In an interview with my father, Paul Weidlinger, toward the end of his life, he told me how he held my mother in his arms as she gradually calmed down. Later that night he woke up to discover she was gone. She had left their New York apartment wearing only a raincoat. He discovered her barefoot, in the middle of Second Avenue, oblivious of the cars, horns blaring, that swerved around her. Finally there was a diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenia. This happened five years before she gave birth to me.
While I was growing up, my mother was not always in the grip of her mental illness. There were times when she was a good mother to me and I felt her love keenly. My father saw my birth as “a signal from heaven” that everything would turn out all right, because the responsibility of caring for me gave my mother a focus. Her hallucinations and fears of persecution evaporated.
I was sent to boarding school at age 9 because my mother could not consistently take care of me. When I did see her on vacations, I felt tremendous responsibility to behave as if everything were normal.
Both my father and older sister were in denial, insisting that my mother was just “high-strung.” They conceded that she had had periods of illness, but these were being dealt with by the psychiatrist who administered electroconvulsive therapy and prescribed Thorazine.
People who love someone who develops schizophrenia often do not want to see it, to name it. In seeing the illness you lose a part of the person you love. Denial is a way of surviving, but it also can be dangerous.
Madeleine died when I was 23. She was nearly indigent, living at a YMCA in Boston. I had not seen her or talked with her for several years. My father and I met at the Boston city morgue to identify her body. I felt completely numb. Healing came with time and several years of therapy.
Thirty-nine years later, I began a conscious excavation of the past to write my father’s memoir.
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