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My father and I are both introverts. We have blue eyes and the terrible habit of smirking when other people say stupid things. We were both chain smokers well into our 30s, both managed to quit.

My father lives far away from me in a city in Southern Thailand that’s famous for its Dim Sum, but he prefers to eat at Dairy Queen.

He reads William Carlos Williams, likes to scuba dive.

When he was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young adult, doctors blamed my grandmother for bad parenting.

The myth of the “schizophrenogenic mother”—a mom who is at once cold and anxious—got its start in the 1930s when researchers observed a few cases of maternal rejection and more cases of overprotection among mothers whose kids struggled with schizophrenia. The theory that mothering styles can cause schizophrenia has long-since been debunked, but if my kids ever develop symptoms, there’s no denying it will be my genes they got it from.

Schizophrenia affects one percent of the general population worldwide—making it twice as common as Alzheimer’s and three times as common as insulin-dependent diabetes. But in my family, we’ve got a 10 percent chance of experiencing the world in this taboo way.

 

Do you think you have special talents or supernatural gifts?

Pick one:

Not at all

Just a little

Quite a lot

All the time

 

When I was growing up, my father made stream-of-consciousness experimental animations in my grandparents’ basement apartment and wandered the streets of the Monterey Peninsula wearing a Louis the XIV wig and playing his trumpet.

He never got much treatment that I know of. When I asked him about it once, he said his doctor told him, “That one’s incurable. You’re just cuckoo.” He shrugged and didn’t say anything else for the rest of the night.

We watched strangers sing Karaoke.

Do you ever feel you have nothing in common with other people, including friends and family?

Pick one:

Not at all

Just a little

Quite a lot

All the time

 

In search of a better explanation than a “schizophrenogenic mother,” everyone in my world came up with their own theories.

It happened because he dropped too much acid, my mother said. When I took my first tab of LSD as a teenager, a television in a house across the street started talking directly to me and I turned on to the possible connection.

It happened because he was too smart, my grandmother decided. “It’s better not to be too smart,” she whispered like a warning. And it’s true that my father is smart. He can make easy connections between the painter Wassily Kandinsky and the conductor Seiji Ozawa. That he can also make easy connections between the Playboy Channel and soft serve milkshakes is less intriguing to me, but I try not to judge.

Our off-grid counter culture friends saw him as a hip cat. The phones were all tapped, man. The government was out to get us. A paranoid schizophrenic was a guy who’d just figured out what was going on.

Some family members thought my dad was just spoiled: “I wish I could wander around playing my trumpet all day!”

By the time a teenaged relative developed symptoms in the 1990s, scientists had established that schizophrenia is hereditary. “The bad news,” the doctor told my relative’s parents, “is that your son is not on drugs.”

 

Do you hear or see things others do not hear or see?

Pick one:

Not at all

Just a little

Quite a lot

All the time

 

Last month, researchers found what they’re calling the “black box” of schizophrenia. The voices and the visions are real: They’re right here on Chromosome 6.

ChromosomesThe scientists, chiefly from Harvard Medical School, the Broad Institute, and Boston Children’s Hospital, found that a person’s risk for schizophrenia rises dramatically when they inherit a variant of gene C4, a little demon responsible for synapse-pruning—the reduction of unnecessary brain-cell connections during adolescence. In people with the variant, significantly more brain-cell connections get marked for removal, resulting in an unusual loss of gray matter.

Basically, your brain starts eating itself.

And it doesn’t stop.

 

Do you ever feel like you’re “going crazy”?

Pick one:

Not at all

Just a little

Quite a lot

All the time

 

Sometimes I want to warn people before I introduce them to my father. Don’t be alarmed, I want to say, if he vibes a little differently than some other people’s fathers. But if I say, “he’s schizophrenic,” they get scared.

Wasn’t that guy who shot up the movie theater in Colorado schizophrenic?

Yes. But most people with schizophrenia are never violent.

A study by Indiana University found that while mental illness in general has achieved acceptance in the wider community, there’s still a misconception that people with schizophrenia aren’t fit for positions of authority—or even for personal relationships. Consequences of the stigma include discrimination in housing, education, and employment.

 

Do you ever think you hear people talking about you behind your back?

Pick one:

Not at all

Just a little

Quite a lot

All the time

 

I believe that the number three is lucky and I often somersault other numbers I have to live with until I can make them turn into threes. The address 506 can be lucky, for example, because 5 x 6  = 30 and 3 + 0 = 3.

I can go whole days without talking to anyone.

Sometimes I think I see a little girl crouched behind the closet door. She is young, and maybe drawn in charcoal.

I spend time arguing with a New Age gaslighter who lives in my brain. She has blonde hair and wears a terrible purple shirt, I’m not sure why.

 

Do you believe more than one thing about reality and the world around you that no one else seems to believe?

Pick one:

Not at all

Just a little

Quite a lot

All the time

 

Schizophrenia most commonly invades when we’re in our teens or twenties. Women have a second peak risk window in our early 40s.

I’m 45 now. According to researchers, my odds have just crashed to very average levels.

Late-onset schizophrenia is rare.

 

But here’s the weird thing: I’m not sure whether to feel relieved or inexplicably grief-stricken.

I’ve spent most of my life terrified of voices and hallucinations, but now there’s maybe no explanation for my magical thinking, for the conversations in my head, for my occasional tendency to confuse reality with the things I dreamed.

I’m maybe just like everybody else.

It’s only my kids who are still genetic mystery bags.

 

Do you think you can predict what will happen in the future?

Pick one:

Not at all

Just a little

Quite a lot

All the time

 

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ARIEL GORE is the award-winning author of the novel We Were Witches (The Feminist Press), and the memoirs The End of Eve (Hawthorne Books) and Atlas of the Human Heart (Seal Press) as well as six other books of fiction and nonfiction. She teaches writing online at www.literarykitchen.com.

5 responses to “The Voices are Real and They’re Coming from Chromosome 6”

  1. From those of us who suffer hallucinations and hear voices, thank you. This well-penned essay reminds us that it’s all in the odds. Although scary, thought disorders also make us unique and fascinating.

    • Vicki Gundrum says:

      Thank you for this. I remember reading, perhaps two summers ago, that a particular chromosome/loci abnormality was common among the trio schizophrenia, autism, and migraine. So, that must be chromosome 6, and I assume other genes are involved to create the unique situation for any one of the three. When I had first read of that chromosome connection, much about my migraine aura symptoms made sense: of course migrainers hallucinate. We see fortification auras, a visual that turns anything in the field of vision into a Cubist painting, think Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. I also hear things that aren’t there, smell things no one else smells. I see metaphors. There are three with autism in my family, each has enhanced hearing and scent sensations. Perhaps you are still a genetic mystery bag but your Santa load of colorful is less distressing and disabling than those who have schizophrenia. Your article is my first encounter with with term “schizophrenogenic mother” but I’ve long known of “refrigerator mother,” coined by Bruno Bettleheim in the same blame-search urge to pin autism on “cold” mothers of autistic children. It is powerful how you do not answer the multiple choice responses to your questions, for that is an answer too.

  2. Spectacular read. There are theories that schizophrenia isn’t so much genetic (at least in many cases), as it is a result of a combination of factors including trauma and a certain sort of openness. Interestingly, schizophrenia was most commonly diagnosed in housewives in the ’50s in the US and now, mostly black men. There is a suggestion there that societal factors can be at play in its manifestation as well as diagnoses.

    I have experienced many of the same things and had I had to fill out that survey, certainly would have been diagnosed. I hid my symptoms, fearing that diagnosis.

    Fascinating stuff.

    Great read! (Also, in case you’re interested, this is and article about the author whose observations I used above: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/witness/201011/how-the-black-man-became-schizophrenic )

  3. Lasara says:

    As usual, you left me teary. Neurodivergent parenting ftw.

    Thank you, as always, for dismantling prejudice.

  4. Come to the midwest for a weekend of writing in a retreat setting. We ll be staying and writing in a log cabin just steps from inland Goshorn Lake. Hot tub, pool table, kayaking, beach-sitting… and of course writing.

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