My Madness


Published January 1, 2023

First Things

My brother Peter was a wondrous boy, the youngest, brightest, and bounciest of three kids: IQ 165, boundless curiosity, confidence, and mental energy, bold in the best sense, and less than optimally protective of life and limb, fearing neither God nor man. A school exercise he wrote when he was five or six demonstrated a religious sensibility well on its way to being fully formed: “Jesus fly over the stabel on Christmas morning. I hate chirch.”

Our home life became miserable, ­gradually, and then all at once—our father’s worsening alcoholism, our mother’s cold fury, their no-holds-barred ­divorce—and as soon as I could go away to college I got out of Chicagoland and didn’t look back for seven years. Serious trouble began for Peter when he was nine and he and a friend were caught smoking marijuana in our front yard. By the time Peter was fourteen, he was flying into violent ­rages and had done time in the locked ward of the ­psychiatric wing at a suburban Chicago hospital, where our mother was an anesthesiologist. When he was fifteen, he stole our mother’s car and drove south, skidding in a snowstorm into the “Welcome to Tennessee” sign on the interstate. Two tires blew in the accident, and kindly but clueless state troopers took him to get replacements, reminding him as they sent him on his way to tell his mom about the sign he took out, which would have to be paid for. Peter drove on into Georgia, where more prudent law enforcement put an end to his escapade. Our mother flew to Atlanta to retrieve him and her car. The conversation on the drive home should have had a John Cheever to record it.

Nothing could have brought me back except the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Our parents and my brother were happy to see me back in town, and they hoped that my presence might restore our family harmony.

We did try. Peter was off to college in the fall of 1978, just as I was starting out in the Committee. Largely at my urging he went to the University of California–Santa Cruz, a beautiful place far from the chaos of home, with a reputation for easygoing academic semi-­seriousness and tolerance for renegades. I flew out to San Francisco and saw him off at the bus for Santa Cruz, where he was chatting up a pretty girl with the loveliest blue eyes I have ever seen. It seemed an auspicious beginning. Three months later I flew out again to collect him from the Santa Cruz ­County Hospital. He had propelled himself into florid psychosis by taking LSD, just about the stupidest thing he could have done.

The official onset of Peter’s schizophrenia had come when he was fifteen or sixteen, rather than in the more customary early twenties. The diagnosis was later amended to schizoaffective disorder, the double whammy of schizophrenia plus manic-­depressive illness—the direst cognitive disease, with its soul-stealing hallucinations and delusions, and the most lethal mood affliction, with its aeronaut flights and sepulchral darkness. Treatment was catch-as-catch-can: antipsychotic medications, which might not work and would likely produce side effects (from cotton mouth to weight gain to persistent fatigue to impotence to disfiguring spasms); lithium or valproic acid or antidepressants to tame the moods; electroconvulsive therapy for the most extreme eventualities. Peter would get some of this and some of that, stop taking his medication when he was feeling better, and go into a tailspin. He hated his illness, hated the treatments, hated our sister, hated our father, and loathed our mother in particular. He was too afraid of God to hate him but freely hated the Catholic Church in which we had been raised.

Meanwhile, our father was going to pieces. An anesthesiologist like our mother, in his thirties he had been a tenured professor at Northwestern University Medical School. Now he bounced around from one hospital to another, one rehab clinic to another, an embarrassment to his colleagues and a menace to his patients. In October 1982, on the eve of my brother’s twenty-first birthday, our father was drunk and choked on a piece of leftover ribeye he had grabbed out of the refrigerator. Death was instantaneous: Some simple reflex mechanism stopped his heart. He was sixty years old. Peter was right there when it happened.

There ensued episodes of spectacular psychosis on religious themes. Of all the books in the Bible, Revelation lends itself most readily to the waking nightmares of the severely mentally ill. I remember Peter standing and reading aloud from our mother’s heirloom Douay Bible, his left hand raised like a minatory prophet’s, his right hand moving down the page as he declaimed at an auctioneer’s pace and a drill sergeant’s volume about the beast from the bottomless pit and the war in heaven. Voices told him that he was a “great sinner” who was paying the price for his misdeeds and was probably already damned.

To relieve his self-hatred, he redirected his rage toward our mother, whom he pronounced “schizophrenogenic” in the psychiatric palaver of the time. Thus, psychiatry enhanced a sick soul’s torture, not to mention the pain our mother endured in listening to the animadversions of her medical colleagues. Years later, after such notions were discredited, Peter continued to swear by them, never wavering in his vindictiveness and scorn for the person who professed to love him no matter what but who he knew was the real cause of his suffering.

A year after our father’s death, Peter became the father of twin boys, whom he never helped to raise; his girlfriend departed for a lesbian attachment in short order. He moved to Kalamazoo with another girlfriend and studied for a couple years at Western Michigan University but never graduated. Although he had never been any sort of athlete, he tried out for the Division I football team, but fortunately was cut before the hitting started. Never, never, never: One notices a theme developing, of failure to live. He and the girlfriend plotted an exercise in practical diabolism, modeled on a Highsmith novel and a Hitchcock movie, whereby he would murder her father and she would murder his mother, and both would get away with their crimes and inherit enough to begin a new life offshore. It’s a good thing schizophrenics find it famously difficult to realize their most ambitious ideas.

Mercifully, the sociopath girlfriend vanished from the scene, and around 1988 Peter met a slender brunette with a crackerjack mathematician’s mind, an energy analyst for a boutique investment firm, who loved him as he had always longed to be loved. He seized the chance as a drowning man does an outstretched hand. For a long time, he and his girlfriend and the daughter they had were ­happy.

On returning to Chicago in 1978, I floundered a long while. The family was counting on my presence to heal my father’s and brother’s broken souls. I knocked myself out for both of them, and their self-destructiveness seemed sheer, unforgivable perversity. Meanwhile, the euphemism exhaustion, code for depression, fit my case perfectly: When I started sleeping twelve hours a day, I told myself that I was just worn out, and my body would right itself in time. Seeking medical attention was the last thing on my mind; I wasn’t sick like they were. My schoolwork ­suffered—I looked to be a perpetual student in the worst sense, a loafer with no way up and out—as my main job became familial savior. I turned resentful and bitter.

Eventually my body righted itself, and things started falling into place. I aced the long delayed five-day exam for my master’s degree; I went to Berlin, and my long essay about being a tourist there was published in Commentary, leading to further work in intellectual journalism. I took up singing in 1985, and it turned out I had a large, handsome bass-baritone voice with basso profundo low notes; five years later, after serious effort, I was a rising star on the local opera and light opera circuit, nearly ready to pursue a career in music. My doctoral dissertation on Winston Churchill as historian was three or four months from completion in early 1990, and I was in love—happily, unhappily, too soon to tell—but savoring every moment I had with her. My life was sweet and my prospects were golden.

In February 1990, the American Spectator sent me to Lithuania to write about the revolution there that would end Soviet rule. I roamed all over ­Vilnius, whose architectural glories were being renovated in preparation for the cultural renaissance that freedom would surely bring. I interviewed leading intellectuals and prominent political men, including the diffident pianist and musicologist who would be elected president on my last day in town.

Perceiving and circumventing KGB harassment was part of the job. When I called up a militant dissident who had recently returned from the Gulag, the phone went dead. As I walked in the center of town, a man passing said, “You aren’t in Sweden now.” A crew of Polish construction workers occupying the room across the hall piled wooden scraps at my door, and one night they gathered in the hall and shouted, in drunken pidgin Lithuanian, “We’ll leave him bloody.” My airline ticket home was taken from my hotel room. Some of these events might have had nothing to do with secret-police surveillance, but they all contributed to the paranoid flavor of the place, and to the confidence that in Lithuania, paranoiacs have real enemies.

One night, at exactly 3 a.m., I awoke to a thought, which I spoke aloud: “They’re not going to let me out.” That morning I heard the maid say outside my door, “He’ll never again see the outside world.” Later in the day I was writing postcards to family and friends, when out of nowhere the certainty seized me that in an earlier life, I had been a young Lithuanian man during the Second World War. My Uncle Vitas, a former spy, had told me about this young man: Occupying Soviet authorities had murdered his parents under orders from a Jewish commissar. After the Germans drove the Soviets out of Lithuania, the youth sought revenge by joining a police auxiliary unit that collaborated with the Nazis and specialized in murdering Jews. When the Red Army drove the ­Nazis out, the young man was sent to the death camps of Kolyma and perished. I had never put any stock in the idea of reincarnation, had no memories of any previous life, and thought the whole business suitable for dupes; but I knew now that I had been vouchsafed the truth.

Then a voice from the next room said in English, “Since he thinks he’s a Jew, we’ll treat him like a Jew.” And the blackest bass voice I had ever heard began to intone a Hebrew dirge. The song went on for several minutes. I had never heard anything like it before and have never heard its like since. I fell trembling to my knees and knew my soul was done for. It did not occur to me that I had been drugged or gaslighted or that I was losing my mind; I was certain that the most profound mystery of my being had been disclosed. Any inconsistencies in the revelation did not concern me. I had been visited by the uncanny. No doubt about it. None.

I feared that the rest of my life would be punishment for unforgivable wickedness—if indeed I was still alive. Maybe I was already in hell or was being detained in the antechamber. The sickness unto death, as Kierkegaard called despair, infected my mind and my heart. I felt the horror course through blood and bone. My body knew.

Yet despondency and terror could not quite extinguish my hope of forgiveness. Perhaps my revelation was meant to change my life for the better. Perhaps I was in purgatory, with a chance for atonement. The God of Rescue might yet appear like the cavalry, just ahead of the scalping party. But I really feared the scalping party. I believed that at any moment the full calamity of my condition might emerge, the people passing in the street cast off their masks and show themselves pure demon, to haul me off for an eternity of scourging or impalement or slow roasting. I prayed harder than I had ever prayed before.

For years, I had indulged in a slipshod and self-absorbed spiritual life, modeled on the quasi-­miraculous egotism of Goethe’sWilhelm Meister novels, hoping the Powers, whoever or whatever they were, would guide me to success in work and happiness in love. Now I was more self-obsessed than ever, but prayed only that I might escape damnation. If the earth were to swallow me up and my soul be obliterated, that would be fine—anything not to feel the pains of hell. Never to have been born was the impossible ideal. Every day I went to Aušros vartai, the Gates of Dawn, the only city gate still standing, a sixteenth-century masterwork that contained the Chapel of Our Lady, Mother of Mercy, with a beautiful Black Madonna. Several people were always praying there, some saying the Rosary aloud, reminding me of the first prayers I ever learned, in Lithuanian, as a boy. Here was a sanctuary from the forces bent on destroying me. I always left with some trepidation.

Portents abound when you’re in the right mood. During an interview I conducted with a leading communist politician mediated by a journalist of the official Soviet press, every statement either of them made seemed a double entendre predicting my imminent arrest by the KGB, whom they doubtless served as operatives or informers. Afterward, in the street, I almost ran into a ten-year-old kid who had the misdemeanor-demeanor of a ­Dickensian street urchin. He looked me in the eye, stuck his tongue out of the corner of his mouth, and made the rotary motion of forefinger to temple that means “­crazy” most everywhere you go. Then he was off. The paranoid mind sorted swiftly through the possibilities: Was he an employee of state ­security taunting one of its victims, or a child demon in training, or just a young punk who had noticed the obvious fact that I preferred not to admit to myself? None of the answers promised a brighter future.

Despite further signs ominous or bizarre, I made it home to Chicago and my Marquette Park bungalow, safe if less than sound. A couple days after my return, I went to dinner at the Hyde Park home of Saul Bellow. My excited description of a spiritually transfiguring but hair-raising pilgrimage, with its intimations of momentous insights yet to come into the nature of good and evil (I avoided mentioning my previous life murdering Jews), made Bellow realize that I was flying pretty high. What the Lithuanian punk had seen was plain to his practiced eye; he’d lost beloved friends to madness. He waited a day or two to advise me to speak with the student health psychiatrist, with whom he had arranged an appointment. He also suggested that I read Inferno, a memoir by the Swedish playwright and polymath August Strindberg. And he asked me to stay with him in his apartment for a few days; Marquette Park had begun its transformation from sedate working-class neighborhood to violent slum, and he rightly thought it uncongenial for me in my current condition. I thanked him but declined, told him I would eagerly read the Strindberg, and, after jousting with him about the need to bring ­psychiatry into this—I was an intrepid adventurer of the soul, scorning uncomprehending medical interlopers—gave in and said I’d see the doctor.

The psychiatrist wanted me to check into the university hospital psych ward. I said fat chance, politely. I read Inferno—ostensibly Strindberg’s account of his plunge into demon-populated schizophrenia—as in fact the story of his torments at the hands of actual demons, whose noxious power he dispelled by returning to the faith of his ancestors. Voices told me that I, too, was in the demonic universe, so I figured, what the hell, and started going to church again. My demons, however, only intensified their attacks.

About a month later I was in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., in the home of my Uncle Vitas and Aunt Colette, who I thought were privy to secret knowledge that could be my salvation. My strange behavior—crying jags alternating with truly insane laughter to shoo the devil away—led ­Colette to call a psychiatrist, who told her to call the police and tell them that I was trespassing. Given the ultimatum on the doorstep, thinking I was in some kind of mythic hero’s trial, I started back into the house and the police arrested me and took me to the Fairfax County Jail in Falls Church.

Jail was the worst place I could have been. I took the name of the town to signify that I had fallen from the normal world into the demonic universe, this place of darkness and punishment, where I was born again into the true Church of the new dispensation. The break between the old world and the new was sharp, brutal, and definitive. My mind was no longer my own. A voice from the corridor informed me that I was not a human being with a soul but a synchronized automaton. Sounded plausible to me.

A less ethereal voice came from a cell nearby: If I was still in jail by nightfall, I would be raped. It would be wise to fake a heart attack. My screaming fortissimo brought three or four guards and someone who may actually have been a doctor. He put a stethoscope to my chest and declared me healthy. The cell door was opened, and my neighbor yelled for me to run. I took a lunge toward freedom and the guards pinned my arms behind me and carried me to a larger cell, with no bed or sink or toilet. When the guards were gone, another voice helpfully advised that I kill myself, for if I didn’t, I would be crucified on the wall and locked in this room alone forever. I punched and kicked and butted my head against the heavy wooden door. When it became clear that my pounding would not do the trick, I started screaming at the guard standing just outside the door, “Kill me! Kill me!” He stood there impassively until I had finished, then shook his head, rather sadly it seemed, as he walked away.

I lay gasping on the floor and awaited the hammer and the nails. Occasionally a guard would look in through the little window in the door. No one brought food or water. I urinated in a corner. Hours later, another prisoner was brought in and promptly passed out on the floor. Evidently the guard who accompanied him saw I was in bad shape—my hands swollen into catcher’s mitts, my feet unfit for walking, my forehead bruised—and someone decided at last that I belonged in the hospital.

Because I again tried to run per demonic instruction, the hospital authorities sedated me, and when I woke up in bed my hands and feet were in restraints and a young policeman was stationed in a bedside chair. I didn’t mind; the treatment was better than I had been getting, and the policeman and I gabbed for a long time, mostly about the fishing trip we would take together when I was released. I was hatching big plans and ready to make friends with everyone.

My mother had flown in from Chicago, and she came to see me with my aunt and uncle. I tried to explain my situation: Unable to choose between the alternative lives the invisible Powers were offering me—to become a devout Roman Catholic and aspire to saintliness, or a Nietzschean Übermensch with the fortitude to live my earthly life joyously over and over ad infinitum in the eternal recurrence—I had failed every test and proven myself one of the lukewarm whom He shall spit from his mouth, a man without qualities, unworthy of any noble fate, consigned to the outer darkness. What I needed now was for someone wise to tell me how to escape my wretched mediocrity, or how to live with it, and above all how to avoid the flames of hell. The three family elders—the respected physician, the former Defense Intelligence Agency spy, and the daughter of a Vichy general—were unanimous in their baffled silence. Who could blame them?

After several days of bed rest, when I could walk again without stabbing pain, I was transferred to the psych ward. There the doctors concurred in the tentative diagnosis of bipolar psychotic mania. They prescribed a trial of lithium and Haldol, the aboriginal antipsychotic, which my ear caught as Helldull. The sulfurous taste of the demonic persisted. What I remember most vividly from the hospital is a pretty, thirteen-year-old girl who seemed always to be smiling. She walked on one-of-a-kind, green sponge-rubber shoes shaped like happy frogs. In the throes of psychosis, she had plunged her hands and forearms into a pot of boiling water and then dumped the water down her legs. I wondered what sort of God she prayed to. For me, the temptation was strong to embrace the nihilist outrage of Ivan Karamazov at the suffering of innocent children and to give back my entrance ticket to this unholy Creation. The thought of this little girl’s blighted life filled me with horror. Her suffering appeared more frightful than my own, which might be just punishment. Helldull did help relieve the demonic infestation, but it couldn’t dispose of the most trying theological question: How could a loving God do this, or allow this to be done, to his human creatures? The problem of evil does not long remain abstract when one falls among psychotics.

Saul Bellow called me in the hospital and said he was sorry about steering me toward Inferno: He had meant only to show me that psychosis can happen to anybody, even to a genius such as Strindberg. He said he had always been protective of me, having seen me struggle with the burdens of my family life, and he thought I would make it through this trouble, too. I got to know the best of Bellow, his uncommon kindness and generosity; but I’ve been unable to disentangle myself from Strindberg’s occult universe, which has become my second home, with its hallucinations and its master delusion, which intrudes upon my daylight world, announcing a darker but perhaps more glorious reality whose denizens we all are—not demons as in Christian belief but daemons like the being whose secret voice guided Socrates, half-human and half-divine, going about our lives in the immemorial familiar way, yet communicating telepathically with the living and the dead. This meets the textbook definition of madness, no doubt—­schizoaffective disorder in my case, the original manic-depression diagnosis having been revised when the trial of lithium failed and my hallucinations continued even when the mania abated.

In many ways I am a model patient, religiously compliant with doctors’ orders, and a ­psychiatric success story, a high-functioning schizophrenic and manic-depressive. I see a psychiatrist for a fifteen-minute session every two or three months, and I haven’t missed a dose of medication in thirty-two years. I somehow complete my work, even though hallucinations snipe at me as I read and write. Since falling ill I have finished and published my doctoral dissertation and written some 250 essays and reviews on literature, philosophy, history, art, architecture, music, and the history of science. After eleven years of not singing in public, I joined the Palm Beach Opera Chorus for two seasons and was chosen for the company’s resident artists’ program. I told no one there about my illness.

And yet, and yet: For several years early in my illness, the antipsychotic Prolixin, though gentler than Haldol, so weighed me down that it was all I could do to read and write for three hours a day, fighting off sleep all the while. The American Spectator cover story on Lithuania was not completed until four months after my return. Finishing the dissertation seemed such an impossible task that I laid it aside for eight years before daring to pick it up again. I had to turn down several singing gigs with Chicagoland and Wisconsin opera companies and symphony orchestras and gave up any hope of a solo career just as the possibility of success was drawing near. I had to decline the American ­Spectator’s offer of a position as writer in residence, which promised greater financial stability than I have since managed to achieve. And my vagrant moods have cost me much in business and friendship, as well as a chance at romance.

Moreover, as the doctors say, I lack insight into my illness. That is, I cannot quite believe that I am out of my mind, even when reasonable observers and my own common sense assure me that I am. My most intractable delusion is that I am not deluded. As I was finishing the last sentence, a chastising voice stated clearly, “You are not deluded; you are in the daemonic universe.” I wish I could absolutely disagree. Troubling as such interjections are, the most distressing symptoms have been physical assaults from the unseen: stinging and burning pains that can strike anywhere on my body and tend to coincide with unseemly or hostile thoughts of mine. Though doctors inform me that these are tactile hallucinations, it has been hard to understand them as anything but appointed punishment from a higher authority, like ­Caliban’s cramps and pinches. Fortunately, they have pretty well disappeared, after being commonplace for many years.

We have met the enemy and he is us. Sixties cartoon-strip wisdom is not ­usually incisive, but self-loathing and rage do indeed nourish psychosis. It took a long time for my demons to behave more like daemons. My mother took me in when I could not care for myself, and when she retired from medical practice, I moved with her to a suburb of West Palm Beach. The life I had enjoyed and the future I had worked for were gone. I came to hate God, in the name of my father, my brother, and above all myself, not daring to be demonstrative, just immersing myself in unreachable sullenness, like the despondent in Dante’s Hell. Then I spent the better part of three years writing an unpublishable novel, Bad as God. The title reflected the evil protagonist’s exalted opinion of himself, but it also enunciated an editorial ­sentiment: The God I knew was a bad dude.

I can’t remember how I decided to go back to church. Strindberg’s exhortation to return to the ancestral faith (but Catholic or pagan?) had failed to deliver the goods. A turn toward Goethe and his beloved classical Greeks was about as pagan as I got, and it did not move the demons an inch. Regular attendance at Mass imparted a momentum to my piety, and for two years and more I received Communion every morning. I took to reading the Bible intently—not a particularly Catholic thing to do—and wrote a couple pieces for Commentary about the Hebrew Bible, pronouncing the wisdom of Solomon and the author of the Book of Job superior to that of Goethe’s esteemed Socrates and Sophocles. It was in the New Testament that I found my best solace. Christ truly was my comforter and my refuge against confusion.

There were nights when I would fall to my knees for hours, trying to fend off the demonic visitation that the voices told me was imminent, hoping to pray hard enough to counteract the powers of darkness. Mine was a sick soul as William James describes it. I longed for healthy-mindedness. But just as you go to war with the army you have, so I prayed for mercy with the soul I was stuck with. The results were mixed.

For some ten years I went to church alone, my daily regimen eventually tapering to Sundays only. My mother would not join me. She, too, had her grievances against the Almighty: the loss of her homeland, the broken marriage and the broken children, her failing eyesight (she would be legally blind for the last sixteen years of her life). Yet I never heard her complain. Without ever having heard of Seneca or Epictetus, she was a natural Stoic. Then one Christmas she gave me a card on which she’d written, “You’ve sought Him. I’ll seek Him too.”

Her Stoicism gave way to a warm and enlivening love of Christ. My mother and I went to church together for several years, and then it was I who fell away. I went to confession one day, wildly crazed, and flummoxed the Vietnamese priest—a boat person, probably a saint—with my account of consorting with demons (conversing only, glad to say), after which I refused to utter another word, on demonic orders, lest the demon kill my mother. Father Peter recommended that I calm myself by going out to enjoy nature, which was particularly serene that Florida winter afternoon. It was fine advice, but wrong for my sick soul: I left feeling that the Church had nothing to offer me against the demonic onslaught. In due course, after Mass the disembodied voice of the pastor hectored me for my unworthiness and ordered me not to show my face in his church again until I had gotten my soul right. In weeks to come the voice became a regular feature of my spiritual life. I gave up going to Mass, and the voice stopped. Now it was my mother’s turn to cajole me, but I dug in my heels. I’d drop her off and pick her up, but I wouldn’t enter the church. Since then, whenever I feel the need for a Sunday Mass, I tune in to EWTN, and nobody has tried to chase me away.

Most of the time I can pass for normal, though I hear voices pretty much every day. Nowadays when I’m lucid, the notion that the voices are real strikes me as sheer stupidity. That’s the only word for it. Schizophrenia makes me dumb as a rock. Reasonable opinion is massed against my version of reality. Why can’t I recognize what is obvious to all? But then I don’t claim to have any special knowledge—rather I suspect that everyone else knows what I know but won’t admit it. Those are the rules of this elaborate daemonic charade.

Think it might be interesting to be lunatic in this way? Allan Bloom told me that as a young man he had wished he could go mad: What ­Romantic excitement, summoning Olympian gods like Hölderlin, ecstatic with song like Schumann! I held my tongue but thought he would have been sorely disappointed. Whatever might be said about the electric thrills of mania, on the whole madness makes for a sadly diminished life. It is tiresome to have to deal daily with a mind so cracked and soiled, especially if one has been trained in the refinements of the intellect and hoped to enjoy some of its best pleasures. I admire immensely, and not without sorrow, the philosophic ideal, the examined life founded on reason. Of course, there exist splendid alternatives: Pascal’s reasons of the heart (by which he means the soul) acknowledge the limitations of the very finest intellect. Yet mine is a sick soul. And so, with neither mind nor soul in order, there is no Zeus, and Whirl is King, to quote Socrates as Aristophanes imagined him. And the daemons, whatever they are, whoever we are, real, unreal, have the upper hand.

No one can fathom the crushing power of schizophrenia, the strength of its grip, unless it has had you by the throat. I did not appreciate my brother’s struggle until I went mad myself. However well the medication works, however well you negotiate everyday life, your mind is no longer your own. Darkness never leaves you.

My brother seemed to be one of the rare schizophrenics who could escape the shadow. He and Mary and Rachael had an enviable life together. Rachael did not know that her father suffered from schizophrenia until she was sixteen; to her he had always seemed a jolly eccentric. When they lived in Kingwood, Texas, the neighbors hailed Peter as the King of Kingwood. He slapped every back and tickled every funny bone, Texan as all get-out, the best good old boy there ever was.

When he returned with his family to Chicagoland, his contentment came undone. He became convinced that a woman he had known for a few weeks in a psych ward thirty years earlier was the love of his life, the only one who understood him. Peter had long reserved his contempt for our mother and me, certain that we were uncharitable, inhumane, hypocritical in our conservatism and Catholicism. Now he turned his vitriol on Mary and Rachael, and on himself. One day he gathered his daughter’s dolls, took them into the backyard, and set them on fire; asked to explain, he said he had burned the witches. He would tear down the highway at 110 miles an hour, once aiming the car, with Mary screaming beside him, straight at a concrete road divider in a construction zone, veering to safety only at the last moment. In three years he had three suicide attempts. One overdose after another of alcohol and medication rendered him comatose for days. More than once, doctors told him they thought he was done for this time. And each failed attempt left him more hateful than before, enraged that he had failed to die.

Our mother died at home with me and a hospice nurse beside her, around 11 p.m. on Christmas 2016, at the age of ninety-four. I called my sister, Donna, just before midnight. We observed that our mother, with her impeccable comic timing, had not passed up the chance to give us something to remember her by, on the supreme family holiday. We laughed and cried. It was a hard loss, but we both knew we would get over it without descending into bottomless ­melancholy.

Our mother had donated her body to a medical research outfit, and a pair of undertakers came at two in the morning, wrapped the corpse in a shroud with military snap and precision, and took it away. I stayed up till dawn, then crashed hard. Donna called Peter with the news toward noon. I did not speak with Peter till the evening. He said he was in the garage smoking pot, upset that Mary was not mourning our mother with sufficient vehemence; instead she was chatting with a cousin of hers about something entirely different. Peter never wanted for vehemence. He always carried on as though he felt the pain of living more intensely than anyone else, and perhaps he really did. But he failed to understand that for most people life is not an open wound that must be probed with maximum ferocity. I suggested he call it a night. He continued mourning as only he knew how, with Fireball whiskey and Xanax. The next morning Mary and Rachael found him dead on the floor. The medical examiner would rule it death by misadventure. Some family members had their own ideas.

Soon afterward, while thinking of Peter, I heard his voice cry out, “It was an accident! It was an accident!” He has not become a featured player, however, in my vaudeville of the dead. My mother has the leading role, and her loving, gentle advice has occasionally lent a cheerfulness to my schizophrenia, which customarily razes every hope to the ground. She also tells me—has told me again just now—that I’m not to mention my conversations with her: Daemonic protocol forbids. I am sane enough to disobey and write what I have just written, and crazy enough that I won’t say more about it.

It’s an odd life, straddling two worlds, either of which may seem unreal at a given moment. To suffer schizophrenia is to be born again, into a reality stranger and more excruciating than anything you could imagine while sane. But one can get used to almost anything, and still cherish one’s life, however it may hurt. I still know at times the living presence of a good and generous God who is mindful of my pain and wants me to overcome it. And in less agreeable times I rely on the pagan resolution of Goethe, who suggests avoiding the belief that you have been singled out by the gods for special attention: “Whatever comes to pass, [you] may consider that it happens to [you] as a man, and not as one specially fortunate or unfortunate.” That is some of the soundest advice I know for the soul condemned to be born again crucified.

Algis Valiunas is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor to The New Atlantis, a journal about the ethical, political, and social implications of modern science technology.

Image by PxHere via Creative Commons


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