Life with an Insane Parent – Part 2

 Part 1 introduced the notes I took in 1993 regarding my mother’s mental state nearly fifty years after she’d been institutionalized. That’s when she finally revealed to me the secrets within the netherworld that she had created inside her head.

Part 1 also introduced the “Heroes” or “Good Guys”, who were some of the inhabitants of her secret place.

In Part 2 we get to the “Villains” or “Bad Guys”, the other inhabitants.

It would have been so much easier to believe that my mother was NOT insane, just seriously Schizophrenic. But I’m afraid that Part 2 will erase that consideration.

Enter the Villains

In her conflicted mind she has created two demonic villains: One is Hedwig Natzler, and the other, surprisingly, is, or was, a mild mannered neighbor of ours by the name of Val Steffen.

Val is a villain because in her mind he was also a patient of Dr. Von Hagen’s, and learned many secrets about Mom, which he now uses as threats against her. In actuality, the Val Steffen I knew had been on some sort of disability even before he and his family moved into our neighborhood, sometime around 1942.

The Steffens came from Cincinnati, and Val lived quietly with his wife and two daughters, directly across the street from our house. He must have passed away decades before I began having these conversations with my mother.

But the most heinous villain turns out to be Hedwig Natzler, the former nurse, and Gentile wife of the noted German/Jewish orthopedist, Dr. Adolph Natzler. The couple had been very close friends of my parents beginning in 1933 when they all arrived together in America as German refugees.

Hedwig Natzler ca. 1923
Hedwig Natzler ca. 1923

But Dr. Natzler died in 1939.

Then early in WWII,  Dad left the security of his sales job and started his own business. Since he needed help and Hedwig needed work, he hired her to be a one person assembly line.  Working for little money, she packed fudge and English Toffee in her tiny apartment kitchen, folded boxes, packed shipping cases and did any number of other odd jobs – the kind required when a friend begins a business on a shoe string.

But in 1944, something happened between Hedwig and my mother. I don’t know what it was, but Mom suddenly went berserk and was seen running down a side street in Hollywood, shrieking and crying, only to be found later, cowering behind a building blocks away. I wouldn’t see her again for seven months.

Since her behavior verged on the scandalous, at nine years old, I was too young to be included in any of the conversations about her condition, or what may have been the cause. Yet for whatever reasons, at that moment, Hedwig Natzler became Mom’s mind controlling enemy.

She currently believes that Hedwig is able to control her (Mom’s) subconscious, and other people’s as well. As a result, she continues to hold Hedwig responsible for her inability to make lasting friendships. She blames Hedwig’s diabolical ability to intervene telepathically for poisoning the minds of every one of the women Mom sought to be friends with, causing her ultimate and long term isolation.

She is also convinced that Hedwig’s mind intervention caused the two year estrangement between Mom and me!!!

But the topper is her accusation that it was Hedwig’s evil mind that caused my heart attack in 1985. The fact that Hedwig had already been dead for more than a decade didn’t phase her.

However, it’s Val Steffen’s part in this demonic conspiracy that is harder for me to understand.  When Mom left “Compton” and returned home, Julia Steffen, Val’s wife, was clearly her primary enemy. This I quickly learned when Mom would go into periodic rages behind the closed doors of her bedroom, crying and shouting Julia’s name in a loud, hoarse, accusatory whisper.

Julia had always been the target of her vitriol, but never Val.

That was scary and difficult time for me in the fall of 1944. Before my mother’s breakdown, my folks and the Steffen’s were good friends. During warm summer nights, both my parents and the Steffens used to play badminton together on our backyard court. And they used to spend hours together at our house and theirs, talking politics, world events and life in general – something my parents never did with any other neighbors of ours

Julia had that kind of warm midwestern folksiness where she would just wander into our house and pick up the conversation where she had last left it. She was always welcome. The relationship between our two families was very warm and neighborly, and Julia’s two daughters, Sue and Judy, were my chums.

During Mom’s hospitalization, Dad couldn’t both take care of me and build his one man business. So, I was sent away to spend eight weeks at a summer camp in Lake Arrowhead. Realizing Dad’s plight, the four Steffens were so sweet that they made the long trek and came up to visit me one weekend.

Lft. Judy Steffen, center me, rt. younger sister, Sue.
Summer camp visit. Judy Steffen, me and younger sister, Sue.

As a 10 year old, it was really tough for me to understand the abrupt change in my parent’s attitude toward the Steffens, and hard for me to accept. I still wanted Sue and Judy to be my friends, but our relationship had now become tainted since Mom was released from Compton.

For the next twelve years, while I was still living with my parents, my mother’s bitter enemy continued to be Julia Steffen. So, it came as a shock to learn that four decades later her hatred had shifted to Val.

When or why it switched to Val is beyond me. But now it’s taken on a metaphysical character, almost Gothic in its bleakness, because in her sick mind, Val is accusing her of being the re-incarnation of her great aunt, Dora, who he calls “Van Hagen’s bitch”, or the “guilty Jewess Van Hagen”. A term Mom often repeats to herself, during her periodic retreats from the world outside.

Meanwhile, in a more recent conversation with her, it appears that Dr. Denham has upgraded his good guy status, because Mom now believes that he has been paying all her hospital and doctor bills. She also believes that he has influenced her life ever since she was a little girl in Germany – although, she didn’t meet him until 1943, when she was already 38. And I doubt that he ever spoke German.

My mother in Hannover, Germany, 1912.
My mother in Hannover, Germany, 1912.

On an almost humorous note, she is also convinced that the Val/Hedwig axis conspired to deprive both my parents of their drivers licenses. Age has nothing to do with it.

Dad collapsed a short time later, and after lingering in a hospital and nursing home for a number of months, he passed away. Meanwhile, I continued my periodic visits to check on Mom, and as we continued our conversations, she revealed even more:

Why She Refused Medical Help for Dad

In Part #1, I described how Mom went ballistic when I suggested that Dad needed to see a doctor. Now I understand why…

It’s because she firmly believes that any positive treatment that she or Dad received from doctors, for all these years, has been deflected by Hedwig and Val’s intervention. She feared that anything the doctors could do for Dad would be useless, and only benefit Val, because he (Val) was trying to take over Dad’s identity, or his conscious mind – all depending on Mom’s perspective at that moment.

The only way I could have intervened to get medical help for Dad would have required me to have the courts declare her legally insane. But I just couldn’t bring myself to go to that extreme. Not at their age.

Her Final Grand Delusions

It’s now three and a half years later. Living alone, she’s had plenty of time to change her stories. Yet, while our periodic conversations have continued, her scenario remains totally intact and hasn’t changed one bit. She is steadfast in her belief that all the forgoing is true. I’ve even tried to lead her into making mistakes, to determine if her scenarios are just momentary, delusional flights of fancy. But she has never slipped and remains resolute in her story. The only differences are in embellishments, not in substance.

Allowing for her age and the fact she’s been living alone since Dad died, she’s been feeling more expansive with regard to the deeds of her characters, and now readily admits that she is gifted with the ability to speak to those voices in her head, allowing her to hold virtual conversations with them, whenever she feels the need.

Now I understand why she’s appeared to be talking to herself all these years, while in her mind she’s been talking to THEM.

Another embellishment came up in our last conversation, when she told me about a recent breakthrough. She learned that her Great Aunt, Dora came to America to free the slaves, and fight for an end to anti-Semitism. But as a result, she (Dora) was also accused of trying to steal the elder Von Hagen’s Christianity from him, and consequently was accused of being the “Guilty Jewess Von Hagen”; the same accusation that the Val/Hedwig axis were making toward Mom.

So, the term “Guilty Jewess Van Hagen” she uses interchangeably as accusations toward herself, Von Hagen’s wife, and her Great Aunt Dora Meininger. I don’t mean to meddle in amateur psychoanalysis, but it appears that Von Hagen’s wife and Great Aunt Dora became her alter egos.

In a followup meeting with her, I suggested that maybe they (her accusitors) consider her to be the reincarnation of her great aunt.  This week Mom is convinced she is.


Since Mom’s passing, and the decade worth of research that I’ve done for my film, “For the Life of Me”, I’ve accumulated a great deal of information about my parent’s lives, and have gained far more insight into the reasons for Mom’s insanity than I knew when I was making my notes.

Taken as a whole, I believe these were some of the traumatic events that built up in her mind over the years and resulted in her inability to cope with life around her – finally leading up to her nervous breakdown, and ultimately her insanity:

1. Leaving the comfort of her home in Germany and her family to come to the U.S. in ’29 as a newlywed and start a new life.

Mom and Dad's wedding, July, 1929.
Mom and Dad’s wedding, July, 1929.

2. The stock market crash of 1929, and the subsequent loss of Dad’ new job, only four months after their wedding.

3. Being forced to move from L.A back to N.Y., when Dad’s closed a few months later. 

4. Her perpetual inability to feel comfortable with the language, or make friends in America.

5. Her severe homesickness and her need to return to Germany and visit family for six weeks after only eighteen months of marriage.

6. The disapproval of her mother-in-law for leaving Dad, at a time when he needed her the most.

7. Learning, upon her arrival back in America that Dad had lost what little money they still had.

8. Dad’s company then going bankrupt, and losing his job at the height of the Depression.

9. Mom learning that her mother-in-law had been writing to Dad, while she was gone, saying bad things about her, while trying to convince Dad to return home to Hannover and the family business

10. Dad’s disillusionment with America, while being out of work, and threatening to return to Germany.

11. Her fear of  returning to Germany: the outcome of Dad having to work for his older brother and her newly strained relationship with her mother-in-law.

12. Finding her fears to be true: being unable to get along with her mother-in-law combined with Dad’s disillusionment with his brother and their family business.

13. Her desperate need to get away from her in-laws combined with Dad’s need to start his own business, after only six months back home in Hannover.

14. Giving up the security of being near her own own parents in Hannover, while facing another new start in Berlin.

15. Hitler’s rise to power, only weeks after their move to Berlin, and what was beginning to happen to Jews.

16. Her mother-in-law’s sudden suicide just a few weeks later, and the blame that was placed on her by her in-laws.

17. The realization that they could no longer remain in Germany, and must leave everything behind once again, including the business that Dad had just started.

18. Then realizing they had a severe time limit on their return visas, and were barely able to get out of Germany in time.

19. Having to start all over again in America with no money and no job prospects.

20. Then Dad’s decision to hide their Jewish identity by changing his surname 12 days before my birth, while getting Mom to keep his secret both from me and the outside world.

21. Buying their first house that they could barely afford, in a totally different community, miles away from her comfort zone.

22. As the war begins, her desperation to clear all the red tape required to get her parents out of Germany and into America.

23. Her fear, that although her parents are safe now, she may never see them again.

24. Her fear of Dad starting yet another new business with all its uncertainty and insecurity.

25. Her growing confusion over her own identity – is she still a Jew or something else?.

26. The news that her brother had been arrested by the Nazis and is in ill health, languishing in a notorious German concentration camp.

The trauma that finally pushed her over the edge will never be known. It may have been a lingering dispute with Hedwig Natzler, or something in her relationship with Dr. Chester Denham, but whatever it was totally changed her in ways from which she would never recover.

Yet, as I’m writing this and looking back at her life from another perspective, I realize that my mother’s long term battle with her demons, as she continued to suffer from severe depression, that dark place into which she escaped so often, may have actually been the one sanctuary that saved her from taking her own life – the fate met by her mother-in-law, my grandmother, Gertrude Weinlaub.


1 thought on “Life with an Insane Parent – Part 2”

  1. It really takes courage to be so open about such a private topic as insanity. Many will want to tuck it away in some dark corner of their minds, but sharing is therapeutic. It helps one to recover, and telling it shows how well all of her demons did not affect you one bit.


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