I looked and saw one of “them,” one of those Jews with long caftans, beards and sideburns: “ein Polnischer.”

There was a strap around his shoulders that held a large wooden tray filled with pens, pencils, small notebooks, thread, needles, toothpaste, toilet water; candy and other merchandise. I stammered: “Just a moment,” slammed. the door, and ran to find my mother. “Mutti (diminutive of Mutter; meaning Mother), Mutti, a man is outside, not a gentleman at all, a dirty Polish one.”

“Did you close the door?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Quick, get my purse.”

And with that facial expression of superiority, which I had seen so often, she took a bill out of her wallet, handed it to me, and said, “Be sure not to remove the chain. And don’t touch his hands when you give him the bill.”

I ran back to the door, opened it a tiny bit, threw the bill on his tray and was about to slam the door when I felt resistance. The Polish Jew held the door open with his right hand. Is he going to tear the chain? Is he going to enter by force, to burglarize, to kill… ?

He did not move. He looked at me with a big smile. “Bist Du die Edith?” (Are you Edith?)

“Yes,” I whispered.

And then you said, “I am your father!”

I had to get used to you very slowly, so slowly that the process of acceptance was only half completed in 1926, the year of your death-eight years after I had contemptuously thrown money on your tray as if you were a beggar.

Acceptance became somewhat easier when you told us, in daily installments around the dinner table, the story of your escape. You were determined to escape because it was the duty of every prisoner. Your determination to do your duty was in no way influenced by your belief that the end of the war was very close. You risked your life by creeping underneath a row of half-a-dozen trains, anyone of which could have started its journey and crushed you to death.

And, most important as far as I was concerned, you were not really one of those contemptible Polish orthodox Jews who were so far beneath my poised and elegant mother. No, you were not. You had to assume the disguise of a Jewish peddler so no one would recognize you as an escaped prisoner. And it never occurred to you, Father, to change your disguise before you came home. For how could you have known that your family had turned against their own people, against their roots?

During the years following 1918, you caused me much embarrassment. The day after your return, you went to the barber and had him shave off your beard and your sideburns. After that you tried several kinds of moustaches, all of which looked a bit ridiculous, especially the waxy one that turned up on both ends. Why could you never look like other people?

And why could you never behave like other people? You wanted to know and see everything your little daughter did. November 29, 1919, was my ninth birthday. You insisted upon coming to the school of calisthenics, where all the kids from good families went, to watch me do exercises. I was using golden bars, like all the kids did on their birthdays.

You came with Mother and sat in the balcony watching me. She was so poised and never attracted my attention or anybody else’s. But you, by golly! You turned around and said to the people behind you: “Watch her, the one with the golden bar; she’s my little daughter.” Then you waved to me. How could you embarrass me so much?

Why couldn’t you be smooth and elegant like Mother? Why couldn’t you have been born in glorious Vienna like mother and us children, instead of that Bohemian village that no one ever heard of?

And why did you give me never-ending sermons about being good, dutiful and loving? Why did you have to teach me the Ten Commandments and ask me-one by one-if I obeyed them? Didn’t you know that only unenlightened people believed in God’s existence?

Later you did a few things I liked. You started to make our dinner conversations really interesting. You were then a judge in some court; and you made up trials, between two feuding parties, for us children. Then you asked us to be the judges, to state our verdict and to explain how we arrived at this verdict. At the end of the “trial” you often said to Mother: “The little one always hits the nail on the head.” I enjoyed the game and was flattered by your praise.

Then in 1926 you came down with pleurisy. You were lying in bed with a high fever, and the perspiration was running down your face. I was standing by your bed with many towels wiping the perspiration off your forehead. I was then sixteen years old.

You pleaded over. and over: “I want no one else to do that for me. Only my little daughter.” Even though Mother was not present, I still felt as if she were looking over my shoulder and saying to you, “Don’t you know that you shouldn’t speak like this to a sixteen-year-old girl?”

Then you went to the hospital for surgery-they didn’t have any antibiotics at that time. And after the surgery you died. The doctors said it was a heart attack. Your heart had been weakened through the strain of combat, imprisonment and escape. You, a full-blooded Jew, died for Germany!

But before you died I sat at your bedside in the hospital, and you said, “You must promise me . . .” And I promised.

For most of my life I forgot what I had promised.

Forgive me, Father.

Forgive me for having looked down upon the Jews with caftans, beards and sideburns. Those Jews with their sad eyes who are a part of me, a part which I could not accept.

Forgive me for having looked down on you because you came from poor and lowly parents.

Forgive me for having eyes that could not see how much you loved me.

Forgive me for having ears that could not hear the voice that taught me truth and faith and justice.

Forgive me that I could not love you.

After you died there was no pain, just emptiness, an emptiness that lasted many years. And then, from the tiny seed that you had planted in my growing mind, sprang a green twig, first small, then bigger, and finally the twig grew into a tree. The tree is strong and firm and straight; it is the tree of life, the tree of kindly, compassionate values, the tree of my own new life.

Look at the tree, Father, and answer the one burning question in my heart:

Father, have I kept my promise?

Two more ahead of me and then it is my turn. I will not let them cure me. I will not return to the bland and trivial world of normal people.

The line gets shorter, and I see it is a liquid. I take the little plastic cup and put the small amount of yellowish liquid into my mouth. I then put my hands around my neck, go into contortions of nausea and spit so that it looks like puking. (I learned this as a child when I had to take cod liver oil.) I figure that when they see my delicate stomach cannot take the smell and taste of Thorazine they will give me capsules, right?

Wrong. The two boxers who did not like my Catholic devotion appear again in a split second and hold me down while the nurse gives me the medication by injection.

I have five hours until the next installment of Thorazine will be due. This gives me time to practice holding a liquid in my mouth without swallowing it and looking natural while doing so. It’s real easy as long as you don’t speak, but suppose someone asks you a question?

Try it, Dream Reader. Try to fill your mouth with water and say “Testing, one, two, three, testing” and see what happens. Thus, I have to drink my potion after each meal and at bedtime.

Thorazine and similar drugs have been praised because they have emptied mental hospitals and permitted “those less fortunate ones” to resume their,proper place in the community. My foot!

Let me tell you how this medicine affects me. I become drowsy, indifferent and depressed. I welcome it at bedtime because it makes me sleep so well, but who wants to sleep during the day, especially in the middle of a revolution?

I notice the change most drastically when we (the ward ladies) go down to OT. My coordination has become very bad, and even getting there is quite fatiguing. I look around the workshop. Is this the place that I viewed as a magician’s lab only a short time ago?. Now I see a sad-looking assembly of wool, wood, paint and cloth with dismal-looking people slowly stitching and carving like robots or slaves.

The teacher says, “You have finished two oil paintings, do you want to do another one?”

“No, I would not know what to paint. I am on medication and I don’t think I can do anything,” I whine.

“Yes you can. Let’s start with something easy.”

She brings me a hook, colored wool and a large cloth that looks like burlap. Then she explains what to do.

First I have to draw, in pencil, a design or a picture on the burlap. I draw a little house, a tree, a fence, a lawn, a path, a sky, and clouds. Exactly the same picture I drew when I was still alive. It is impossible for me to think of something new.

Then I start the hooking. It is difficult. It takes me ages to thread the wool. It is also hard to push the hook right through the burlap, to fish for a new strand, and coax it upward through the hole.

I get exasperated and humiliate myself by asking the teacher for something still easier.

I end up making pot holders. I take the wool and needle to the ward and make one after the other so as not to have to think. Life has gone out of me. I get no treatment beside the Thorazine, hook therapy, watch bowling, and the like. Dr. Dalton speaks to me from time to time, right on the ward in everybody’s presence, for five minutes. I tell him, “I felt so good, but since I started Thorazine I am depressed and barely living.”

“Your ward behavior surely has improved,” he remarks casually. Now I understand! The antischizophrenic drugs are meant to cure you, not by making you happy, creative and loving, but by making you tractable. The hospital is satisfied, since sitting in a rocking chair and making pot holders is a sure way of avoiding trouble.

And soon, the doctors think, I will be able to live in the community, where, filled with Thorazine, I can score tests and compute IQ’s instead of reenacting the Revolutionary War.

My Jesus delusion is gradually fading. The other patients are just patients, not figures from the gospel; and the beautiful woman whom I called Maria because I thought she would play Jesus’ mother is just a housewife from Fort Wayne named Edna.

But within me is still a glowing sun, now buried and invisible, waiting for the moment to erupt and shine. Perhaps the Thorazine does more than change you into a robot. Perhaps it gives you rest to heal inside until it’s time, until it’s time.

The flock of geese (of which I am one) goes to the snack bar several times a week. So do the doctors, nurses, aides, et cetera, et cetera. Patients stand in long lines to get coffee, soft drinks, milk shakes, candy or toothpaste. The staff lines up in shorter lines. Then we sit around heavy tables, patients with patients, doctors with doctors, aides with aides, except that one aide sits at every patients’ table.

I don’t like candy bars, milk shakes, soft drinks or coffee, and if I would buy toothpaste every time it would be viewed as a perversion. I do force down some gooey stuff so that my chart won’t say REFUSES SNACK.

One day I sit at a table alone with my required Hershey bar, expecting other patients and an aide to join me. Then something unexpected happens. Dr. Sorcy joins me. He is the counterculture doctor who spoke on my behalf during the trial. .

“How are you, Dr. ]oelson?” He is the only one who calls me doctor. “I am much better since you spoke during the staff meeting. Did you get flack?”

He smiles. “Oh yes. But does it matter?”

And now both of us smile. Since Tobey left there has not been a flow of love between another person and myself (except my ex-husband, some students and some colleagues)

“What a glorious vision to play the role of Christ!” says Dr. Sorcy. The tears stream from my eyes, and Dr. Sorcy says quickly, “Let’s change seats.”

Now I face the wall and he the snack shop. No one can see me cry. I use my napkin so as not to dig into my bra in Dr. Sorcy’s presence. Finally I recover my composure, and a flash of that familiar high zigzags through me. Sorcy and Joelson versus Thorazine.

And like a fish back in the water, I want to tell him, tell him, tell him about the wonders I have seen.

I start excitedly, “Everyone thinks it is so dreadful to have hallucinations or-as you call them-visions. But it is one of the most beautiful gifts I ever received-the gift to see the world quite differently than I saw it all my life-I couldn’t believe that such transfigurations really happen. ”

Dr. Sorcy does not say anything, instead he laughs and laughs and laughs. He does not laugh about me. He seems to laugh as if something obvious, hidden for centuries, has suddenly come to light.

Then he seems to speak more to himself than to me: “It was like a miracle. You could transform the world in which we live into a passion play. You walked on the streets of a small Midwestern town and transfigured it into holy ground. As it were, you walked where Christ walked 2,000 years ago.”

“But why that horror in the faces of people at St. Mary when I told them?”

“Your rapture is not accepted in the world in which we live. You know that Faulkner wrote, ‘Craziness ain’t so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it,”’

I interrupt, “Oh yes, of course!”

“And then we cured you. Now a small Midwestern town is just a small Midwestern town and nothing more.”

“Yes, the world is cold and empty.”

He whispers consolingly: “But you’ll recover! Then you will not want to transform the world into a passion play, but you will have moments when you can look at the real world with rapture, when everything around you becomes enthralled and glorious. There’ll still be many mysteries for you to solve.”

I venture, “Perhaps my ‘vision’ was not a breakdown but a breakthrough? ”

And he says weightily, “Oh yes, perhaps it was.”

Then I complain, “I felt so holy, but now I’m told it’s a disease.”

“It doesn’t matter what you call it. I studied your transfigurations of reality quite thoroughly. You have a longing for oneness. At Valley View every single thing had to fit your notion that people wanted money from you. Even Tobey, whom you loved dearly, became suspect. Then the patients’ poverty and your wealth vanished completely from your mind, and every single thing was caused by pills. And later,”, at St. Mary, you were not satisfied until the convent, the town and the entire world had one prime mover: Christ, reenacted by yourself. You must be nostalgic for the centuries when everybody believed in one prime mover, in Providence.”

I am intrigued. “How come you are so different from all these doctors?”.

He blushes and explains, “I took a class which made me see the world of mental illness in a new light.”

I ask with great surprise, “A class?”

“Yes, I took a class.”

“A class in medical school?”

He shakes his head.

“Then where?”

“In the Department of Psychology.”

I am almost too surprised to speak. “Psychology? But where?” “In Indiana, at Purdue University.”

My heart pounds heavily. “What class was it, what was the name?” He whispers,

“Abnormal psychology taught by Dr. Joelson.” My lips begin to tremble.

He fumbles for his wallet and fingers awkwardly until he finds a photograph. He hands me the picture over the table and explains, “‘This is how I looked without a beard and with short hair.”

I exclaim, “Tom, is it really you?”

He answers with tears in his voice, “Yes, Dr. Joelson.”

Then we walk silently back to the flock, the two’ of us, once teacher and student, now student and teacher. He says, “So long,” and I sit down to finish my pot holder before we go to supper.

Today something incredible happened: I was called to the telephone. It raised my status enormously that someone from the outside world wanted to talk to me-not to my doctor, no, to me in person.

Dream Reader, I’d like to blurt it out immediately and tell you who it was, but there is something that you have to know so you will understand. When I found out that I was to play the role of Christ, I resigned from my tenured position as a full professor at Purdue, where I had worked for about eleven years with utmost dedication. Who wants to work at some old school if she can travel with a passion show from town to town, from state to state as Jesus Christ, the Lord Himself?

I hold the receiver to my ear with my right hand, clenching the pot holder in my left fist.

“This is Dr. _, chairman of psychology at Duke University. We would like to offer you a position as a visiting professor at Duke for this next school year beginning in September.” (It is late July.)

I say with trembling voice, “I can’t decide so quickly.”

“We have to know by August 10.”

“I’ll get back to you,” I stammer.


Now I am sitting on a bench, speechless and numb. What if the doctors won’t permit it? If they will keep me imprisoned in this Thorazine bar? Might it be better not to tell them now and try my best to speed up my recovery? Then on August 10, I shall face my judges and demand my freedom. And this is what I decide to do.

Next morning, after breakfast, I try to write my journal again. But Thorazine does not approve; it holds the still unfinished pot holder before my eyes. Mazie agrees with Thorazine and says, “Finish your pretty pot holder, Miz Joelson. Mrs. Fender will be here at 9:00 and bring new wool in different colors to make another one.”

“Yes,” I yawn. But I know that sweet Mazie’s mind wanders far and fast and she will never notice if I don’t finish the execrated pot holder.

Thus I get some paper and an envelope from the unknown aide who guards the counter and write:

To: Dr. Tom Sorcy
From: Edith Joelson

When I was mad I flooded the outer world with
my inner life until the world disappeared and
everything became dream, wish, and fantasy. But
if the mad person does not become too fearful of
this ocean of inner life, she will be able to withdraw
the flood slowly and lovingly and see the earth
again, an earth which is no longer withered and
dry, an earth which is now bathed in the nectar of
the human soul.

Now the reply:
To: Dr. Edith Joelson
From: Tom Sorcy

Yes. I agree.
Therefore you must get well. You have a lot
to do. You have to teach and write. Those who go
into madness and are able to return from it bring
treasures with them which they must share.
Withdraw the flood and see the earth again!

My life has changed so much. I know I’ll soon be well.

A few days later I sit again with Hershey bar and much anticipation in the snack room at an empty table. Soon Dr. Sorcy joins me saying he has spoken with Dr. Dalton, who has agreed to let him work with me under supervision on little projects.

“Stop all this silly stuff-pot holders and hooked rugs and whatnot. What do you really want to do?”

“To play the role of Christ in a passion play.”

“Then play the role of Christ.”

“But how?”

“What is it about Christ you want to emulate?”

“He was a teacher and a preacher and said things to people which are true and cleansing.”

“Then teach and preach.”

“Here on the ward?”

“No, not here on the ward. But isn’t writing a form of teaching, too?”

“Yes, but the Thorazine . . .”

“Oh, you are stronger than the Thorazine. You wrote a beautiful little essay just a few days ago.”

I gave in and started to write. One paragraph or two a day, then I got scared and tired. It took me sixteen days to write what I needed to say. When I finished, I sealed the manuscript and sent it to Dr. Sorcy.

I was released from Pineville Mental Hospital in time to start teaching in the fall semester of 1966 at Duke University.
A Letter to My Unborn Schizophrenic Son

My Dear,

After daydreaming much about you, I finally decided not to conceive you. This decision occurred a long time ago, when I was still young enough to bear children.

Today I should like to speak to you, my unborn son. I should like to explain to you why you are unborn. I should also like to tell you today, my dear unborn child, how I have experienced a gradual changing of heart and I wish, at last, you had come into the world.

I made my decision not to give birth to you because I was a different kind of person and feared that I would pass my genes of differentness onto you. I feared you would be born “schizophrenic.” My expectation of such a dreadful tragedy, as many would perceive it, was based on two considerations.

First, there is some evidence that a disposition to become schizophrenic can be hereditary. I began to notice at a very early age that I was unusual in many ways. This observation persisted into adulthood and is still with me today during this summer evening which I am spending with you. When I started to study psychology, I began to realize that an overwhelming number of these differences between myself and others were warning signals of schizophrenia. My suspicion did not prove unfounded since later, at the age of fifty-two, I did suffer what psychology calls a “schizophrenic episode.”

I also began to recognize that these differences could make me the kind of mother who, I have read, allegedly-contributes to the development of a schizoid personality in her child. Thus, I decided not to pass on to you genes that might have channeled your life in a direction which society and the world have called “evil” and “ill” as a condemnation without the possibility of redemption.

Today, as a mature woman, I ask myself, What is good and what is evil? Would you now call schizoid evil or ill? I would not. Who is to say what is healthy and what is sick? As a student I gullibly accepted the words of my professors, physicians, and the books I read, as the final authority on these matters. But now I wonder if all these learned people have considered asking “evil” and “ill” people why they find it so difficult to understand their differentness. The schizophrenics’ way of looking at life, the objects and goals they value, the styles in which they live, differ from those professors, physicians, and authors-the mainstream people in society-to such an extent that the two species just cannot understand each other.

When I was an adolescent, I valued the aspects of my personality which resembled those of others, while I was ashamed of and tried to hide the aspects of myself which did not conform to the norms. Only now, in my fifties, do I recognize that often those parts of ourselves which distinguish us from others are the ones which help us find the unique roles we are meant to play in life. I now believe, my unborn son, you would have been a unique person in this difficult world in which you would have lived.

What would you have been like if you had been born? For one thing, you would have been a “stranger” to life, a schizophrenic among so-called normals. There are so many different societies-an inhabitant of the United States who is liked by his peers would be considered quite odd among a tribe living off the shore of eastern New Guinea.

The degrading term “schizophrenic” makes it difficult to consider that we may be of some use to society. Therefore, why not call ourselves Strangers? Then we would call normal people, to whom the mainstream of society seems to be their oyster, Natives.

Strangers and Natives do not represent two separate groups. Instead, they represent a continuum of people, most of whom possess characteristics of both kinds-of both Natives and Strangers. It is for didactic reasons only that I am speaking of Natives and Strangers as two separate groups rather than as points on a continuum.

Those Natives have much to say about us Strangers, especially those Natives whom society has told to label us, study us, explain us, care for us, and use us.

While many of us are popular, friendly and sociable, we find it difficult to form truly intimate and lasting relationships with others. Perhaps those who judge us are trying to say that we cannot love. Many of us Strangers can “love” quite well. Many of us are sexually and emotionally skillful and competent. But they say we cannot love. This accusation hurts me most. For it is impossible to interact with Natives without noticing that emotionally intimate human relations are one of the things that keeps them alive. Thus, in this respect your life would have been a hard one. Unless you were a handsome and intelligent young man, your distant, foggy look would have challenged others to get close to you, to love you, and teach you how to love.

Strangers can love intensely, even if it is a “love” Natives call “immature” and “inconsequential.” These Natives don’t understand that we Strangers have an overwhelming ability to develop a kind of love which might be called infatuation. We become easily infatuated with individuals whose private lives are mostly unfamiliar to us and then can be filled with our own dreams. Teachers, actors, and athletes are those public personalities we will often become infatuated with.

We also become infatuated with our psychotherapists. And we “sick” Strangers often find ourselves under their care. Sigmund Freud called the love of patient for therapist “transference” and predicted we Strangers could not be analyzed because we are too narcissistic, or self-loving, to enter into this necessary and beneficial transference. We now know that Freud was mistaken. We “fall in love” with our therapists all the time. In fact, many Strangers need to worship someone who does not quite exist in our reality, someone who is half-known and half-unknown, half-real and half-dream.

We Strangers have converted psychotherapy into something quite creative to our existence-something it was not originally meant to do. While less unusual patients might undergo therapy to help them live more fully outside the therapy situation, many Strangers find that the psychotherapeutic session itself becomes their whole reason for living. When they get the first taste of a transference relationship, they realize immediately that this is the elixir which they have been yearning for alltheir lives. And their lives become acceptable, happy, even blissful when they bring the fantasy figure of the therapist into their personal lives. And now it does not matter anymore whether life’s realities are dull or bright, for there is always a presence which transfigures their world into a place of enchantment. Thus, many Strangers do not have the desire to be changed by the therapist. Instead, they desire to incorporate the therapist into their lives.

And it is only now that I come to my point. Many Strangers are the real religious devotees of our time. Many Strangers have an insatiable yearning to worship a metaphysical figure, to seek God. They have skipped centuries of our history, have rejected pure empiricism, and have never accepted the death of God. Indeed they will secretly transform into a God any human being who offers love but remains veiled in mystery. They must indeed be thirsty for worship if they can worship a psychotherapist who may not even be an especially admirable person, who may not show any real love for the worshipper, may feel vastly superior to the Stranger, and may abuse the Stranger’s thirst for worship by selling himself for a high price as an idol.

In contrast, many “normal” Natives of our time do not even admit or recognize their religious needs. These needs often remain unconscious or veiled: what Viktor Frankl calls “religious bashfulness.” They deny a profound and essential part of their real nature as human beings:

Thou has made us for Thee
And our hearts will not be at rest until they rest
in Thee. -St. Augustine

Accepting this, then, we can see that of all people in our contemporary society-empirical, scientific, materialistic and manipulative as it is-those Strangers who tirelessly seek their God offer a glimpse of a creative model for existence.

Those Strangers in society find those potentialities which the Native has neglected.

Let me tell you about a conversation between a Stranger and her Freudian analyst. The Stranger had very limited finances. She earned a small salary which she used to support herself, to contribute. to the support of her mother; and to pay for her analysis. She was content with this arrangement as a temporary condition and viewed the goal of becoming more affluent as a side issue rather than as a main goal. The therapist considered her lack of economic ambition “neurotic.” He said, “The fact that you are content living in a furnished room eating in cheap restaurants, and owning a minimum amount of clothes shows that you get all your satisfaction from your fantasies rather than from reality. Other people desire to buy a house, a car, pretty clothes, and they care about owning nice silver rather than the dimes tore forks and knives which you bought yesterday.” In order to understand the significance of this statement, you need to know that this Stranger’s life was taken up with highly fulfilling activities. First, she was being psychoanalyzed, which means that her life was filled with worship. Second, she had a highly fulfilling relationship, which reached an unusual degree of affection and compatibility, with her lover. Finally, she experienced her teaching as a calling, and her positive influence on her students indicated that this perception was not fantasy, but reality. But, according to her analyst she was sick because her life did not conform to the materialistic values of mainstream society. My son, you must have guessed that this Stranger was I.

A conventional life with conventional goals rarely appeals to a Stranger. When he is told what he is missing by not pursuing money, permanent friendships, lasting sexual relations, family fun, and other American activities, he tends to wonder whether all such goals are enough to give up his mad, searching, unpredictable life with all its adversities. His life may be painful at times, but it is uniquely his. He has a deep conviction that this is the way he is meant to live.

One author, a psychotherapist, describes the Stranger as being willing to give up everything beyond the bare necessities of life. He then continues by saying that the Stranger would even go so far as to lower his social status and to associate with people of a lower socioeconomic level. Is it not shocking that a psychiatrist considers it the ultimate sacrifice to associate with people of lower status? Is it not true that people of lower status with regard to income and education are often people of higher status with regard to friendship, love and faith? Jesus must have been a Stranger, for he said: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). Thus, we are at times confronted with the remarkable situation in which a Native attempts to “cure” a person of a higher spiritual and moral nature than he. Is it not that at these times the blind attempt to lead the one-eyed?

My son, had you been born we would have spent much time talking together, trying to help each other understand the nature of Strangers and Natives, wondering how the two can communicate with each other. For, after all, it is important for us to know what kind of people we Strangers are and what we can give each other and to Natives. But things being as they are, I have to do my studying alone, with only the shadow of your eternal presence shimmering by my side.

My studies at the university were often painful because my teachers were Natives; their words and their books described us as crippled and diseased. And, on the one hand, they were right, because there are so many things we cannot do which seem to come so easily to the Natives. But then, there are often things which come quite naturally to us which Natives find extremely hard to do. In so many ways, some of which I mentioned earlier, we Strangers seem to compensate for features which are missing in the world of Natives, and, in turn, Natives emphasize the aspects of life which are alien to us. It would take many volumes to elaborate on all the aspects of life in which this is the case. But the most important contrast between our hosts and us is perhaps their emphasis on the drama of life which occurs in the external world versus our emphasis on me drama of life which occurs within us. Perhaps all other differences are only special aspects of this main one.

Unfortunately, in almost every case the Native’s ways tend to be viewed as valid, realistic, healthy, and constructive, while the Stranger’s ways tend to be viewed in a negative light in the society at large. This is only natural, since Natives are in the majority.

Thus, you, being a Stranger, would have found yourself frequently pushed to the outer fringes of society. You probably would have found yourself rejected and misunderstood in a great variety of ways. There are two manners in which you might have responded to your minority status.

First, you could have repressed or denied everything in you that is mad, irrational, childish, and dreamlike in order to pretend to be like the Natives. Then you might have led a life undistinguished from many other lives and you might even have attained a considerable amount of success, such as I have. But as you grew older, you would gradually-at first only faintly, then strongly, and later unbearably-become haunted by the feeling that you have played a role rather than lived a life. This is the first thing you might have done with your life as a Stranger. This is what I have done with mine.

But, there is a second way in which you might have lived. You could have become a revolutionary. You could have actively worked to overthrow the views of those Natives who call us evil and ill. Like Blacks and women in my day, you could have joined hands with your brothers and sisters and marched in peaceful rebellion against those who would reject us, scorn us and use us. And like monks in a religious order, you might express, in the world that you were part of, an order too-one which preserves the dreams, the values, and the ways of life which Natives have lost, and which we would most willingly restore to them. We can accept their scorn, my son, or we can march. And I would have marched with you-had you been born step by step, myself a Stranger and the mother of a Stranger. I would have marched right by your side down the liberating road of life.

Here ends my letter to you, my unborn schizophrenic son. It is dated the Fourth of July. The Day of Independence is a good day to write to you. To spend time all by oneself, writing to an unborn son, while other mothers take their born sons out to play, is strange indeed. It may be strange, but it is neither sick nor is it evil. It is just different, but filled with purpose and meaning: if thousands and thousands of voices would tell the world that we are their sisters and their brothers, then someday you will be born. Not to myself, for I am too old. But of a lovely and determined young woman, who will be proud to be the mother of a Stranger.


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