As she started high school, Martha was a girl with a secret. She was passionately in love with a 300-year-old Russian prince, Aleksei—in fact, she had married him. She feared few people could understand the existence of this ghost husband, least of all her parents. So she kept us from knowing about him for as long as she could.
Martha at about fifteen in ninth grade, circa 2009, wearing black in mourning for Aleksei
High school was dreary for Martha. Her mind soared so far past the requirements of coursework that classes bored her and homework was a strain. At one point in her freshman year, her intellect got her into trouble with her English teacher, Ms. McGill, when Martha corrected the teacher’s use of the subjunctive and Ms. McGill snapped at her for it. Martha, who hated being reprimanded, came home crying, unsure whether she should ever say anything in class again. She worried that she had really sinned in correcting her teacher. I assured her she hadn’t and made a special trip into school to talk to the teacher about it. Ms. McGill was very nice and said she wouldn’t reprimand Martha for something like that again, and the two went on to have a good relationship. But the incident didn’t increase Martha’s love of school.
Any suggestion of an imperfection could upset Martha. Once her haircutter said Martha’s hair contained too much gunk from old shampoo and needed to be detoxified. Martha took this as a criticism and cried.
According to her freshman year diary, she felt she only lived about a half-hour a day, the time when she played violin, studied Russian, and wrote in her diary. But she did many other extracurricular activities that seemed to please her. She read The Brothers Karamazov, which she enjoyed partly because it had a character named Aleksei. She resumed studying ballet. She tutored eighth-graders.
Intellectually, she continued her ascent into regions I barely understood. She developed theories that drew analogies among principles of physics, geometry, and emotions. She learned to find the square root of a number without a calculator. She did long division in her head to occupy her mind. One day, on a walk, she divided ninety-seven by thirty-eight to the ten-millionths place in her head and got 2.5526315. When she got home and checked it on a calculator, her answer was right.
She attended a school journalism conference at Columbia University. She began to read the New Testament in the original Greek. On Broadway, she saw The Seagull and Equus, with Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe as the young madman who blinds horses and strips naked in one scene. She was accepted into the Intermediate All-County Orchestra—the only ninth-grade violinist from her high school to be accepted. Martha was not devoted to the visual arts the way she was to music, but she liked to draw and had a knack for cute sketches of her animals, like the one she gave me on my birthday that year.
She wrote in her diary that she thought of ninth grade as the beginning of the end of her time at home with her parents, and she wanted to treasure it. We had some good times that I treasured. Sometimes she danced with me in the playroom to the old and new pop singers we both liked—Avril Lavigne, the Beatles. She did rock and roll moves similar to mine, but she blended in graceful steps she’d picked up from ballet. If it was a Bruce Springsteen song her mother might also join in.
Martha sang sometimes too. In my home office on a weekend morning, I could hear her in the nearby shower singing all the words of “Over the Rainbow.” She had a delectable way of singing—not well-trained, but plaintive and meaningful. She tried out for a school singing group, the Harmonaires, but didn’t get picked—in part because the moderator didn’t think her voice was good enough, in part because it was a popularity contest and she wasn’t popular.
She studied sunsets, enjoying the decline of day into night. She saw the romantic vampire movie Twilight and became a fan of the sequels that followed and the books that inspired them. Later she said of Aleksei, “You are my vampire and I am your mortal beloved.”
Sometimes she had a strange feeling that she did not exist. Part of this feeling was that she seemed too vast and complicated to be one person. How could everything in her be summed up into one Martha?
She found out about an old TV miniseries, Peter the Great, that told the story of the Russian tsar and included Aleksei as a character. She got me to order it on video and we watched it together on our basement sofa. It wasn’t very good, and I couldn’t tell why she was so fascinated with it. Without telling me about her passion for Aleksei, she asked me what she thought of him. I told her he seemed weak, sniveling, and treacherous. She didn’t respond.
In December, Martha stayed home alone for the first time, attending a high school play while Melinda and I went to see Spamalot on Broadway without her. That month, for the first time, Martha resisted the school’s push for academic improvement. They had something called Honors Option, which would give her extra credit but require a lot of extra homework, including writing a paper over Christmas vacation on President James Garfield. Melinda wanted her to do it to be sure she stayed at the top of her class. Martha hated the idea of more homework and wanted to drop out. She cried and ran a fever over it. I couldn’t bear Martha’s suffering and took her side, and Martha dropped out.
Later the same family dynamic took shape when Martha had the opportunity to do full International Baccalaureate, or IB. Melinda wanted her to do full IB to secure her academic status; Martha hated the idea of all the work it would require. I backed up Martha, and she ended up not doing it.
Beginning with the new year, on January 2, 2009, Martha’s diary entries became entirely Russian. I can’t read Russian but know someone who does, and I asked her once to translate the first couple of pages and the last couple of pages from Martha’s Russian diary into English. The first diary entry reads:
I was happy yesterday. Thinking about you makes me happy. I was sad today but I love you.
All the entries begin with a salutation to Aleksei or Alesha (the diminutive, more intimate form of his name). They are letters addressed to him. My friend tells me the Russian is very good, and, remarkably, in cursive, which is harder than print. I would have expected no less from Martha. She wrote the letters over the course of a year and six months, until July 1, 2010, when the first phase of their relationship neared its end.
Perhaps it was while writing the letters that she began to hallucinate about Aleksei. In later journal entries, she alluded to these episodes—mostly tactile hallucinations that she could induce herself with some effort. She felt his arm around her at night, felt his kiss, his touch in the wind. She “felt his ghostly hand intertwine with my fingers.”
She wrote fiction, such as her short story “Oblivion,” which ends with a college boy bursting into spontaneous flame while his classmates ignore him. She wrote poems, such as “Supernova,” in which she compares her love to a supernova briefly shining brighter than any star in the sky, then fading to nothing. Other poems included “Black,” an ode to the color of mourning, which she usually wore, and “Silver Ring,” about the broken toy ring, silver-colored with intricate floral designs, that she wore on her finger as a symbol of her marriage to Aleksei.
Often Martha was depressed. She knew the logical solution was to see a mental health professional, but she resisted that. Yet she was worried about never feeling simply happy, always feeling sad and crazy. At last, she decided to talk to Melinda and me about how she felt—including how she felt about Aleksei.
On Wednesday, June 3, 2009, Martha told us about her love for Aleksei. First, she told her mother, who reacted casually, laughing off Martha’s romance as a youthful fancy while hanging up clothes in the bedroom. Then Martha walked upstairs to the office and told me. As we sat and talked in black office chairs, Martha explained that she had been secretly in love with a dead Russian prince for a year, that it made her ecstatically blissful sometimes, other times depressed. When depressed, she thought of death, even suicide.
Unlike Melinda, I took Martha’s disclosure very seriously. It seemed a clear case of madness, at once familiar and beyond anything I had experienced. My mental illness had sometimes taken the form of fantastic attractions to women I couldn’t possibly have, but those attractions weren’t as outrageously delusional or fraught with hallucinations as Martha’s. At other times, my manias had been directed to God, intensely and passionately. Martha had somehow combined my obsessions, the sexual and the spiritual, into a fixation on a single being who was at once a lover and a spirit.
Clearly Martha had inherited my bipolar disorder, and her life was now in danger as a result. If Aleksei were a harmless delusion, I could tolerate it, but it seemed to be keeping her from pursuing real, living boys with whom she might find someday find marriage, procreation, and happiness. Worse, it was making her depressed and suicidal. Since I was often depressed and suicidal, I knew how grave those conditions were. Above all, I must protect her from suicide.
I let Martha know that I thought her belief in Aleksei was a delusion, that she probably had a mental illness, and that we had to take her to a psychiatrist for treatment. I reminded her of my old insistence that health and safety came first, before any other consideration. Martha was horrified. She hadn’t expected me to react like this. It was the worst day of her life. Telling me what she felt, in innocent trust that I would be sympathetic and kind, had put her in danger of losing the most beautiful thing in the world to her, her love for Aleksei. He was her center of meaning, and I was talking about destroying him. And there was no going back. Now that I knew, I felt it my duty as a father to get Martha treated, and to eradicate Aleksei if I could.
Within a few weeks, we took Martha to the best child and adolescent psychiatrist we could find in our section of Westchester, Dr. Harold Abrams. He was expensive and didn’t take our insurance, but our daughter’s health and safety were on the line. He agreed with my assessment that Aleksei was a delusion and that Martha was suffering from a mood disorder, though he hesitated to call it bipolar disorder because she was still so young, only fifteen. He diagnosed her as having an unspecified mood disorder with psychotic features and put her on medication.
If Martha had to be diagnosed mentally ill, she was upset that she couldn’t at least be bipolar. She knew from me that bipolar disorder was the artist’s disease, the disorder of intellectuals and writers. I assured her that the doctor was just being conservative, and that in all likelihood she was as bipolar as I was, even more so, and would be relabeled once she was older. I still think so to this day, but she didn’t live long enough.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.
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