This Mean Disease
Growing Up in the Shadow of My Mother's Anorexia
by Daniel Becker
Excerpt from This Mean Disease
Young animals, when suddenly removed from their mothers, will often cry continuously and then slip into a state of prolonged lethargy. What happened to me was a different story.
As memories of Mom faded and I could no longer recall what she smelled like or the sound of her voice or how it felt to bounce on her lap or snuggle in her arms, she became less real and more mythical. Because I could not visualize where she was, I constructed an imagined setting where I pictured her locked up, like a lonely princess in a fairy tale. What was around me every day was real; Mom and Menninger slowly grew into a legend.
Six months after Mom's hospitalization began, I had already aligned myself with a substitute caregiver, Helen Frank, our black housekeeper from Opelousas, Louisiana. My parents had hired Helen just before I was born and after Mom's departure, my father placed her in charge of child rearing. Helen, who was already raising two daughters as a single mother, accepted the added responsibility. "No problem," she told Dad, "I'll teach those kids good."
I attached myself to Helen, as if by an invisible rope and trailed her around the house assisting with chores. Enchanted by the blue shade of Ajax powder against white tiles, I helped her scrub the bathtubs. While she reattached buttons to Dad's shirts or stitched name tags on our underwear, I sat alongside and popped needles in and out of her red velvet sewing ball the size of a Christmas ornament. In Mom's absence, Helen filled the house with her presence, as if she was covering the void that was left behind. Her mouth was always in motion: talking on the telephone for hours, chewing a toothpick, smoking a Pall Mall cigarette or, most often, grumbling to herself. Helen's southern roots were exposed in her aphorisms. Dad was always "your daddy." We never exited the car; instead we "hopped out like mustard seeds." Her response to our "see you tomorrow" never varied: "God spare life."
It would have been natural to turn to Dad instead, but he wasn't home much. Six days a week he worked downtown, running the shoe concession he owned at the Joseph Magnin department store chain. Occasionally, Helen brought my brothers and I downtown for a visit. We rode the elevator to his office and prowled around, curious to understand what he did all day. Sometimes, he walked us the few blocks to the store where I watched the sales people coddle the ladies' feet. To me, buying shoes was almost as big a waste of time as trying on clothes at Young Man's Fancy or getting a haircut.
Dad always wore a coat and tie. Sometimes, I even imagined that he slept in a suit. Years later, when he was in his 70s, I found him in a pair of blue jeans and remarked that I had never seen him wearing denim before. "These are my first pair," he said. I mostly saw Dad at dinnertime where he tried to maintain some kind of order. Most nights, he checked our fingernails before we sat down. If they were too dirty, he dispatched us to the bathroom to clean them up. He kept the dinner table rules: no leaning back in your chair, no singing, no yelling.
He must have been barely hanging on. For those first months that Mom was at Menninger, the only reports came from a social worker who was part of the treatment team. And since Mom was not allowed outside the hospital, the reports were sparse. Dad learned that Mom was taking meals in her room, attended by a nurse who sat patiently until all the food had been consumed, no matter how long it took. He heard that Mom was having trouble with digestion and that the nurse kept a bottle of air freshener close by for obvious reasons. Dr. Jacobs met with her every day, but Dad had no idea what was discussed.
Sometimes I try to put myself in Dad's shoes. Nothing in his experience had prepared him to be a single father. His own father worked long hours away from home. Murry Becker, or Grandpa B. as we called him, was a successful attorney who had founded his own firm in New York City. He was charismatic but stern, the kind of man who closely intertwined love with respect. As a child, though I was always excited to see him, I could never quite shake my fear of his disapproval.
Grandpa B. would have been a difficult man to live up to, a man whose study was lined with plaques of recognition. In his career he cast a long shadow; as a father he didn't provide Dad with much guidance.
Despite all that he did not know, Dad could at least take solace that Mom was in what was generally considered the best psychiatric hospital in the nation.
The Menninger Clinic was a world away from the state-run mental hospitals that had dominated psychiatric practice in the early twentieth century. If Mom had been placed in one of those facilities, it is possible she would have spent the remainder of her life institutionalized.
For so-called new psychiatrists of this era, including Karl Menninger, the Holy Grail was a mental hospital where doctors could focus on research, teaching, and ultimately, the cure of mental illness. In 1925, Karl and his father purchased a 20-acre farm on the western edge of Topeka and converted the farmhouse into a 12-bed sanitarium with administrative offices on the ground floor. As the clinic's reputation grew and referrals came in from other hospitals, additional beds were created through the renovation of existing farm buildings and construction of new facilities.
By the time Mom was admitted, the Menninger Clinic had achieved national and international fame. A large children's division was created, along with the Menninger School of Psychiatry and a research division. The hospital had grown to include 150 inpatient beds and another 34 slots for an outpatient hospital program. But even with the size of the hospital, anorexia nervosa was such a rare illness that none of the doctors had any expertise with it. For the staff at Menninger, Mom would be a test case.
After six months, Mom had gained enough weight to be allowed outside the hospital, and the doctors encouraged Dad to visit at least once a month. Our time with him, already limited, was diminished even further.
Because of Dad's absences, Helen folded my brothers and I into the routines of her life. In many ways we became like her children, with Helen including us in one of her favorite activities—baseball games at Candlestick Park. She always bought tickets in the bleachers behind the left field fenc. Together, we sat huddled under sleeping bags to keep warm from the damp fog sweeping in from the Bay. Even though I didn't understand what was happening on the field, I got a kick out of hearing Helen cheer for her favorite player, Willie Mays, the "Say Hey Kid." The suspense for me was not if the Giants might win the game, but whether I might cajole Helen into buying me a souvenir.
On Saturday afternoons, she brought us to horror movies on Mission Street, an area of town that was littered with trash—discarded hamburger cartons and empty packs of cigarettes—and people, many of whom appeared to have nothing better to do than stand around or sit on the sidewalk. It was a world away from our little house on Locust Street.
In the darkened theatre, I clutched her hand while Dracula, or some kind of nuclear-mutated monster—the Blob or Godzilla— wreaked havoc on its victims. This was a time before movie ratings, because nobody stopped Helen from dragging me in to witness such things. It was a miracle I was able to sleep at night. Perhaps it was because I knew that those movies were pretend and that Helen, sitting at my side, was real.
Just because Helen melded my brothers and I into her life didn't mean she was easy on us. She encased her love within a brittle shell and did not hesitate to threaten a whooping if we got even the slightest bit unruly. We knew that she threatened ten whoopings for every one she gave, but the thought of her thick hand paddling our rear ends was enough to cause obedience. As the youngest, I had it the easiest. Whenever Helen's friends visited the house, she always introduced me in the same way: "This here is Daniel," she would say, beaming. "He's my baby."
In December 1966, when I was four, Dad took Jimmy, John, and me to the Grossinger Resort in New York's Catskill Mountains for the celebration of his parents' 50th wedding anniversary. Practically the whole family was there, along with many friends. Only Mom was missing.
At the anniversary dinner, I watched one person after another rise from their chairs, stroll to the front of the room, and speak into a long, thin machine that sent their voices echoing throughout the room. I noticed how, when they spoke, the other diners ceased their conversations and turned to listen. Suddenly, I was out of my chair and striding to the front of the room. I had no idea what I wanted to say, only that I wanted the audience's attention.
I paused for a moment, gazing at the circle of smiling, expectant faces. And then I began to talk, marveling at the amplified sound of my own voice. Even though my words are lost to history, the laughter and applause wrapped me in a warm embrace. No matter what I said, the laughter increased, as if I was fiddling with the volume on Dad's stereo. I felt like one of the magicians I'd seen on television, pulling a string of multicolored handkerchiefs out of thin air.
Despite the evident popularity of my toast, Dad soon appeared at my side easing the microphone away. "I think that's enough," he whispered.
From that moment on, I desperately wanted to entertain people. Nothing felt as satisfying as standing in front of a crowd and lapping up their laughter. The laughter and approval were like a drug that I used more and more as time went on to starve off my unhappiness.
Mom's absence stretched on through my fifth birthday. Then, one day in early 1967, Dad announced that he was bringing all of us, Helen included, to visit Mom in Topeka.
I wonder what we looked like to other passengers at the Kansas City airport. My brothers and I wore coats and ties, and Helen wore a pillbox hat and black dress, as if on her way to church. While Dad and Jimmy waited to collect the luggage, Helen corralled John and I in the corner and muttered out of the side of her mouth that we better behave or else. I picture people smiling at us, thinking "what a dear family," wondering perhaps about Helen's role. How might they have reacted if they had leaned down to ask where our mother was and John or I had replied, "In Topeka, in a mental hospital."
Jimmy, being the oldest, remembers that the drive from the airport was tense. Several times Dad threatened to pull the car to the side of the road if we didn't behave. I can imagine the three of us crammed in the back, arguing over who touched whom and how one of us was encroaching on the other's space. Helen would have whirled around and said, "You boys better shush or there's gonna be trouble."
That night, we stayed at a two-story Holiday Inn, my first visit to a motel. Instead of anticipating the visit to Menninger, I immersed myself in distractions: the green paper ribbon that turned the toilet into a giant present, the plastic "do not disturb" signs, the ice machines. My excitement was tempered only by learning that John and Jimmy shared their own room, while I had to stay with Helen.
The next day, on the way to visit Mom, I threw my all-time greatest fit. Dad remembers I began to scream and cry uncontrollably, tossing myself on the lawn outside the Menninger campus. Because I have no memory of my emotions on that day, I sometimes look at five-year-olds and imagine how they might feel to have their Mom—the center of their world, their universe—disappear one day and not return.
I picture a little face contorted by grief. I hear the choking sobs and the hiccuping refrain: "I want my Mommy." Then I see the parent rocking the child back and forth, murmuring "Shhh, it's okay." In this case, Dad hoisted me over his shoulder like a bag of potatoes and carried me to the meeting.
Mom had gained weight by this time, but I don't remember if she looked unfamiliar, or what feelings I had upon seeing her for the first time in almost two years. Jimmy remembers that she appeared happy. That must have been a relief, though it might also have raised the question: How she could be happy so far away from home?
She showed us her new life. The greenhouse, where she tended rosemary, dill, and oregano was one of her favorite places. She explained that the herbs were used to make salad dressing for the hospital kitchen. We were introduced to her many friends, including Dr. Jacobs who I must have liked. I still have a note that I wrote on the plane ride home asking Mom to let him know my arm was still attached to my body, a reference to some forgotten joke.
Menninger policy forbade patients' families from visiting their rooms. This was a particularly cruel blow—I was desperate to see where she lived, to sit on her bed and play with her jewelry, to picture her desk where she wrote us letters. These letters and a few phone calls were the most tangible proof of her continued existence. Instead, I stayed in the hotel each night while she and Dad spent time together. This only reinforced my imagination of Mom as a fairy princess, always just out of reach.
The visit ended and we said goodbye and returned to our lives without Mom in San Francisco. We must have asked when she was coming home, to which she would have replied truthfully, "I don't know." While my brothers and I would have left it at that, Dad must have responded with " but we need you." Dad was beginning to wonder whether Mom was ever going to come home. Dr. Jacobs worried about the same thing.
I wrote a note to Mom on the plane ride home, which I discovered many years later in one of her drawers.
Get Well (Please)
Right now I am on the plane. Even though I just left you a couple of hours ago, I miss you terribly. As I came home from Menninger I realized that I'm going to miss you a lot more, since now I've seen you and been with you.
Before she left for Menninger, Mom and Dad had agreed that the family required a bigger house. Dad also wanted to spare Mom the stress of having to move when she returned home. So, one day, he announced that we would be moving into a new house around the corner from 135 Locust Street. But this wasn't just any house—it was a Castle.
An investment my grandfather made years earlier on Dad's behalf had resulted in a great deal of money. The original $10,000 was now worth more than $1,000,000 (in 1967 dollars), allowing Dad to purchase the new house. Yet, when Dad tells me, as he sometimes does, that money doesn't buy happiness, he can point to this specific example. On his way back from picking up the check, he stopped to see Mom at Menninger. Years later, Dad explains that he would have happily returned all the money in exchange for Mom's health.
Our new house with its turrets and leaded windows sat like a fortress on the corner of Washington and Spruce streets commanding a view of the two red towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. The man who built the house had been one of the Bridge's engineers, and he had allowed his mind free rein on the design. Though only three stories, the house contained six bedrooms, six bathrooms, a library, living and dining rooms, a basement with a stage, and most unusual of all, an elevator. Best of all, if you knew just where to push on the paneled wood that lined the main hallway, secret doors opened revealing a bathroom, bar, and hidden passageway to the basement.
Dad must have smiled when he saw us running around the house, yelling "cool" at each new discovery. He must have felt proud, fulfilling the traditional male role. His wife would come home to the house of her dreams.
Or of her nightmares. When Mom first heard about the house, she anxiously asked Dr. Jacobs, "Who's going to keep it up?" Dad assured her she would get her all the help she needed. "And if you don't love it," he promised, "we can always move somewhere else."
But Mom was in no hurry to join us in the Castle. By mid-1967, she had not only recovered the weight she had lost before getting sick, her body kept right on gaining weight. Incredibly, the woman who left home at 74 pounds now weighed in at over 200 pounds. These days, treatment facilities would not allow such an extreme weight gain to occur, but in the 1960s there was little experience with anorexia nervosa treatment. Dr. Jacobs told Dad that both gaining weight and being underweight were two sides of the same coin—issues of control.
In 1967, the American Psychiatric Association had not yet cre ated a diagnosis for anorexia nervosa. According to the definition later produced, Mom no longer met the diagnosis. Yet her departure from Menninger became a difficult issue. While the stay had saved her life, Dr. Jacobs believed she would have needed as long as four to five years to get better. As he later told me, "Of course she had other obligations that couldn't be neglected. If we'd kept her and she got better but had no family to go back to, that would have been a disaster." He told her there was nothing more Menninger could do and that it was time to return to her family.
Mom was reluctant to leave as well. She had many friends at Menninger, and she was never stigmatized there for being underweight or overweight. Her warm relationship with Dr. Jacobs, who was never too busy to listen to her deepest thoughts and concerns, was something she couldn't replicate with her husband. She didn't have to be a wife, or mother, or take care of a big house, or manage a busy and pressured social calendar. "Of course she was happy there," Dad later said. "She had no responsibilities."
Dr. Jacobs told me that some patients never left Topeka, deciding to remain there either with their families moving close by or not. I sometimes wonder what might have happened if Mom had just decided to stay. Would Dad have agreed to move us all to Kansas? Would she have even wanted that? How much differently would all of our lives have turned out?
At Lake Tahoe, just before she began to exhibit the first signs of anorexia nervosa, Mom had felt let down by the men in her life—her father and husband—who would not defend her from Isabel. As the time came to leave Menninger, did she once again feel betrayed—this time by Dad and Dr. Jacobs—who insisted it was time for her to go? Did this reinforce for her a feeling of lacking control over her life?
Many years later, when I tried to contact Dr. Jacobs to discuss his memories of Mom, he wouldn't answer my letters. He only agreed to meet after I informed him I was coming to Topeka anyway. When he sat across from me in a deserted hotel lobby and removed his hat and scarf, I was immediately taken by his blue eyes, the hint of North Carolina drawl in his voice, and his obvious compassion. After we exchanged pleasantries, he addressed his lack of response to my inquiries.
"I really didn't want to have this meeting," he said.
"Because of confidentiality issues?" I asked, aware that this might be a concern for a psychiatrist.
"No," he said, "that wasn't it at all. It was because it ended so badly. I will never forget the anger in your mother's eyes when your father came to take her back to San Francisco."
"She didn't want to go?" I asked.
"She didn't want to go," he replied.
At the age of five, I could not have understood how Mom might feel ambivalent about rejoining her family. But I have since accepted the possibility that she could have both loved and missed us, and at the same time, yearned to be free. As Tobias Woolf has described his own mother's conflicting desires in This Boy's Life, "the human heart is a dark forest."
Mom and Dad spared us from any direct knowledge of her ambivalence. Perhaps we sensed it at a deeper level; children are remarkably intuitive. As a grown man though, my awareness was buried deep. I could only stare with surprise at Dr. Jacobs, his words repeating in my mind, "She didn't want to go."