Authors: Robert Kolker
And in the years to come, whenever things seemed awry in her life, Mimi’s stories about her charmed New York childhood and gilded Houston family would, all together, paper over the gloom. Grandfather Kenyon hit some hard times in the Depression and had to let the family’s loyal servants go, but beneficently permitted them to stay on his property, rent-free….Mimi and her mother once traveled to Texas on the same train as Charlie Chaplin, and she played with the Little Tramp’s children (who were rascals in their own right)….In the 1930s, Mimi’s mother, Billy, accompanied Grandfather Kenyon back to Mexico, where she went drinking with Frida Kahlo and shook the hand of her exiled Russian friend, Leon Trotsky….
As far as Mimi was concerned, these stories were better than the one about how much Ben Skolnick liked to drink. Or how she never saw her real father, John Blayney, again, and how much that hurt. Or how deeply, achingly she had longed for a life that would be as safe and secure as it would be extraordinary.
MIMI MET THE
man who would offer her that life in 1937, when they were both still practically children. Don Galvin was fourteen and tall and pale, with hair as dark as hers. She was a year younger, studious but also quick to laugh. They were at a swim competition, and she’d blown a start, diving in before the whistle blew, and he was sent in to bring her back. After the meet, Don asked her out. That was the first time such a thing had happened to Mimi. She said yes.
Don was a serious-minded boy, college-bound, a reader. All that appealed to Mimi. But he also was handsome in the most wholesome, all-American way: lantern-jawed with slicked-back hair, a matinee idol in the making. Don wasn’t an extrovert, and yet when he opened his mouth, people seemed to listen. It was not so much what he said as how he sounded: Don had the voice of a crooner, practically singing everything he spoke, smooth and seductive. With that voice, one of his sons, John, later said, “he could hold you in the palm of his hand.”
Mimi’s mother was suspicious. There may have been some snobbery at play there. The Galvins were devout Catholics—a tribe as foreign to the Episcopal Kenyon family as a Jewish family would have been before Billy had met Ben. Don’s father was an efficiency expert for a paper company, and his mother was a schoolteacher. Neither of these facts did much to impress Mimi’s mother.
But there was snobbery on both sides. Don’s mother noted how Mimi did all the talking in the relationship. Did that mean she would ride roughshod over her youngest son? And then came the refrain from both sides that dogged them for years:
You’re both so young.
Nothing seemed to convince them that they weren’t meant for each other. It was true that their interests weren’t completely in line: He loved the Dodgers; she loved the ballet. But when they were fifteen and sixteen, Mimi persuaded Don to take her to
featuring Alexandra Danilova, the ballerina who had left the Soviet Union with George Balanchine. When Don came home raving about the performance, his brothers teased him for days. In the summer, Billy took Mimi on a trip, ostensibly to see Grandfather Kenyon. The not-so-secret agenda was to get Mimi away from Don for a while. It didn’t work: Mimi wrote Don letters all the way there and back. Once she came home, Don took her to see
The Wizard of Oz,
and the couple sang and skipped together all the way home. That fall, they went to dances together, and school basketball games and rallies and Friday night bonfires. That spring, they drove out together to warm-weather clambakes on Cedar Beach on Long Island’s South Shore.
Slowly, everyone came around. As Don neared graduation, his parents invited Mimi and her family to dinner. The Galvins lived in a nicer house than Mimi’s family’s place, a Dutch Colonial with a vast living room covered by a deep, dark red Oriental rug. Billy took notice of this. From that point forward, Don became a welcome guest at Mimi’s house on Friday nights to play Scrabble. On return visits to Don’s house, Mimi would clown around with Don and his two brothers, George and Clarke, both of whom were as handsome as he was. Even Don’s mother thawed a little when Mimi and Don visited the Cloisters, and Mimi wrote a school paper for Don on the tapestries there. Mimi was helping her son to better himself. That was all right with her.
Not everything about their romance was effortless. Every weekend, Don hosted dances as the grand master of the Sigma Kappa Delta fraternity. Mimi went broke making new dresses each week, determined not to let anyone else go with him. There was a price to pay, perhaps, for going steady with the boy the Jamaica High School paper once called “Senior Head School Romeo.”
Nothing but an absolute refusal to discuss his affairs of the heart could be obtained from the very secretive and the shy Mr. Don Galvin.
Something about him—not just his looks, but a relaxed, easygoing self-assurance—made him both irresistible and, in some strange way, unattainable. That air of mystery would work to Don’s advantage for much of his life. From the very start, it was as if Mimi belonged to him, while he belonged to everyone.
for his ambition, even if in her heart of hearts she would have preferred that he stay close to home. After high school, he told Mimi he wanted to join the State Department and travel the world. In the fall of 1941, just a few months before Pearl Harbor, he enrolled at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C. A year later, Mimi enrolled in Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, to be closer to him. But it was only a matter of time before the war would catch up with them both.
In 1942, in the middle of his sophomore year at Georgetown, Don enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. The following year the Marines sent him to Villanova, Pennsylvania, for eight months of mechanical engineering training. Before completing the course, the trainees were offered a shortcut to the front lines: If they wanted to, they could transfer to the Navy right away, with a guaranteed admission to Officer Candidate School. Don took the deal. On March 15, 1944, he was off to Asbury Park, New Jersey, for Navy midshipman’s basic training, and then to Coronado, California, where he awaited an assignment. In November, Don received his posting: He would serve as a landing craft operator on the USS
a brand-new attack transport ship bound for the South Pacific. Don was going to war.
Not long before Christmas, just a few weeks before shipping out, Don called Mimi long-distance from Coronado. Would she visit? Mimi asked her mother for permission, and Billy said yes. As soon as Mimi arrived, she and Don drove to Tijuana and got married. After the briefest of honeymoons on the road, they returned to Coronado for a tearful farewell. It was during Mimi’s long trip home, on a stop in Texas to see her Kenyon relatives, that she experienced morning sickness for the first time.
Their rapid-fire wedding suddenly made sense: During Don’s last swing through New York, several weeks before she’d traveled west to be with him, Mimi and Don had conceived a child.
Don’s parents, devout Catholics, were not satisfied with a Tijuana wedding. Before shipping out, their son secured a few days’ leave and traveled across the country one more time. On December 30, 1944, Don and Mimi took their vows again, this time in the rectory of the Church of St. Gregory the Great in Bellerose, Queens. The next day, Don filled out a Navy form to change his next-of-kin from his parents to Mrs. Donald Galvin.
THE BRIDE SPENT
months vomiting. Long, unresolvable bouts of morning sickness would be a hallmark of nearly all of Mimi’s twelve pregnancies. Her young husband’s ship approached Japan in May 1945, just in time for the climax of the American offensive in the Pacific. Don’s role was to transport soldiers on small crafts from ship to shore. Listening to the radio for reports on the
Mimi nearly fell apart when Tokyo Rose announced that Don’s ship had been destroyed. That turned out to be wrong, but just barely.
Anchored near Okinawa, Don witnessed boats on either side of him being blown up by kamikazes. He spent hours dragging his dead comrades out of the water. Don would never discuss anything about what he saw or did, not with Mimi. But he survived. And on July 21, 1945, two weeks before the United States dropped the bombs that would bring an end to the war, Don received a telegram aboard the
from Western Union:
IT’S A BOY
It makes a certain amount of sense that the most analyzed, interpreted, pored-over, and picked-apart personal account of the experience of being psychotically paranoid and wildly delusional would be almost impossible to read.
Daniel Paul Schreber grew up in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century, the son of a renowned child-rearing expert of the period who made a practice of turning his children into test subjects. As a boy, he and his brother are believed to have been some of the first people to experience Moritz Schreber’s cold-water treatments, diets, exercise regimens, and a device called the Schreber
made of wood and straps, that was designed to persuade a child to sit up straight. Schreber survived that childhood and grew up to be very accomplished, first a lawyer and then a judge. He married and had a family, and with the exception of a brief depression in his forties, everything seemed just fine. Then, at the age of fifty-one, came his collapse. Diagnosed in 1894 with a “paranoid form” of “hallucinatory insanity,” Schreber spent the next nine years near Dresden in Sonnenstein Asylum, Germany’s first publicly funded hospital for the insane.
Those years in the asylum formed the setting—at least physically—of
Memoirs of My Nervous Illness,
the first major work about the mysterious condition then known as dementia praecox, and a few years later renamed schizophrenia. Published in 1903, this book became a reference point for practically every discussion about the illness for the next century. By the time the six boys of the Galvin family became ill, everything about how they would be viewed and treated by modern psychiatry was colored by the arguments about this case. In truth, Schreber himself hadn’t expected his life story to attract much attention. He wrote the memoir mainly as a plea for his release, which explains why, at many points, he seems to be writing for an audience of one: Dr. Paul Emil Flechsig, the doctor who’d had him committed. The book starts with an open letter to Flechsig, in which Schreber apologizes for writing anything that the doctor might find too upsetting. There is just one small matter Schreber hopes to clear up: Is Flechsig the one who has been transmitting secret messages into his brain for the last nine years?
A cosmic mind-meld with his doctor—“even when separated in space, you exerted an influence on my nervous system,” Schreber wrote—was the first of dozens of strange and miraculous experiences related by Schreber over more than two hundred pages. It also might have been the most coherent. In a manner decipherable, perhaps, to Schreber alone, he wrote passionately about the two suns that he saw in the sky and the time he noticed that one sun was following him around wherever he went. He devoted many pages to an impenetrable explanation of the subtle “nerve-language” that most humans didn’t notice. The souls of hundreds of people, he wrote, used this nerve language to pass along crucial information to Schreber: reports of Venus being “flooded,” the solar system becoming “disconnected,” the constellation Cassiopeia about to be “drawn together into a single sun.”
In this respect, Schreber had a lot in common with the oldest of the Galvin children, Donald, who, years later, would recite his Holy Order of Priests in front of seven-year-old Mary in their family’s house on Hidden Valley Road. Like Donald, Schreber believed that what was happening to him wasn’t just physical but spiritual. Neither he nor Donald nor any of the Galvins were observing their delusions at a remove, with a detached sense of curiosity. They were right there in it, thrilled and amazed and terrified and despairing, sometimes all at once.
Unable to free himself from his circumstances, Schreber did his best to bring everyone in there with him—to share the experience. Being in his universe could feel ecstatic one moment, then shockingly vulnerable the next. In his memoir, Schreber accused his doctor, Flechsig, of using the nerve language to commit something he called “soul murder” against him. (Souls, Schreber explained, were fragile things, “a fairly bulky ball or bundle” comparable to “wadding or cobweb.”) Then came the rape. “Owing to my illness,” Schreber wrote, “I entered into peculiar relations with God”—relations that, at first, seemed an awful lot like immaculate conception. “I had a female genital organ, although a poorly developed one, and in my body felt quickening like the first signs of life of a human embryo…in other words fertilization had occurred.” Schreber’s gender had transformed, he said, and he had become pregnant. While he might have felt touched by grace, Schreber instead felt violated. God was Dr. Flechsig’s willing accomplice, “if not the instigator,” of a plot to use his body “like that of a whore.” Schreber’s universe was, much of the time, an intense and frightening place, filled with horrors.
He had one grand ambition. “My aim,” Schreber reflected, “is solely to further knowledge of truth in a vital field, that of religion.” It didn’t turn out that way. Instead, what Schreber wrote contributed far more to the emerging, provocative, and increasingly contentious discipline of psychiatry.
IN THE BEGINNING—BEFORE
anyone turned the study of mental illness into a science and called it psychiatry—being insane was a sickness of the soul, a perversion worthy of prison or banishment or exorcism. Judaism and Christianity interpreted the soul as something distinct from the body—an essence of one’s self that could be spoken to by the Lord, or possessed by the devil. In the Bible, the first portrait of madness was
King Saul, who lost his mind when the spirit of the Lord departed him and was replaced by an evil spirit. In medieval France,
Joan of Arc heard voices that were considered heretical, the work of Satan—an impression that was revised the other way, to be the voice of a prophet, after Joan’s death. Even then, insanity’s definition was a moving target.
For those looking even a little carefully, it was plain to see that madness sometimes ran in families. The most conspicuous examples involved royalty. In the fifteenth century, King Henry VI of England first became paranoid, then mute and withdrawn, and finally delusional. His illness formed the pretext for the power struggle that became the Wars of the Roses. He came by it honestly: His maternal grandfather, Charles VI of France, had the same condition, as did Charles’s mother, Joanna of Bourbon, and Charles’s uncle, grandfather, and great-grandfather. But it took until Schreber’s lifetime for scientists and doctors to start talking about insanity as something biological. In 1896, the German psychiatrist Emil
Kraepelin used the term
to suggest that the condition started at an early age, unlike senility (praecox also being the Latin root of
Kraepelin believed that dementia praecox was caused by a “toxin” or “connected with lesions of an as yet unknown nature” in the brain. Twelve years later, the Swiss psychiatrist
Eugen Bleuler created the term
to describe most of the same symptoms that Kraepelin had lumped into dementia praecox. He, too, suspected a physical component to the disease.
Bleuler chose this new word because its Latin root—
—implied a harsh, drastic splitting of mental functions. This turned out to be a tragically poor choice. Almost ever since, a vast swath of popular culture—from
The Three Faces of Eve
—has confused schizophrenia with the idea of split personality. That couldn’t be further off the mark. Bleuler was trying to describe a split between a patient’s exterior and interior lives—a divide between perception and reality. Schizophrenia is not about multiple personalities. It is about walling oneself off from consciousness, first slowly and then all at once, until you are no longer accessing anything that others accept as real.
Regardless of what psychiatrists began to believe about the biology of the disease, its precise nature remained hard for any of them to fathom. While it seemed enough, at first, to say that schizophrenia could be inherited, that failed to account for cases—including, it seemed, Schreber’s—where it seemed to appear all by itself. This essential question about schizophrenia—does it run in families or emerge fully formed out of nowhere?—would consume theorists and therapists and biologists and, later, geneticists, for generations. How can we know what it is until we know where it comes from?
WHEN SIGMUND FREUD
finally cracked open Schreber’s memoir in 1911, eight years after it was published, what he read took his breath away. The Viennese analyst and theorist, already widely revered as a pioneering explorer of the internal workings of the mind, showed no interest in delusional psychotics like Schreber. He had seen such patients as a practicing neurologist, but
he had never thought it was worth the trouble to put any of them on the analyst’s couch. Having schizophrenia, he argued, meant that you were incurable—too narcissistic to engage in a meaningful interaction with an analyst, or “transference.”
But this book by Schreber—sent to him by his protégé, the Swiss therapist Carl Jung, who had pleaded with Freud to read it for years—changed everything for Freud. Now, without leaving his armchair, Freud had intimate access to every single impulse of a delusional man’s mind. What
Freud saw there confirmed everything he already thought he knew about the workings of the unconscious. In a letter thanking Jung, Freud called the memoir “
a kind of revelation.” In another, he declared that Schreber himself “ought to have been made a professor of psychiatry and
director of a mental hospital.”
Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides)
was published in 1911 (the same year that Schreber himself died, tragically enough, after reentering the asylum in the wake of his mother’s death). Thanks to Schreber’s book, Freud now was convinced that
psychotic delusions were little more than waking dreams—brought on by the same causes as everyday neuroses, and interpretable in the very same way.
All the same symbols and metaphors that Freud had famously noticed in dreams, he wrote, were all right there in the memoir, plain as day. Schreber’s gender switch and his immaculate conception, Freud argued, were about
a fear of castration. Schreber’s fixation with his psychiatrist, Dr. Flechsig, he concluded, had to do with the Oedipus complex. “
Don’t forget that Schreber’s father was a doctor,” Freud wrote, triumphantly connecting the dots. “The absurd miracles that are performed on him (Schreber) are a bitter satire on his father’s medical art.”
No one seemed more tied up in knots over what Freud wrote than Carl Jung. From his home in Burghölzli, Switzerland, Jung read an early copy and wrote his mentor at once, in March 1911, to say he found it “
uproariously funny” and “brilliantly written.” There was just one problem:
Jung fundamentally disagreed with him. At the heart of Jung’s objection was the question of the nature of delusional mental illness: Is schizophrenia something you’re born with, a physical affliction of the brain? Or is it acquired in life, after one has become scarred somehow by the world? Is it nature or nurture? Freud stood apart from most other psychiatrists of his time by being sure that the disease was entirely “psychogenic,” or the invention of the unconscious, which had most likely been molded or scarred by formative childhood experiences—quite often of a sexual nature. Jung, meanwhile, held a more conventional opinion: that schizophrenia was at least partially an organic, biological illness—a disease that was quite likely inherited from one’s family.
The protégé and his mentor had been
sparring about this on and off for years. But for Jung, this was the last straw. He told Freud that not everything was about sex—that sometimes people go insane for other reasons, maybe because it is just something they’re born with. “
In my view the concept of libido…needs to be supplemented by the genetic factor,” Jung wrote.
In several letters,
Jung made that same case again and again. Freud never took the bait; he did not respond, which Jung found infuriating. By 1912, Jung exploded. He got personal. “
Your technique of treating your pupils like patients is a blunder,” Jung wrote. “In that way you produce either slavish sons or impudent puppies….Meanwhile you remain on top as the father, sitting pretty.”
Later that same year, before an audience at Fordham University in New York City, Jung spoke out against Freud in public, specifically blasting his interpretation of the Schreber case. Schizophrenia, he declared, “
cannot be explained solely by the loss of erotic interest.” Jung knew that Freud would consider this to be heresy. “
He went terribly wrong,” Jung later reflected, “because he simply doesn’t know the spirit of schizophrenia.”
The great break between Freud and Jung took place largely over the issue of the nature of madness itself. Early psychoanalysis’s greatest partnership was over. But the argument over the origins and nature of schizophrenia was only just beginning.
A CENTURY LATER,
across the world,
schizophrenia affects an estimated one in one hundred people—or more than three million people in America, and 82 million people worldwide. By one measure, those diagnosed take up
a third of all the psychiatric hospital beds in the United States. By another,
about 40 percent of adults with the condition go untreated entirely in any given year.
One out of every twenty cases of schizophrenia ends in suicide.
Academia is filled with hundreds of papers about Schreber now, each venturing far from Freud and Jung with their own takes on the patient and the illness that tormented him.
Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst and godfather of post-structuralism, said that Schreber’s problems sprang from his frustration with somehow not being able to be the phallus that his own mother lacked.
By the 1970s, Michel Foucault, the French social theorist and countercultural icon, held up Schreber as a sort of martyr, a victim of social forces working to crush the individual spirit. Even today, Schreber’s memoir continues to be the perfect blank canvas, and Schreber himself is the ideal psychiatric patient: one who cannot talk back. Meanwhile, the central argument about schizophrenia raised by the Schreber case—nature or nurture?—has been baked into our perception of the disease.