In Schizophrenia’s Wake, a Son Laments the Father Who Might Have Been

Sandra and Emerson Hart, Professional Actress from "Romper Room" and Grammy-Nominated Singer/Songwriter, Lead Singer of Tonic
Sandra and Emerson Hart

Emerson Hart is a singer-songwriter. In the 1990s, he co-founded the Grammy-nominated rock band Tonic and, as the lead singer, has written hit songs for the band’s multi-platinum albums. Emerson credits his mother, Sandra Hart, an actress and writer, for his love of language and performing, and his late father, Jennings, a singer in his youth, for handing down his musical talent. But Jennings also bequeathed to his son a darker legacy.

The most salient fact of Emerson Hart’s life from earliest childhood, one he kept hidden for years, was his father’s mental illness. Untreated and only belatedly diagnosed as schizophrenia, it manifested itself in abuse and rages that cast a shadow of unrelenting terror over the family, which included Sandra’s two small daughters from an earlier marriage. A decade ago, Emerson began confronting the family “secret” with the release of his first solo album.

Emerson Hart, singer/songwriter“I love kids and I wanted to be a father,” he says, “but I felt that if I continued to keep that stuff inside, it would poison my relationship with a child." (He now has a daughter, Lucienne, age six.) Since he has gone public, many fans tell him, often in tears, that his story is theirs. This is a main reason he and his mother so strongly support the work of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation—there should be a way to diagnose and treat these illnesses before havoc is wreaked.

The story began in 1968 when “Miss Sandra,” then the Baltimore-area hostess of the children’s television show “Romper Room,” found “the perfect husband.” Jennings, she says, “was handsome and charming, had his own business, lots of friends and a beautiful Irish tenor voice.” He also, she was to learn, had great skill at hiding the symptoms of his illness.

After Emerson’s birth in 1969, Sandra struggled to keep the family functioning. Then came a night when goaded by inner voices that told him she was unfaithful, Jennings, brandishing a screwdriver, lunged at her. She was somehow able to knock him off balance long enough to grab the children and flee. Arrested and hospitalized, Jennings was finally diagnosed and treated, but as soon as he was released and returned home, he stopped his medications and the violence resumed.

Unable to help him and increasingly concerned for her family’s well-being, Sandra divorced Jennings in 1977. Then, she says, the stalking began. “He stalked and threatened me constantly. I was certain he would kill me.” Instead, in a stranger-than-fiction twist, Jennings was killed, or so it is presumed. In 1980 he vanished without a trace, believed murdered by a jealous husband.

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Sandra Hart - "Behind the Magic Mirror"For Sandra, Jennings’ death brought relief, but closure came slowly. Although she married again, happily, and resumed a career as a television and film actress, it took her decades to exorcise the past. She did, finally, by writing about it in the book “Behind the Magic Mirror.” (photo on left) (Romper Room fans will recognize the allusion to the show’s “magic mirror.”)

For Emerson, the death brought nightmares. “To this day,” he says, “when I’m under great stress, my father will appear in my sleep, sometimes alive, sometimes dead, smoking a cigarette and staring at me.” Because of the unresolved circumstances of the death, Emerson long feared his father might return. Another “hammer over my head,” as he calls it, was the worry that he would inherit his father’s illness.

Ultimately, however, his deepest feeling is sadness. “If my father had had the right diagnosis and medication early on, if treatment had been possible, with all the good qualities he had going, I know he would have been an awesome father.”


Article comments

Thank you for sharing real stories... Emerson's final quote is powerful because when we can remove the stigma and shame associated with mental illness, recognize it early, and have medications and treatments that work, then it is possible to help people live productive lives. We must keep the conversation going!

So sorry for your loss and life challengers. Facing some of the same feelings with my 22 year old son.
Truely understand how and what you
lived with.I have hope help will come one day. :) struggling single mother still has hope and peace for all. :)

Thank you for that article.

I love these stories of recovery and people that have over come and persevered the problems of mental illness. I'm 55 now and was diagnosed with schizophrenia 30 years ago. Fortunately I was able to persevere myself and survive this terrible brain disorder. Thanks for sharing Emerson and good luck the rest of your life!

i feel for this family. I. myself suffer from Clinical depression. Unless, you have been there yourself, it is extremely difficult for others to truly understand why you are sick. I am now recovered and I am now helping others recover from there own mental illness.

Please share how you recovered? My son suffers with the illness and I have no clue how to help him.

Thank you for sharing. I am a 36 yr old man with schizophrenia. I have struggled with this disability for 15 yrs now and am close to giving up on myself. From your description of your father I was similar to who he was before his and my first episode. I was on top of the world and could've had the career of my choice. I was blessed to be athletic, good at any sport I ever tried. I graduated high school ranked in the top 10% of my class scholastically. And I'm told was good looking, handsome, cute etc. At age 22 I was diagnosed as a schizo and since I have gained nothing and lost everything. Including custody of 2 sons. I understand your dads struggle and you should know, everyday is a living nightmare for me. I am not violent as he seemed, I am sick as he was. He was probably more afraid of you, than you of him. Hopefully, if his life has passed, God has him and he is at great peace and is finally safe in his own mind.

Almost a year ago, on the hottest July 18 on record (at least in the Mid-Atlantic)--a day when all the newscasts were warning everyone not to be outdoors for any length of time, especially if we had any cardiac or pulmonary problems--my younger brother, who had been hospitalized with pneumonia for a week about a year earlier, was found outdoors, in a shaded gully near his apartment in Frederick, Maryland. The official cause of his death was hyperthermia. The more accurate cause was almost six decades' worth of schizophrenia, which first appeared in early childhood with uncommonly aggressive reactions to such circumstances as a major move when he was too young for kindergarten. As he grew older, he had almost constant difficulty in school, trouble making friends, and violent outbursts at home that typically took the form of verbal and physical attacks against me and, often, our parents. For a time in his mid-teens he seemed to be "mellowing," as our mother once told me hopefully, but that didn't last. After I finished high school and we moved back from New York to Maryland, his then-undiagnosed illness became worse; he finished high school, but it was a struggle for him. Meanwhile, I was enjoying life and getting a superb education at Smith College...where I was a senior when our mother died in October 1972. Her eight months with a very aggressive form of breast cancer led to exacerbation of Richard's symptoms; after her death, when he wasn't trying to kill himself, he was trying to kill me...if I was unfortunate enough (or sufficiently unaware!) to be within his reach. Our father, and later our stepmother, were no less unsafe. Richard was in and out of treatment, on and off medication for the rest of his unhappy life, in the last decade or so of which he was at Way Station (in Maryland), where, I have to say, someone fell down on the job, for in the last weeks or months of his life, his behavior led to complaints from his neighbors (about insect infestations), an observation by at least one maintenance person at his building that Richard had changed his lock to keep people out, and, ultimately, at least one individual's seeing him outdoors, in a heavy trench coat, last July 17. My family and I know that we are safer now...but at the cost of the life of a very bright and, underneath the illness, compassionate person, who inherited our parents', grandparents' and great-grandparents' skill with words and with a carpenter's tools, and who, with the right diagnosis as a young child and the right treatment for the rest of his life, could have had a very good life indeed, despite the presence of a severe psychiatric disorder. How do I know this? By having one. It's considered the most severe form of bipolar disorder. I've had it since 1974, when I was 23. Having no desire to be like my brother, I've never denied its existence and my need for state-of-the-art treatment. I've been extraordinarily fortunate in my care and in the results I've gotten with it, and smart in making the best possible use of it on an ongoing basis. That's what I've gotten out of my brother's illness...that, and the knowledge that those of us who have survived potentially-fatal disorders like mine, and have been able to build good lives for ourselves, have an obligation to share our experiences and what we've learned from them about helping others. I do this as an educator--a librarian for three decades and a writer, speaker and active member of various health-related organizations (since I have a number of other medical problems as well). I can't change the last four decades of my life with bipolar, my life with the effects of severe congenital strabismus and primary lymphedema (for which I was unable to get a diagnosis and treatment for more than forty years, by which time the disease had become disabling, disfiguring and potentially life-threatening), or my brother's life and death, but I can use them to help brighten the future.

My son has been gone 3 weeks he is schz . 35 years old was okay for one day now we are back with a set back. I have no idea what to do. He will just stand over me no talking. I have had very little sleep was up for 2 day. I have cancer my self can some one please tell what . I am doing wrong in Georgia.

I am so moved by the compassion in the posts regarding our story. Please know that you are not alone and so many are healing and coping with what life has thrown your way. You will survive. Thank you for reaching out and sharing your stories. And let us erase the stigma of mental illness, one person, one step at a time. It can be done.

How we treat our mentally ill is barbaric. My mother was mentally ill all my life, and now a son has suffered with it for over 18 years. He was on medication but like many he doesn't see that he has an illness and he went off his medication. That is the biggest problem that I see, many of the severely mentally ill do not understand that they have a problem. I think it is up to society to make sure that those who need treatment are getting it, but the system will not let family members care for our loved ones. The saying that "people have the right to be mentally ill" is a cop out, and this is what people in the system tell me. Time to change the system so that we can take care of our loved ones, as we would want to be taken care of if we were mentally ill. Why are we waiting to change this?

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