INDIANAPOLIS – It was a hard Christmas the year my father was born.
He came into life in the waning days of December in the northern farm belt in the 1920s, the second son of a farm laborer father and a fragile mother. The Depression hit the Midwest and the Plains long before the stocks tumbled, which added to my grandmother’s trials.
By the time my father’s younger brother was born, the stock market had crashed, and my grandmother’s health had collapsed.
Something snapped in her, and she was committed to a mental hospital. She spent the remaining 40 years of her life institutionalized.
In a country in which more than a quarter of the people could not find jobs, my grandfather faced a hard choice. He counted himself fortunate to have a job, but that also meant he had no time to care for three little boys. He placed my father and his two brothers in an orphanage with plans to reclaim them when the passage of time and the law would allow him to remarry and provide his boys with a stepmother. By then, my father’s younger brother had been adopted out of the family.
My grandmother moved from hospital to hospital, enduring the primitive and often brutal treatments inflicted upon the depressed, the troubled and the disconnected in that era. When I was in my early teens, authorities said she walked away from the last hospital. Neither she nor her body were ever found.
As I grew through childhood into early adulthood, my father rarely talked about his mother. My cousins told me my uncle also did not like to talk about his mother.
My father and my uncle probably learned that from my grandfather. My uncle told me once that my grandfather wouldn’t talk with his sons about my grandmother “because the subject was too painful.”
Some time ago, I searched for and found the records of my grandmother’s commitment.
Those records tell the story of a fragile woman living in isolated circumstances with three small boys in a world where hardship had become the rule rather than the exception. Perhaps what afflicted her was a severe case of postpartum depression. Maybe it was some kind of psychotic break. Possibly it was some sort of chemical imbalance.
We will never know. The tools for diagnosing troubled people at the time were, to say the least, basic and offered only three possible diagnoses, each of them loaded with a sense of moral judgment: Insanity, inebriety and feeblemindedness.
As I searched for my grandmother’s records at the immense courthouse where they were kept, I felt a powerful sympathy for her and for my grandfather. I came to the search a middle-aged man — well-educated, well-versed in the ways of government and experienced in finding and using levers of power.
As he searched for a way to aid his wife and save their sons, my grandfather was much younger and a stranger to the intimidating corridors in which he had to seek assistance. He needed help to hold his family together, and he couldn’t find it anywhere.
No wonder he never wanted to talk about that part of his life.
Perhaps the most poignant artifacts of my grandmother’s life are the letters she wrote my father and my uncle from the hospitals. In those letters, even after both my father and my uncle had grown to manhood, she often speaks of them as if they were still little boys, as if time had frozen for her. She said she missed them and could not understand what had happened to her.
And to them.
We’re focusing a lot of attention in this country this holiday season on mental illness. I hope we continue to do so.
In my family’s case, because a troubled woman couldn’t get the help she needed, her life was destroyed, and everyone who cared about her came away with a lasting wound.
In Connecticut, it appears that, because a troubled young man was so terrified of the stigma of being institutionalized to get the help he needed, he destroyed himself and his mother, shattered the rest of his family and devastated a school, a community, a state and an entire nation.
This holiday season, we need to heed the angels of all faiths who call us to help those wounded in spirit and troubled of mind.
We need to do this without harshness of judgment for their sake and ours.
We need to do this because it’s just the right thing to do.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” on WFYI-FM 90.1 Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.