Memories of Frank: a poignant reminiscence of a family pulled into one man’s private whirlwind of insanity

Mary Kay Blakely


A poignant reminiscence of a family pulled into one man’s private whirlwind of insanity.

Francis Jude, my eldest brother, was brilliant and witty, the leading madman of my four eccentric siblings, and I miss him enormously. During his brief adult life, he suffered altogether eight nervous breakdowns, serving as many sentences — voluntary and not — in Chicago institutions. Whether his wild imagination caused the stunning chemical changes in his body or the other way around, he surged with inhuman energy during his manic periods, then was flattened for months with tremendous exhaustion. He committed suicide on Nov. 12, 1981.

His doctors diagnosed him as manic depressive, but Frank tought of his illness as a spiritual fever. After his boyhood years as a Catholic seminarian, followed by an earnest search for God in the writings of Buddhist monks, Jewish rabbis, Protestant pastors and, finally, Unitarian ministers, he’d formed a nonsectarian but wholly religious view of events. “We are all like bacteria in a banana,” he once wrote after a manic episode, “each doing our own little thing, while the fruit is ripened for God’s digestion.” It was not unusual for Frank to see signs of God in a bunch of bananas — he saw God everywhere. At times he thought he was God himself, infused with a euphoric rhythm inside his head he called “the beat, the beat, the beat.”

Normally reserved and shy, he was charismatic and demonstrative when he was high. Frank ran for governor of Illinois once, on orders from above. He broke through security at The Chicago Sun Times, where he brought columnist Mike Royko the good news that he was destined to become Frank’s campaign manager. Royko called my parents, and Frank spent the rest of his campaign at the Reed Mental Health Center. The incident did prompt Royko to write a column about Frank, not endorsing his gubernatorial race, but pointing out the faulty security systems at hospitals and newspapers that allowed lunatics to roam freely about the city of Chicago.

Although I am an avowed agnostic myself, I thought Frank’s spiritual diagnosis was as credible as anything else. Nevertheless, I felt obliged to argue with him. During his first breakdown in 1967, when he was wired with electrodes and given shock treatments at Loretto Hospital in Chicago, he reported that he’d received messages directly from God himself. The truth arrived in tremendous jolts, he said, just as he expected it would some day. I tried to help him unscramble his brain, pointing out the difference between electricity and divinity. It was machinery, not God, that sent the sizzling jolts through his mind, I explained.

“Truth doesn’t fry your brain,” I tried pointing out.

“Sometimes it does,” he replied, wide-eyed, as surprised to report this revelation as I was to hear it. A look of sheer lucidity crossed his face, followed by sudden surprise and then vast confusion. It was a silent movie of the chaos inside his head — I could actually watch Frank losing his innocence. He shed a great quantity of that innocence in the shock-treatment room at Loretto hospital, being electrified by truth.

The treatments halted his illness only temporarily. During subsequent breakdowns, he was studied and probed, tested and drugged, interviewed and examined by some of the most famous psychiatrists in Chicago, but no one could cure him. Attempts to stabilize his moods with lithium carbonate failed repeatedly, puzzling his physicians. Frank himself was amazed by the constant motion inside his mind. He said it felt like his head had been clapped between two powerful hands and was orbiting around a spinning discus thrower warming up for a mighty heave. He was anxious for the final thrust, releasing him from the dizzying spins into free flight.

I was one of Frank’s main companions throughout his bouts of madness, when his mind rolled out to the ends of human passion. He would hear and see things I couldn’t understand, and I spent countless hours arguing with him inside the wards of insane asylums. In polite company, they’re referred to as mental health centers, but in the ravaged minds of the inmates, politeness was the first thing to go.

Spending time with Frank and his mad peers was disturbing, because they made the line between sanity and insanity become so murky. After an afternoon arguing with lunatics who spoke truth bluntly, I would go home and watch the evening news, where the president of the most powerful country in the world was declaring war on the tiny island of Grenada. Nobody suggested locking him up. It worried me that mental patients made perfect sense and the president of the

United States seemed like a candidate for the Reed Mental Health Center.

Frank would come back from his journeys into madness radically altered by what he had seen, and I understand now how much I relied on his expeditions. I was too much of a coward to let my own mind roll out full length, having witnessed the devastating price he paid.

His manic bouts were followed by long depressions, as he struggled to apply his dreams to ordinary life. The messages he believed so ardently during his seizures would melt into doubt, and he felt his otherness with an excruciating loneliness. Paralyzed with indecision and fear, he would sleep through those months, sometimes for 20 hours at a time. The fantastic energy abandoned him, and he lifted his thin body out of bed as if it weighed 500 pounds. He described these terrible confrontations with his conscience as “grand mal seizures of despair.” They were a regular stop on the circular course of his spiritual fevers. In the spring of 1970, Frank was interned at the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute (ISPI) — it was his fourth breakdown, the most reckless one so far. It was our mother, Kay, who arranged to get him into ISPI after reading a newspaper report about two psychiatrists from the University of Chicago who ran the experimental program. While it was still widely believed among psychiatrists then that bad mothering caused most mental problems, Dr. Herbert Y. Meltzer and Dr. Ronald Moline were among the pioneers who explored manic depression as a result of a chemical imbalance.

Their early experiments turned up evidence of faulty genetic wiring, suggesting that biology, not socialization, triggered the disease. They’d identified a muscle enzyme that seemed to play a role in manic depression, and had been given the 9th floor of ISPI to test their hypothesis. When Kay recognized her son’s symptoms in the report — the stunning physical changes Frank underwent during his breakdowns — she scheduled an appointment.

To be admitted to the program, Frank had to submit to a muscle biopsy on his left calf. Kay and I, as part of the “control group,” reported to the 9th floor one afternoon to surrender blood and urine samples, ride exercise bikes for five miles, then surrender more samples.

“I’m not sure I belong in anyone’s control group,” I said to Kay somewhere during our third stationary mile. I felt so closely related to Frank, I suspected I bordered on manic depression myself. Every one of my siblings lived with this fear. It seemed crazy, trying to retrieve him from the seduction of his madness by pedaling hard for five nonlocomotive miles. Maybe we were the lunatics — I mentioned this possibility to Kay. She smiled, but didn’t encourage a further critique of our going-nowhere ride that afternoon.

Whenever my mother’s pale-blue Irish eyes would darken, reflecting her ardor for some imagined improvement in her children — whether it was a cleaner room or better grades or another home permanent despite former disasters — none of us was fool enough to try to dissuade her. She was not a woman who gave up easily, and when madness claimed her eldest, most intelligent, most sensitive son, her eyes took on the deepest blue I’d seen so far. Her smile ruefully acknowledged the absurdity of our circumstances, but her eyes, those two Celtic oracles of unswerving faith, directed me to keep pedaling even harder.

Because the doctors were commited to a theory involving enzymes and brain cells, they couldn’t have been counting heavily on answers from psychoanalysis. But because a cure was still unavailable through medicine, the ISPI program included weekly doses of psychotherapy.

I hated the Thursday nigh sessions, when the patients and their families were collectively grilled under the harsh fluorescent lights of the locked ward. Maybe somewhere in the past of these humbled people there were cases of bad mothering or absent fathering or emotional neglect — what family surviving the ’50s was exempt? — but I couldn’t believe these human errors brought the physical changes in Frank. I knew an unhappy childhood was not the problem. If anything, my parents’ unstoppable affection had postponed Frank’s crisis. He didn’t have his first breakdown under their roof — it happened 240 miles away, at Southern Illinois University the year he left home.

Each week Kay, my father Jerry, my brother Paul and I joined the other families with members impounded on ISPI’s 9th floor for a rigorous interrogation of our pasts. My parents exempted Kevin and Gina, the two youngest siblings, in an effort to spare them a direct confrontation with the terrifying look of mental illness, even though they had witnessed Frank’s bizarre behavior. Whether obligation or tradition or just plain helplessness prompted this futile treatment, the sessions were unproductive if not outright harmful. One week, Jerry was questioned about his habit of shaking hands with his adult sons, replacing the childhood hugs. The therapist on duty that night suggested our father’s formal handshakes had deprived Frank of his affectionate due. This was ridiculous, Paul and I knew.

While my father tried to practice the emotional reserve required of his generation of men, the disguise never completely covered him. I remembered a Saturday morning in June when Jerry paced back and forth across the living-room carpet in his tuxedo, anxiously rehearsing his immediate duties concerning the bride. The task of giving me away clashed with 22 years of loving me, and he was unable to form a single word when I emerged in my wedding dress. Instead, his eyes filled up and his face became bright red, then his smile finally appeared like a period at the end of a long, emotional speech.

I’d seen that expression repeatedly at baptisms and confirmations, basketball games and high-school plays. It was embarrassing to sit next to Jerry when one of his children was on stage because invariably, unable to hold out for the cover of final applause, he would pull out his handkerchief and alert the audience to his severely clogged-up condition. There were plenty of crosses the children of this complicated, emotional man had to bear during the John Wayne-worshipping ’50s, but being insufficiently loved was never one of them. Yet in the spring of 1970, a therapist unfamiliar with this history sent Jerry home in despair. He spent the following months doubting himself, believing a dozen more hugs might have saved his son from madness. Few participants emerged from those evenings without confessing to some charge, but the heaviest guilt was generally accepted by the mothers. During a luckless search for signs of “over-mothering” or “dominance” or “aggression” in Kay one evening, the therapist appeared ready to move on to more promising candidates when he raised a question about “rejection.” My mother remembered a night in 1949, when Frank was 3, that still caused her some regrets.

A pediatrician had applied bindings around Frank’s head during a visit that afternoon, to flatten the ears a bit. His tiny ears stuck out at what my mother thought was an adorable angle, but the doctor soon convinced her they wouldn’t be so adorable when he was a young man. He suggested they would mar his attractiveness, possibly threaten his sex life. As the bindings were applied I imagine the pediatrician caught my mother wincing. That wince appeared hundreds of times as her five offspring somersaulted through childhood — when I got my hand caught in the wringer of the washing machine or one of my brothers had his head stitched in the emergency room. She usually followed the wince with a part of sympathy, a gesture of comfort. The doctor, an authoritative man, disapproved of her soft-touch approach. He warned her of the dangers of coddling, especially coddling boys. There were lots of stories then about men whose lives were wrecked by homosexuality because their mothers over-kissed them. Between his ears and his mother, the doctor believed my brother had a very narrow chance for a normal life.

Kay remembered being awake that whole night, listening to cries from the baby’s room and wrestling with her urge to scoop him up and comfort him. It took tremendous discipline, but she accepted the punishment of the pediatrician’s advice and resisted. She could still hear those cries, she told the therapist at ISPI 21 years later. She winced.

Perhaps that’s when my brother may have felt rejected, she volunteered. How could he have known her longing to pick him up, to comfort him? How could he have known she was struggling to follow orders? Perceiving the fresh scent of guilt, the therapist probed deeper: Maybe she really did think he was homely — maybe she really was unconsciously rejecting him. My mother considered this suggestion for a moment. She looked across the room at my brother, then shook her head slowly. No, she said simply, without further explanation. Even ravaged by illness, even with something untameable coursing through him, Frank was clearly, electrically, a beautiful young man. My mother thought anybody looking at him could see that.

The weekend before Frank’s suicide, he visited me in Fort Wayne, coming from Chicago by Greyhound. Over and over that weekend he told me how much he loved me. it was only later, when I went back over our long conversations, that I understood he was also saying goodbye. Ostensibly, he came to deliver a suitcase full of journal notes — jottings made at fever pitch — asking me to be his “translator.” The structural ideas for his grand vision were all there, he thought, but lacked fluency. I accepted the sheaf of papers, fully aware that God might appear as an electric chair in the gospel according to Frank.

He, too, was a writer, but had abandoned very nearly all conventional forms in his rush to record gigantic thoughts. Some pages contained only a single sentence, no thoughts leading up to or away from it, like the solitary message of an obsessed placard carrier on the street. (“In the whitest light, the dancer becomes the dance,” one page announced.) Frank’s journal read like a series of baffling Zen koans, evidence of lunacy or brilliance. Although it was painful to remember, I cherished that last visit together — it relieved any guilt I might have had about preventing his death. The flimsy gravity of human love cannot stop a man when he’s in orbit with divine inspiration. He wasn’t depressed that weekend — quite the opposite, in fact. He was riding the crest of a manic high, pacing about my quiet Fort Wayne neighborhood with frenetic energy. He frightened the elderly widow who lived down the street when he serenaded her one midnight on her front lawn. She was lonely, his voices told him, and he thought he had the power to spread around unlimited quantities of love.

I remember watching him through the kitchen window Saturday afternoon as he raked a month’s accumulation of leaves with my sons. They filled a large tarp with leaves, then one or both of the kids would jump in and Frank would drag them to the curb. With a mighty heave, unexpectedly strong for his skinny, drugshaken frame, he’d hoist the kids and leaves into the air.

The sound he emitted with each launch was a peculiar blend of karate yell and manic laugh, his voice undecided whether to expect pain or joy with the final thrust. Then he’d race the kids to the back of the yard and start all over, as if his life depended on filling the street with children and leaves. Long after the kids left the game, he was still filling the tarp.

Like the animated sorcerer’s apprentice, he raked feverishly, piercing the night with howls of aching happiness. I stood at the window wondering what he thought he was hauling, to where. He was exceptionally tight-lipped about his plans that weekend. “It’s one of those times when the irrational will become rational,” he offered cryptically. “I’m in `that magical moment when is becomes if…'” He caught himself and stopped quoting e.e. cummings, replacing the rest of the poem with his quiet, lunatic grin. That smile was my personal legacy from Frank.

Sunday I drove Frank to the Greyhound station. Two nights later, Kay called from Chicago. “Hello, darling,” she said softly, and I instantly raised both hands to the receiver. Kay saved “darling” for emergencies — her love was made of stronger stuff, herding five children through infancy and adolescence with exacting discipline. “Are the children in bed?” she asked quietly. I sank into the chair next to the phone, a great ache swelling my throat, cutting off my air. I knew what she had to report. A letter from Frank had arrived that morning: “It was a beautiful letter,” she said calmly, huskily, in a voice that had not yet fully recovered from an afternoon of tears. “It made us cry.” She paused then, taking in an extra breath of air to hold her brief but heavy summary. “He thanked us for being his parents.”

I knew his suicide was not an act of despair; in his own mind, he was committing an act of ultimate faith. It was a death from exhaustion, from the efforts of thinking and striving, and I was grateful he finally reached the end of his pain.

His seemingly irrational decision did eventually become rational to me. When I re-read Frank’s letters now, freed from the arrogant assumption that I could somehow save him, his brilliance and faith is more accessible to me. Frank thought of his life as “a divine, inscrutable prayer” and believed “my existence does not end with death.” Though I’m still an agnostic, I’m inclined to accept his theory of immortality.

Since his permanent departure eight years ago, certain memories — a pile of autumn leaves, a line of familiar poetry — will trigger a rush of recognition, and I feel the beat, the beat, the beat, pumping through me. My own mind, stamped by his, reverberates with an eternal echo of love.

Mary Kay Blakely is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in many magazines and the “Hers” column in The New York Times.

COPYRIGHT 1989 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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