Martha’s first year under psychiatric care led to the most dangerous crisis of her life until then. The crisis happened at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 2010. But before then, she lived through a year of growing madness, seemingly intensified rather than subdued by her doctor’s ministrations.
Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania
Martha’s sophomore year of high school in September 2009 started for us like all her other years of school, with Back to School Night. In this annual ritual, parents marched through the brick Gothic building where the high school and middle school were housed, in an abbreviated version of their children’s class schedule. But the ritual was different this year because we had never been so distant from Martha. As Martha later wrote, our relations had steadily worsened ever since she told us about her love for Aleksei.
In addition to the normal antagonism between adolescents and their parents, Martha now blamed us for trying to separate her from her ghost lover, the love of her life. She was Juliet, we the ignorant Capulet parents, and Aleksei her Romeo. She obediently took the psychotropic drugs the doctor prescribed, but she regarded them as poisons that were trying to kill in her the one thing she held most dear.
Despite the tension between Martha and me, sometimes we could connect on intellectual subjects. In December, she showed me a paper that she’d written on Hamlet, “Perceptive Madness in Hamlet and Ophelia,” in which she argued for the nobility of Ophelia’s suicide as an act of courage. She also argued that people who were mad (the term she preferred to mentally ill) had a “sensitive intelligence” that allowed them to feel deeply and penetrate intellectually. “Rather than trying to suppress and treat insanity,” she wrote, “society should find a way to appreciate and apply the insights gleaned from people who experience insanity.” I thought it was an amazing paper, one of the best I’d read on Hamlet, managing to combine an original approach to the play with Martha’s personal experience of being mad. Through it, she tried to tell me how she felt that psychiatric treatment was devaluing her experience, and tried to give voice to that experience. The message came through, and we talked about it in the living room in one of those moments of closeness we sometimes still got from discussing books. It almost made up for the tremor I felt at seeing her write so approvingly of suicide.
I don’t remember much else from this school year, but I believe that it was in the first half of 2010 that the incident with the car happened. Melinda drove Martha home from church one Sunday in the silver Honda Civic that had replaced our old red Geo Prizm. As they were getting out of the car, Martha slammed the door on her right hand. Melinda ran into the house yelling to me about it, and I rushed Martha to the emergency room, fearful that she had broken her hand as she had once broken her pinky in another car accident. This time at least I didn’t hesitate about taking her to the ER. The doctor X-rayed her hand, but though it was red and swollen, it turned out not to be broken. He sent us home with instructions to put ice on it.
Once we were home, Martha confessed. There had been no accident; she had deliberately slammed the car door on her hand. Her reason was that she was tired of all her violin-playing commitments. She had to play at church, in music class at home and at school, in two orchestras. In two months, her county orchestra was scheduled to perform at Carnegie Hall, and she felt intense pressure to get it right. She had reasoned that if she broke her hand she couldn’t play.
I was horrified. Martha and I both self-harmed in minor ways, but that she would deliberately try to crush the bones in her right hand, with the potential for lifelong disability, just to get out of violin practice showed me that I did not understand her mind. She had a readiness to destroy herself beyond anything I had ever developed. She had always said she thought physical pain was the worst thing in the world, but she had willingly subjected herself to agony. Worse, it became clear that Aleksei was involved in the incident. I don’t remember the exact logic, but somehow her violin playing, which she had always loved, was a rival for Aleksei. She was giving up the violin for him. She had smashed her hand for Aleksei.
I begged Martha not to hurt herself further, and assured her we would get her out of all her musical commitments. And we did. I visited her school and talked to the music department, letting them know that Martha was mentally ill and that she had to stop playing violin because of the stress. We dropped her out of the church ensemble and the county orchestra, and ended her private lessons. I don’t remember what Dr. Abrams did when he heard this story, but he probably upped her meds.
Years later, Martha would regret two things about this incident. First, she missed her chance to play at Carnegie Hall. And second, it made her parents even more alarmed about Aleksei and the threat he posed to her than we already were. “It marked the end of a successful string of lies in which my being functional kept me from running into too much opposition for loving Aleksei,” she wrote.
The rest of the year is a blur. I think this was the year she took classes in physics and cosmology at Columbia University, but I’m not sure. I think she went to the ballet to see Swan Lake, which became her favorite ballet. This, I believe, was the year she abandoned Catholicism but did not yet stop being Christian. Instead she became a Protestant with a taste for Calvinism. She attended several Protestant churches, but spent the most time at a Methodist church where, in time, she resumed playing violin.
Most of what went on that year Martha didn’t tell us, because we were the enemy, the people trying to rob her of Aleksei. In her diaries, though, she had a lot to say. She had two diaries: the Russian one in which she wrote letters to Aleksei, and an English one she started on March 8, 2010. Her English diary was intense, emotional, philosophical, filled with aphorisms, such as “SANITY IS STATISTICAL,” a declaration of her view that what people call a delusion gets that name only because few people believe it; if enough people believe, the delusion is called truth. She reported that, unlike the ancient Greeks, she didn’t believe in moderation. “There should be no moderation of love of God or love of other people. They condemn obsession but I believe in some obsessions.”
She wrote of love, “Near the heart of love lies violence.” Of writing, “I don’t need food like I need to write.” Of the world, “It’s hard to clean the world.” Of nature, “In the book of nature is written all the horror of original sin.”
At first, she started each sentence with a capital letter and ended it with a period, but by March 11, she dropped those niceties, writing in a pure stream of consciousness style. She periodically broke into other languages—Spanish, for example—and fictional scenes. She alluded frequently to works of art—the movie The Red Shoes; the play King Lear, from which she often quoted, “never never never never never.” She listed the years of Aleksei’s life, starting in 1690 and ending in 1718, over and over in strange elaborations. She wrote about her feelings of being persecuted for her love of Aleksei, how her parents and doctor were poisoning her with medications to try to take him away. She wrote manically, in a frenzy of script, about how she was now a Calvinist, communist, and anarchist, and yet all her religion and politics was a cover for her love for Aleksei.
When she turned sixteen, she had no sweet sixteen party to mark the occasion. I don’t remember anything about that day. I might have invited her to taste some wine, but if so, she had no more than a sip. New York State law forbade kids to drink until they reached twenty-one, and Martha, in her determination to be perfect, was such a stickler for rules that she obeyed rigidly. I was drinking alcohol by fourteen and smoking pot by sixteen, but I never saw Martha abuse a substance.
That spring, for the first time in her English diary, she wrote about suicide. She was considering it but didn’t want to do it; she preferred to die a martyr like Aleksei. Either way, her was now strong. Death seemed preferable to life. She had come a long way from her third-grade declaration, “But most precious of all is LIFE!”
Martha’s last Russian entry in her diary, addressed like all the others to Aleksei, was written on July 1, 2010. She stopped because of Ying.
Beginning on June 27, Martha attended what would be her last CTY camp at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, this time to study creative writing, specifically the essay. On the first full day, June 28, she met a Chinese-American boy named Ying. He was seven months younger than she, fifteen to her sixteen. He was a Nietzschean, which appealed to her—she had started reading Nietzsche by then. He was good-looking with black hair and pale skin, a writer and pianist, though not Christian; she would have preferred a Christian. He had the intellectual melancholy she felt in herself and prized in men.
By that time, she could feel her love for Aleksei dying. She attributed it to the poison of her medications and maybe she was right; that’s what they were for. But maybe, even without them, she could not have sustained her love for Aleksei once a sufficiently attractive living boy appeared. In any case, when she met Ying she finally felt a passion stronger that what she felt for Aleksei.
Ying represented life, Aleksei death. She was powerfully drawn to death, often writing sentiments in her diary like “I can’t wait for life to end,” “I was born dead,” “Never let me forget that I want to die,” and “I am death. My life is grief.” Her love for Aleksei was a love for a dead man that expressed itself in grief. Against all that Ying pulled her toward life.
She felt guilty for betraying Aleksei. In her final Russian letter to him, on July 1, she called herself “weak and sinful.” But the pull of Ying was too strong. She even used Aleksei to attract Ying and entertain other friends at CTY, talking with them about her love for Aleksei to make herself seem interesting. On July 4, Independence Day, she asked Ying out, and he said yes. She pledged herself in her mind to him and turned away from her dead Russian prince.
“I am not the woman you wanted me to be,” she wrote to Aleksei—in English now. “I am not your Intended anymore.” I must have told her that the Intended in Heart of Darkness was a perfect woman, an impossible standard, because she attributed that thought to me, saying, “My father was right.” She wanted Aleksei to kill her because she hated herself for trying to be happy with someone else. But she couldn’t help it. In another allusion, she called herself Cressida, the faithless lover of Troilus in Chaucer’s and Criseyde. She pictured herself as having undergone a cosmological revolution—having moved from a Copernican circular orbit around a single focus (Aleksei) to a Keplerian elliptical orbit around two foci (Aleksei and Ying).
She repeatedly wrote out the dates of Aleksei’s life in her diary—“one thousand six hundred ninety-one one thousand six hundred ninety-two”—then crossed them all out with Kurtz’s great savage line from Heart of Darkness: “EXTERMINATE ALL THE BRUTES.”
Martha had loved Aleksei intensely, passionately, obsessively, and now she loved Ying the same way. On Friday, July 9, wearing a black dress with a scoop neck, she asked Ying to the dance that night and told him how she felt. “I love you,” she declared. “The reason I want to spend so much time with you is because I love you. I’ve been waiting all week for this dance because I want to dance with you. I’ve been dreaming about you all week. I am so happy when we are together. If you don’t feel the same way about me, tell me and I’ll stop following you so much. Tell me if you like me and want me as your girlfriend. Even if you don’t love me, tell me and we can go to dance to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ together at 10 p.m. tonight.”
Ying said no. He rejected her. He said he was incapable of love and not good enough for her.
I had written a book on horror movies, Deformed and Destructive Beings, which had been accepted by a publisher and which Martha had read in manuscript. In it I explained that monsters in horror movies were both deformed and destructive, and that their deformity could be of several kinds, not only physical but spiritual, psychological, and positional. A positional deformity was when a being was out of place in the universe, such as a shark that violates humanity’s top position in the food chain by eating humans. Martha now realized that she was psychologically deformed because she was mad, and Aleksei was positionally deformed because he should have been dead but wouldn’t stay dead. They were both monsters, and they belonged together. She had been wrong to seek union with a . Rejected by Ying, she now returned to Aleksei, guilty for having betrayed him, but feeling she was back where she belonged.
Yet she didn’t feel better. She felt terrible, grieving for the loss of Ying and for Aleksei too, whom she feared she had lost by betraying him—and whom perhaps she had lost by ceasing to love him. Ying sent her a message the next day, but it didn’t help. He said that he envied the depth of love she felt, and that he’d never felt that and probably never would. “I’m sorry we cannot be together,” he wrote. “Please understand that this is because I believe you deserve someone better, someone who can feel, someone actually human. Last of all, please know that, if I could love, I’m certain that I would have loved you.”
Martha felt torn to pieces, not knowing how to feel. She saw her great ability to love as a blessing, but a blessing that tortured her.
That night, Saturday, July 10, she called us and told us what had happened. She sounded more depressed than I had ever heard her. In flat, defeated tones, she recounted the events with Ying. I had never met him, but I was furious with him for having rejected my daughter, especially with an excuse as lame as that she was too good for him. She was too good for him, but even so he should have had the sense to love her back. At the same time, I recognized this episode as the type that had happened to me at Martha’s age and had probably happened to almost everyone. Rejection was universal. I was proud of Martha for having tried, and hoped she would recover and keep trying. Maybe we had seen the last of Aleksei.
The next morning, Sunday, July 11, 2010, I got a call from a camp counselor informing me that Martha had attempted suicide. After breakfast that morning, she had gone to the room with the washers and driers and drunk laundry detergent, trying to poison herself. She swallowed a fair amount of the burning blue liquid before vomiting it up, along with the morning’s toast. She had been found lying on the floor and was now getting ready to be taken to the emergency room.
On the 200-mile journey to Pennsylvania that followed, I drove faster than I ever had, faster even than when I was driving Melinda to the hospital to give birth to Martha. And this was fitting, because I was now driving to what had almost been Martha’s death.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.