My Crazy Mother

My mother Klara Ciompi (born Lehmann) whom I called Mamma, born 1902 in Langen-thal/Switzerland and deceased 1974 in the Psychiatric University Clinic Waldau near Bern. was crazy, according to the diagnosis of creeping schizophrenia in the medical file I once se-cretly studied in 1957 as a junior medical assistant at that very institution.

So, who was this “Mamma” in reality? In her youth, judging from old photographs, she was a very pretty, sensitive and somewhat melancholic woman with large dark eyes. Be-ing an only child, she was long her father's darling, until she was dethroned  at the age of 7 by her brother Gottfried, born in 1909, and 2 years later also by her sister Elisabeth. This seems to have been a traumatic shock because, on the one hand, she worshipped her ‘Gottfriedli,’ as he was called, but, on the other hand, also explicitly wished him dead on several occasions and once neglected him to the extent of actually threatening his life.

The unlikely connection of my parents

’Kläry,’ as she was called, was always considered somewhat peculiar, eccentric and un-predictable. According to reports, she was a sportswoman, a skier as early as the 1920s and spent years in exclusive household and language schools without ever learning ‘anything right’ (as was expected of daughters from a good house at the time). At about the age of 26, my grandfather Gottfried Lehmann Sr. (a farmer's son from the Emmental who, after a commercial apprenticeship and a favorable inheritance, had become a suc-cessful cheese exporter with an extensive international clientele) brought her to business friends in Florence to study Italian. Like the rest of the family, Kläry had a real passion for Italy and enjoyed life in Florence among the young Italians. There she met my father, Manlio Ciompi, a handsome and slim medical student  6 years her younger. After some initial hesitation, her Swiss parents in particular are said to have encouraged their mar-riage, apparently in the hope of stabilizing their somewhat unstable daughter. In 1928, they got married, and in October 1929 I was born in Florence; 18 months later my sister Lill (Liliana) followed.

First signs of craziness

During this time, various traumatic events must have taken place, with which this vulner-able young woman, who was in no way prepared for a complicated marriage, was unable to cope. They included not only the precarious partnership with a medical student who was 6 years younger than she, a chronic shortage of money and the two quick pregnan-cies. Apparently my father and a close relative of my mother had  a short love affair just before Lill's birth. In any case, after the two pregnancies, Kläry became increasingly pecu-liar. Zia Leda, my father's younger sister, later reported that she seriously neglected me as a baby, often allowing me to scream for hours on end and, instead of giving me the breast, would simply go out for a walk. She also developed a pathological phobia about bacteria from the beginning of the 1930s. Lill and I remember very clearly how she would continuously clean everything – furniture, objects and in particular door handles – with the disinfectant Lysoform. Her strange behaviors engendered immense energies that eventually broke all resistance and drove others to despair.  But as some photos testify, she was also a passionate skier and sportswoman, who - as it was said - was friends with various ski instructors, while moving unsteadily from hotel to hotel in some mountain re-sorts.

Forgotten by the world

In Grindelwald, in the Bernese Oberland, where she had suddenly taken Lill and me in the winter of 1938/39, this pattern continued. After several moves, we ended up in the Pension “Eigerblick” at the back of the village, where during the following year she be-came ever more silent, until finally she sat, day in day out, on the same small wooden bench in front of a barn near the pension, staring into space.  She hardly took notice of Lill and me any more – apart from strictly forbidding us from early summer 1939 on from going to school. There ensued a glorious school-free time of more than a year and a half, during which we lived increasingly unrestricted and independent,  playing endless games and rambling across the mountains. Nothing serious ever happened to us, despite all the dangers.

Mamma didn't provide any reasons for her strange behavior, and eventually everyone just assumed that everything  was related to her madness. That no one intervened for so long certainly had much to do with the fact that war was raging in Europe; all Swiss men ca-pable of carrying an arm had been mobilized. The authorities as well as neighbors and the distant Worb family undoubtedly had more important things to do than take care of two children who were no longer attending school somewhere in the mountains. It was not until long after the war and the tragic accidental death of our father in 1944 (he was run over and fatally injured by a German military truck in February 1944 while riding his bicycle to his patients at Pontedera near Pisa) that it became clear that Mamma had hid-den us so deeply in the mountains and no longer sent us to school because she had constantly feared – and rightly so – that we might be kidnapped by our father (or by his Jesuit helpers) and taken from Switzerland to Italy. Leda, my father's sister, later told my sister Lill several times and unmistakably that, at a certain moment in 1940, the prepara-tions for Lill's and my transplantation to Pontedera had already progressed so far that freshly prepared beds awaited us.

A chaotic household

Lill and I feared Mamma more than that we loved her, even though she could suddenly turn surprisingly sweet and even soft in some of her very rare lighter moments. Usually, however, she was strangely rigid, serious, almost exclusively forbidding. I can't remember any tender moments, like being taken on her lap, embraced or even touched gently in any way, not even in early childhood. On the other hand, I do clearly remember how Mamma would often walk up and down the corridor on the second floor of her parents' villa, where the three of us lived in a chaotic apartment after her return from the hospital in 1943, with a heavy tread that shook the whole house,  ranting about some incompre-hensible things. Once she even stormed down into the beautiful “parlor” next to the offic-es on the ground floor, with its Persian carpets and chandeliers, which served her brother as a reception and conference room for important customers, and in a powerful voice be-rated the bewildered man in front of a group of Belgian business friends.

Mostly, however, she lay completely passive in her bed – the windows darkened, the car-pets rolled up – in one of the three rooms of the apartment she forcibly occupied one after the other, as soon as Lill and I had furnished them halfway decently for ourselves. She hoarded rotting food everywhere in drawers and bags, mixed with money and garbage of all sortss. I cannot remember her doing anything useful in the household or even cooking something for us – except once, namely, on the very first day after moving into the apart-ment. She had  obtained the place, in the face of the skepticism of her relatives and doc-tors, thanks to her sheer incredible tenacity. Lill and I (especially Lill) took care of the household completely, without help, during the war and postwar years, until I was finally able to leave in 1949 after receiving my high-school diploma. We had cooked and shopped and divided the scarce household money (300 Swiss Francs per month), buying the strictly rationed food during the war, and hectically cleaning the apartment when, eve-ry few months, the visit of her legal representative from Bern was due or every two years a control visit by the local guardianship authority was expected. Because we were so deep-ly ashamed of Mamma and the gruesome conditions in the attic of this splendid villa, we never said a word to anyone about what was really going on in our “home sweet home.”

A silver lining on the horizon

During my first didactic psychoanalysis (1958-1960) with “Papa Weber” (the child psychi-atrist Prof. Arnold Weber in Bern), however, a kind elderly gentleman without much un-derstanding for my chaotic family history (so it seemed to me at that time), we talked at length about Mamma. I especially remember a dream I had of a huge greenish-blue glac-ier under a gray sky, which much resembled the “Plaine Morte” (“Dead Plain”) above Montana we had once crossed on a school trip. Far in the horizon was a bright and friendly, warm and shimmering strip of light. In the analysis, this dream image quite clear-ly became a symbol of “Mamma.” And, indeed, there were, as already mentioned, some friendlier moments that might correspond to the silver lining. For instance, once or twice Mamma had tea with us in the afternoon and told us funny stories about former times, especially about her beloved father. Once she even sang a little Russian song that he had brought home from one of his trips to Russia, probably before World War I. Italy, Grindelwald, her time in the hospital, and her unsuccessful marriage, on the other hand, were never mentioned. But occasionally I caught her reading Dante's Divina commedia, which she had borrowed from my bookshelf, and very rarely was there some conversation about morality or religion: “You should thank God that you have a roof over your head,” was one of her common sayings.

A fearsome adversary

Despite her alleged schizophrenia and apart from her deviant behavioral patterns, Mam-ma was always fully present and did not show any clearly psychotic symptoms like delu-sions or hallucinations. When it came to asserting herself against the opposition of doc-tors or the family, she could even become a fearsome adversary with astute argumenta-tion. Only during her final years, when she had to be placed in a mental hospital once again after losing her apartment and moving from one pension to another – almost as unstable as in earlier days – did she vaguely speak of Italians who she thought were ob-serving her on the street and harassing her. She died in 1974 at the age of 72 of heart failure in the Waldau Hospital near Bern, unexpectedly to be sure, but not without having hinted several times during my last visits, through strange and previously never-observed sudden flexing movements of her trunk and back, that something was breaking in her.

I must confess that I was not just sad but also somewhat relieved at Mamma’s death. She had been such a heavy burden to Lill and me throughout our entire life, as well as, and above all, a never solvable practical problem. The picture of the huge glacier with the light and warm stripe far away on the horizon still conveys rather well the basic feeling that I carry with me of our poor, disturbed  and simultaneously so strong and uncompromisingly direct mother.

Luc Ciompi (born 1929), Swiss psychiatrist, Schizophrenia researcher, pioneer of integrative psychiatry and founder of Affect-Logic celebrates his 90th birthday. He lets us participate in his personal, scientific and ideological reflections. It shows, that even an old age can be a fascinating time full of unexpected highs and lows.

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