The day my father, Charles Neubrecht, headed off to college, his mother Lucile pleaded with him not to go. In telling the story, my dad would paint my grandmother as a loving but nervous woman who relied heavily on her youngest son. In contrast, my dad’s characterization of himself depicted a young man who at the age of 17 was wise beyond his years. According to Dad, he took his mother’s hands in his, gazed into her eyes with a calm and confident smile, and assured her that she wasn’t losing him. He then headed out of the house on foot, making his way to the Detroit transit station where he boarded a bus to Columbus Ohio.
Yet, the details of my father’s account didn’t quite jibe when he went on to reveal that later that day, his older brother Richard, threatened Lucile’s life with a knife.
City Boy or Country Boy
My dad grew up on the inner-city streets of Detroit. His parents had rented a two-bedroom home on the city’s west side shortly before he was born, but both hailed from more bucolic settings. My grandfather, Rupert, grew up in Lima, Ohio, the only son of a German-born carpenter whose wife bore him 8 children. Lucile grew up on a farm outside of New Burlington, Ohio. Her youngest brother eventually inherited the family’s property and every summer, starting at the age of 12, my dad would head southward to spend as many weeks as could be afforded, working on his Uncle Charles’ farm.
Before marrying Lucile, Rupert had attended architecture school at Ohio State University. His college roommate, who had been a high school classmate of my grandmother, introduced the pair. Rupert was bright and ambitious and hoped to become rich someday. He planned to work for various big-name architectural firms until he had the expertise necessary to set up his own shop. His 7 sisters were also quite enterprising but according to Dad, part of Rupert’s drive was fueled by his family’s expectation that he would help provide for his parents and his sisters (4 of which were unmarried) in their old age.
My dad loved everything about his Uncle Charles’ farm: the animals, the physical work, the outdoors, the machinery, the homemade meals, breads and pies, and the simplicity of the people. He admired his uncle’s practical knowledge and his lighthearted spirit which was much different than Rupert’s book-fed perspectives and inflexible demeanor. But I suspect there was another reason why my dad looked forward to escaping the city, leaving his school chums and neighborhood playmates behind during the most beautiful and carefree months of a Michigan year. He needed to get away from his big brother.
The Firstborn Son
Richard, born 5 years before my father, was the apple of my grandfather’s eye. He was an extraordinarily talented artist who, season after season, would win big prizes for selling the most magazine subscriptions door-to-door in western Detroit. Richard was always neat, courteous, and self-disciplined and Rupert would proudly speak of Richard’s accomplishments when the family was visiting their relatives in Lima. Unlike Richard, my dad was effusive and energetic, sloppy and distracted. When speaking to his younger son, Rupert’s advice went in one ear and out the other. “Richard is my boy,” Rupert would say to Lucile, “and Chuckie belongs to you.”
During his senior year of high school, however, Richard began coming apart. He found it hard to focus on school and had difficulty sleeping. He became moody and easily upset. For the first time, he found it impossible to tolerate Rupert’s condescending attitude toward Lucile and the persistent pressure he felt to always over-achieve. In the midst of a heated argument, he’d fly from the house, not returning until the wee hours of the morning.
An Unconventional Escape
It was in this context that my dad left Detroit to spend his first full summer at Uncle Charles’ farm. He was so eager to get there that he begged Rupert (who was busy with work) and Lucile to let him ride his bike. He was only 12 years old and the farm was roughly 230 miles away. Surprisingly, my grandparents let him go. He tied a “bedroll” behind the seat of his 3-speed bike, put a couple of days worth of food, water, a map, and various supplies in a knapsack, and off he went.
Dad said that he expected the journey to last 3 days. He spent the first night in a farmer’s field, sleeping between rows of corn beside the road. By the evening of the second day, he was on schedule but feeling terribly weary. As he sat at the side of a 2-lane highway, eating from a can of cold beans, he noticed a familiar car approaching. Richard was behind the wheel. He stopped the car, leaned across the passenger seat, and ordered my pre-pubescent father to hop in.
When my dad would tell this story, he’d claim that his initial instinct was to resist Richard’s demand. He’d set a goal for himself to bike to New Burlington and he hadn’t needed rescuing. He complied with the request, however, because he didn’t want to upset his older brother. He thought that Richard’s feelings would be hurt so he pretended to be grateful, jumped aboard, and they made it to the farm before the supper table was cleared.
Spiral into Madness
I imagine that this was one of the last normal interactions that my dad had with my Uncle Richard. In the fall of that year, Richard began attending classes at Wayne State University but his inability to focus worsened. He had many concerns about his sexuality which my father never expanded upon, probably because he didn’t fully understand them himself. Instead of going to classes, Richard would spend time in the university’s library, looking up articles and books on psychology and psychiatry.
After reading Freud, Richard felt certain that his mounting neurosis was grounded in the Oedipus complex. Somehow, his early development had been arrested and he continued to view his father with hostility while worshiping his mother. He presented this theory to Rupert and Lucile who were already devastated by the state of Richard’s steadily deteriorating mental health. At a loss for how to help his brilliant firstborn who he’d once viewed as a prodigy, Rupert called his sister Ruth to ask her advice.
A Controversial Cure
Apparently, Rupert had been confiding in his family for some time about Richard’s decline. His sisters had been doing their own research and Ruth had recently read of a new therapy in which electrical currents were passed through a patient’s brain. The treatment showed promise for helping people suffering from delusions.
In the days that followed, Rupert located a sanitarium in Detroit that was practicing the hopeful procedure. Doctors there assured him that Richard was an ideal candidate who would benefit highly from receiving treatment. Richard, however, was not in agreement. Again, after a heated scene where all four members of the family frantically argued about what should be done, Richard ran from the house.
During his absence, my father (now 13) and Lucile pleaded with Rupert to let Richard stay home. Richard’s intense dread of being committed to a mental institution aligned with their own instincts and they didn’t want to see him locked up. But my grandfather, desperate to take control of the situation, insisted that Richard would have to submit. Shortly after Richard reappeared, medics arrived, put him in a straight jacket, and hauled him off to the psychiatric hospital.
This was one of the worst night’s of my father’s life. He often repeated the story as if the retelling would somehow result in healing. When Richard returned home after many months, my dad said his personality was unrecognizable. He’d withstood tremendous abuse and was lost to them forever. My father blamed Rupert for his brother’s decrepit mental state, but he also conceded that my grandfather would have done anything to save his son, including giving his own life in exchange for Richard’s salvation.
Over the next several years, Richard, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, alternated between living at home and living in the most expensive sanitariums that my grandfather could afford. Everyone in the family naturally wanted him to get better and all agreed that home was the best environment for him. But at home, he was more than a handful. My father was often tasked with following his older brother to make sure he stayed out of trouble.
One night, Richard jumped on a streetcar and rode it to the end of the line, far outside the city and into a neighboring suburb. Finding himself again in the unwanted role of an undercover agent, Dad tried to go unnoticed. However, when Richard hopped off the interurban train and headed across a rural field, my father’s frustration kicked in and he accosted his brother, trying to wrestle him back to the railway. My dad was extremely strong and Richard was frail by comparison so my dad’s efforts in this regard were not as desperate as one might think, given the difference in age.
Yet somehow, Richard wriggled and writhed his way free of Dad’s grip. He began shedding his clothes and running in circles. My father wanted nothing to do with him but ever the obedient son, he found a payphone and called my grandfather. “Stick with him,” Rupert insisted, “until the police can find you.” I don’t know how old my dad was at the time but he was still in high school. I’ve tried to imagine how he might have felt. Terrified? Angry? Numb? Nauseated? Despite having pictured the scene on numerous occasions, I don’t know how to answer this question and perhaps that is a blessing.
Choosing a Vocation
My father’s secret desire was to be a farmer. His uncle Charles had one child, a daughter named Miriam. Dad hoped that Uncle Charles would offer him the job of running the farm when he retired. However, that proposition was never made. Instead, Charles gave the farm to Miriam and her husband Roose, who according to my father had neither the experience nor the inclination to run such an enterprise.
Who knows what conversations might have taken place behind the scenes. With Richard’s future lying in ruins, my grandfather pinned his hopes on Lucile’s boy. He now wanted his youngest son to follow in his footsteps and get an architectural degree from OSU. Perhaps, he spoke with my great uncle about his vision for my dad’s future. Perhaps Uncle Charles, wanting the best for his nephew, felt that the life of an architect was somehow a better and more fitting choice. No need to tempt fate.
Smoke and Mirrors
So on that day, when my dad headed off to college, I have to wonder if he was actually as self-assured as he always claimed to be. Did he really look calmly into his mother’s eyes and deliver just the right words to ease her mind? Did he walk to the bus station, with the carefree stride of a young man with his entire life ahead of him? Life is rarely that simple. But for my dad, it was about as complex as the human mind can possibly withstand.
For a glimpse of the man that my father became, you might be interested in this letter that I wrote to him in 2017 or this post about the woman he married.
This is a harrowing story and I can barely imagine how hard it must have been to write it all down. Your father had burdens thrust upon him that no one should have to take on at such a young age. I can’t blame him for eventually wanting to escape no matter what — or for, perhaps, not being completely forthcoming about the circumstances.
If you don’t mind saying, what happened to Richard eventually? Is he still alive?
It took me a long time to get started on this post because I didn’t think I’d be able to do justice to the story. But once I started, the narrative just spilled out. My dad talked openly and repeatedly about the hardships and disappointments in his life. I think this was a coping device, his way of subconsciously reassuring himself that he was a survivor, not a victim.
As I wrote, I wondered if I would cry but I didn’t. My dad’s stories, as tragic as they are, are well-ingrained. The most difficult part of the assignment was finding the images to include in the post.
As for my Uncle Richard, his story did not end well.My grandparents could not manage him on their own and shortly after my dad went off to college, Richard was locked up in a mental institution for the next 20 years. They visited him frequently, would take him on excursions, and bring him home for special holidays, but he continued to receive electroshock therapy and downed countless numbers of pills to control his behavior.
When “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” came out, my dad absolutely loved the film for its realistic portrayal of the setting, patients, and staff in a mental ward. He said it was exactly true to my uncle’s experience.
Eventually, Richard came home to live with my grandparents for good. My father and grandfather had set up their own architecture office in downtown Detroit and Rupert would often bring Richard to work. My dad had mixed feelings about the practice. He wanted to treat his brother with respect and kindness but Richard’s odd behaviors were apparent and he felt that this was bad for business.
Richard died of brain cancer at the age of 48. I don’t think anyone cried at his funeral but I was only 9 years old, so what do I know? My sense is, however, that the tears and the hopes for a better life had long since run out, replaced by an everlasting heartache.
One other note about Richard. As his malady progressed, his artwork became smaller and smaller. At some point, one of his psychiatrists asked my grandfather if he could see examples of Richard’s earlier art, created when Richard was functioning at a higher level. My grandfather gathered up nearly everything he could find, perhaps in an effort to convince the man that his son was worth every effort to try and save. Unfortunately, the acclaimed doctor moved to the east coast and none of that work was ever recovered. My father said that Richard’s art was of the highest caliber. Losing these pieces compounded the tragedy even further. I dream about someday trying to hunt them down but wouldn’t know where to begin.
That’s awful. Especially as a mental-health professional, that doctor should have realized how important the art would be to the family and made sure to return it before leaving the area. From the drawing of your just-awakened father at age 15, I can see Richard did have talent.
I totally agree. The doctor’s actions are unconscionable. He had some of those pictures framed and they were hanging in his office. I imagine he asked for permission to keep those few but no one expected him to take the entire lot.
Richards illustrations that adorn the pages of The Stag are so sophisticated. I was just flipping through it again and found a note inside that my dad wrote, indicating that this one copy that our family now owns was given to my grandfather by Richard’s closest friend at the time of his funeral.
A dismal end to an initially promising life. Mental illness is a terrible thing. I do wonder if the brain cancer, at an earlier stage, might have had something to do with his problems. Or perhaps it was just coincidence.
Mental illness remains a very difficult problem, though. Even today, it might not have been possible to do much more for him.
Thanks for writing this.
I’ve always assumed, based on absolutely zero evidence, that the brain cancer was an negative side effect of the various treatments that Richard received over the years. Physicians in that era conducted all kinds of experiments on people without obtaining permission or disclosing what they were up to.
You’re right though. Mental illness is still a horribly difficult condition to live with–not only for the patient but also for those that are near and dear to them.
Thanks for reading.
Yesterday, I saw my sister who is 7 years older than I. She confirmed much of the story but some parts weren’t known to her. I lived much closer to my parents and simply had more adult onversations with them over the years. After my mother died, I asked my dad to recount many of his stories and I recorded them.
However, she had two corrections to what I’ve stated in the comments. First, she thought that Richard was only in a mental institution for 10 years, rather than the 20 that I mentioned. She said that they managed his behavior with Thorazine and that she remembers times when Richard would try to skip taking the drug and Rupert would insist that he swallow his pills.
Also, she said that the psychiatrist had wanted Rupert to bring Richard’s art to the hospital because he thought it would inspire Richard to do more work. At some point, however, she said that the artwork disappeared from Richard’s room. There was no explanation as to who had taken it. It could have been distributed among various members of the staff or simply thrown out. No one knew what became of it. Still, I feel the doctor should have returned the paintings that he’d kept for himself.
What a wonderful – albeit sad – story. And you still have many photos of that time. Sadly mental health care then did more harm than good. And the truth of the matter is that neurosis can be cured, schizophrenia can’t… My nephew, my eldest brother’s son had it… Terrible…
Have a nice sunday Carole.
Thanks Brieuc. I did indeed enjoy the day today. Hope you enjoyed the day as well. Is Father’s Day celebrated in the same way, on the same day, in Mexico? France?
You’re right, schizophrenia is a psychosis, not a neurosis and there is no cure even today. My dad remained convinced until the end that his father had triggered the malady in Richard, but yes, it doesn’t work that way. Minimally, Richard had a genetic predisposition to the illness.
As a parent, I can’t imagine witnessing such a transformation in one of my children. I’m sorry to hear about your nephew. That was no doubt hard for everyone in your family.
Merci. Likewise to hubby.
Strangely enough it was celebrated here on the same day. Not always the case. Mother’s day is on a different day here I think.
Outside factors may play a role, but Schizophrenia is pretty much unavoidable. My brother had a hard time. Coincidence, my brother’s name is Richard. Just talked to him to day.
Thanks for letting me know.
This was wrenching to read, Carol. I give you credit for sharing such a difficult part of your family history.
There are numerous studies linking genius and madness, and it appears that your uncle was one of those unfortunately affected individuals. I was deeply moved by your description of his art becoming smaller as his illness became more prominent. That is such a powerful visual.
Of course the maltreatment by professionals makes his plight even more painful. And I can’t imagine what it must have been like for your grandparents when he was home with them during his final years.
There has been some progress in treating people with schizophrenia—and scientists are gaining understanding of this devastating disorder. People who read this post should know that.
Thank you for providing us with an honest depiction of the impact of severe mental illness on an individual and his family.
I talked to my sister who is 7 years older yesterday about the post and we compared notes. I’ve added a couple of corrections in a reply to Infidel. Since she was 16 when Richard died, she remembers him slightly better than I do but not much. He was basically drugged to the point of being out of it all the time. He sat in a corner of the room at family gatherings, smoking a pipe. He rarely interacted with us. The drugs he was taking kept his delusions under control and my grandparents’ house was much safer than an institution but it was no way to live.
Thanks so much for adding your comment about there being much better outcomes for schizophrenics today. That is a very important point to make.
Holy cow! What a story! Thank you.
You’re welcome. Thanks for stopping by.
Now you need to write a novel based on that story!
That would be nice. Check back with me in ten years. 🙂