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Schizophrenia and Aunt Anne Ogilvie

My maternal grandfather died in a tragic car accident on July 09, 1938, driving from Manitoba, through Cass Lake, Minnesota to see Niagara Falls and the famous Dionne Quints. He was 67.   At a 1992 family reunion, all family representatives commented on the collective shock of his death impacting on our lives. Its constant retelling, takes on a quasi-legendary feel, with echoes of recurring memories and long standing, terrifying trauma for those present, his two youngest children - twins, our Uncle Jake and Aunt Anne. Some moments remain locked in memory forever with. They were only 19. 

According to family lore,  as well as other well documented outside sources, at the time of the accident, the twins, my Uncle Jake and Aunt Anne were sitting in the front seat of the car. Their mother and two passengers in the back.   Both experienced long standing self -induced guilt, shock and life long trauma due to the cause of the accident; Uncle Jake thought that he may have been at fault because, driving the car just prior to the accident, he failed to heed his father’s warning against driving on the cats' eyes in the middle of the road, weakening the tires, causing the subsequent blowout which veered the car into a bridge girder. The non-collapsible steering wheel crushed Grandpa’s chest.  More likely, poor road design, poor tyres, the lack of collapsible steering columns and rounded bridge girders, were more significant factors.

Aunt Anne was made to feel that she had been responsible for it because she, sitting next to her father, made an instinctual grab for the steering wheel when the car went out of control. The fact that her mother blamed her, disturbed her and her trauma is considered a major cause of her severe schizophrenia triggered by the death of her mother in 1950.

Tragically, this one event had a catastrophic impact on her, her twin brother and the rest of a large sprawling family.  It is a narrative worth telling for how we learned to deal with potential trauma leading to a post traumatic stress illness that can lead to Schizophrenia. 

As families, our stories unite us, bringing us together to belong to something larger than ourselves. They tell us who we are and what we value. They are the foundation stones of our identity, of how we understand our place in the world.  As a society, we have learned to provide immediate crises counselling to potential victims of trauma.  This was not available to either Aunt Anne or Uncle Jake at that time and both suffered life long suffering.

We are fortunate to have a number of documented accounts informing a realistic and accurate portrayal of their lives in our family accounts - Heinrichs of Halbstadt. 

When the car that Grandpa was driving had a tire blowout it veered onto the edge of the bridge and perched precipitously at the edge. Anne, who was the only person able to respond, climbed over her brother Jake to get out of the car. She remembered that there was a rope in the car trunk and took it out. She then tied it to the car and began to pull it across the road away from the edge of the bridge. This also stopped the traffic and a passer-by called for the ambulance. Had Anne not had her wits about her at that time everyone in the car could have been killed.  Susanna Klassen

My Uncle Jake often talked about the accidental death of his father as a form of auto, remedial and salvific therapy, but admits their tempestuous and estranged relationship prevented him from talking to his sister, Aunt Anne, about it.  His distress included an awareness that his treatment of her contributed to her schizophrenia.  The fact is, both Anne and Jake had unresolved issues about this event, but it appears Uncle Jake handled it differently than Aunt Anne perhaps because, like the Ancient Mariner, of the cathartic or redemptive experience of talking about it to others - but not to his sister, Aunt Anne, who internalised her pain, repressing the demons tormenting her, bursting through the very fine membrane that separates our daylight selves from the secret darkness that lives in every one of us.1

Who knows the cumulative effect that Aunt Anne’s presence at the death of her father had throughout the years, especially the open suggestion by a negatively judgmental mother blaming her for his tragic death.  Aunt Anne might have been saved if she had access to good modern therapy —if she’d lived today, at a time when seeking therapy is no more shameful to visit than hairdressers. Modern treatment eschews psycho-pharmacology, in favor of both empathetic and confrontational  counselling.

Elsa Neufeld evocatively captures the poignancy of Aunt Anne’s initial distress in this excerpt, again from Heinrichs of Halbstadt.

Soon after my sixth birthday…(1938)..  I spent most of the day with Aunt Anne, a beautiful brown-eyed young woman. As we shelled peas or cleaned fruit she grew weary of my incessant chatter. She invented various schemes to achieve quietness. She said, “Let’s see if we can be quiet for a few minutes” or “Let’s see who can be quiet the longest.” I know I tried but I never succeeded.

As I began writing down these memories I was able to place the events of 1938 in perspective. We moved to Homewood in early spring. Within months Grandfather Heinrichs had died accidentally.

 Was my visit to be a distraction for Grandmother, Uncle Jake and Aunt Anne in their sorrow?

Uncle Jake, at only 19, had the awesome responsibility of managing the family farm of some 500 acres.  With the assistance of neighbours and family siblings he managed to harvest the crop.  One day he went to the post office to find a large parcel from Eatons containing new fashionable clothing ordered by his sister Aunt Anne.  He was outraged for various reasons.   So soon after their father’s death, her extravagance was outrageous!  Mennonites were expected to dress modestly.  In a fit of rage he came home and physically disciplined his 19 year old twin sister, driving a further wedge into an already tenuous relationship.  He later acknowledged his possible contribution to her mental break-downs.

Uncle Jake appears to use his self requested interview with the family researcher, Katherine Martens, as cathartic therapy; to vent some excruciating internal pain by a frank and full admission of his inner turmoil, hoping for some release of tension and an exorcism of the demons that haunted him, revealing a troubled soul, seeking not so much redemption, as simple understanding and absolution. He makes no attempt to redress any damage.

In September, 1938, Aunt Anne began her year 12 at the Mennonite Collegiate Institute, but by Christmas, following a psychological break down, she abandoned her studies. Shortly she left her family and community in Halbstadt to work In Winnipeg, an intrepid venture considering the suspicion all Germans were under during the war.

Irene (Siemens) Stobbe and Marie (Klassen) Dyck, daughters of the twins sisters, Marie and Susan, respectively, both recall Aunt Anne’s youth.  When the twins were born to a mother, who openly avowed she never wanted more than two children, but gave birth to nine, their older sisters Marie and Susan,  at 17 and 19 respectively, assumed the role of carers or surrogate mothers to Uncle Jake and Aunt Anne.  In large quasi cross generational families, pre-conscious bonds develop between young children with their older carer siblings much the same as maternal ones. In contrast bonds to your peer siblings are much more complicated by rivalry for attention and other fractious issues.  This explains the enduring affectionate close bond of both Marie and Susan, their oldest sisters, so heavily engaged with enduring devoted duty of care for of both Uncle Jake and Aunt Anne. Uncle Jake repeatedly acknowledges his high regard for his older sisters and their highly esteemed husbands, J.J. Siemens, founding member of the Coop movement and Rev. D.D. Klassen, a highly respected Mennonite Bishop.

Reliable reports indicate that Aunt Anne, like her older sisters, was an extremely bright, vivacious and stylishly dressed young girl. In High School she did well, like her older sisters, was extremely popular with many avid suitors. 

Our ancestors were from the "enlightened" school of Mennonites, believers in education, social justice and questioning authority. While the Mennonite tradition was for young girls to dress plainly and modestly, this was flouted by the Heinrichs clan.  For the three older sisters, a seamstress came in twice a year, to ensure the latest seasonal style of clothing.  By the time Aunt Anne came of age, the latest styles were ordered from Eaton’s.   Irene Siemens recalls: "Of her earlier life I remember her visits to our farm on a Sunday afternoon. She would be dressed very smartly, dark suit, white blouse, dress shoes and well-cut, simple hair style".

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