A history of madness in the family

I’m sure all of you - okay, maybe just one or two of you - have a nutty aunt, or a crazy uncle. For me, madness was always a little more up close and personal. Those of you who’ve read my brother’s book, Running With Scissors, have some idea what I’m talking about.

And those of you who haven’t read it – go buy it and come back once you’ve read it. And pre-order Look Me in the Eye while you're at it . . .

My parents were both nutty, but of the two, my mother was more consistent. Starting when I was about 13, she made regular visits to the state hospital. Her form of insanity was serious - eat your cigarettes under the gaze of the ceiling demons, then kill them all sort of crazy. My father, on the other hand, was only caged up once, for drunkenness and depression.

My father was violent, and my mother never was. Both were highly disturbing, in their own ways.

Here's a photo of the nuthouse where they were incarcerated. http://www.pbase.com/robisonphoto/image/56970459

For a long time, I lived in fear that the same thing would happen to me. One day, I decided to do something. I decided to research the odds of sinking into madness. I started by making a chart, listing all my family members and what was wrong with them.

When I reviewed my list, I realized that those who went bad, did so young. I was over forty – beyond the age where any of my relatives had turned. Whew! That was a big relief.

As I looked closer, I saw something else. The insanity, depression, drunkenness . . . it was not evenly distributed. There was a distinct pattern of madness, on my mother’s side of the family. A pattern of madness . . . what a nice set of words. You can just see them, frothing at the mouth . . .shaking the bars of the cage . . . throwing vile things at the jailers as they passed.

I set out to research my family history, and over a period of six years I amassed a database of 14,000 ancestors, close relatives, and distant cousins. As I spoke with second, third, and fourth cousins I’d never met, I learned a lot.

My immediate family wasn’t that bad, and they were varied – especially on my mother’s side. Some talked to toasters, and others drank themselves to death. But not all of them were crazy. Many of those who weren’t, were brilliant. Music was another thread that ran though my mother’s side of the family. My grandfather was a songwriter. One of my uncles was a dirt poor molasses farmer, and he lived in a house without electricity or indoor toilets. But he had a piano. And he named three of his kids Tenor, Alto, and Soprano.

Others on my mother's side were writers. My brother and I are just the latest manifestation of a long line of writing talent. And before our words went into books, my ancestors preached them. All over the south, and before that, back in Germany. Writing has a long tradition for us.

As I dug deeper it became clear that the Richter side of my family is distinguished by these things:
- We are highly creative
- We write, paint, compose and perform music
- Some of us have an aptitude for numbers
- Others have an aptitude for philosophy and the esoteric
- Some never fit in, and sink into depression or drinking
- And a few tip over the edge, into out-and-out madness.

Some of you might think a history like that is troubling. For me, it was a relief. I realized that I was not doomed to end my days in a cage. Whatever was going to happen to me in terms of mental illness has probably already happened. And I now understand where my Aspergianism comes from, at least in part. Traits such as I exhibit are visible in other Richter relatives, though it’s hard to follow as we go back in time.

Still, my grandmother always told me I was the sum of my ancestors, and the evidence I collected suggests that’s true. Almost any trait I possess can be picked out of the biography of one or more ancestors. The combination manifested in me may be unique, but the building blocks all came before.

Have you researched your own past? Here’s a link to my database if you’d like to see what I’ve done. http://wc.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?db=johnrobison

Some Aspergian and autistic people may be the way they are as a result of accidental metal or chemical poisoning, or some disease or accident. Others of us are probably mostly a result of genetics. It's possible that it's a combination of both.

I don't doubt that a skilled observer could have picked up a good many of my Aspergian traits in my parents. Other factors certainly may have magnified them, but it's clear (to me at least) that's where they started, for me.

I wonder if the prognosis for people like me/us will turn out to be the same, or different? I suspect that autism is going to get more complex the more we learn. I’m afraid we may have situations where three autistic kids look and act alike, but one inherited his autism, another kid became autistic as a result of a disease, and a third became autistic as a result of mercury or lead poisoning or by some means as yet unknown. Different treatments and therapies may be needed to help each child achieve his potential. All three may have vastly different potentials. But most worrisome of all, the treatment that helps one kid might hurt another.

I consider that myself. I've read about metal poisoning, enough that I've started testing myself. And it definitely makes me wonder how much of the way I am today is a result of my physical environment. Before starting down this road, I had not really considered my phsical environment to be a big contributor to my developed self. I'd not seen beyond genetics and "training, discipline, or nurture."

I used to think I had all the answers. Hell, when I was ten, I knew I had 'em all! Now, I don’t know what to say when I see parents arguing about treatments for their kids. What saves one could seriously harm another. How’s a parent to know what to do??

This is a problem that’s going to get harder before it gets easier, I’m afraid.


irene said…
Hi! I tried to post a comment the other day but couldn't see the link. This was a very insightful post. The pictures were, chilling to say the least. Mr. Robison, you make a good point about the aruging over treating a child with autism. It's quite overwhelming. Recently, I read some comments about treatments we use for our son that were so judgemental. I was shocked. I could never before see a reason why anyone would negatively judge this approach, but there's always someone. Up until reading those comments I've always been eager to share what we've learned and to hear what others have learned so we could ALL learn. Now, however, I'm wary of taking the chance of being judged or ridiculed or worst of all being sucked into an argument. We are all just trying to do the best we can for our children as quickly as possible.
Anonymous said…
"For a long time, I lived in fear that the same thing would happen to me."

I felt a similar fear. Mom slept with anybody she could get her hands on, including dad's best friends, a priest, kids we brought home from school, and our teenage boyfriends. Back then she was called a slut. Nowadays we'd call her a sex addict. I lived in fear that I'd grow up to hurt people the way she did. Then one day in therapy at age 25 I suddenly realized that I was now an adult, and that I was completely different than mom had been at my age. I had made it to safety! What a relief.

Keep up the great work John!
As someone from a pervasively mentally ill family who has battled mental illness herself, I can wholeheartedly state that yes, mental illness does indeed run in families.

What is not as clearly established is whether families where mental illness runs deep is due solely to genetics, solely due to the unstable family environments mental illness creates, or a combination of both. I'd say it's a combination of both factors, but the jury is still out on that question in the psychiatry/psychology community.

I know for a fact that I was born to be a crazy/loony creative artist. I've been fortunate enough to learn how to manage my crazy/loony side while still holding on to my creative artist side, but others in my family aren't so lucky. My mother and brother are heavily medicated and always teeter on the edge of all-out insanity; I also have several family members who have committeed suicide or self-destructed with drugs and alcohol.

I believe that mental illness (and likely, autism) is at core a genetic disease, but it is also a disease that we can re-train our brains to manage----often WITHOUT drugs.
Michelle O'Neil said…
Yes, John. It is all connected.

My little angel has a scizophrenic uncle on each side (actually it's mine and my husband's uncles).

Alcoholism runs on my side of the family as well.

It is all connected. There is absolutly a genetic component.

But the more we treat (detox)my child bio-medically, the easier her life (and ours) becomes, so there is that element too.

And yes, of course, all autistic people and their family members are smarter than the average bears. (Wink,Wink). That is obviously genetics too.

Oh, and good-looking too. Don't forget good looking.
Chumplet said…
My nephew (who has autism) and his brother are so different, yet the same. Travis struggled all his short life to communicate with his family, yet his little brother Jay, at four years old, spoke with a vocabulary of a seven or eight year old. I havent' seen them for a couple of years, but I plan to travel to Corbeil this summer to visit. It should be interesting to see how they have advanced in the last while.

I didn't have to delve into my family's past, as my father did all the legwork. He traced our ancestry back to the very first Cormier who touched the shores of Acadia in 1644. The only common trait I've noticed is longevity (yay!)

My mom's family is mixed - Irish, Scottish, Aboriginal - and details are sketchy because of my grandfather's lost ties with his native family, but I see a definite trend of heart disease and diabetes. Oh, and alcoholism.
Susan Senator said…
Hi John,
I just discovered your blog because you commented on mine! Wow, I love it! I heard about you from Kim S and I know about your fun lunch. I would love to hear more about how you could relate to my son Nat, who inhabits a very different part of the spectrum than you.
appletini said…
"Madness", I believe, tends to have a long hisory in families. Is it nature or nurture? I'm sure that it is a little of both.
You should be proud.... It sounds like you have channeled your "family history of madness" into a functional behavior that has not only helped your self, but countless others :)
Anonymous said…
i tried to post a comment, too.

i wanted to say two things: wow on your family history. i have nothing but admiration for you, your brother, and even all the variations of nuthood you describe. my family is much less colorful: a great grandmother insitutionalized for the last 34 years of her life, a grandmother who set fire to the curtains, a sprinkling of alcoholism, garden variety dysfunction, and now, autism.

i'm a scientist at heart so it's clear genetics plays a major role but science doesn't rule out nuture and environment shapes and draws out and supresses, for sure.

the thing i love about RDI is that is CAN"T hurt, no matter what. i know many kids struggle with food allergies and intolerances and sensory issues which RDI can't address, but it's a powerful approach none the less, that actually changes the brain.
Anonymous said…
This is in response to the "long dig" you did in your family history.

I was lost for years after I married into a very unusual family.
For years, I blamed myself for everything. I didn't fit in with them, and they castigated me for it.

Then, the child. There was something different about him immediately.

Ten years later, we're in deep trouble...nothing is going right. And bam! I find my husband's late- mother's diary. It is akin to walking into the mind of a very sick, troubled person, married to an even sicker, troubled person. Psychiatry visits, stays, times of absolute crazy behavior. All documented. They had 6 children.
No money.
No organization.
The children coped by becoming successful in various ways.
But they're all also very depressed. And worse, they've yet to admit anything.

But boom, click! It all made sense. And slowly I began to hunt for ways to understand them. It was CRUCIAL that I find the information of their mental illness.
Only because of this could I come out of my shell, and get my life back together. And slowly, find things I love, so that I can raise my two kids.

Their dad is involved in the most marginal way. He doesn't do much with the kids, has only his own interests.

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