Who’s Crazy?

Every family has secrets. Mine had more than its share. If there were a way that my mother could have avoided telling me about Aunt Rose, I am sure that I would never had found out about her.

Rose had been in Rockland State Hospital since the 1930s when her brief marriage failed, and she lost custody of her only child. Now, in 1956, her three sisters (Aunt Fanny, Aunt Yetta, and my mother) were planning a visit. We went in two cars: Uncle Irving’s DeSoto Deluxe, and Uncle Mac’s Oldsmobile Rocket 88. 

Mac was my favorite uncle. He was warm in a manly way: a World War II veteran whose speech was seasoned with crude slang. Having a Christian uncle, meant that every year I got to help decorate a Christmas tree. Although Irving was Jewish, my parents seemed to consider him almost as unrefined Uncle Mac. 

“Irving eats hotdogs at Yankee Stadium,” my mother said disdainfully, “even though he has ulcers.” My father agreed. Yetta, the eldest sister and the only one born in Europe, was stylish; sophisticated; and loved the hell out of Irving, despite his hot dogs and cigars. 

It was a sunny day and there was not much traffic. We had just left the City when a convertible pulled alongside. But instead of passing, the people inside were pointing at our car and yelling something. Irving ignored them. Apparently referring to their color — they were Black — Irving said: “Don’t pay any attention. They think it’s funny to play tricks on white people.” 

Pretty soon, we had to pull over… to change the flat.

Finally, we arrived. The Rockland Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg New York, was a huge residential facility on 600 acres. The grounds were like a big park, and we quickly found shaded benches. Before leaving with Yetta and Fanny to see their sister, my mother repeated the warning she had given me at home.

“Remember, if you see us you must not say anything or show any recognition. Aunt Rose thinks everything is the same as it was 25 years ago. She does not know that her sisters are married and have children. If she found out, it would be too upsetting for her, she could not take it.”  Then the three women headed for the main building. 

Uncles Mac and Irving went off together, leaving my father to take care of me and my sister. We talked, and played quietly. In this strange place we were subdued. I had not expected to see my mother, but before long, the four sisters appeared. It felt really weird to ignore my mother as they strolled by, but I knew how important it was to protect my fragile aunt. That brief moment was the only time In my life that I saw Aunt Rose. Like Fanny, she was a redhead. 

During the ride home, my mother talked about how estranged from reality Aunt Rose was. 

“We ran out of things to say to Rose, so we started to talk about politics. We were talking about how Trotsky had been erased from Soviet history. Rose asked what we were talking about. Fanny said, ‘In Russia, they can make a person disappear, as if they never existed.’”

My mother continued: “What Rose said next, did not make any sense. She said, ‘Then I must be in Russia.’ Rose is mentally ill, and cannot comprehend reality.” 

I was eleven years old. What Rose said made perfect sense to me. 

Comments | 8

  • Those were the days

    There was a meme in 19th century literature (and 20th century feminist critique) of “the madwoman in the attic.” Jane Eyre, The Yellow Wallpaper…

    Great story — seems as though the “madwoman” in this case retained a certain grasp of the fundamentals that more socially adept people tend to lack.

    • grasping the meaning

      The American psychiatrist, Harry Stack Sullivan, attribute his success with psychotic patients to his own, non-psychotic, schizoid outlook, which allowed him to connect with people whose speech other doctors dismissed as unintelligible gibberish. 

      Although the meaning of Aunt Rose’s “crazy” statement that she must be in Russia is pretty much transparent from our standpoint; her family was invested in seeing her as out-of-touch.

      It happens a lot that certain individuals, by reason of their denigrated social status, demeanor, and way of expressing themselves; routinely are brushed off without any attempt to really listen and understand.

  • My uncle John

    My uncle John used to tell this story in the first person:
    He was driving and a wheel flew off his car and with it the lugnuts.
    He managed to glide to a stop alongside a State Hospital.
    He was sitting on the curb pondering his fate, when an inmate appeared on the other side of the fence.
    My uncle explained that he didn’t have the lugnuts to replace the wheel.
    “Why don’t you take one lugnut each from the 3 remaining wheels, restore the errant wheel and drive to a gas station to get it permanently fixed,” said the inmate.
    “That’s brilliant!” said my uncle. “How come they have you locked up?”
    The man answered: “I’m in here because I’m crazy, not because I’m stupid”.

    • That's a great story

      Thank you for sharing it, Tom!

    • I thought you were going to

      I thought you were going to say patient’s response was; “Because I have a few loose lug nuts myself so I can relate” PS. As the Brattleboro Retreat emphasizes, we all do better not to stigmatize mental health issues.

  • A couple of fun odd bits and pieces here:

    My mother continued: “What Rose said next, did not make any sense. She said, ‘Then I must be in Russia.’ Rose is mentally ill, and cannot comprehend reality.” I was eleven years old. What Rose said made perfect sense to me. From Who’s Crazy? By SK-B | Tue, February 14 2017

    “Things are messed up, I offered.” Then out of the blue she blurts, “We’re Russian, aren’t we?” From Loose Ends By spinoza | Mon, December 12 2016

    “I’m in here because I’m crazy, not because I’m stupid” Phrase repeated frequently in Google search.


  • This story originally appeared

    in The Commons, Issue #357, May 18, 2016.

  • Prevalent in the media

    We’re seeing more issues of the mentally challenged, and Russia, in the media, possibly more than immigration, as this administration takes root.

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