Late-Onset Mental Illness Unravels a Family's Life

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Victor and Edith, 1935
Victor and Edith, 1935

A daughter supports mental health research to ensure other families don’t have to live through what hers did.

From The Quarterly, Winter 2012

Among Janet Larsen’s family mementos, carefully preserved and passed down by her mother, is a letter addressed to Janet’s father, Victor Lottmann, on the occasion of his high school graduation in 1928. Written by the school’s principal, the letter extended to the young man “heartfelt congratulations on graduating with honors.” Janet gets a particular kick out of the part that says “my hope is that you keep on ascending the ladder of success until, eventually, you sit in the chair of the chief executive of this great United States.” Framed with the letter is a photo of a handsome teenager, tall and slender, the world clearly his oyster.

Although he did not become president of the United States, and despite the advent of the Great Depression, Victor Lottmann did, as hoped, climb the ladder. After earning a business degree at Washington University in his hometown of St. Louis, he went to work for what was then Ralston Purina, hired by one of the company’s founders, who was impressed by his intelligence and drive. Shortly after, in 1935, he married Edith, his childhood sweetheart. A scant dozen years later, following a stint with a management consulting firm in Chicago, he landed a senior executive post with the Ford Motor Company.

Janet, born in 1937, was followed by two younger brothers. With the move to Ford, Victor built a house for his family in Bloomfield Hills, in suburban Detroit, that seemed to his little girl “like a palace.” She recounts: “He was really moving up. He traveled a lot for the company. He gave speeches all around the country. He was smart and he was charismatic.” Most of all, as far as his adoring daughter was concerned, “he was a wonderful father.” She remembers him, in those days, “always smiling and doing fun things.” One such thing she especially remembers. “One day, out in the country, he decided it was time to teach me to drive. There I was, age 11, driving a brand new Ford.”

In those prosperous postwar days, the Lottmanns were, says Janet, the quintessential “Beaver Cleaver” clan, with an English setter named Skippy, a mother who dressed up to greet her husband each evening and a father who fixed post-movie ice cream floats for his brood, and sang with such audible enthusiasm in church that his mortified daughter “wanted to hide under the pew.”

Then, seemingly out of the blue, the loving father, dashing husband and rising young executive, age 37, stopped smiling. Janet remembers him up all night prowling the house, unable to sleep. When his performance at work began to slip, the company urged him to seek psychiatric help. He refused, insisting that there was nothing wrong with him. His symptoms worsened and he lost his job. Finally hospitalized, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The beautiful home was sold and the distraught family moved back to St. Louis. For a time, the children were scattered, living with various relatives, until Edith was able to buy a small house, using the money Victor had so carefully been putting away for his children’s college education. She went to work selling real estate to support the family.

At the hospital, Victor was given electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and eventually released. One of the few forms of treatment then available for the mentally ill, ECT technology was considerably cruder than it is now, and could have devastating effects on memory. He returned home calmed, but unable to hold a job. “He tried working as a bookkeeper for a local company,” Janet recalls. “He lasted about a month.” The man with university training in statistics “had made too many mistakes.” Gone forever was the glamorous figure in “suit and tie, always spruced up.”  

Over the next few years, except for some brief periods in a sanatorium, Victor remained, as Janet remembers him, a quiet figure sitting in front of the television set—until he “went really awry.” Following a series of violent episodes, including one in which he trashed the kitchen, Edith was advised that his condition had become too dangerous for him to remain at home. He was committed to the state psychiatric hospital in 1956, where he remained for the rest of his life, and died, in 1976, from a kidney infection at the age of 64.

With the passing of time and the advance of psychiatric research, which she tries to keep abreast of, Janet Larsen has come to believe that her father was misdiagnosed. “It seemed as if at that time everyone who had mental illness was diagnosed with schizophrenia. But he didn’t have any of the symptoms of schizophrenia.” The alternating bouts of depression and mania he experienced were, she later learned, more typical of bipolar disorder. “In those days,” she says, “most people had never even heard the term bipolar disorder.”

And in those days, people kept mum. Throughout their childhood, Janet and her brothers were told almost nothing about their father’s illness. “You weren’t supposed to talk about it. There was all this pressure to keep it secret because it was so shameful.” And throughout the many years of his confinement, the family rarely visited him. The authorities at the hospital told Edith that after their visits he became extremely agitated, and it was in his best interest if they didn’t come.

In the years since, sadness at her father’s fate and at the lack of knowledge that kept him improperly treated and confined, as well as her own remorse at not having spent more time with him, have spurred Janet to become as informed and as open and forthcoming as possible with her own children about her father’s illness. She is heartened that the stigma of mental illness has lessened, that information can now be more freely exchanged, and that improvements in treatment have allowed more people like her father to live a near-normal life. As a mother of four and grandmother of 14, she is also keenly aware that mental illnesses can be passed down.  

Her family’s experience, plus an acquaintance with the late Sidney R. Baer, Jr., led Janet to support the work of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. During several years when she was a bank trust officer, Baer was one of her clients. The scion of founders of a department store chain, whose own life was constrained by schizophrenia, he established an organization to support mental health efforts. In 2004, the Sidney R. Baer, Jr. Foundation entered into a partnership with the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, then called NARSAD, to help fund NARSAD Grantees. As part of that support, each year the Baer Prize, carrying a stipend of $40,000, is awarded to a NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee who has initiated innovative and  promising research in schizophrenia.  

Sidney Baer’s knowledge and experience of mental illness also helped to reinforce Janet’s conviction that her father’s symptoms were those of bipolar disorder, not schizophrenia. The state hospital where Victor was kept is long closed, but as a project in her retirement, Janet is hoping to track down her father’s records to learn more about the course of his illness.

Today, scores of investigators, many working with NARSAD Grants made possible by donors like Janet Larsen, are exploring the biological underpinnings of bipolar disorder, tracing its course and developing and testing new forms of treatment. Among them, Brent Forester, M.D., director of the Mood Disorders Division of the Geriatric Psychiatry Research Program at Harvard’s McLean Hospital, is one of the NARSAD Young Investigator Grantees whose work on late-life mental illness is highlighted on page 18.

Dr. Forester explains that with bipolar disorder, untreated symptoms tend to worsen with age, as may have been the case with Victor Lottmann. “Focusing on an older population with bipolar disorder is particularly important,” he says, “given the aging of the population,” which, beyond the personal heartache to families like Janet’s, imposes an enormous socio-economic burden.

Janet Larsen believes we’ve “come a long way” from the days of her father’s illness. Her hope is that with more research, once-vibrant lives will not have to end so sadly.

Article comments

Thank you so much for this. I recently found out that my grandmother whom was a Japanese immigrant to the US in 1954 became ill and was diagnosed schizophrenic where she was placed in the mental hospital here in WA State around 1961, leaving behind my mother whom was kindergarten. My grandfather refuses to discuss this, as you said, it is shameful. Instead my mother was told that her mother went back to Japan. We have now found out that she actually lived here in WA the entire time. My grandmother passed in 2000 and it has been hard on us to find this out and know about her via a death certificate and court documents where she was appointed a guardian since no records show she had any family on record. I am hoping to learn more about her illness and or what perhaps she may have "really" had...I am in process of getting her mental health records...it is hard, there is so much stigma and hard to tell others the story on why she left, how she left etc....

Thank you for your story. Mental illness runs in my family (although too many are shamed to admit it). Since my brother's diagnosis (with schizophrenia) I have made it my mission to educate and end stigma. Currently I am working on a program for high school students. This is the age to educate and lay a foundation. You can learn more about my campaign at: www.gaining-insight.com

My mother is a diagnosed schizophrenia. My brother and sister refuse to see her or talk to her. It breaks my heart... Thank you for this story.

Thank you for your story, I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2009. I also have binge eating disorder. I have ECT treatments every month which seem to help with the depression. I believe that I was born with genes for ADHD, binge eating, also bipolar. I'm beginning to believe that my 28 y/o son may have all of this too but is in denial at this time. It's a shame that my family (mom, brother, sister) really don't understand what I go through to try to have a some what normal life.At times my mind is just racing.

My father retired from the military after 30 years in 2010. Shortly after we became aware of insecurities, paranoia and eventually being treated for mental health. He was an honorable man, noble and smart. But 3 days ago he shot himself. And I am lost as to where to go from here... How did the mental illness start? They are saying schizophrenia, but something else caused this. Thank you for sharing.

Thank you for sharng your story.My son has been diagnosed with a mental disorder that started a couple years after he was out of high school. The Dr.s never really gave me a clear diagnosis but have on his medical records listed as schizophrenia. I have committed to taking care of him since 2009 after a few visits to the ER and the police department. He has been taking abilify since his incidents and medical examinations which is about 3 yrs now. I am doing all I can to try and put myself in his train of thought . He did not choose this outcome of life and would not wish it on anyone. My son is now 23 yrs old, middle child with two older sisters and two younger. He is very kind and compassionate to everyone he talks to and loves to communicate with anybody that would carry a conversation with him. He recently has stopped hanging around his friends as he did several times a week and is now always by mine and my husbands side. My prayers are to have him be able to have his friends by his side again and enjoy life...it is going to be a long road but with myself, his father and sisters at his side anything is possible. Again thank you for sharing your story.

Thank you for sharing your story. It is too bad that so little progress has been made on mental illness since your father's ordeal. The brain and nervous system are complex as is the chemistry involved which alters the relationship between the brain and nervous system if more so. It is amazing how so many humans who start of their lives with all their faculties intact suddenly can spiral and descend into a state of helplessness, and dependency on their families if they are lucky enough to have one or support from the state.It is very painful for them as it is for their loved ones who stand helpless and watch every day a part of them eroding away. I hope medical science will make more breakthroughs about mental illness; figure out what sets off the chemistry in the body to attack the nervous system, brain receptors and neurons.We too struggle with schizophrenia son of 24 years of age and watched in that last five years his cognitive faculties diminish, personality as well and his retreat from life, and his attempts to suicide ( even on medication). Thank you medical scientists for your endeavor please keep up your research as you alone have the ability to discover the causes; making a life change for those inflicted and those who shall be.

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