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Q: Why did you write this book?
A: This book really started, as an idea, when I realized that I had come to terms with my own mother’s mental illness. Before that, I could not have entertained any idea except the obvious one: putting it all behind me, and “moving on.” For me, writing this book has been the “moving on.” My own story is not forefront in the book, because it doesn’t need to be, but it informs my understanding, my questions, my conclusions – everything. And it was the foundation of my desire to open the doors of silence and invite these other woman out. They wanted to tell their stories, not just for themselves, and not just for my interview, but for all the women who are still silent and alone with this experience.
Q: Where did the women you interviewed come from?
A: I put out the word that I wanted to interview women who had mentally ill mothers. I thought my therapist friends and colleagues would refer patients, but the first few interviews were with some of those colleagues themselves. Even though we knew each other, we didn’t know we had crazy mothers in common. Over time I interviewed lawyers, writers, social workers, psychologists, nurses, ministers, and a variety of other people. A lot of the women I interviewed were in one of the helping professions. People heard about it through word of mouth and they seemed to be right there, waiting to be found.
Q: Lots of women would say that their mothers are a little crazy. How did you sort that out from the mothers who are really seriously mentally ill?
A:Yes, there are plenty of women who’ve said to me “well, my mother was crazy” but this is really not a club you want to join unless you absolutely have to! Actually, no one seriously volunteered to be interviewed whose mother wasn’t pretty impaired. Several women thought their mothers weren’t “sick enough” to qualify, and I heard some of the most harrowing stories from them.
Some of the women I interviewed talked about mothers who were so severely depressed that they would stay in bed all day – sometimes for weeks at a time. They could barely function, they might not bathe or eat, they might be suicidal.
Some other women described their mother’s manic behavior – like staying up all night, for weeks at a time, talking a mile a minute, or getting so enraged in their mania that they attacked the kids with a knife and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance, in what was then called a straight jacket. (Now we call it a “safety suit.” Much nicer sounding!)
Some women had schizophrenic mothers who were delusional about being followed, or thinking their relatives were plotting against them. One woman’s mother would stand outside the grocery store and scream accusations at people as they came out – while her kids were pulling on her sweater and begging her to leave.
One mother had multiple personality disorder and didn’t even recognize her children sometimes and would make them leave the house. Or she would change completely into different personalities, randomly. In the morning she could be very childlike, lying on the floor coloring and watching cartoons and laughing, and by the afternoon she might be staring off into space and not even see the kids if they stood right in front of her.
The mothers that were the hardest for the daughters to identify as impaired were the ones with personality disorders. These are the mothers that look good on the outside – they might seem to be the model mothers. But they can be incredibly cruel, and undermining, and humiliating to their children – and they seem to enjoy it and to make a point of it. This is almost harder for the kids than a mother who’s running around saying “the Martians have landed!” They look so good, people will even tell the kids how lucky they are to have such a cool Mom. This is just incredibly confusing. But this level of personality disorder is really considered a mental illness, and I included it in the book.
Q: What were the interviews like?
A: The women were pretty nervous about the interviews and found them, at the beginning, to be very difficult and painful for them. The first interview was always about childhood experience and that was usually the toughest - for them and for me. The stories of neglect, physical and emotional abuse, and crazy confusing behavior on the part of some of the mothers, can still haunt these women, no matter how much therapy they’ve had or how much they’ve come to terms with their lives. In the second or third interview, a lot of them had gotten some perspective from telling their story chronologically. None of them had ever just told the story like that. They also had a chance to reflect on the good as well as bad aspects of being a ‘daughter of madness.” They were also able to see how resilient they had been, and still are. Every single one of them told me, at the end of the last interview, that they hoped their story would help someone else.
Q: In the first chapter of the book you dont start with the interviews but with some research findings and so forth. Why is this important?
A: There’s a lot of new research just exploding on the scene and I tried to make it accessible and to explain what it has to do with daughters of madness. Part of this chapter is called “Brains and Bonds” because it’s about how primary attachment bonds – like, infant and mother – affect how the brain develops and how the very young child perceives the world. I’ve had some frustration with many of the books I’ve read, about people growing up in these very destructive environments. A lot of the books seem to say or imply – “well, there are always the scars, but you can make a new life and be okay and have these realizations and that should do the trick."
The point of the first chapter in the book is to say – early damage is hard to change, because it’s not stored in language and it’s not stored in the logical part of your brain. It’s possible to change it, yes – there are a lot of possibilities for healing. But you can’t just change it by “getting over it.” People who grew up in some of these circumstances truly don’t understand why they can’t get over it. These are people I’ve seen in therapy, and my colleagues have seen – and they’re trying their damndest to change how they react or how they feel, and they feel like such failures because they just can’t do it. Some people have problems with “self-esteem” but the people I’m talking about would say, “My problem is, I don’t even have a self. Having low self-esteem would be a step up!.”
When you grow up in an abusive or neglectful or chaotic family, talk therapy is just not enough to get down to the level you have to get to, to make changes. You have to have a trusting relationship with a good therapist, but it’s not enough. You have to work with body sensations and with images and in some other non-verbal ways to get to the point where the internal chaos, or the internal deadness, starts to give way.
I don’t get into any discussion of therapy here, but this first chapter is just a confirmation of what people with these histories feel in their gut. They know, they sense, that what happened to them early on, before there’s even “memory” in the usual sense of the world – is just fundamentally different from the kinds of things they can verbalize and discuss. We all have the feeling from time to time of not knowing quite who we are, anyway – haven’t we all been on the search to “find ourselves?” This does not begin to touch the deep feeling of dislocation and alienation felt, on a core level, by people whose early childhoods were spent in states of fragmentation, chaos, neglect, and intrusion.
Q: Where do you see this book fitting in with other writing on this topic?
A: The interesting thing is, there’s not much written about this. When you see books about mental illness in the family, the biggest emphasis is on parents of mentally ill adolescents or young adults. That’s certainly a devastating problem, but it’s quite different from being a child of a mentally ill parent. The “Adult Children of Alcoholics” movement, which only came into being 25 or 30 years ago, started with one or two books, before that whole group of people had a voice or identity. We didn’t know anything about the kinds of dynamics you see in alcoholic families. Now, it’s old hat.
Other marginalized groups are speaking out – sexual abuse survivors, for example. Adult children of parents with mental illness may be the next wave. There are two videos that were made recently – Out of the Shadow, and Tarnation – both by filmmakers who had schizophrenic mothers, and both films are about their mothers. Both have gotten a lot of very positive attention. I think that’s a good sign – there are a lot of us out there, and we’re beginning to speak up.
The stigma of mental illness is still enormous even though we have celebrities talking about depression or bipolar illness. This is not easy to disclose or to talk about, but I think we’re going to get there. Just in my reading and research, I’ve stumbled across references to well-known people who had very crazy mothers – like Charlie Chaplin, whose mother was psychotic. He had an awful life with her and ran away from home very early. Jean Piaget, one of the most famous theorists in children’s psychological development – his mother was schizophrenic. He has said that’s why he focused on cognitive development in children and steered away from anything having to do with emotions. Alan Alda just wrote an autobiography in which he writes about his schizophrenic mother. I think you’re going to see more and more people talking about this in the next decade, and that would be a very good thing.
Q: As a therapist, what do you see in families where there’s mental illness?
A: My belief is that most parents, including mentally ill parents, do the best they can, given their own histories and their own battles for psychic survival. Not all – there are some people that just seem so bent on destroying their kids that you can’t really say they did their best. But most parents do try.
What I see as a family therapist, though, is that the kinds of problems mothers bring to their children rarely start in that generation. I’ve traced back many horror stories to generations before, finding that decades of silence, shame, and crippling brutality are often shadows cast over the present day. “Children taste what their parents swallow” is not simply a poetic phrase – it’s a truth. Human being are almost infinitely adaptable, and most children would turn themselves inside out to help a parent in pain, or adapt to what little that parent can give, or somehow sacrifice themselves to heal others in the family. Several generations of that kind of sacrifice are just too much of a burden and things eventually break down. People eventually break down. Mental illness has an undeniable biological component, but there are emotional components, too.
When mental illness in the family is a shameful secret, people have to cope with it, alone, as best they can. When the children in that family grow up to be parents, and their children after them, where do these secrets go and what price do they exact?
There is something inherently healing about being able to speak one’s story, openly, to people who understand and can offer compassion and acceptance. It seems to be part of our hard-wiring as human beings, this need to say who we are and what shaped us. And all of us seem to want and need to hear other people’s stories, too. I’ve seen, and felt myself, where mental illness breaks connections and isolates people, and I can see where talking about it openly is what can repair those connections and soften the edges of that isolation.