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Confronting a History of Mental Illness

Struggling to understand his mother's pain and his longstanding battle with OCD, reporter and memoirist Tom Davis returns to his family—and genealogical records—to find answers.

When I drove past the pillars that marked the cemetery entrance, I found the office and pulled off to the side to call my dad. As the wet drizzle worsened, I jogged to the door of the cemetery office, carrying my laptop computer bag on my shoulder. As I walked in, I saw two women sitting in cubicles, tapping on keyboards.

I asked about [my great-grandfather] Edward Perrine Winans, a name that my father gave me, but wasn't sure of the spelling; the woman beyond the desk pulled out an index card from a box. She found it amid hundreds of cards that contained the names of the dead and the plots in which they were buried among the damp, rolling foothills of the Evergreen campus.

"Section I, plot 30," she said, pausing as she looked at the card. She gave me a strained look, with a crooked frown.

"Would you like to know anything else?"

"Um," I said, pausing slightly. "If you have anything, sure."

"It says, ‘Edward P. Winans . . . Death by Gas Asphyxiation.'"

"Really?" I said, reaching for the card. "Let me see."

She slid the card on the counter and pointed to the words. The typing was from seventy-five years before, uneven and dark, but as clear as any computer printout. The words were as concise as they were incredible:

 Edward P. Winans/Death by Gas Asphyxiation.

I felt like slapping myself in the head. What? I thought. Is this for real?

Thoughts popped into my head, and passed through like a speed train. How could I not know this? I thought. To be forty-one and not know this? All these years, I could have just driven a few miles from my home in Metuchen and easily confirmed something everybody thought they knew, but weren't really sure. I could have confirmed something that not only satisfied my curiosity, but could have helped me and others who wanted to know why we are what we are.

I could have driven up there when I was at Rutgers, twenty years before, when I was in throes of eating disorders. I could have gone there instead of sitting in the Rutgers library, plunging through encyclopedias to find information about whatever disease I thought was affecting me, compelling me to make myself puke, because I thought puking was good for me and was the only way I could cure myself of whatever was making me feel sick.

I could have gone to Evergreen in the late 1990s, when my mother was bouncing around assisted-living facilities, unable to find the right care, or find anybody who wanted to care. I could have taken the photocopy I got of the cards to the nurses who gave up on her when they couldn't handle her repeating and her obsessive demands. I could have shown those people who refused to take care of her when we called 911, after she broke a coffee pot in a drunken rage or passed out on the reclining chair after drinking two six-packs of Budweisers. See! I would have said. She is crazy, goddammit. Now do something about it!

Even after seeing the card, with the evidence of some genetic curse more solid than ever, I still had a nagging doubt. I knew I had impulses that I couldn't control. I already knew I had a history, just as my mother had a history, of mental illness. I already knew my grandfather spent a third of the day in the shower, and the rest with either a bottle of beer or a glass of vodka in his hand. I knew that, whatever normal is, I wasn't it.

But I still wondered. Doesn't every family go through this? Isn't there a little bit of wackiness everywhere?

I thought of my great-grandfather Edward's date of death—July 12, 1933—when the nation was knee-deep in poverty, unemployment, and despair. During the Great Depression, with nearly a third of the population out of work, suicide rates increased from 14 per 100,000 in 1929 to 17 per 100,000 in 1933. This could be a fluke, I thought. Perhaps it was the Depression-sane people jumped out of windows after the stock market crashed. Maybe he thought the gas was just easier.

I stood in the cemetery office, feeling a bit bewildered, not knowing what to do next. The lady behind the counter saw my stunned look and helped me along.

"There are a few more here," the woman said. "Do you want to know what they say?"

"There are a few more what?"

"There are other Winanses at the burial plot," she said. "Do you want to know about them too?"


She pulled out one for Edward's mother, Lydia, and another for his brother, Frederick. She looked at the cards and again looked stunned.

"Will you look at this?" she said as she read the inscription, raising her voice in surprise.

She pointed to the words on Lydia and Frederick's cards, just as she did with Edward's. Lydia was Edward's mother, and Frederick was his brother. Both lived in the same place, the cards said, at a home in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Both died in the same place, with the same cause.

"Cause of death: Gas asphyxiation."

Both died on the same day, October 4, 1928, just five years before Edward.

Excerpted from A Legacy of Madness: Recovering My Family from Generations of Mental Illness by Tom Davis (Hazelden 2011).

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