At Easter, in the early years when my mother was still sane, she cut lengths of pussy willow branches and brought them inside. Not yet budded, they came laden with soft silver pods like rabbits’ feet. She took colored powders and dusted the fur pods. Pale yellow, pink, lavender, blue.
My mother told my father, They’re trying to kill us. She said, They’re coming after us. She said, They are a band of assassins hired by the CIA to kill the families of Green Berets. He said to her, that doesn’t make any god damn sense.
Reality is slippery. If someone tells you something often enough for long enough, regardless of whether it’s true, you begin to believe it. Or at least you might begin to doubt your own perceptions, think, maybe she knows something I don’t know. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there’s something here that I don’t understand.
Neuroscientists, when asked to define “the mind,” suggest that it is an emergent property that arises from the brain and regulates the flow of energy and information. But, say some, the mind is not strictly an embodied property. It is also a relational property, emerging not just from the brain but also from interactions with other minds.
My mother took my sisters and brother and me to hotels late at night, when she thought they were watching us. We slept there on school nights, displaced, broken from our routine as she remade our world. When we stayed home she paced in the darkness, peering in our bedrooms to check on us. In the car, she told us to duck and hide behind the seats. At first we went along with it, wanting to believe her.
Her delusions were astonishing. That a squad of assassins had implanted a radio in her brain. That they left a wad of gum on the carpet or dropped a toothpick in line behind her at the grocery store, as death threats. She blocked the door with furniture every night.
At night, my father’s voice came from the living room up the stairwell, loud, rising over hers as he told her no, No, No. I fell asleep to the muffled sound of shouts. It was a strange silence when she kicked him out, and the house was still as I drifted off.
Mental illness and madness are not the same thing. Mental illness is a set of brain malfunctions with psychological effects, like paranoia, delusions, insomnia. Madness is a state of incoherence—paradoxical, or nonsensical, or untenable. Madness sometimes arises from mental illness, but it may arise in other ways, as well. This distinction is important because mental illness is not contagious, but madness often is.
In 1989, computer programmer Mark Humphreys developed an artificial intelligence program, called MGonz, that was designed to mimic human conversation. When MGonz was ready, Humphreys posted it online and left for the day. While he was gone, a user with the screen name Someone sent MGonz the salutation finger, an early command used to make contact with remote users. MGonz replied, “cut this cryptic shit speak in full sentences.” Someone was apparently insulted. The two proceeded to argue, heatedly, for an hour and a half. The next day, Humphreys found the contents of the conversation log to be so profane that he wasn’t sure he could publish his findings.
My mother hung baskets of flowers by the front door. She was fond of the drooping vines with red and purple blooms that looked like their name, bleeding hearts. The words for one thing became the words for another thing. Language stepped sideways, doubled, flipped. This idea intrigued me, and more so when I began to understand that she now spoke in code. “Don’t go outside” meant “I’ve lost my mind.”
After my parents’ divorce, my mother would call and yell at my father over the phone, attacking him for things he hadn’t done and hadn’t said. If we were at his house, he refused to fight with her in front of us. Okay, he would say into the receiver, his tone barely contained. I gotta go now. Bye. Goodbye. He told us he was going to be rational with her even when she was irrational.
Folie à deux: a psychiatric syndrome in which a delusional belief is transmitted from one individual to another who lives in close proximity. Both must have a delusional disorder, but the delusion is generated inside only one mind, and then spreads and takes root in another. The term translates as “madness shared by two.” Recognized as a phenomenon in scientific literature since the 19th century, folie à deux has confounded doctors for two centuries because it is not compatible with the Western concept of the mind as separate and distinct to an individual brain.
We were kids. We forgot appointments. We forgot to put the milk away. We forgot our shoes at our mother’s house. My father told us, You forgot because you don’t care. You don’t care, that’s why. He said it to us over and over, a chant, a prayer. You think that’s what I’m here for. You think I’m here to clean up your messes. Because you don’t give a god damn. If I said to my father that I did care, that I always cared, he told me, No, you don’t. You don’t care.
Yarrow filled the edges of the front garden, sprouting clusters of tiny white flowers that were impossible to pluck. The thick, stringy stem was too strong. I tried twisting and pinching, but nothing worked. I yanked until the entire two-foot stalk, roots and all, gave way.
Researchers who study artificial intelligence categorize verbal abuse, as well as typical argumentative posturing, as modes of communicating that are “stateless.” Stateless conversations proceed only from the last thing the last speaker said. The progress of a stateless conversation is detached from all context. This was why MGonz succeeded in tricking Someone into believing it was human. When MGonz didn’t know what to say next, it masked its limitations by falling back on irrelevant put-downs like “You are obviously an asshole.”
My mother told us that we were descended from the British royal family, heirs to the throne. My mother, the Duchess of Kent. She would sit for hours, staring at the space in front of her, silent, still, a ghost in her own life. When she spoke her words were charged, full, irrelevant. In the kitchen, we foraged for breakfast.
According to postmodern theorists, every story that is told masks the absence of every other story that could have been told instead. What is absent matters as much as what is present. When my father yelled about our failures, he left no room for other things we might have communicated. We didn’t talk about life at our mother’s house. We didn’t say what frightened us, or why. We didn’t risk appearing vulnerable. We didn’t ask for help understanding the things that confounded us, like sanity and insanity. So our own lives became unreal, even as they overwhelmed us.
In the front yard grew a massive chokecherry tree. Chokecherries were beguiling blue-black balls that, when squeezed, bled purple juice. I tasted one once, feeling the burst of liquid so bitter it felt dry, stripping my mouth of its moisture as it spread across my tongue to the back of my throat, closing it up. For a moment I could not breathe, swallow, speak.
Once, when I skinned my knee, my father said, I don’t do sympathy. You can go to your mother for that. Your mother’s great at that kind of thing. This was long after blank indifference took over the face she had once inhabited. I had by this time forgotten that she had ever been great at that kind of thing. I looked at him and wondered what he was talking about.
Recent case studies involving folie à deux report that a delusion, generated internally by the dominant person in a relationship, can then be picked up by the non-dominant person and believed with equal commitment and intensity. But folie à deux does not lead to a sense of togetherness against a common foe. A delusional state is too solipsistic to allow for that. Rather, each individual experiences the shared delusion as entirely his or her own. Each feels singularly trapped and isolated within it.
It only now strikes me as odd that my father refrained from yelling at our mother, for our sake, and then yelled at us when he was upset at her. He didn’t see the contradiction here.
There were gooseberries. Pale green orbs with stripes a shade paler, and tufts of fiber at one end. Sour. They grew on the thorny bush in the backyard.
We think of talking as a means to connect with others, but as MGonz and Someone revealed, stateless conversation does the opposite. Verbal abuse supersedes and prevents connection, and sustains an ongoing lack of connection. Instead it creates an illusion of connection that masks its actual absence. In my father’s house, the alienation was double, from himself as much as from us. From the much larger questions that hung over us. Were we still a family? Would we turn out okay? Did we need him to be both a father and a mother? Could he rise to that challenge?
Rhubarb sprouted in a shady strip of garden running along the edge of the deck. I learn, from the NIH website, that rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid and anthraquinone glucosides. If ingested, the leaves cause burning in the mouth and throat, nausea, vomiting, weakness, diarrhea, seizures, coma.
Sometimes, when nothing was at stake, sympathy flowed out of my father naturally. When I had the flu, he would walk softly into my room and whisper to me as he sat on the edge of my bed, fussing over my tissues and my glass of water and my blankets. He did not blame me for the flu, didn’t take it as my failure. He was not implicated.
Now I use language to nail things down. I prefer precise words. I like to say exactly what I mean. What I mean to ask: What is the mind? Where does it begin and end? What I mean to say: To answer these questions the mind has only itself to turn to. What I mean to consider: Reality is an amalgam of perceptions and ideas that have been approved by consensus.
Even after I went back through conversations with my father in my mind and pinpointed the spot where he departed from logic, from the reality of me and him—the moment when he abandoned the truth about me for some idea he had formed before I even emerged from the womb—I still asked myself, Is this somehow my doing? Is this somehow my fault?
We gathered rhubarb stalks and munched on them raw. My mother told us not to eat the leaves. Only the stems were edible. The leaves, she said, were poison.
This essay was originally published in Phoebe Issue 42.1, Spring 2013.