His Mother’s Demons

An alum’s bittersweet memoir of growing up in the shadow of mental illness

Clemens Schoenebeck

The breaking point came when Sophie washed the boys’ clothes in kerosene. She did it to drive out the evil spirits she thought had infused their Sunday best. Their father didn’t know what she had done until he saw his three young sons squirming and scratching in the church pew, the skin beneath their pants and collars red and burning. Soon after, with their exhausted father not sure what else he could do, the boys watched as their mother was taken to the state mental hospital.

Having a mother with schizophrenia made growing up a minefield for Clemens Schoenebeck, D62, who never knew what might trigger the voices in Sophie’s head. But his memoir, Dancing with Fireflies, about a family living with mental illness in the 1940s and 1950s, is far from a horror story. It is a tale of love, grief, fortitude, camaraderie and, ultimately, compassion.

Sophie’s voices, which she began hearing as a teenager, fed off her strict Catholic upbringing and her fear of hell. Doing God’s will, she believed, would keep her family safe from demons. That translated into hard work for Schoenebeck and his two younger brothers. “We had to pray the rosary so often that I thought our fingers would become dented from the beads,” Schoenebeck writes.

When the boys asked to be allowed to play after their chores were done, their mother would crumble up scraps of paper with the words “yes” and “no” written on them and toss them onto a portrait of the Virgin Mary. Whichever paper landed closest to her haloed head was the answer. Sometimes, Sophie would drop the papers several times until she got the answer she felt was right. Then it was back to waxing floors and washing windows for the brothers.

Sophie often hid her hallucinations from her husband, knowing it would cause arguments, but the children spent more time in her fractured world. They would go along with some of her more harmless obsessions, such as secretly saying Mass together when their father was at work; they used bits of saltine crackers as Communion wafers. “We didn’t know of any other kids who played priest,” Schoenebeck writes. But the game brought a smile to his mother’s face, which could be beautiful and loving in the peaceful times. “If she was happy, we were happy.”

Other manias were more worrisome. She wrote large checks to the church, leaving the family with no money for rent. She regularly locked her family out of the house, saying she could hear voices flowing along the electrical wires or coming through the radio. She would sit for hours in her rocking chair, talking to herself. When she stopped cooking and doing housework, the boys learned to fend for themselves.

Laughter Amid Tears

Humor helped the brothers get through the day-to-day. Schoenebeck’s brother Bill had the idea to put the baseball mitt on the four-foot-tall plaster statue of Jesus that stood at the end of the bedroom hallway and use it to play catch. “We did have laughter even at the worst of times,” Schoenebeck says now. “We had to find our laughter.”

His father, a machinist at Penn State University who worked tirelessly to make ends meet, was ill-equipped to help Sophie, although he tried. “Fresh air and exercise” was his cure for most problems.

Schoenebeck writes: “That which my father could not feel and measure by hand was a mystery to him. His way of overcoming any obstacle in his path was to work harder, be stronger and take the time needed to polish the rough edges smooth. ... The well of patience he tapped for his handiwork ran dry when dealing with the mystery of my mother.” He would insist to Sophie that she didn’t need to listen to the voices.

But she could not shut them out. Schoenebeck, the eldest and most serious of the brothers, was the one with whom she usually shared her hallucinations.

“The voices started whistling, high and shrill, when Mom tried to pray them away,” Schoenebeck writes. “When she covered her ears, I knew they were really bad. Her eyes got scary, with a weepy glow in them, like they were hot with tears that wouldn’t come out. When she got that way I knew she was halfway between angry and frightened. ... That’s when my brothers and I learned to be invisible.”

Sophie spent six months at the mental hospital, where she was diagnosed with “dementia praecox: paranoid type,” a condition now called paranoid schizophrenia. Although shock treatments and hot and cold baths were common therapies at the time, Sophie’s care consisted mainly of conversations with caring doctors. The hospitalization helped for a while, but she never overcame her illness. At times, Schoenebeck resented her for the hardships she caused, and resented God for ignoring his prayers. “I thought if I was a good boy, and I pleased Jesus, he would fix my mother,” Schoenebeck says. “I really tried.”

Despite the turmoil at home, Schoenebeck did well in school. He received a track scholarship to Penn State and eventually enrolled at Tufts School of Dental Medicine. He says most of his dental school classmates would be surprised to know that his childhood had such dark moments. “Happy and friendly, I think that was how most people perceived me,” he says.

That doesn’t mean it left him unscarred. For a time, the special, placating language he had learned to use around his mother and his instinct to protect his own feelings hampered his relationships with others. It took him a while—and some frank encouragement from his wife—to learn to speak his mind instead of avoiding conflict.

By the time Schoenebeck was working in private practice in Massachusetts and starting to come to terms with his mother’s schizophrenia, Sophie had developed dementia. She died in 1986—before he realized there was something he needed to say to her.

A Poet Emerges

Retired since 2000, Schoenebeck lives in Swampscott, Massachusetts, with his wife, Bonnie. The urge to write came almost out of the blue. He composed his first poem about two decades ago, right after seeing his newborn granddaughter for the first time. “It was an epic of Hallmarkian grandeur,” he self-deprecates. But soon he was publishing in respected poetry journals, such as The Aurorean, Midwest Poetry Review and Ibbetson Street Press; three of his poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Eleven years after his mother’s death, he sat down to write a poem for Sophie. He describes it as an apology for his resentment, an acknowledgment of her love and “recognition that she never asked for the turmoil of her life.”

He says he could feel her hand on his shoulder as he wrote it.

The memoir grew from there. Schoenebeck corroborated his memories by interviewing relatives, contacting the state hospital and going through the family album. He pieced together some things, such as how the death of Sophie’s older sister and her father, both when she was 10 years old, must have traumatized her. The research also opened up a forgotten wound. He knew he had a younger sister who had been stillborn, but he had somehow blocked out the day his very-pregnant mother obeyed the voices telling her to jump from a second-story window. “Denial is such a gift when you need it,” Schoenebeck says now.

Schoenebeck has received dozens of emails and letters from people who have said the book helped them speak openly about the mental illness in their own families. That surprised him in a way. He thought that mental illness was no longer the taboo subject it was decades ago. A psychiatrist who appeared with him at a book reading enlightened him: “We are not anywhere near there yet.”

As hard as his mother made their lives in many ways, he is protective of her memory. He doesn’t want her to be seen as a villain. Looking back, “I wouldn’t change anything about our life,” he says, “except that my mother would not have suffered as she did.”

Dancing with Fireflies is available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. 

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.


Not One Little Corner of Peace

An excerpt from Dancing with Fireflies by Clemens Schoenebeck

Dad shuffled us into the kitchen so Father Gallagher could be alone with my mother. Through the door I heard his voice. Confiteor, deo omnipotenti … he was hearing Mom’s confession. I was learning to be an altar boy, so I knew the Latin. But why confession? What was there for her to confess? Were the voices punishment for something bad my mother had done?

In a few minutes, we were called into the room so we could be with Mom. Bill and Alfie stood on each side of her. Father Gallagher wanted to know how it was for my mother. Was there any part of the house that was worse for her? Did the voices visit her all day long? He wanted to know where to do his work.

“Everywhere.” Dad pointed to the kitchen, to the dining room, all around the living room. “Upstairs, too. Day and night. There’s no rest in this house. Not one little corner of peace. Gott in Himmel. Please, a little peace.” Now my father was hugging himself.

When the priest pointed to the closets and looked at Mom, she shook her head, Yes. That’s where they go at night. That’s what my mother said to me, too. They said something else to my mom. Come and be with us, Sophie. It’s nice in the dark.

We followed Father Gallagher through the house, while Dad stood by Mom’s chair, looking out the window. The priest waved the sprinkling wand like a sword slicing the air, back and forth, raining holy water side to side, where it dribbled down the walls. Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, he chanted, chasing something we couldn’t see. Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, trying to scare away something that had never been invited into our home.

I tried to follow him upstairs, but Dad waved me back. Bill and Alfie and I stood on the floor below, listening to our priest’s prayers as they swirled above us, like storm clouds, thundering his entrance into our bedrooms and hallways.

Vade retro Satan … Dominus vobiscum … Pax vobiscum, the Latin echoes heavy in the air, singing into each other, trying to choke the breath out of my mother’s tormenting voices.

Our priest’s prayers and magic worked for a while. My mother smiled, as if her scary visitors had gone on vacation. During those restful periods, it seemed as if we had more oxygen to breathe. But Father Gallagher’s visits became more frequent as his incantations lost their power. The voices were getting used to the holy intrusions. Mom said they were starting to move to other parts of the house, playing a game of hide and seek with Father, getting darker, blending more easily into the shadows. She said the voices were making faces, taunting our priest. They were lining up against him, and they had an unfair advantage. There were more of them than there was of him.

Back to Top