Uncle Leo was the sort of fellow who didn’t care if Dad collected rattlesnakes for spare cash and curiosity. Dad, for his part, was unfazed by Leo’s tendency to hoard rocks and weave captivating, if odd conspiracy theories. So, in in the late 1950’s the two graduate students roomed together.
Dad usually vanished over weekends, spelunking, exploring, or just being manly. He’d leave his destination with Leo, “to help the authorities find the body,” lest he didn’t make a timely return. Near Christmas, 1961, as Dad left for a weekend trip, Uncle Leo ignored his parting jests. Engrossed in cleaning his gun, Leo absently scuffed his feet at the kitchen table.
Dad blew in Sunday to find Leo still cleaning his gun–the floor beneath him scuffed to the concrete.
Dad packed up his unresponsive roommate for the three-day trip back to Ohio. Uncle Leo never spoke, never ate, only stared.
My future grandfather and ten inches of snow met Dad at the train station. Leo shivered as Dad handed him over to Grandpa, who said little but squeezed Dad’s hand tight. Uncle Leo went straight to the Athens State Mental Hospital—birthplace of the lobotomy.
They treated his schizophrenia with two seasons of the “miracle drug” Thorazine before Uncle Leo bolted. He preferred flying saucers and CIA persecution to the blunted, stunted world of Thorazine.
Meanwhile, Mom and Dad met, married and moved an hour south.
Throughout the 70s, Uncle Leo visited with Mom and me. Unannounced, he materialized in army fatigues, concealing weapons and clenching notebooks. Mom required Uncle Leo to unload his guns during visits. One time, he refused with prickly, whispered intensity.
Silence choked the kitchen. My feisty, outspoken mother did not insist. Instead, she hustled me out the back door to visit a neighbor. Dad came home soon after and had a quiet, brief talk with Uncle Leo. When I was summoned home, a weeping Uncle Leo apologized to me for making our home “a scary place.”
I felt sorry for Uncle Leo–a quiet talk with my Dad was much scarier to me than my uncle and a boatload of guns. His sadness and remorse gnawed on my brain at nighttime. I pictured his blotchy sunburned face, streaked clean by channels of tears. Why was he so sad? What did Dad say? Was I somehow to blame?
Years passed before I could grasp the fear which seized my mother, or appreciate how my father resolved the situation. Dad did not threaten Uncle Leo; he assured him he was safe. Our house was CIA-proof and Uncle Leo was not allowed to bring his fear into a house with his adoring niece in it.
And I did adore Uncle Leo. His arrival meant strange surprises: bottles of minerals with supernatural properties or odd homemade dolls with intricate embroidered faces. Then, he told stories. Amazing, bizarre and a little incomprehensible, his tales of adventure and persecution entranced me. His narratives left me so deliciously agog that my mother issued a disclaimer with every visit: Uncle Leo’s stories were just as fictional as Grandmam’s ghost stories.
In my mind, however, his sincerity outweighed Grandmam’s theatrics. I could imagine orange glowing ufos burning hieroglyphic notes in the desert sand to Uncle Leo, who had to scramble to find them before The Company agents did.
Two years after the gun incident, Uncle Leo quit visiting.
Uncle Leo shot himself dead when I was fourteen. His story unfolded in yellow legal pads, crowded with capital letters. The Company’s campaign of malicious activities culminated with his poisoning: they had infected him with cancer. His last despondent words were printed neatly in black felt ink: “Cleansers not working. Will not suffer.”
Poignantly, the medical examiner reported that the vast quantities of “cleansers,” (i.e. bone meal/vitamins) he ingested to purify himself contributed to the sickness he mistook for cancer.
If only we knew.
Clean-up was dreadful. Spooked by the quantity of weaponry, strange wires and eerie notes, local law enforcement minimized their efforts. Mom and Dad walked into a house floored inches thick with newspapers. Military ammunition boxes lined the main hallways. Snatched from his highway job, sticks of dynamite cluttered his shower floor. Hazardous chemicals and poisons shared shelves with bottles of aspirin and laxatives.
To add to the unnerving chaos, Uncle Leo had booby-trapped several rooms. My folks encountered a rusty shotgun half-heartedly rigged to a doorknob. The kitchen housed a heavily chained refrigerator festooned with locks and seemingly wired with explosives. Fortunately, the wires dead-ended in a closet. Mom and Dad, nevertheless, used a mattress to protect themselves as they pried it open. Inside, a large steel firebox secured a single head of cabbage. Mom wept over the sadness of it for days.
A raw and painful reminder of his mental decline, the months it took to clear Uncle Leo’s property crawled by. Shocked by Leo’s disturbing living conditions, Mom blamed herself for not visiting him or questioning why his visits ceased. Dad sympathized and carried his own burden of guilt. I reacted by destroying things when my parents weren’t home. I hammered old electronic stuff in to bits and buried them in our backyard.
Years later, Mom and I unearthed a demolition project. Mom laughed and said, “Ah, one of your Uncle Leo relics.” I must have gasped, because she touched my shoulder, and added, “Everyone works through grief differently.”
I still think of him. Uncle Leopold altered the course of my life. I was not content to be an engineer or mathematician. I needed to know why some people were different and what to do about it. Some answers live in text, but most come from relationships with schizophrenic people.
My current views of neurodiversity and autism acceptance sprang from these connections. You can’t cure a person with schizophrenia, but you can give them control over symptoms that distress them. You can accept them as beautiful and whole people. Isn’t this what any person, regardless of circumstance wants?