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While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence


The Tiger Pit

Tiger Pit pals: Patty and me, dressed alike, as always, for a party after Danny’s baptism in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1963.

When we were little, my sister Patty and I liked to pretend that ferocious tigers lurked in the space between our twin beds, just waiting to rip us to shreds. They stalked us at night with their razor-sharp fangs, growling and snorting and licking their chops. Dip a toe or a finger down too low and … SNAP!… they’d chomp it off clean to the bone. We’d bounce from one bed to the next, shrieking as we flew through the air.

Pipe down, you two, or I’ll come in there and beat you to a bloody pulp! my mother would yell from her bedroom down the hall.

The invisible tigers scared us. Our mother did not.

Watch this, I’d whisper to Patty as I leaned over the side of my bed and slowly wiggled my fingers down into the pit. She’d poke her curly little head over the side of her bed and stare into the big black hole, nervously wheezing as she waited for one of the tigers to take the bait. I’d squeeze my eyes shut, imagining the hungry beasts skulking toward us, the smell of their musky fur filling my nostrils, and feel the thumping of my heart in the middle of my throat.

I said, “Pipe down!” my mother would call out, weaker this time.

We knew that she didn’t have the energy to beat us, much less into any bloody pulp.

My mother, Jean Kissinger, an erstwhile debutante with a genius IQ, now spent her days rubbing ointment on babies’ blistered bottoms, wiping snot off our faces, plastering our cowlicks with her spit, and dripping warm medicine into our oozing, infected ear canals. She stuffed our lunch bags with peanut-butter-and-potato-chip sandwiches as she helped us conjugate Latin verbs, folded laundry while she quizzed us on our multiplication tables, and typed our term papers between bouncing a baby on her lap and ironing our uniform blouses. Her own mother was dead and she had no sisters, so it fell to my mother to raise her eight children more or less by herself while my father was out of town most of the week on business.

My father, Bill Kissinger (we called him Holmer), sold advertising space to companies that manufactured tranquilizers and other so-called ethical pharmaceuticals to harried mothers of the baby boom. Business was brisk, especially in our North Shore Chicago neighborhood, where women, a great number of them Irish Catholics like my mother, were expected to fill the pews with as many children as they could bear, whether they had the stamina or not.

“Something is definitely wrong when the best that the average American couple can do over a fertile period of twenty-five years is to give only two or three children to the Kingdom of God,” Monsignor John Knott of the National Catholic Welfare Conference said in his directive to the faithful.

The Catholic Marriage Manual that my mother and her friends read religiously cautioned, “When parents consciously choose the small family as their way of life, they are expressing their ambition for material luxury as opposed to the spiritual pleasures which child rearing can give. It is no coincidence that the ‘spoiled little brat’—the selfish monster of popular fiction and newspaper comic strips—is usually an only child.”

My mother might not have taken too kindly to these single men telling her how many children she should have and how to raise them, but she didn’t do anything to contradict them. She and Holmer gamely produced five girls and three boys from 1952 to 1964, each one feistier than the last, scrapping and chasing and pawing like a pack of puppies. Our favorite game is one we made up called Teddy Bear. It starts with one kid jumping on top of another on the playroom floor. Then, one by one, the rest of us stack our bodies like human Jenga pieces, until someone farts or begins to turn blue. Meet the team:

1952, Mary Kay: The oldest. The arty one, glamorous and flamboyant, with thick dark brown hair that she would roll around orange juice cans each night to shape it just so. She spent hours transforming the room over our garage into a magic fairyland by gluing sparkles on the walls and dangling clumps of cotton from hangers to look like clouds.

Mary Kay was famous for her avant-garde fashions, often homemade. For her senior prom, she created earrings out of flashcubes and a white tunic with fringed sleeves like the brise-soleil from a Calatrava sculpture. Her “Jesus sandals” strapped around her legs up to her knees.

The first time she was grounded for staying out too late, Mary Kay decorated the back of her bedroom door with hundreds of pictures of eyes that she cut out of her Seventeen magazines, a Great Gatsby homage that I found to be as creepy as it was mesmerizing. She refused to go on our annual ski trips because she said her vacation was getting a week away from all of us. I’m never getting married or having kids, she’d say loudly and often enough to be sure that our mother heard her.

Hoping some of Mary Kay’s swank would transfer to me by osmosis, I sometimes slept in the spare twin bed in her bedroom. After turning out the lights, she’d reach for the pack of Kool cigarettes that she’d hidden in a big green glass ashtray under her bed. As I watched the red glow from her cigarette dance through the darkness, I felt deliciously naughty to be in on an act of such insubordination.

1953, Nancy: The scamp. She was glamorous, too, but in a more conventional way that belied her truer nature. Nancy wore monogrammed blouses with pleated skirts and penny loafers with actual pennies tucked into the flaps. Both Mary Kay and Nancy modeled in high school and took the business of being beautiful very seriously. Every morning before school, those two would tie up the girls’ bathroom, preening in front of the mirror, teasing their hair, gluing on false eyelashes, slathering on foundation and lip gloss. I could never figure out who they were trying to impress at their all-girls Catholic high school.

All right already! I’d whine as I danced around, waiting for them to finish the hell up so I could get to the toilet. Nancy played the piano and guitar and fancied herself the next Janis Joplin, wailing out soulful ballads of love gone wrong from the Kin-tucky coal mines to the California sun. It was hard to take her seriously. She sang off-key and, in her plaid wool shorts, Peter Pan collar, and gold circle pin, she looked nothing like the hipster, heroin-shooting blues singer. The nuns told my parents that Nancy was probably a genius, but to watch out: She’s sneaky. Truer words were never spoken. Nancy and her friend Ellen won the school’s eighth-grade science fair for their project on extrasensory perception, which meant they got to compete in the state contest in Springfield. The night before, Holmer caught Nancy changing the letters on the poster board from “ESP: Fact or Fiction?” to “Fuck on Fart.”

This was the same year Nancy talked me into letting her pour a bottle of Clairol Summer Blonde dye on my hair. She was flirting with the notion of lightening her locks and figured I’d be the perfect guinea pig. After the chemicals turned my hair the color of an orangutan, Nancy aborted the mission. I was in fourth grade, and when my dark hair started growing back in, she loudly nicknamed me “Roots,” a humiliating moniker that quickly spread around our grade school playground. At night, I used to sneak into her room and steal her sweaters. If she caught me, she’d scratch my arm or pull my orange hair.

1954, Jake: The observer/inventor. Fixated on efficiency, he combined salt and pepper into one shaker and would sometimes eat breakfast late at night in case he didn’t have time to do so the next morning. Jake left notes he scribbled to my mother in the refrigerator to remind her, “Sliced cheese costs the same, tastes just as good, and is easier to use when making sandwiches.” He filled plastic bags with ice and wore them around his neck on sultry summer days as he pedaled his bike toward Lake Michigan invoking his motto: Under 75 degrees or underwater!

Jake brought a backpack full of maps, almanacs, and little notebooks with him wherever we went and made pronouncements about modern culture that were impossible to prove. He’d say things like, No one eats in their cars anymore or Catholics don’t buy full-length mirrors. He sounded authoritative enough, but if you asked for his sources, you’d find that they were anecdotal or based on very small sample sizes.

When Jake was in seventh grade, kids beat him up on the St. Francis playground so viciously that my parents transferred him to the public school. Not only had I done nothing to stop the harassment, I pretended not to notice. Once, I even laughed nervously. Like Peter in the garden at Gethsemane, I knew instantly that I had just betrayed the one person in my life who most consistently modeled love and compassion, and I was bitterly disappointed in myself for being so weak.

1957, Me: The bedrooms were full by the time I arrived. So, for the first several months, I slept in a bassinet by the front door like a human burglar alarm. From the few baby pictures taken of me, I can see why there weren’t more. The left side of my face was swollen where the forceps had grabbed me, making it look like I was winking, the creepy way a prizefighter does after getting clobbered in the tenth round. My feet turned in toward each other, so I had to wear plaster casts on both legs and baby shoes affixed to a metal bar to keep them straight.

My mother worried about why I didn’t walk or talk or reach for things as early as her other kids. The pediatrician examined me thoroughly and considered all the evidence. You’re right, Jean, he told her. This one is slow. But she’ll probably be okay socially.

1959, Patty: My wingman, a Goody Two-shoes who worked so hard to please me and everyone else that my friend Mary Claire nicknamed her Yygor (pronounced EE-gor), an eccentric spelling of Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant. She baked pretzels for Holmer in her Easy-Bake oven and made a papier-mâché likeness of him one Father’s Day, using one of his many empty beer bottles as the body.

With my stick-straight hair, I admit to being jealous when old ladies in the grocery store would coo at Patty’s adorable ringlets. So I told her that she was adopted and her real parents were Malcolm X and a lady I made up named Kitty O’Shea. Patty had asthma, and on Christmas morning of 1961, when I was four years old and she was two, I sat on her chest—why, I do not recall—and she had to be rushed to the hospital while I hid under her bed, convinced that I’d murdered her.

Still, Patty was so cheerful and trustworthy that she was named editor of her first-grade newspaper, The Happy Times. She started keeping a diary, but maintained a strict policy of not reporting anything that might embarrass anyone or hurt their feelings. Before long, she ran out of news. By the following May, Patty abandoned journalism altogether and settled on a career in nursing.

1961, Billy: The golden boy—smart, funny, handsome, athletic, and a rascal of the first degree. His raspy voice was so appealing that Holmer once paid him a dollar just to hear him sing the ABCs. Billy and I would spend hours watching Chicago Cubs baseball games on our playroom TV, imitating pitchers’ deliveries and batters’ stances. When the score was close, we’d stand on one leg for good luck.

When he was in second grade, Billy tried to sneak a pack of my mother’s cigarettes to school by zipping them into the front pocket of his windbreaker. He had a crush on his teacher that year and wore English Leather aftershave to woo her. That was the same year that his band of little hooligans lit the neighbor’s woods on fire. Everyone assumed Billy would grow up to be a wild man like Holmer, his namesake.

1963, Danny: The youngest boy was born on Billy’s second birthday, so the comparisons between the two were even more tempting. With his big, deep-set brown eyes, strawberry-blond hair, and rosy cheeks, Danny looked like a Gerber baby. He’d crawl around the playroom in his yellow Dr. Denton pajamas and curl up next to the radiator like a cat. Danny had such a sweet disposition that the manager of our local grocery store called him “the Good, Good Baby.” We called him “Duper” or “the Dupe,” for short. While Billy was running around the block naked with the little girl next door, the Dupe quietly strung rope around the necks of plastic army men he called “my guys” and dangled them from his third-floor bedroom window.

Danny aimed to please. He knew that my mother loved BLT sandwiches, so he taught himself how to make them for her. His mouth curled up on one side, making it look like he was always smiling. But I always worried about that little guy. You had to keep your eye on him or he’d find himself in more trouble than he could handle.

One summer day, when Danny was about three, he toddled out the back door while no one was looking. Patty and I canvassed the neighborhood on our bikes and found him eating grass behind the fence of an old lady’s yard a few blocks away. Let him go! we screamed. But she shooed us away with her broom. We were convinced that she was a witch trying to fatten him up for the cauldron.

1964, Molly: The baby of the family didn’t come home from the hospital right away because my mother refused to leave the maternity ward. She said she was too tired from having had all these kids and she needed to stay there for a while longer to get some rest. They arrived home just in time for my seventh birthday, so I assumed that Molly was a gift just for me. I used to take her out of her crib and bring her into my bed to sleep with me at night until she was old enough to roll over and fall out. Stay little, I would whisper into her ear as she slept. I didn’t want her growing up and leaving me. My friends and I would come home from school and run into the nursery to wake her from her naps by chanting the silly nickname we gave her: Roeger Boohead Boohead Hogmeier, sat in the crib all fat and bald!!! Molly would stare at us through the slats of her crib and shout, Gee-bo-shut! which we eventually deciphered as Get out of here and Shut up.

Without any sisters near her in age, Molly lacked fashion sense. She wore the same polyester pants—navy blue with little moons—for several days in a row, even after they were too tight for her. More than once, Holmer accused Molly of peeing in our backyard swimming pool, a claim she never denied convincingly. But you could tell that he was proud of how she could drain a free throw, spike a volleyball, and swing a golf club. She even farts like a man, Holmer twinkled on the day Molly got her first hole in one.

* * *

MY PARENTS LIKELY WOULD have had more children, but even the parish priest agreed that enough was enough. By 1964, with her nerves frayed and her uterus all but shot, my mother went on the Pill. Her doctor, a Catholic and the father of ten, wrote the prescription. Your body can’t handle any more, Jean, he told her, to say nothing of her mind.

My mother was taking quite a risk. Official Catholic doctrine held that all birth control—except for the famously ineffective rhythm method—goes against the natural order of God. Any woman who took the Pill would be committing a mortal sin. If she were caught, my mother would not just be denied Holy Communion for life, she would burn in hell for eternity. But a glimmer of hope for her salvation flickered in the distance. Theologians meeting at the Vatican were recommending that the pope allow oral contraception. The Pill doesn’t destroy human life, they argued. It merely prevents it from forming by stopping ovulation. A decision could come any day.

As my mother awaited the verdict, she nervously swallowed her pill each morning. She was down in the basement doing one of her many daily loads of laundry when the news broke over the radio: Oral contraceptives are “intrinsically wrong,” Pope Paul VI declared. They cannot be used as a means of regulating the number of children in a family. Any woman wishing to remain a Catholic in good standing may not take the Pill. Period. End of discussion.

Well, shit, my mother said.

She trudged upstairs to find a church bulletin, relieved to see that Father Welsh, the young associate, was assigned to hear confessions that week. Finally, a lucky break. Off she went to see him bright and early the following Saturday.

Father, it’s me, Jean Kissinger, my mother whispered as she knelt in the darkened box. Hadn’t she done enough to propagate the faith? The newly minted priest fumbled for a bit. But, Jean, he said. Children are gifts from God, the fruits of a loving relationship. Her heart sank. This new priest might not be such a pushover after all.

My mother was desperate. What began as mild postpartum depression after Jake was born grew more intense with each new baby and was now nearly paralyzing her. She was terrified of what might happen if she had to keep having children. By then, she was forty-two years old, the same age that her mother had been when she became pregnant with her youngest child, Johnny, who was born with Down syndrome.

Please, Father, my mother pleaded, I can’t have any more children. She told him about her dark thoughts and how she wasn’t always able to shake herself out of that funk. After a good, long while, the young priest conceded the point.

Okay, Jean, he said, fair enough. And he granted her the dispensation.

A week later, our home phone rang, and I answered. The normally chatty Father Welsh sounded peeved. He told my mother that the line of women waiting for his confessional that Saturday snaked all the way to the back of the church. Apparently, my mother couldn’t keep her trap shut about the deal she’d finagled. Now all her friends were looking to get in on the action.

Jean, Father Welsh scolded, what goes on in confession is private BOTH ways.

* * *

EVEN THROUGH THE FOG of her depression and anxiety, my mother did her best to make our house a happy one. She’d start out strong each morning, padding around the kitchen in her fuzzy blue slippers, a Kent cigarette dangling from her lower lip, singing to Tippy, our fat beagle, and the canary we named Flip the Bird. She scribbled her lists of things to do that day on the back of a bank deposit slip. (First item: “Make List.”) She wore a creamy pink Barbizon bathrobe with a Susan B. Anthony button pinned to her lapel that declared, “All Men Are Beasts.”

Late mornings, once she’d taken her bath, she might head to St. Francis Xavier School for her turn at playground duty, breaking up fights, cleaning skinned knees, and making sure kids’ coats were buttoned up against the stiff winds that blew off the shores of nearby Lake Michigan. After school, she would lug us around Chicago’s North Shore in her wood-paneled station wagon while she ran errands or tended to one of her many corporal works of mercy. She delivered breast milk for the La Leche League and care packages of clothing, toys, and food that she’d assemble for the Cordi-Marian Society, the church’s mission. When one of her friends had a baby or a parent who died, she’d make them her signature lemon bars. We’d wait in the car with the engine running while my mother scurried to the door to deliver any treats that were left after we’d raided the basement refrigerator the night before, ignoring the skulls and crossbones that she scrawled on her warning labels: DO NOT EAT!!!!

Copyright © 2023 by Meg Kissinger

While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence
by by Meg Kissinger

  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Celadon Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250793777
  • ISBN-13: 9781250793775