In 1984, author Sylvia True admitted herself to the McLean Hospital in Belmont to be treated for depression. When doctors asked her if there was a history of mental illness in her family, she told them what she thought was the truth: No.
Over the course of her treatment, True learned that was not the case.
In 1926, in pre-war Germany, her great-aunt, Rigmor Blumenthal, was struck by fits of mania and unrelenting depression. Her condition got worse in her 20s. By that time, the Nazi Party had risen to power in Germany and it was intent on systematically doing away with people who were physically or mentally ill, or were deemed undesirable.
Blumenthal was not only mentally ill; she was Jewish. She was forcibly sterilized and died following the procedure.
True traces that story in her newly released novel “Where Madness Lies.” She crafts a narrative that is part memory, and part imagination. True told her story to WBUR’s All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins.
On what led to her admitting herself to the hospital
I think I was depressed most of my life. When I look back I know I was, although I didn’t know what it was called then. I was struggling a lot with depression in my early 20s, I was having panic attacks, I couldn’t drive anymore, I couldn’t go to the grocery store…and I thought oh well, I don’t really know how to fix this. Going to a psychiatrist wasn’t an option, we were told we weren’t allowed to see those kinds of people in my family, we weren’t allowed to be anything except mentally perfect.
And so I thought oh I know how to fix this, I’ll just have a baby, that will fix everything. And it was the best decision of my life in many ways, and it also landed me in McLean [Hospital]. I had a great education there and I got better there, which was amazing.
On learning about the history of mental illness in her family
When I was first admitted the doctors asked standard questions, and one of the standard questions was ‘is there any mental illness in your family.’ And my answer was no … I’m the weak link. And my grandmother and my mother when I first went in they couldn’t even speak to me, they were too terrified. I initially thought they were just ashamed, I didn’t really understand what was going on behind that.
My grandmother did eventually come out to visit me and slowly … she talked about her sister in Germany who was mentally ill, her name was Rigmor. And the opening up of that secret, which she intended to take to the grave, really freed me in many ways … and the shame lessened dramatically. It was a wonderful opening of sorts where I finally listened to her and she finally listened to me, And through understanding her and her fears and what she lived through, I finally really gained empathy for her and we moved out of a place of fear and into a place of love.
On what happened to Rigmor during the beginning of the Nazi occupation in Germany
From what my grandmother described of her sister, her symptoms were very similar to mine … And my grandmother tried everything, she found the best doctors, they were from a wealthy family so they could afford that. And when Rigmor’s condition wasn’t improving they decided to put her in an institution, with the name of Sonnenstein.
Then in 1933, Germany came up with its first sterilization law, and they sterilized people will all kinds of mental illness, manic depression, but also hereditary blindness, deafness, alcoholism … They sterilized around 400,000 people from 34 to 1939. Rigmor was caught up in that campaign.
On how knowing the history of mental illness would have changed her life.
I think my trajectory would have been very different. I look at my daughters … I raised both of my daughters with an openness and an acceptance for this. And they both have struggled with some depression and anxiety, but it wasn’t a big deal for them, we took care of it, and that was fine … It’s very important that they know there shouldn’t be a stigma around this.
On how it feels to write her story
It feels like I’m allowed to be who I am. I’m 62 and it feels so much easier to live when you just are like, this is who I am, I have my flaws but I accept them. And yes, every decade keeps getting better.