Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
How to be a Schizophrenogenic Mother


In the 1950's, move from apartment in Queens with stoops, playgrounds and the quick subway ride to streets and parks of Manhattan. Move to the sidewalk-less land of lawnmower, country club, and clean living rooms with two children under the age of five.

Become a green immigrant, illiterate in the new language of shopping centers, ignorant of the way status is signaled here by houses, clothes, children and cars. Conceal from your husband that you don't get dressed until right before he gets home from work. Go into psychoanalysis. Learn that you are an ambivalent wife and mother. Feel relief at the ease with which your daughter starts school. When your son begins to talk at three and a half, send him to nursery school. Learn that he spends all day in time-out for "disruptive behavior."
Try to find out, from three-year-old, why. Change schools. Think of your baby boy learning to crawl, think of his lemon brown hair.

Fail to silence the echoes from your childhood, the memory of how you protected your own twin brother, diagnosed at thirteen with schizophrenia. Remember the sick uncles your mother took in, the boarders in the front room who tried to feel your breasts. Recall how you used to escape outside to join packs of kids in the streets and alleys of the Bronx; how you paid, afterwards, for that momentary freedom when you took the blows of your immigrant mother's invective. You felt the spell of the old world evil eye on you. Realize you feel it still, though you do not believe. Think of your father hiding from his family on nightshift, sleeping away his days. Feel unprotected. Think of your husband hiding at his store. Feel the stigma of your childhood.

Feel like spitting when your son's pre-World War I kindergarten teacher says, "I just don't know how two such different children can come from the same family." Weep for three days. When the school counselor tells you your son is retarded, teach him to read, yourself, in one week. See child psychiatrist who diagnoses autism. Refuse label. This makes you the withholding mother. Accept judgment.

Do not find comfort when daughter's third grade report card says "pleasure to have in the class." Your daughter can't explain or fix her brother's wildness at school; do not notice her shame. Allow son to be placed in a "special" school for "problem children." Believe you can do something that will change your son, something that will change everything.

Believe you are the cause; believe you are the cure. Place a violin in your son's hands. Discover his precocious gift for music. Hold your breath. Think of your baby boy learning to crawl, think of his lemon brown hair. When your daughter is fourteen, believe her when she says she hates you. Retaliate in wounded anger; do not credit the pain beneath the defiance. Experience the relief of years without incident as your son navigates junior and senior high. Watch, amazed, as he teaches himself Hungarian and Chinese. Worry that he has no friends. Send children to college.

Awaken to phone call in your son's final year. Recognize flat new tone in his voice.

Bring him home. Beg the school to take him back. Awaken again to the phone in the night.

Hear psychiatrist explain the "poetic" meaning of your son's suicide gesture. Deny to yourself and the doctors that son has delusions. Feel the stigma of your childhood. Believe you are the cause, and you are the cure. When side effects of Haldol make son drowsy, encourage him to stop taking it.

Feel abandoned when daughter moves 3,000 miles away. When son cuts off phone and refuses family contact for six years, send him money every month. When he calls, finally, in terrified agitation, allow him to move home again. Lay awake for nights, listening.

Exhausted, take him to the hospital. Give up fighting labels. Allow psychiatrist to say Schizo-affective Disorder. Hear the new wisdom that biology trumps nurture. Think of your baby boy learning to crawl, think of his lemon brown hair. Do not feel absolved. Feel only grief that you are powerless.

Note During the 1940s, the theory of the schizophrenogenic mother posited that mothering style could influence the relapse of a child's schizophrenia, or even cause its development. Although no evidence was found to support it, the notion of a conflict-inducing mother who was domineering and smothering, yet also rejecting, refused to go away. Kennard, Jerome. "Was Mother to Blame? Ideas about Social Environment & Relapse in Schizophrenia." 20 Mar 2008: 1. Web. 4 Oct 2009. .

Wendy Breuer lives in Berkeley, CA with a husband and four cats who don’t quite replace two daughters flown from the nest. A former visiting nurse, in her most recent job, she organized and trained volunteers for WriterCoach Connection to work with students on critical thinking and writing. She has an MFA in creative writing from Mills College. Her fiction is currently in Foundling Review and forthcoming in The Battered Suitcase. Her poetry has appeared in Rattle and Lynx Eye.

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Wendy, Even more than the content, which is breath-taking, I'm in love with your style--as if this were a How To (or a How To Not) manual for parenting a child with a mental illness. Makes it all the more compelling. I really connected with the mother as cause/mother as cure idea, too. I think we all feel that in some way.
Wendy Breuer's spare prose, her concise, direct sentences, and her disturbing use of a second-person narrator combine to make this short piece mesmerizingly effective--and dark.
Wendy, You breathe a world into a short space. Highly commendable, powerful work. Thank you. Meg
Wendy, A very moving piece, loved the rhythm of the words. I was struck by the intensity that you were able to convey in such a short space that spanned so many years.
Wendy, This piece is beautifully written. The idea that we are both the cause and the cure of what ails our children is universal to moms. You captured the grief and the longing so well with the "think of his lemon brown hair" line. Nicely done.
This is so beautiful, Wendy. I love the repeating line. I had no idea that anyone--much less doctors--ever seriously believed that mothers could cause this kind of mental illness. I shouldn't be surprised, I know. Thank you for the education in the art.
It was great Wendy!
I was touched by this piece beyond measure... Thank you for sharing your writing.
As the mother of a 17 year old daughter with high-functioning autism I feel I've been on my journey for so long and many times, dread the future. Wendy, your writing is so real and raw. I'm sick of reading inspirational stories. I appreciate and relate to the real truth, feelings, loss, grief. Thank you.
Everyone's comments here have been like a salve. This piece was a struggle for me to write and a long time coming. I can't change the way all of this played out for my mother, but trying to find a way to name her struggle brings me finally closer to her as a mother, myself and as her daughter. And I want to thank Kate and the editors at LM for helping me craft this into a better piece. In solidarity with all of you-- Wendy
I go to a fine arts high school school, in the department of Creative Writing. For my Creative Nonfiction class today, we had to search for a creative nonfiction piece that really touched us, drew us in, expirience these real-life expiriences, made us want more. I chose your piece. I'm not even sure how exactly I got to this website, or found your piece out of all the others, but this really stuck with me. The tense, the feeling, the words, the exhausted battle, the everything. It's fantastic. I have a sudden urge to steal the phrase "lemon brown hair," but I won't. "Refuse label." is going in a collage somewhere. And I definitely have, not a new view, but a larger, wider view, on schizophrenia, mental illnesses as a whole. You're inspring. Thank you.
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