Finding a Way Back to a Flawed and Dangerous Mother

When she was in her 30s, my mother, Madeleine Weidlinger, started seeing double and had intense disabling headaches. Gradually her eyes appeared to recede into her skull. She consulted a wide range of specialists, none of whom could find anything wrong.

Her first psychotic break came in 1948. She had gone alone to see the movie of “Hamlet” starring Laurence Olivier and came home strangely agitated, believing that she was Ophelia and her husband was Hamlet.

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.

I have the same deep-set eyes with dark shadows underneath. Raccoon eyes. As a teenager I often studied my eyes in the mirror, wondering if I would go crazy too. It was not an unreasonable fear. No one knows the exact cause of the disease, but genetics are likely to be a contributing factor.

People who know my family history have asked me how I survived. As an adult, I’ve had some good therapy. As a teenager, I learned to trust my perceptions, even when they were not corroborated by family members.

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.

But when I started going to school, she was intermittently absent, hospitalized for weeks at a time. When she came home she seemed fine, but it didn’t last. One day when I was 7 she became incensed by the way a sales clerk at D’Agostino’s grocery store had spoken to her.

“They are all watching me,” she said. “They are out to get me.” It was imperative that I side with her against the grocery store people. She slammed plates of food on the table and began eating. She made loud smacking noises with her lips. She chewed her food like an animal. Her anger, fueled by paranoia, was a spinning vortex that threatened to suck me in. If I did not accept her crazy idea that the grocery store people were spying on her, I risked losing her love. But if I accepted it, or even pretended to, I would go crazy too.

When I was 8, my parents divorced. Inexplicably, my father, a structural engineer whose work included major midcentury modern skyscrapers, churches, museums and sculptures, gave my mother full custody of me. He remarried and I saw him only occasionally, on weekends. 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.

I saw this danger when I was 14 in a way I could never forget. My mother came to fetch me at boarding school, and amid a large gathering of parents, students and teachers, loudly accused one of my teachers of being a homosexual. As we were driving home, she swerved violently off the highway. When I asked her why she had done this she looked at me incredulously and said: “Tom, didn’t you see the man in the car next to us who was aiming his gun at me?”

That evening she attempted to climb into my narrow bunk bed with me. I shouted, “Leave me alone!” and pushed her off. In the middle of the night, I put some things in my rucksack and ran away. I needed to separate from my mother and her vision of the world as a hostile place.

I hated my mother. I needed to become my own person, free of the vortex. Hating your mother was taboo, but it is what I had to do to survive.

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. In the process I also got to know my mother as a young woman. She wrote to my father in early 1939, as he agonized about whether, as a Jew, he should flee Europe. They were not yet married.

My dear companion, my great friend … I didn’t answer your letter immediately because I needed to give the whole situation a lot of thought … Dearest, I am ready to emigrate with you as soon as possible. You see, dearest, I am ready for anything. The thought of being with you forever gives me courage and strength … I don’t feel sad or disillusioned about all of these things at all. On the contrary, I am still quite hopeful that you won’t give up your career. Or perhaps just for a short time. I am so convinced that you truly have a lot of talent.

Ton Petit Bateau.

She did not have to leave with him. She was not a Jew. Yet she gave him the strength to start a new life in Bolivia with her at his side. The endearment that she closed her letters with is Your Little Boat, as if she were a sturdy vessel upon which he could depend for navigating the chaotic waters of their times.

My father also told me that, during the years before her sickness, she was the person he looked to for guidance. Had she not been his moral compass I, most likely, would not have been born. In reading her passionate love letters I discovered a mother I could love again.

Tom Weidlinger is a documentary filmmaker and the author, most recently, of “The Restless Hungarian: Modernism, Madness, and the American Dream,” a memoir about his father, the structural engineer Paul Weidlinger.


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