Authors: Robert Kolker
One after another, each boy got the mumps, the measles, and the chicken pox. With each new baby, the competition for Mimi’s attention increased, as did the demands on her time. Even with five boys, neither Don nor Mimi made any mention of stopping. The refrain from both sides of the family was ceaseless:
Why so many children?
After all, Mimi’s attraction to the finer things in life—culture, art, social status—hardly seemed compatible with having so many mouths to feed. But if Mimi couldn’t have the former, she was more than happy to try her hand at the latter. There was a different sort of distinction in having so many children, and being known as a mother who could easily accomplish such a thing.
At the same time, no amount of social ambition could explain everything about Mimi’s desire for a large family. There was quite likely another, deeper explanation as well—that the children filled a need in Mimi that perhaps even she had not anticipated. From an early age, Mimi had a way of glossing over the more painful disappointments in her life: the loss of her father; the forced exile from Houston; the husband who remained so distant from her. Even if she didn’t admit it, these losses hurt, and took their toll. Having so many children, however, offered Mimi a brand-new narrative—or at least distracted her, changed the subject, shored up the losses, helped her dwell less on what was missing. For a woman who so often felt abandoned, here was a way to create all the company she would ever need.
Don’s mother, Mary Galvin, holding forth from her home in Queens, would say, somewhat cruelly, that the pregnancies were all Mimi’s doing—that Mimi ran Don’s life now, and that Mimi wanted the upper hand in all things, and that she was determined to out-Catholic the real Catholics in the family, and Mimi’s perpetual state of pregnancy was the clearest and most powerful way to win that competition.
For Mimi, the response to that was simple, stopping all conversation. The children, she said, made Don happy.
HE WAS ALWAYS
more of a scholar than a soldier. Mimi found that part of Don both lovable and frustrating. At the same time that he insisted on having a house filled with children, he also treasured a life of the mind, of solitude and order. And yet no matter how tranquil and orderly she made their home, he always found a reason to stay away.
As an intelligence officer at Ent Air Force Base, Don embraced the circumspect nature of Cold War military work. “Don’t give anyone any more information than you have to,” he used to say, and his coy way of saying it made the air of secrecy seem almost conspiratorial, something they all shared. They didn’t share it, though: The most Don would confide in Mimi was that the generals he was briefing didn’t seem terribly bright. Despite how well he seemed to be doing there, his ambition as an Air Force man had limits. Even when President Dwight Eisenhower set up his summer White House in Denver in 1953, and Don found himself drafting the intelligence briefings that Eisenhower himself was reading, military work interested Don only insofar as it made him even more determined to get a PhD in political science one day.
Where falconry once was something Don and Mimi did together, that started to change. He spent more time away from home, luring birds with other local falconers, while Mimi’s work caring for the children was never-ending. This new disconnection maybe wasn’t so new—more likely, it revealed something about them that had been the case from the very beginning. From the first day they’d met, Don had always seemed to be living his life a few inches off the ground, while Mimi had waited patiently, her feet planted firmly on earth. Don identified with his birds—soaring where he pleased, returning only when it suited him. And Mimi, quite against her will, found herself cast in the role of falconer—domesticating Don, luring him home, laboring under the impression that she had completely tamed him.
Mimi found her own ways of occupying herself, some designed to bring her closer to a husband who was growing further and further away from her. Fulfilling a promise she had made to Don’s family, she went through several years of instruction to convert to Catholicism. Being the same religion as her husband made their family a real family, and so she did this happily—another mountain to climb, another subject to master. She formed a lasting friendship with her tutor, Father Robert Freudenstein, a local priest who introduced her to concepts like transfiguration and the virgin birth, all over cocktails. This was Mimi’s kind of priest: Freudy, as he was called, came from some money and wasn’t afraid to show it off, driving his convertible so fast that the birds outside their house would scatter when he pulled up. Freudy performed sleight of hand tricks for the boys and told them stories. With Mimi and Don, he talked about books and art and music, helping them feel less alien in their new home. When the Royal Ballet came to Denver, he took Mimi and Don together. Soon Freudy was dropping in at all hours, almost like another member of the family, whenever he needed to get away from his bosses at St. Mary’s parish. “Oh, Monsignor Kipp is mad at me,” he’d say. “Can I have breakfast with you?” Mimi always said yes.
Mimi’s mother questioned the wisdom, and even the propriety, of this friendship. Billy would drive out west by herself in her Studebaker, and she’d stay until she started making comments about the way Mimi ran her household. Freudy was often Topic A. Marrying a Catholic was one thing, Billy would say, but must there always be a priest hanging around the house? But for Mimi, Freudy’s visits were the most delightful surprise of her conversion to Catholicism. Not only could she become closer to Don and feel equipped to lead the spiritual training of her family, she had found something familiar, even fun, in what sometimes could be a lonely new existence.
Growing fed up, Billy would turn around and leave. But her mother’s judgment only bothered Mimi a little. She had more children than Billy now. She outranked her.
THE MORE CHILDREN
she had, the more Mimi grew into her new self—a different woman from the one who had been so disappointed for so many years. There would be other moves in their future: an Air Force transfer to a base in Quebec in 1954 and 1955, followed by three years at Hamilton Air Force Base in northern California. They returned to Colorado Springs in 1958 with eight boys. Richard was born in 1954, Joe in 1956, and Mark in 1957.
Don, when he was at home, was the good cop, a subdued presence, except for each morning at sunrise:
Reveille, reveille! Up all hands, heave out and trice up! Sweep down all decks and ladders fore and aft, report to the mess hall at 0600 for chow!
The rest of the time, it was Mimi who provided all supervision—not always nurturingly, but coolly, sharply, haughtily. She was a happy warrior, doing battle with mediocrity morning, noon, and night.
All the boys wore sport coats and ties and Bass Weejuns to Sunday mass.
Long hair was unacceptable.
The military and the Church supplied two sets of rules to follow: America’s and God’s.
Mimi was the master of every aspect of her children’s lives, an endeavor in which she left absolutely nothing to chance. The children were raised on a bevy of axioms: “Pretty is as pretty does”; “Tattle Tale Tit, your tongue shall be split, and all the dogs in the town shall have a little bit.” In the morning, everyone had their assignment: set the table, prepare lunch, make the toast, vacuum, dust, and mop the kitchen floor, clear the table, wash and dry the dishes. The assignments switched from week to week. The boys were enrolled in speed-reading classes. In good weather, they’d go out bird-watching or looking for mushrooms. Their living room had no issues of
Ladies’ Home Journal
. Even the neighborhood children, when they came over to the Galvins’ to color or draw or paint, learned to expect to hear not praise for their artwork but a detailed explanation of everything they were doing wrong. “She wanted everybody to be perfect,” one old friend of the family remembered.
Mimi couldn’t have known at the time how terribly this temperament would end up working against her. By the 1950s, the psychiatric profession had set its sights on mothers like her. The most influential thinkers in American psychiatry all were using a new term for such women. They called them “schizophrenogenic.”
The Chestnut Lodge psychiatric hospital opened in 1910 in a modest, four-story brick building, once a hotel, on a tree-filled country estate in the outer reaches of Washington, D.C. For its first twenty-five years, the patients, many diagnosed with schizophrenia, were treated mostly with rest and occupational therapy; the hospital’s founder lived downstairs while the patients lived upstairs. If few people in psychiatry thought much of the place, that all changed in 1935, when the hospital welcomed a new therapist named
She had just arrived in America, a Jewish refugee from war-torn Germany. Already in her mid-forties, Fromm-Reichmann had established herself before the war as an experienced and confident psychotherapist—small, but forceful, intense, and direct—and the ideas she brought with her were undeniably fresh. Unlike some of the old-timers at Chestnut Lodge, Fromm-Reichmann was a member of a new wave of analysts who were inspired by Freud and willing to dare greatly with their patients. And before long, stories circulated about the miracles she was working.
the young man who assaulted Fromm-Reichmann when she first tried to talk to him. She held vigil outside his door daily for three months until he finally invited her in.
the man who kept silent for weeks during his sessions with Fromm-Reichmann, until one day he slipped a newspaper on the spot where she was about to sit. His first words to the doctor were something about not wanting her to dirty her dress.
And there was
the woman who threw stones at Fromm-Reichmann, shouting, “God damn your soul to hell!” After a few months, the new therapist called her bluff. Clearly no one was benefiting from this, she said. “Why not stop it?” So the woman did.
Too good to be true? Perhaps. But to Fromm-Reichmann, schizophrenia was curable, and
anyone who said differently might not care enough about the people they were treating. No member of the Galvin family ever met her. But no other person may have done more to change the way that schizophrenia and all mental illness was perceived in America during their lifetimes—for better and, later on, for worse.
FROMM-REICHMANN HAD ARRIVED
in America at a moment when mainstream psychiatry’s approach to schizophrenia was as ineffective as it was inhumane. Insane asylums were filled with test subjects who were forced to take cocaine, manganese, and castor oil; injected with animal blood and oil of turpentine; and gassed with carbon dioxide or concentrated oxygen (
the so-called “gas cure”). The gold standard of treatment, in the 1930s, had been
insulin shock therapy, in which the patient was injected with insulin to induce a short coma; the theory was that regular treatments, a coma a day, might slowly chip away at the effects of psychosis.
Then came the lobotomy, the severing of the nerves of a patient’s frontal lobes—which, as the British psychiatrist W. F. McAuley delicately put it, “deprives the patient of certain qualities with which, and perhaps because of which, he has failed to adapt.”
Their counterparts searching for the biological cause of schizophrenia weren’t treating their patients any better. In Germany, Emil
Kraepelin, the dementia praecox pioneer, had opened an institute to research a hereditary link to the disease and had turned up little to nothing. A researcher at his institute,
Ernst Rüdin, became a major figure in the eugenics movement, among the first to argue for sterilizing the mentally ill. A student of Rüdin’s named Franz Josef Kallmann went even further: Preaching eugenics in the United States after the war,
Kallmann called for sterilizing even “nonaffected carriers” of a gene for schizophrenia, once such a gene was found. The leadership of biological psychiatry seemed settled on the idea that mentally ill people weren’t people at all.
In the face of such troubling social forces, it’s hardly surprising that Freud-inspired analysts like Fromm-Reichmann rejected the idea of a biological basis of schizophrenia completely. Why should psychiatry sign on to a scientific discipline that treated humans like horses to be selected for breeding? Instead, Fromm-Reichmann believed that patients, deep down, wanted a cure—that they were waiting to be helped, like a wounded bird or a frail child in need of understanding. “
Every schizophrenic has some dim notion of the unreality and loneliness of his substitute delusionary world,” she wrote. And the therapist’s mission—a high-minded undertaking that
a new vanguard of American psychoanalysts soon embraced—was to break through the barriers the patient had erected and save them from themselves.
In 1948, Chestnut Lodge admitted a teenage girl named
Joanne Greenberg, who would go on to bring Fromm-Reichmann a measure of immortality. Greenberg’s 1964 best-seller,
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
—a fictionalized memoir, she later called it—was the story of a teenage girl named Deborah Blau who is trapped in the delusional kingdom of Yr. Deborah believes herself to be possessed by an outside force, much the way Daniel Paul Schreber felt that he had been, a half century earlier. (“
There were other powers contending for her allegiance,” Greenberg writes.) Deborah seems walled off from the world forever until her therapist, Dr. Fried—a thinly disguised Fromm-Reichmann, with a surname unmistakably echoing
—breaks through and rescues her. Dr. Fried understands young Deborah’s demons—their source and their reason for being. “
The sick are all so afraid of their own uncontrollable power!” Dr. Fried muses in the novel. “Somehow they cannot believe that they are people, holding only a human-sized anger!”
What Dr. Fried does for Deborah in this book influenced a generation of psychotherapists. Like Annie Sullivan in
The Miracle Worker,
Dr. Fried was a model of insight, compassion, and drive—patiently, ardently connecting with her patient, cracking her particular code. One of the keys, the doctor concludes, is recognizing that the girl’s own parents had unwittingly fanned the flames of mental illness in their daughter. “
Many parents said—even thought—that they wanted help for their children, even to show, subtly or directly, that their children were part of a secret scheme for their own ruin,” the doctor reflects in the pages of Greenberg’s novel. “A child’s independence is too big a risk for the shaky balance of some parents.”
The mystery of schizophrenia is, apparently, solved: The eugenicists are wrong. People aren’t born with schizophrenia at all. Their mothers and fathers are to blame.
AS EARLY AS
1940, Fromm-Reichmann had sounded the alarm over “
the dangerous influence of the undesirable domineering mother on the development of her children,” calling such mothers “the main family problem.” It was eight years later, the same year that Joanne Greenberg became her patient, that Fromm-Reichmann came up with a term that would stick to women like Mimi Galvin for decades: the schizophrenogenic mother.
It was “mainly” this sort of mother, she wrote, who was responsible for the “severe early warp and rejection” that rendered a schizophrenia patient “painfully distrustful and resentful of other people.”
She was far from the first psychoanalyst to blame the mother for something. Freud’s approach, after all, was to explain practically every mysterious impulse as the end result of childhood experiences coloring the unconscious mind. But now, in the postwar years, the dawn of a new era of American prosperity, many therapists had something new to worry about: mothers who refused to behave like the mothers of a previous generation. “A schizophrenic,” a Philadelphia psychiatrist named John Rosen wrote, within a year of Fromm-Reichmann’s invention of the term schizophrenogenic mother, “is always one who is reared by a woman who suffers from
a perversion of the maternal instinct.”
In her own writings, Fromm-Reichmann remarked with unease at how “
American women are very often the leaders, and men wait on them as wives wait on their husbands in European families,” and how “the wife and mother is often the bearer of authority in the family group.” She particularly disliked how fathers, like Don Galvin, become the confidants and pals of their kids, while mothers, like Mimi Galvin, become the disciplinarians. But once Fromm-Reichmann gave such mothers a name, the concept caught fire. John Clausen and Melvin Kohn from the National Institute of Mental Health described the schizophrenogenic mother as
“cold,” “perfectionistic,” “anxious,” “overcontrolling,” and “restrictive.” The psychologist Suzanne Reichard and the Stanford psychiatrist Carl Tillman described the schizophrenogenic mother as the “
prototype of the middle class Anglo-Saxon American Woman: prim, proper, but totally lacking in genuine affection.”
These descriptions seemed to lack a certain coherence. What, precisely, were these mothers doing to these children? Were they domineering or weak? Suffocating or withholding? Sadistic or apathetic? In 1956, Gregory Bateson, an anthropologist—and the husband of Margaret Mead—collected the various alleged sins of the schizophrenogenic mother into a theory he called
the “double-bind.” The double-bind, he explained, was a trap that certain mothers set for their children. A mother says, “Pull up your socks,” but something about the way she says it projects the contradictory message, “Don’t be so obedient.” Now, even if the child obeys, the mother disapproves. The child feels helpless, frightened, frustrated, anxious—ensnared, with no way out. According to the double-bind theory, if children get caught in that trap often enough, they develop psychosis as a way of coping with it. Tormented by their mothers, they retreat into a world of their own.
Bateson invented this theory without so much as ten minutes of clinical psychiatric experience. But that made no difference. The double-bind, along with the schizophrenogenic mother, helped to turn mother-blaming into the industry standard for psychiatry—and not just for schizophrenia. In the 1950s and 1960s, it became hard to find any emotional or mental disorder that was not, in one way or another, attributed by therapists to the actions of the patient’s mother. Autism was blamed on “refrigerator mothers” who failed to show enough affection to their infants. Obsessive-compulsive disorder was blamed on problems in the second to third year of life, clashing with the mother around toilet training. The public conception of madness became hopelessly intertwined with the idea of the mother-as-monster. When, in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s
placed the blame for the most famous delusional homicidal maniac of cinema, Norman Bates, squarely on the shoulders of his dead mother, it made all the sense in the world.
THIS IS WHAT
the Galvins would be up against when their boys started getting sick: an emboldened therapeutic profession seizing the moral high ground, doing battle with the devils of eugenics and surgery and chemical experimentation, and more than ready to search for a different way to explain the disease—a cause much closer to home. In 1965, Theodore Lidz, a prominent Yale psychiatrist best known for attributing schizophrenia to a patient’s family dynamics, said that schizophrenogenic mothers “
became dangerous figures to males,” and had “castrating” relationships with their husbands. As a general rule, Lidz recommended that schizophrenia patients be removed from their families entirely.
Parents of Don and Mimi Galvin’s era didn’t have to know about the double-bind theory or the schizophrenogenic mother to understand that anything wrong with their children would raise questions about them. What happened to those children when they were in their care? Who let them become this way? What sort of parents were they? The lesson of the times was clear. If something seemed off about your child, the last thing you should do is tell a doctor about it.