Authors: Patrick Mcgrath
y mother’s first depressive illness occurred when I was seven years old, and I felt it was my fault. I felt I should have prevented it. This was about a year before my father left us. His name was Fred Weir. In those days he could be generous, amusing, an expansive man—my brother, Walt, plays the role at times—but there were signs, perceptible to me if not to others, when an explosion was imminent. Then the sudden loss of temper, the storming from the room, the slamming door at the end of the hall and the appalled silence afterward. But I could deflect all this. I would play the fool, or be the baby, distract him from the mounting wave of boredom and frustration he must have felt at being trapped within the suffocating domestic atmosphere my mother liked to foster. Later, when she began writing books, she fostered no atmosphere at all other than genteel squalor and heavy drinking and gloom. But by then my father was long gone.
In those days we lived in shabby discomfort in a large apartment on West Eighty-seventh Street, where my brother lives with his family today. I never contested Walt’s right to have it after Mom died, and have come to terms with the fact that to me she left nothing. Indeed, it amuses me that she would throw this one last insult in my face from beyond the grave. It was more appropriate that Walt should have the apartment, given the size of his family, and me living alone, although Walt didn’t actually need the apartment. Walt was a wealthy man—Walter Weir, the painter? But I don’t resent this, although having said that, or rather, had I heard one of my patients say it, I would at once detect the anger behind the words. With consummate skill I would then extricate the truth, bring it up to the surface where we both could face it square:
You hated your mother! You hate her still!
I am, as will be apparent by now, a psychiatrist. I do professionally that which you do naturally for those you care for, those whose welfare has been entrusted to you. My office was for many years on Park Avenue, which is less impressive than it sounds. The rent was low, and so were my fees. I worked mostly with victims of trauma, who of all the mentally disturbed people in the city of New York feel it most acutely, that they are owed for what they’ve suffered. It makes them slow to pay their bills. I chose this line of work because of my mother, and I am not alone in this. It is the mothers who propel most of us into psychiatry, usually because we have failed them.
Often a patient will be referred to me, and after the preliminaries have been completed and he, or more usually she, is settled comfortably, this will be her question: Where would you like me to begin?
“Just tell me what you’ve been thinking about.”
“What were you thinking about on your way to this appointment?”
And so it begins. I listen. Mine is a profession that might on the surface appear to suit the passive personality. But don’t be too quick to assume that we are uninterested in power. I sit there pondering while you tell me your thoughts, and with my grunts and sighs, my occasional interruptions, I guide you toward what I believe to be the true core and substance of your problem. It is not a scientific endeavor. No, I feel my way into your experience with an intuition based on little more than a few years of practice, and reading, and focused introspection; in other words, there is much of art in what I do.
My mother did eventually recover, but there is a strong correlation between depression and anger and at some level she stayed angry. It was largely directed at my father, of course. I have a clear memory of the day I first became aware of my parents’ dynamic of abandonment and rage. Fred had taken Walter and me to lunch, a thing he did occasionally when he was in town and remembered that he had two sons living on West Eighty-seventh Street. For me these were stressful events, starting with the cab ride to an East Side steakhouse, though in fact any time spent with my father was stressful. One summer he took us on a road trip upstate to a hotel in the Catskills, a journey of pure unmitigated hell, the endless hours sitting beside Walter in the back of the Buick as we drove through the endless mountains, and the atmosphere never less than explosive—
Fred Weir was still handsome then, his dark hair swept back from a sharp peak in a high-templed forehead, a tall, athletic fellow with a charming grin. He wasn’t a successful man but he gave the impression of being one, and when he took us out to lunch I marveled at the peremptory tone with which he addressed the waiters, brisk unsmiling men in starched white aprons who, in that adult room of wood paneling and cigar smoke, thoroughly intimidated the lanky, nervous adolescent I then was. My anxiety was not eased by the presence of steak knives with heavy wooden handles and sharp serrated blades, and a sort of diabolical trolley that was wheeled, steaming, to the table by a stout man with a pencil mustache who with the flourish of a gleaming knife indicated the meat and demanded to know where I wanted it carved.
When Fred grew bored with us and showed signs of calling for the check, Walt would ask him for investment advice, claiming to have considerable funds stashed away. Walt was always more curious about our father than I was. As a boy he was intrigued as to what went on in our parents’ bedroom, when they shared a bedroom, that is. He wanted to get in there and find out what they
Mom was distressed when we returned from these outings, having in our absence awoken to the possibility that Fred might exert a stronger influence over her boys than she did and that we too would then be lost to her. It fell to me to assure her of our love and loyalty. Then she lavished her affection on me for a while, until she grew distracted and drifted off down the hall to her study. Hearing the door close and the
of the typewriter, I knew she would not come out before it was time for a cocktail. I was comforted by the sound of the typewriter. If she was typing then she wasn’t crying, although later she was able to do both at once.
But I remember one day when we returned to the apartment and she wasn’t waiting in the hallway as we came up the stairs. This was unusual. We let ourselves in and at once heard her crying in her bedroom. It was pitiful. Walter said he was going out again, I could do what I wanted. I see myself with great clarity at that moment. The choice was simple. I could walk out of the apartment with him and spend an hour or two in Central Park, or I could go and knock on my mother’s bedroom door and ask her what was wrong. I remember sitting down on the chair in the hallway, beside the low desk with the telephone on it, where she always left her keys on the tray and fixed her hair in the mirror on the wall above it.
“I’m not waiting,” Walt said from the front door.
A sudden fresh gust of misery from the bedroom.
“I think I’ll stay.”
“Suit yourself,” he said, and the front door closed behind him.
For another minute I sat on the chair in the hallway, then stood up and walked slowly toward her room. This is how psychiatrists are made.
Much of my later childhood and adolescence followed this pattern. I did not make friends easily, and I was more content by far with a book than with the company of my contemporaries. Walter by contrast was a gregarious boy and often brought his friends back to the apartment. This was a source of pleasure to my mother, although if she was depressed she would withdraw to her bedroom. At times like this it was a cause of concern to me that Walter’s friends made so much noise. I remember I stood in the doorway of the living room once and asked them to be quiet, as Mom was resting. They were dancing to Bill Haley. Walter would have been about seventeen; I was three years younger. I remember he turned the record player off and they all stared at me, six or seven of them, older kids I’d seen in the corridors of the high school we attended on the Upper West Side.
“What did you say?” said Walter.
If it hadn’t been for the fact that Mom was trying to sleep I would have fled.
“I said, I think you should turn it down.”
They all stared at me in silence. It was a form of mockery. “What did you say?” said Walter again.
“Turn it down! She’s trying to get some sleep!”
He looked at the others and solemnly repeated my words. They started laughing. They slapped their thighs, they yelped like hyenas; they lifted their heads and howled, all to humiliate me. Then Mom’s bedroom door opened down the hall. She shuffled toward the living room, yawning. She was in her robe, barefoot, and she hadn’t brushed her hair. It was the middle of the afternoon and I felt embarrassed for her in front of Walter’s friends, who had fallen silent. She stood in the doorway and asked what was going on, and Walter told her. She was still half asleep. She turned to me.
“Don’t be silly, Charlie, I was only reading. You people have fun, I don’t care.”
She went back to her room with a wave of her hand and I left the apartment feeling like a fool.
When I returned to New York after my residency at Johns Hopkins, I didn’t move back to Eighty-seventh Street.
Mom told me she didn’t want me in the apartment. She said she needed silence in order to write. I understood what she was telling me. It was not a rejection, though it was framed in those terms, because she also gave me a new set of keys. Don’t abandon me, she was saying. She was stabilized on antidepressants but there were still times when she would suddenly, precipitately go down, and then it was me she needed.
One such occasion was when Fred remarried, to a woman many years younger, which Mom found hard to accept. For a long time I had known she still loved him, and despite her salty disdain—“What a
she’d spit—it escaped nobody who knew her well that she continued to carry a torch for this feckless man. In both the novels she published in those years she drew thinly veiled portraits of him, and the authorial attitude to these philandering crooks was one of ill-concealed affection. But his second marriage hit her hard and, as I’d feared, she suffered a rapid relapse. I went to the apartment as soon as I heard.
She was in her bedroom. All the drapes were closed even though it was the middle of the day. She lay on the bed with her back to the door, her legs pulled up. She was not fully clothed. She heard me come in but she didn’t move.
“Mom?” I sat on the side of the bed. For some minutes there was silence in the room. There was a faint smell of stale perfume and cigarette smoke. “How long have you been in here?”
“Do you want me to run you a bath?”
I knew what I was saying. She reared up on one elbow and over her shoulder shot me a pathetic look. Her eyes were ringed with dark shadows: she was a haunted, frightened creature, almost unrecognizable to me.
Then she sank back once more. From her near-fetal position she murmured, “I smell bad. You don’t have to tell me.”
“You don’t smell bad. I just thought you might like to get in the tub.”
Silence once more. Then up on the elbow again. “That rat.”
“Have you seen him?”
“Let me run you a bath.”
She didn’t refuse. In my experience a depressive episode is not life-threatening when there is still concern for personal hygiene.
When I came back from the bathroom she was sitting humped on the side of the bed with her legs dangling down, inspecting her fingernails. She looked like an old bird in her oversize sweater and black tights, a sick old bird with a broken wing. “Is she beautiful?”
“How do you know?”
Quick as a viper, this—how did I know unless I’d met her? “I just know,” I said.
I wasn’t sure if she meant me, or my father, or his young bride. I didn’t ask. When her bath was ready I told her I’d be in the living room. It was no better there in terms of stagnant air, brimming ashtrays, gloom and such. Torn photographs on the rug in front of the fireplace, a few charred embers in the grate. I pulled back the drapes, opened the windows, tidied the place as best I could. I went back to the bathroom and tapped on the door.
“You all right in there?”
“You met her. You traitor.”
It would almost be comic if this were somebody else’s mother. If I weren’t alert to the reality of her suffering. If she hadn’t already given me so much cause for concern.
How can any man see his mother in pain and not do everything in his power to relieve that pain?
When these episodes were becoming more frequent there would be periods of days or even weeks when I left my office in the evening and went straight up to Eighty-seventh Street. Often I stayed the night and slept in my old room. Walt refused to visit Mom when she was depressed, and I got angry with him about it. I remember him saying that Mom didn’t want to see him, she only wanted to see me.
“Don’t be absurd,” I said. “It’s you she adores.”
I remember having this argument in Walt’s loft on Chambers Street. He didn’t stop working. A big messy canvas was pinned to the wall, a field of red with thin black vertical spikes at irregular intervals. He was smoking a cigar.
“That’s exactly why she doesn’t want me coming around,” he said. “She doesn’t want me to see her like
“Oh Walter, what new bullshit is this?”
Walt and I could get angry at each other in seconds. It alarmed others. It worried Agnes, my wife, to whom I was still married at the time, when she first saw it happen, that two otherwise civilized men could so quickly become so abusive.
“Think! Isn’t that what you’re meant to be good at? She doesn’t want me around when she looks like death. She wants me when she’s at her best!”
He noticed that he was dripping paint on the floor. He clamped the cigar between his teeth and plunged his brush into a jar of dirty water.
“So you get the good mother and I get the mad mother. Thanks a lot, Walt. Christ, you’re a selfish man.”
“I didn’t fucking set it up!”
I don’t remember if I responded to this. I think I may have turned my head and with a sickly, injured expression stared out the window. The World Trade Center was under construction then, two massive, fretted frames of red girders poking into the sky. When I turned back Walt was absently wiping his fingers on a rag.