Only three years before the birth of Anne Frank, another Anne was born in the same neighborhood in Frankfurt, Germany. The two may have brushed past each other on the street or at the park before Anne Frank’s family moved to Amsterdam. Neither knew each other nor what was to come: not the child who perished after penning the diary, and not the other Anne—the one who was saved in 1937 by a one-way voyage to America, alone.
For decades afterward, the Anne who became my mother bore the scars of displacement and loss. But nothing prepared me for what happened after my father died in 1982, when she was 55 years old.
My mother took a job selling cemetery plots. And, she abruptly moved to a dangerous neighborhood. There, in East Los Angeles, she walled herself off from human contact, and purged her house of family pictures. She let her appearance go. Once well groomed, her wispy hair now hung in frayed white strings. Her clothes were mismatched. Sometimes she openly wished she had shared Anne Frank’s fate.
I tried for years to convince my mother that something was wrong with her. Thinking she had developed a mental illness, I made it my mission to persuade her to get help. My mother made it her mission, in her words, to be “certified normal.”
Finally, when she was 75, my mother squeezed my hand as we entered the office of Dr. Jeanne Miranda, a well-respected psychologist at UCLA. Overcoming years of resistance, my mother agreed for the first time to be evaluated. She agreed because I planned to write a book about mental health stigma and she wanted to be in it. But, unbeknownst to me, it had to be on her own terms.
To be sure the intricate process of diagnosis would proceed objectively, I avoided giving Dr. Miranda any foreknowledge of my mother. If, as a result of the evaluation, my mother did indeed have a mental illness, she grudgingly agreed to consider treatment—much to my relief. Both the doctor and my mother consented to audiotaping the process.
My mother’s opening salvo to Dr. Miranda: “I’d love to be certified as normal.”
My unspoken reaction, echoing the sentiments of most of my five siblings, “Not a chance.”
So began four sessions with a sole purpose: to establish whether my mother was officially mentally ill. Was she diagnosable or eccentric, ill or idiosyncratic?
Though she’d agreed to it, my mother was not thrilled about subjecting herself to scrutiny. For her, like many in her generation, the step into the psychologist’s office was steeped in stigma. She thought of mental illness in reference to the craziest of the crazy, at least externally; the people with wild eyes who inhabited park benches, neglected personal hygiene, and bundled their belongings with twine, piling them high in shopping carts. I’d tried to convince her that mental illness could present in other, less obvious ways. I couldn’t get her past the stigma.
I’d wondered how the doctor would react to an older woman who wore her hair exactly as the youthful Anne Frank did, pulled to one side with a barrette. My mother wore no makeup, was rail-thin, and wore black sneakers accented by thick white laces. I feared she might be mistaken for a bag lady. It hit me one day when I met her at a local park where she happened to be seated near a bona fide bag lady. My eye bounced between the two of them.
At a distance, some might think this odd-looking woman didn’t have a brain in her head. Yet she read textbooks for eight hours every day⎯on weekends, too⎯teaching herself economics and history, without the benefit of a college education. She was the only person in her zip code to have the Economist and the Wall Street Journal delivered to her door. For her annual Thanksgiving trip to my Maryland home, she sent ahead a formal agenda for dinner discussion. One year, a topic was British economic hegemony in the 18th century. “Be sure that everyone knows how to spell hegemony⎯that’s h-e-g-e-m-o-n-y⎯and they know what it means,” she instructed me, “and be sure they know its proper pronunciation.”
In that first session with Dr. Miranda, my mother laid out her life story. She was born in 1926. Her father was a prosperous businessman, her mother, a homemaker. My mother described her mother as “feckless and feeble-minded,” a woman who rarely talked to her only child. It was no wonder to this bright child that her father divorced her mother before a Nazi judge in 1937.
For my mother, trauma struck twice in her childhood: growing up Jewish in Nazi Germany and being shuttled between parents who neither loved one another, nor talked to her.
My mother’s parents eventually managed to send her by ship to America with 13 other displaced children. “She was sling-shotted across the ocean,” a friend of mine later remarked. Once there, aged 11, she joined relatives she’d never met in the tree-lined community of Great Neck, New York. She immersed herself in English in a desperate attempt to shed her refugee baggage. She acquired the language in what had to be a record-setting three months.
She never heard from her father after she left Germany. Fearful about asking questions, she did not even know about the camps and gas chambers until after the war. She’d blocked out all the details. Only years later did she learn that her father had been rounded up with other Jews and then slaughtered in a mass grave. Her grandparents had been sent to Theresienstadt, where they died from either starvation or disease.
In 1938, a year after her arrival, her only surviving family member, her mother, came by ship to New York Harbor. They’d had no contact with each other in that year. My mother remembers no details of the event besides going to the pier; not the outfit she wore to greet her mother, not the name of the ship, not the color of the water. For the rest of her life, her only memory of that day was that it confirmed for her how unrelated mother and child had always been—and would remain.
“What is your name?” her mother asked, staring directly into her child’s eyes.
My mother repeated the question in German—“Was ist dein Name?”—just to be sure that Dr. Miranda had grasped its enormity: irrefutable evidence of no maternal bond. Reflecting on that single phrase more than 50 years later, my mother observed bitterly, “It validated my suspicion that she hadn’t had a thought about me.” My mother stayed in Great Neck; her impoverished mother settled in a basement apartment in Manhattan with her new husband. My mother had minimal interest in her mother and detested her new stepfather.
The final straw came a year later when my grandmother summoned my mother to live with them. Moving to the city, my mother found the one-room Depression-era apartment they inhabited was “miserably disgusting and cockroach-infested.” She stayed there only a few days before she resolved, at age 13, to find her own place. It was a single room and she probably lied about her age to get it.
She paid the $10 weekly rent by working as a soda jerk in a variety store after school. She lost the job when her mother reported her to the manager for being underage. At that point, my mother broke off virtually all contact with the woman who had given her life. She found another job and finished high school at night.
When my mother finished speaking, Dr. Miranda sat quietly. She breathed deeply before she spoke, knowing that her words would weigh heavily and set a tone for the sessions to come. She gazed directly at my mother. “I have a lot of admiration for you,” she remarked.
“Is it possible for someone to be normal under these circumstances?” my mother asked with a touch of irony.
Dr. Miranda paused, again choosing her words with care, and delivered them so warmly and clearly that there was no mistaking her meaning.
“I think you’ve done remarkably well. You are a remarkable lady. A lot of people would have fallen apart.”
My mother’s reaction was tinged with gravity and humor.
“This will be therapeutic if the outcome is normal.”
Growing up, I instinctively knew how my mother stood apart from other people in comfortable Haworth, New Jersey. Anything remotely related to the Holocaust could set her off. She would go into what she called a “tailspin” for days when she was upset this way. She carried extra undergarments on every trip, no matter how close by. Now, looking back at her life from my own adulthood, I sensed that she must have been diagnosable decades before her free-fall in East LA.
Her spiral took its deepest turn when she sold the cemetery plots. She and my father had just moved from New Jersey to West Los Angeles when he died. Their 37-year marriage had always been rocky. Dad was a successful salesman with a warm heart and a gift for communication, but he was utterly at a loss as to how to deal with my mother and her traumas. Originally from Brooklyn, he fought in WWII as a merchant marine whose ships were torpedoed and sunk three times in the North Atlantic. When he died, his life insurance was barely enough for her to live on. She wouldn’t accept financial help from me or my brothers and sisters. She was determined to survive, once again, all on her own.
Her odyssey in East L.A. and the working world began when she answered a newspaper ad. It was her first job since 1946. Forest Lawn Mortuary hired her on commission from the sale of each cemetery plot. She made cold calls using the city phonebook. It was my mother’s idea to capitalize on the untapped market of the city’s Latino immigrants. For only $7 a month, they too could share in the American way of death.
My mother bought herself a paperback Spanish manual and began to teach herself Spanish. Locating Latino surnames in the phonebook, she remembers picking out a name at random in East LA. She opened the call slowly, “Yo soy employada para la compañía Forest Lawn y yo quiero hacer una cita con ustedes par vendendoles propiedades del cementerio.” (“I am employed at Forest Lawn and I want to make an appointment with you to sell cemetery plots.”)
The voice on the other end was so warm that my mother kept calling Latinos until someone agreed to a home visit. Then she mounted a door-to-door canvass of the neighborhood. Every door was opened. Every family listened patiently while she struggled in broken Spanish.
Her first sale was to a middle-aged woman in a postage stamp-sized house. My mother remembers concentrating so hard on her Spanish there that her perspiring legs stuck to the plastic furniture covers. Over the next three months, my mother knocked on 100 doors, clinching seven sales totaling less than $500. But the job itself, selling a final place to rest, had a soothing effect on her. “The whole thing cheered me up,” she told Dr. Miranda. “I realized I wasn’t at the very bottom.”
In her modest home, she sustained a monk-like devotion to her reading, which she saw as her real full-time job. She forewarned all her visiting children, including me, that even short stays would set her back in her reading. “I get tremendous confidence from my reading. It’s like a medicinal dose,” she told Dr. Miranda. Then the doctor spoke:
“I’m going to start by asking you about complaints or symptoms. In psychiatry, there aren’t any definitive tests, so I have to ask you about symptoms.”
My mother jumped in immediately. “I don’t have big problems at all,” she interjected. “In fact, I’m very happy. I only get upset when I make a mistake. I think my only emotional problem is that I’m firmly convinced that I’m unlucky.”
She explained how her confidence at work grew enough for her to realize that she wasn’t as impoverished as she’d first believed. She’d acquired enough basic knowledge to understand her finances and live on Social Security and my father’s life insurance.
Dr. Miranda asked about her mood. “In the last month, has there been a period of time when you felt depressed or down for most of the day?”
“No. There is nothing personal now that depresses me. Compared to what I had before, this is the first happy time in my life.”
“Has there been a period of time when you were feeling so good or hyper that other people thought you weren’t your normal self?”
“No,” said my mother matter-of-factly, “I don’t talk to people at all.”
Finally, her quirks were surfacing. I’d feared that she was so determined to be certified normal that she’d conceal what most concerned me.
“Does it ever seem that people are talking about you or are taking special note of just you?”
“I don’t even pay attention because I don’t care what other people think,” my mother replied with a cackle of self-deprecating humor. She must have thought that Dr. Miranda would see it was obvious that none of these questions applied to her.
“Do you think that you get special messages from the TV, radio, or the newspaper?”
“I don’t watch TV.”
“Did you ever feel that you were especially important, that you have power to do things that other people couldn’t do?”
“I think, intellectually, that I’m important, but I know no one would listen to me. My daughter says that’s because of the way I look and dress.”
“Are you ever bothered by thoughts that don’t make sense, that keep coming back?”
“I don’t think about myself. I think about what I’m reading—politics, economics, history.” The doctor listened patiently as my mother shared more details of her past. She wound up with her own post-mortem: “My life was like a mushroom in a garbage dump.”
But with prodding from Dr. Miranda, my mother began to consider other grounds where mushrooms flourish—near family trees, for example.
She was especially proud that she’d helped one of her 13 grandchildren, Talia, prepare for her career as an investment banker. Talia, now 23, grew up in a rural town that was scarce on school resources, college prep courses, and cut-throat competition. To fill the gaps in her high school education and prepare her for competing professionally, my mother sent her pages of hand-selected and handwritten vocabulary words. Talia had to look up each one, write down the definition, use it in a sentence and send her work back to my mother, who paid her, out of her scant income, $25 per page of words. She helped Talia choose her college major, Economics, and sent her articles, underlined important points twice, and fielded her frantic questions late at night before exams. “She’s the biggest achievement of my life,” said my mother. “I’m her Aristotle.”
My mother was also proud that she’d helped a neighbor, a mechanic with broken English who had lost his job, lost his wife, and was about to lose his house because of an unpaid $40,000 hospital bill. She drove him to the hospital, cornered a bureaucrat, and negotiated the bill down to $800. So, though a recluse, she’d never totally disconnected from people.
After three sessions, my mother and I entered Dr. Miranda’s office for the final verdict. By this time, my mother was ready to dismiss any diagnosis—while I single-mindedly wanted a diagnosis, any diagnosis, that would land her in treatment. There had to be a diagnosis for her successive waves of trauma, for the terror of being Jewish in Nazi Germany, the lonely journey to America, the broken home, the loss of her father, her feckless and feeble mother.
Dr. Miranda began straightforwardly, addressing me first.
“Your mother does not meet criteria for depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia.”
My mother interjected, “Right. I’m not down.”
The doctor now looked directly at her. “I would describe you as somebody who is very perfectionistic, very compulsive about staying on your schedule. That’s the style you have developed. And my guess is that it helps you feel control over life. Your life prevented you from having control. Your style works for you.”
My mother nodded in agreement. The doctor turned to me again.
“I have to say I just really admire your mother as somebody with so little given to her during her early years. She put together a life that works for her. You know, I don’t think many people could do that.”
A huge smile appeared on my mother’s face. Dr. Miranda said to her, “You don’t complain. I think you’ve done a tremendous job, without the building blocks that a lot of people have. I’m very impressed by that.”
My mother was jubilant. “This is music to my ears.”
My mother then wagered a prediction: “Just the fact that you have certified me as normal, just the knowledge of that, will probably assuage all my symptoms in the future.”
As the reality of no diagnosis set in, I had to ask hard questions.
“Are you saying she doesn’t have…a disorder?”
My mother started laughing; I just wasn’t getting it.
“I’m being honest, Mom! It’s not every day that someone reports having no friends, reading non-stop, and refusing to talk to people.”
“No,” Dr. Miranda said. “I would say that she tends toward obsessive compulsive, keeping things ordered and actually preferring that order to a lot of time with people.”
“Why is she so antisocial?” I probed. I was dumbfounded after literally decades of thinking my mother was mentally ill.
Dr. Miranda replied directly to my mother, “You’ve chosen to live in your intellect. Others choose emotion. Your hurt was too bad as a kid.”
My mother steadfastly replied with one of her odd turns of phrase that no one completely understood, yet made perfect sense in her own context:
“I’m coasting along like a magnetic train. I’ll never hit the third rail.”
My mother left with a grin on her face and headed straight to a nearby bookstore. I stayed back to ask more questions. Dr. Miranda considered that my mother previously might have had depression after my father died, but over time she managed to “rebuild” herself. The point, she stressed, was that my mother functioned well in her happy hermit lifestyle, and that’s what mattered.
My mother was certifiably normal.
She wasn’t a textbook example of any mental disorder; she was a lesson in resilience. It was the unifying theme in her life, through her childhood in Nazi Germany, her sling-shotting to America, her teenage years after running away from her mother, and, once again, when she was alone after my father’s death. Her later eccentricities were coping devices to stave off mental illness.
I couldn’t help wondering if Anne Frank had survived the camps, would her radiant smile, wit, and writing prowess have protected her against the crush of memory? Or would she have become a shell of her former vibrant self as she came to reckon with the enormity of her loss? Would her oddities have motivated an overzealous daughter to bring her to a psychologist’s office with the mistaken idea that she suffered from mental illness?
These thoughts kept nagging at me, while my mother basked in being certified normal. The sessions with Dr. Miranda put her behind some in her reading. But she’s catching up now.
Miriam Davis is an award-winning freelance medical writer whose career spans nearly 30 years. She. She was the main writer for the first-ever US Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health (1999) and currently covers COVID-19, breast and lung cancer for Medscape/Univadis Medical News. She holds a doctorate in neurobiology from Princeton University and a B.A. from Wellesley College.
Top image: The author’s mother, Ann Davis, nee Anneliese Gruenebaum, in 1932 class photo at Ludwig-Richter-Schule, her school in Frankfurt, Germany. (She is second row, eighth from the right in the center, wearing a hat.) Her classmate Margot Frank, Anne Frank’s sister, is in the front row, fourth from the left. They were two of the five Jewish girls in the class. Ann Davis did not remember Margot or Anne Frank, but they lived around the corner from her.