Photo: Dr. Jean Bath in her research lab, UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles, CA
[an excerpt from my memoir in progress…]
My family’s gene pool contains the chromosomal structure of eccentric genius. If one were to argue Nature over Nurture, it also contains the genes of sociopath, rapist, alcoholic and homosexual. My aunt Jean was the lucky recipient of all nuclei that delivered intelligence. At the time, she was the only member of my family to go on to college and receive a degree. My goal as a teenage girl was to avoid the failings of the weaker links that floated within our familial DNA strain, follow the path of my aunt and receive my degree.
Aunt Jean obtained her Ph.D. in Physical Biological Sciences and went on to perform cancer research at UCLA Medical Center. Then the unexpected happened. This brilliant, highly esteemed research scientist carried a secret deep within her cells. In addition to her intelligent DNA, she also carried the gene for Paranoid Schizophrenia.
When I was born, my mother named me Tracy Jean. Tracy after an obscure actress she saw in the credits of the movie “Old Yeller” and Jean after my aunt Jean. By the time I was old enough to interact with my aunt, she was well into her downward spiral of mental illness. I was witness to a few bits and pieces of her intelligent mind. This genius was mixed in between intense one-way conversations with her dog and accusations that my mother was not her sister, but rather, an imposter there to steal her belongings.
Jean was hospitalized when I was ten years old. My mother being her only living relative, the responsibility was placed on her shoulders to decide the path my aunt’s life would take. At the time my mother struggled with her own demons. In the midst of a very abusive marriage to my father, she lacked emotional strength to deal with the issues of her half-sister, nineteen years her senior. She did the only thing she could at the time and signed papers for the County of Los Angeles to become her Conservator. The County decided Jean’s fate, and committed her to Patton State Hospital.
As I grew older, I could not help but think about this waste of genius. Such an intelligent human who had accomplished so much and had everything to offer the world, was now locked away in a psychiatric ward pumped full with lithium. My mother had lost contact due to her own self-preservation and an attempt to avoid facing her guilt. I could only imagine my aunt, with whom I shared a name, curled up in a dark corner drooling her days away. I also wondered if I might end up in the same predicament someday. Only time would reveal.
By my senior year in high school, I had proven myself academically and had a strong desire to flee my small town and go onto college to follow in the path of my aunt Jean. There was only one problem. My family was poor. My father had reached the peak of his alcoholism and was a jobless drunk. My mother had finally summoned the courage to divorce him but this left her the sole provider for two kids plus a mortgage. She had achieved a high school education, but this left her to struggle with a single income in order to keep food on our table and the bill collector’s at bay.
The day I received my acceptance letter into college, is a day I will never forget. I felt as though I held in my hand my ticket to freedom and a better life. When I showed the letter to my mother, my hopes were deflated with the only sentence out of her mouth. “Honey, I can’t afford to pay for this.” Though I had received an offer of financial aid, which included Grants and Stafford Loans, we were still required to come up with a deposit for the dormitory and pay for various other pieces of the education equation.
My heart sank and my hope disappeared. The goal I had dreamed about for so long was right there within reach, but deflated in an instant with the realities of our financial situation. I had no idea where to turn or what to do. I had long kept secret from my friends the internal strife and struggle of my family life. Finding every excuse to keep them away from my house, I always landed at their front doors and interacted as much as possible with their “normal” families. I couldn’t even talk to them about my peril, for fear that my true reality would be revealed and I would somehow be viewed as “different”.
It is when hope is at the lowest, miracles beyond one’s imagination tend to occur. My miracle came in the form of my mother’s actions. Emotionally shattered and vacant for most of my childhood, she somehow summoned the courage to find a solution to my dilemma. She set up a meeting with the high school guidance counselor to discuss our options. I was mortified at the thought of admitting to the guidance counselor that we had no money. After all, I was smart, capable and had blended in well with my peers. The same peers whose fathers were doctors and lawyers and who were going onto school at Stanford, Harvard, and Yale. Now my cover was about to be blown.
The counselor, Terry Rose, was blind. He sat in his office with his German shepherd guide dog curled up at his feet. He was a handsome man with salt and pepper hair and an athletic build. He ran three miles to the high school every day, just he and his dog. Though I knew who he was, I had never had a reason to speak to him before this day, or so I believed. My mother explained our financial situation to Terry and the issue of the dorm deposit that needed to be to the school in three weeks in order to reserve my spot. Terry was gentle and empathic and ended our meeting with the promise that he would make a few phone calls on my behalf.
Growing up in a small town has its advantages. A week after our meeting with Terry, my mom received the news that the local Rotary Club was donating the money for my dorm deposit. I breathed a great sigh of relief. My goal of going to school seemed a bit more realistic now. But there was still the missing chunk of money that needed to fill the spaces between government financial aid and the cost of attending college. I could only hope that somehow I would receive a scholarship.
Graduation night finally arrived. I felt so accomplished. The path towards my goal of following in my aunt Jean’s footsteps seemed even more illuminated that night. I sat in the grandstand surrounded by friends that I had gone to school with since the first grade. There was a feeling of excitement and anticipation in the air as the band played “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters. I truly felt that I had only just begun to live. I would no longer be held captive by the innocence of my little town and my dysfunctional family life. There was so much for me to see, to experience, to learn out in the world beyond what this quiet little valley had to offer.
Towards the end of the ceremony, the scholarship recipients were announced. One by one the names were called for a variety of monetary awards. My heart pounded in my chest and my stomach dropped with each recipient named. The whole list of scholarships was announced and my name was not among them. There was only one scholarship left that night, the largest one, the Mammoth Mountain Scholarship. This was a four-year academic scholarship that awarded a substantial amount of money to one student who had shown both exceptional academic and athletic achievement during their high school years. My eyes began to fill with tears as I realized this was my last shot. I believed at that moment that I didn’t have a chance to win this scholarship. There were so many other seniors in my school who deserved it more.
When the announcement came out of the speaker’s mouth, it took me a few seconds to realize that the speaker was talking about me. There she was in front of this crowd, singing the praises of my accomplishments, as she outlined my dreams and my goals for my future. Then she said them, the words that I will never forget. “This scholarship goes to Tracy Jean Butler”. My hands flew to my mouth and tears streamed down my cheeks. I shyly stumbled to the podium as my friends rose to their feet and cheered for me.
As I reached my hand out to accept the envelope, I felt that things would finally be okay. Somehow the gene pool had blessed me with at least a portion of the positive DNA that had created my aunt Jean and my life seemed to be moving forward. Jean was now very ill from a form of inoperable brain cancer, ironically the same disease she had spent years devoting her life to finding a cure. I could only imagine had her mind been given the opportunity to know me in this life, that she would be proud. I could only hope that the mental illness and now the life-threatening cancer that she contracted would not become a part of my own destiny. I could only wish that doors would continue to open up for me so that I might one day reach the goals that were burning inside my heart.