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SunLit excerpt: A life complicated by her mother’s mental illness led author on a complex journey

Joan C. Lieberman's autobiography has a unique point of view: the psychological concept of "Optimal Distance" defined her life with a sometimes homicidal mother with paranoid schizophrenia

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit

Colorado writer Joan C. Lieberman wrote an autobiography with a unique point of view: the psychological concept of “Optimal Distance” defined her life with a sometimes homicidal mother with paranoid schizophrenia.

She chose to share this excerpt “because optimal distance is a complex psychological issue which pervades our lives.”

She added: “My life was defined by my need to find optimal distance from my mother because she developed paranoid schizophrenia when I was an infant and was episodically homicidal.”

Colorado Authors League finalist for General Nonfiction


About Optimal Distance

On Mother’s Day 1981, I was two thousand miles away from my mother. The physical distance between us produced no longing, only vague relief. I was exempt from the Mother’s Day tributes codified in American commerce because the mind of my sixty-two-year-old mother had no space for expressions of affection of any kind, not even from Hallmark. She had been a paranoid schizophrenic since my birth.

On that Sunday morning, I was a staying at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., away from her and my Colorado home on a lengthy management consulting assignment. I walked up Connecticut Avenue in search of fresh air and coffee to Kramerbooks on Dupont Circle. While waiting to be seated, I bought “The Piggle—An Account of the Psychoanalytic Treatment of a Little Girlby Donald Woods Winnicott, a British pediatrician turned psychoanalyst.

Author Joan C. Lieberman (Photo by Stephen Collector)

The Piggle “caught my eye because, having previously read some of Winnicott’s extensive writings, his theories matched my own experiences as both a child and a mother. He had concluded that “good enough mothering” was sufficient to raise a healthy and happy child. With respect to mothering, Winnicott believed it was perfectly acceptable to earn a C+.

Winnicott saw the space between a mother and her infant, both the psychological and physical space, as the “holding environment.” He believed that our capacity for happiness starts in that space, but with an essential caveat. At the moment we take our first steps toward autonomy, away from the holding environment, thus changing the distance between ourselves and our mothers, we must believe that she will be there if needed.

I finished reading “The Piggle” as the sun was setting, finally understanding why psychological intimacy had always been hard for me, while my “precocious physical independence” had been essential to my survival. The seeds of this book began to germinate that night in my dreams. They reminded me that each of us is always searching for a comfortable distance from others. More importantly, what is comfortable psychologically and physically, continues to change throughout our lives.

All of us are born needing closeness to survive. As infants our brains literally shrink in the absence of physical contact. But if such closeness lasts too long, it can obstruct our emotional development. After a year or two, it is natural for us to begin to cautiously toddle away from our mothers, turning around frequently to make certain she is still close. Often we carry with us what Winnicott calls a “lovey”—a blankie, teddy bear, or other object of comfort. For the remainder of our lives, we are engaged in an endless dance of distance—always searching for more or less physical separation and psychological intimacy between ourselves and others.

It is rare for two human beings to maintain optimal distance, a perfect blend of psychological and physical intimacy, for an extended period of time. But our memories of such moments are powerful and have lasting impacts. A complicating factor is that our earliest experiences of optimal distance are soon intermixed with necessary efforts to socialize us. It is that stew of sensations which makes relationships with our mothers so tricky. Our first optimal distance experiences become mixed with feelings of vulnerability, dependency, and frustration, the inevitable by-products of being parented and growing up. We end up yearning for closeness while simultaneously resenting it.

This dance of distance begins with our mothers and fathers, or with a nanny, nurse, or foster parent. As toddlers we must continue the dance with our siblings and playmates. When we start school we are challenged to find a comfortable distance from our classmates and teachers. As adults moving into the world of work, we necessarily have to learn how to keep appropriate distance between ourselves and our supervisors, subordinates, and colleagues. Complaints about sexual harassment are examples of inadequate distance in workplaces and schools.

Most of us enter into one or more romantic relationships. The emotions produced by romantic love can be overwhelming, as if we are literally falling, giving us the same sensations of psychological and physical intimacy as between a mother and her infant. If we become parents, the dance begins all over again with our children.

My mother’s earliest paranoid hallucinations began at my birth and kept me in harm’s way. As a young child, I had no way of knowing that her behavior was being driven by the voices of invisible demons. Instead, I assumed something was wrong with me. My mother’s facial expressions and body language told me that she did not love me. Because she was unpredictably violent, my nervous system began operating on high alert and never stopped.

I learned three basic lessons from those early years. First, my survival depended on staying away from my mother. Second, listening and observing were my only tools of defense. Third, it was essential for me to pay rent on my very existence with complete compliance to her rules.

“Optimal Distance” by Joan C. Lieberman.

Growing up in Utah, my mother’s hallucinations were hard for me to separate from the magical thinking of Mormonism. My mother’s parents were the descendants of Mormon pioneers, but, unlike them, she stopped believing in Mormon doctrines during the Depression. With the onset of paranoid schizophrenia, she began hearing the voices of a god and a devil, who continued to whisper, or sometimes scream, in her ear until her death.

My father’s parents were a Jew and a Catholic; something about hardship turned my father into a committed atheist. My mixed religious lineage meant that in Utah I was born a full-blooded Gentile. Until I was fourteen, I always felt like a small wild animal desperately trying to hide from danger among a large herd of domineering dairy cows.

Throughout childhood I was convinced that no one else in the world had a mother like mine. Now I know that one out of every one hundred of us develops schizophrenia. It usually strikes almost overnight in the early years of adulthood. Males most often develop the disease when they are just finishing high school. The onset for females seems to come a few years later; in my mother’s case, she was twenty-three. Even though it is a devastating disease in desperate need of attention, there are no schizophrenia-research marathons or gala balls for wealthy supporters. Nor do we see pastoral drug advertisements with split bathtubs on television calling our attention to this human disaster for which there is no cure.

Victims were once warehoused in insane asylums or large mental hospitals. Now, most people suffering from schizophrenia wander our streets and populate our prisons. A few, like my mother, are fortunate enough to have a loyal spouse, a parent, or a child who try to respond to the symptoms of schizophrenia without resorting to either lock and key or abandonment. Instead they spend their lives as unpaid adjuncts to our broken mental health system.

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My mother became ill during the long era in psychiatric medical history when experts believed the disease was caused by “not-good-enough-mothering.” In Western civilization, the archetypal blaming of women started with Adam and Eve, so it was too easy for a misogynistic cultural virus to infect the psychiatric community in the face of a mysterious untreatable disease. The viral vector was a 1934 study of forty-five schizophrenics, done without controls or peer review, whose authors concluded that schizophrenia was caused by a confusing mixture of maternal overprotection and rejection. Prominent psychiatrists and psychoanalysts subsequently coined pejorative labels for the mothers of schizophrenic patients, including “schizophrenogenic mothers” and “refrigerator mothers.” Sadly, this practice of blaming mothers continued into the early 1980s.

I was almost forty when I read “The Piggle.” Despite several years of psychotherapy, I had not yet fully faced the implications of my early childhood. The most significant aspects of my history had either been kept secret from me or were stored in my unconscious. Winnicott’s descriptions of his psychotherapy work with the little girl affectionately called The Piggle caused me to recall more about how I had adapted to the circumstances of my birth. My father’s presence was critical, as were emergency substitute mothers. Later, there was a teacher, a neighbor, and three friends whose presence in my life created healing holding environments. Winnicott reminded me why my lovey, a teddy bear named Teda, had been so critically important, as well as explaining why I was still drawing upon the remembered warmth and devotion of my first four pets.

As an only and often lonely child, my diary became an imaginary friend, a source of comfort and companionship at stressful times. Many of my diary entries, some no more than a few misspelled words written in childish script, became narrative signposts as I attempted to recreate my childhood path, sometimes wishing I was The Piggle talking to Dr. Winnicott.

By the time medical experts concluded that schizophrenia is a biological mental illness, my mother was dead. She had been born with a secret, a biological glitch in her brain most likely caused by a viral infection while in utero. Somehow the glitch was triggered in the early stages of adulthood at a moment of high stress or environmental toxicity.

My mother innocently carried her still secret schizophrenia into marriage and then into motherhood where it became our family secret. My father and I built walls, elaborate labyrinths, and underground shelters attempting to hide it. Schizophrenia is still a shameful secret for most families.

Secrets have enormous generative powers. There are no sterile secrets; each one reproduces. Some secrets breed immature desperate offspring. Others, like the one in my family, resemble a large beast who has wandered into a domesticated environment. We learned to quietly tiptoe past it—to modify our habits, our communications, and our dreams in order to protect ourselves from something wild and unpredictable in our midst.

Family secrets are our only guaranteed inheritances. Some are told, some are discovered, and others remain unknown. Just as my parents inherited the secrets of their mothers and fathers, I became the recipient of their unspoken bequests, some of which I have passed on to my progeny. I repeatedly poured sunlight and truth onto the secret separating my mother from the best parts of herself, as well as from all others. Despite my hard work, fragments have fallen into the cracks of my life and into those of my children. I have come to believe that each of us leave a legacy that is partially secret.

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Yet secrets can also be helpful by allowing us to separate, to have our own space, to honor our uniqueness, and to preserve the deepest mysteries of our souls. Similarly, there is something in our biological makeup that seeks to protect us from the unbearable, hiding it from daily awareness. That defense mechanism allowed me to survive my childhood. Even though we see evil and experience terror, we may not remember having met it face-to-face. Instead, such encounters are locked away in our unconscious.

Neuroscientists believe we hold only fragments of sensory or visual memory from our first years of life, although parents sometimes provide their children with oral or pictorial snapshots of their early childhood. The reason so many adoptive children search so hard for their biological parents is our innate desire to know our earliest secrets. Of course, we cannot know everything about ourselves; nor do I mean to imply our histories are hidden because they are harmful. To the contrary, most are benign. If they have an emotional charge when revealed, it is because they resonate. Suddenly we understand why we prefer a certain food or, as twin studies demonstrate, why what we thought was our own unique quirk was really a genetic inheritance.

I was sixteen years old when I named our family secret in the kitchen of our California tract house. I hadn’t planned my announcement; I simply blurted it out in a moment of adolescent desperation. It was like unbuckling a too-tight belt or taking off an emotional girdle. Breathing deeply, the sweat of shame evaporated. Then, I felt fearless. At our family table, I experienced internal cohesion for the first time. There was no space between what I saw and what I pretended not to notice. It was my first experience with my own kind of optimal distance.


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— Buy “Optimal Distance, A Divided Life” at Bookbar

— Interview: “Optimal Distance, A Divided Life” author Joan C. Lieberman

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