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Tatiana Johnson-Boria

Inheritance


“Schizophrenia is rhythmic, touching something lightly many times.”

- Bhanu Kapil, Schizophrene


Schizophrenia starts with mothers. This is how Freud explained it. In the mid-1930s this is how it was perceived. This perception would continue until the 1980s as research grew and expanded. Even as this misogynistic blaming has now been demystified, I cannot think of schizophrenia without thinking of my mother. I do not think of my mother as the catalyst for the inner workings of her own mind. Instead, I wonder about the origin of schizophrenia, its ability to take root in many. It’s existence is with or without my mother, it is constant and fleeting. Its intangible workings complex and enduring.


When B, my youngest brother, tells me about his own diagnosis it is only once. Like my mother’s telling. Hers is in-person, in front of her group home and ends abruptly. B’s is a conversation over the phone. He says schizophrenia and it lingers in the liminal space over the line. He’s in a group home for teens now, my mother in one for adults.


B’s been shuffled between family and the system; he is almost 18. He tells me of his social worker, his therapist, they all meld into one entity. He calls them they. They tell him. When he says the word, I am entranced by his voice. It’s depth. He is no longer a boy but an adult. He says the word with a directness that startles me. I hear it in all its syllables. Its permeance. Its fixed being tells me there’s no way back.


The term “schizophrenogenic mother” became prevalent and a negative stereotype in psychiatric literature of the 1950s to 1970s. The term "refers to mothers of individuals who develop schizophrenia, the implication being that the mother has induced the illness.”[1] I wouldn’t know this when I learn of my B’s schizophrenia diagnosis. Instead, I’d listen to him talk, wonder if he was already lost. I’d think of my mother and wonder if I should tell her. I’d wonder how my brother would survive in the world.


Even though B is the youngest it feels like he’s spent the most time with our mother. He looks the most like my father’s side of the family. His skin is a lighter shade of brown. His eyes smaller than my mother’s but closer to the almond-shape of my father’s mother. He’s never met this side of the family, except my father. Did my mother think of my father when they’d spend the day together, while the rest of us were in school?


The days my mother and B spent together are locked in their own memories. I don’t know if, while I sat learning about multiplication, my mother was pushing B on a swing or sleeping on the couch as we often witnessed her. Although these memories are there, I do know that my mother and B were inseparable. On the days when my mother showed up to pick me up from school, they’d both arrive at my school’s entrance with hands clasped. They walked in as if they were the same person.


In the arguments I’d overhear between my mother and my Auntie Kim, I’d hear Auntie Kim say He needs to go to school. I wouldn’t hear my mother’s response but think of how it must be bad that my brother is home with my mother all day. He is somewhere he shouldn’t be when he should be in school like me. I become very good at knowing what should and should not happen, according to what others believe.


My mother eventually takes B to Head Start, a preschool. It isn’t every day, but it’s most days. Some days she keeps him home. I’m not sure why, I do not ask. B is the baby of the family; he gets to do what he wants. I accept this. B is only 6-years-old when my mother leaves, when we are all separated, when we stop seeing our mother, and move somewhere else.


Before our familial separation there is another one, one called an eviction. Our eviction from our apartment in the South End of Boston meant we were unable to bring anything with us, except the clothes on our bodies, our backpacks, and whatever we happened to bring to school that day. The eviction happens after many of our mother’s hospitalizations from her own experience with schizophrenia. As my mother’s condition became more severe, our stability changed. Anything that my mother ever wanted to pass down to was left on the street the day we were evicted. If we were to be passed down anything it wouldn’t be physical. What we all grew to inherit would evade the idea of object. Our inheritance would become bodily, spiritual, internal. Our inheritance would live on the inside.


When my brother says he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia he does not bring up my mother. It doesn’t surprise me then. I am unsure he knows the full extent of what our mother lives with. He experiences life without our mother at an age all my siblings and I knew her the most. He is separated from my mother at an age and time only he knows about. His experience is different, and I don’t know it well.


In the 1950s, 60s, and some of the 70s, psychiatrists would attribute my brother’s diagnosis to my mother. She’d be the one at fault for my brother’s condition. There would be no other way of looking at it. In 1948 psychiatrist Freida Fromm-Reichmann would state that mothers “gave birth to healthy children and then literally drove them mad.”[2] According to Fromm-Reichmann’s theory “the mother and her delusional ideas dominated, making her unaware of the needs of other family members. Schizophrenic behaviors were a way for the child to make sense of this toxic home environment.”[3]


And it is true that I’d learn to understand our home as toxic. I’m not sure if B has the same understanding. I don’t know if B remembers our mother and her thoughts the same way I do. Her behaviors both scary and strange. Her belief that someone wanted to kill us, or that we were in danger. Her attempts to hide the food in our house from thieves that only she knew about. I don’t know if B remembers these things or the safety he felt walking hand in hand with my mother. The joy she brought him while they played. Our encounters with our mother are distinct and our own. They manifest within us uniquely.


I become forceful in wanting to move forward, my brother becomes rooted in the pain of my mother’s absence. The differences are revealed in how we engage in the world around us. I put my head down and go to school and try to survive. B begins to be known for, what everyone calls, acting up. He gets into fights at school. He steals things. He would become difficult. A challenge. No number of spankings, punishment, or lectures would change him. He’d become unruly against everyone’s wishes, even my own.


When I’d lecture him, he would not listen, even though he seemed to. Even in my severity, I’d feel a softness. I could not stop thinking of him of the young boy he was when we left our mother’s, even as he grew and grew. In my memories I missed his sweetness. Like his voice and its lightness. The way he often called my name with a confidence that I was a big sister who could help him through anything. In looking at him, after the eviction, after we moved in with Auntie Kim and Uncle Jerome; I’d realize how difficult it all seemed for him. Everything I wanted for him was outside of his control. He could not be anything different than how he was.


And the person he was becoming was different every day. He fell in love with rap music, writing lyrics and poems in his notebook. He withdrew into the world of video games. He’d contort his body dancing, his expressions mercurial yet absorbing. He began to create and it felt like he might save himself. I wasn’t sure from what.


Ultimately the idea of the schizophrenogenic mother was exposed for its invalidity, its inherent misogyny. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, wrote “It was suddenly discovered that the mother could be blamed for almost everything. In every case history of a troubled child; alcoholic, suicidal, schizophrenic, psychopathic, neurotic adult; impotent, homosexual male; frigid, promiscuous female; ulcerous, asthmatic, and otherwise disturbed American, could be found a mother… Clearly something was ‘wrong’ with American women.”[4]


My mother is an American woman. A Bostonian with an accent that only reveals itself when she says certain words. It was only in our separation from our mother that I realized how much our mouths moved the same. The way my siblings and I imitated our mother’s accents without even knowing it. The way it was corrected from anyone around us, and how we lost a language because of it. And in this losing perhaps we became what one would call troubled children. And like I learned too, perhaps this was all the fault of our mother.


Not only was my mother someone to blame, in a larger context of the United States, all women were to blame for schizophrenia in its wholeness. Women were the originators of schizophrenia and that in itself was deemed abhorrent. The thinking behind the diagnosis and its origins relied on the capacity of women to mother. The origins kept women entangled in a cycle of responsibility. For their own well-being and the well-being of their children and the prevention of a mental health disorder, both lasting and enigmatic. What does it mean to be the bearer of the responsibilities as a mother? To carry the emotional stakes of not being well?


When I think to my mother’s loving of my youngest brother, I can’t help but imagine her attempt to soothe herself in her nurturing. Perhaps in my brother’s presence she could ground her worried mind. Perhaps in my brother’s presence she could find solace.


Over time researchers began to note “the ways in which schizophrenia had less to do with mothers, but more to do with families.” Research examined the writings of “Dr. Fromm-Reichmann’s psychoanalytically-oriented colleagues in the 1950s and 60s [to reveal] that from the beginning they understood perfectly well that the concept of the schizophrenogenic mother was not sufficient to explain the genesis of schizophrenia, and that this condition was most likely the product of disturbed families, not just disturbed mothers.”[5]


At the time of my brother’s diagnosis, I do not know the way entire ecosystems can make it possible for mental illness to take root. I solely believe in my own ability to try to control the outcomes of my childhood. It is here that I learn that the trajectory of surviving our childhood creates infinite possibilities. Even those that that are unwished for.


Studies show that “there is no specifically “schizophrenogenic” style of parenting. Rather, any of a variety of toxic influences (some largely outside the parents’ control, such as childhood illness or death of a parent) [that] may tip the balance towards schizophrenia or any other “mental illness.”[6] I do not control the movements brought forth through my family’s truth. I cannot direct the tipping or pouring from one ancestor into another. I am solely an heir to the beauty and ache brought forth through and around me. I am working to see them both.


In college, I am president of the Black Student Organization. There’s a performance and I bring my youngest brother to campus to perform his music. My brother no longer lives with my aunt and uncle. Instead, he lives with the twins, our brother and sister, outside of the city. He lives with them before he ends up in the group home. We speak less and I worry.


We don’t mention the distance when we see each other. We marvel at the changes in each other over time. B’s voice has a depth to it now. Its sound continues to stun me. Like all of my siblings he is taller than me. His hair is in the short curly afro that would usually prompt my mother to cut it. He has the same laugh, but it’s richer and full of life, as if he’s been on this earth longer than me. My brother is a harborer of hugs. He holds me for a long time. I don’t pull away.


I walk him around campus. He is excitable in his talking. He tells me his new home is okay. He tells me about the war going on between realms. He tells me I need to pay attention. That there’s something happening beyond us. I can only nod. It’s also my response to my mother when she mentions things I do not understand. It’s how I listen to her talk about her travels across the world, to Africa and Europe. Each time it’s a story I pretend to believe.


B is electric when he performs. The college crowd loves him. I suppress the anxiety of him doing something embarrassing. He is rapping to a remix of Nu Shooz’s “Can’t Wait”—a song we once listened to together over and over again. I didn’t know that in our listening he must have been creating. That though I don’t think I’ll ever understand the inner makings of his mind, he has a propensity for making something vibrant and alive. My college friends look at me with a look that say, Aren’t you proud of him? And I am. He does make me proud, and I tell him. I want so badly for him to make something of himself. This is the only way I know how to tell him I want him to survive. I wonder if he hears the way desperation sounds in my voice.


My brother doesn’t improve in the ways I hope he would. He leaves where he used to live, where my brother and sister were. He lives in group homes, in shelters. He disappears and I don’t know where he is. He calls sporadically. He texts me, Can you take me to visit Ma? He doesn’t respond when I say, Yes, when? It becomes circular, his comings and goings from my life.


I never tell my mother about my brother’s diagnosis. I solely say he is fine when she asks. I want her to believe that it is okay that she was unable to take care of us. Even when I am angry and destroyed by it. Even when I know that she deserves deep care.


I am in my mid-20’s when B calls me frantically. I need my passport; do you know where it is? We haven’t spoken in years. I don’t know what he’s talking about or if this passport exists. He’s never traveled out of the country. When I say I don’t know he hangs up abruptly. He calls back ten minutes later, asking for the passport. He is yelling this time. He is moving to India or moving to LA, the places keep changing. He is going to get a record deal. Everything’s all set, he says. I don’t know what to believe. All I can muster is I don’t know, I don’t know. I listen until he hangs up.


I only see him on Facebook. He periodically makes new pages under different names. He friend requests me and likes every single photo I post. I log-in to copious notifications. He messages, I want to visit Ma; can you take me? He deletes the account before I can respond.


When my sister calls, she asks me if I’ve heard from him, and I say no. She is worried about him and in her anxiety, she says, Do you even care what happens to him? I want her to see my care as viable, as a way of protecting myself from future sorrow. She tells me I’m selfish and I don’t care about anyone but myself.


I believe everything my sister says, I want to be the blame of what has happened to us because I know that my mother isn’t. I want to control who the blame goes to because maybe I can do something about it. I want what researchers want, a reason. I want to be a star, something far away swallowing the heat of my guilt. I want to give my brothers and sister something to point towards amid the complex nature of our lives.


I want to be as selfish as my sister says. I want to shine from their blame, absorb all the darkness, alter their futures. I revel in the ways my mother and I are different. I begin each day with the intent of escaping the parts of her that I’ve inherited, even when they continue to exist in and outside of me. I want to believe there is a way my family can untether ourselves from our mother’s schizophrenia. That we can uproot what has already birthed us. Perhaps what I’m saying is that I want to be a god, the creator of the cruelness of our own capsizing. A powerful thing able to repair and renew.

 

[1] Mary V. Seeman, and Mary V. Seeman1Email author. “Schizophrenogenic Mother.” SpringerLink, Springer, Cham, 1 Jan. 1970.

[2] Johnston, Josephine. “The Ghost of the Schizophrenogenic Mother.” Journal of Ethics | American Medical Association, American

Medical Association, 1 Sept. 2013.

[3] Johnston, Josephine. “The Ghost of the Schizophrenogenic Mother.” Journal of Ethics | American Medical Association, American

Medical Association, 1 Sept. 2013.

[4] - , Patrick Hahn, et al. “The Real Myth of the ‘Schizophrenogenic Mother.’” Mad In America, 10 Jan. 2020.

[5] -, Patrick Hahn, et al. “The Real Myth of the ‘Schizophrenogenic Mother.’” Mad In America, 10 Jan. 2020.

[6] -, Patrick Hahn, et al. “The Real Myth of the ‘Schizophrenogenic Mother.’” Mad In America, 10 Jan. 2020.

 

Tatiana (she/her) is the author of the forthcoming book Nocturne in Joy (Sundress Publications, 2023). She’s an educator and expert facilitator who uses her writing practice to dismantle racism, reckon with trauma, and to cultivate healing. She’s an award-winning writer who has received distinguished fellowships from Tin House, The Massachusetts Cultural Council, The MacDowell Residency, and others. Find her work in or forthcoming at Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Pleiades, among others. She’s represented by Lauren Scovel at Laura Gross Literary.


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