A Somehwhat Less Murky Picture

A Somehwhat Less Murky Picture

A Story by Elizabeth Moore

This is a creative non fiction piece, all true, mostly about events before my birth. It relies heavily on family member's memories.



A Somewhat Less Murky Picture

It is 1975, and my mother is living in a two-bedroom house in the snowy little town of Channahon, Illinois. She is married to a man named Marty Nichols, a long haired, wild card that I will never meet. She’s already met my father a couple years earlier in high school, an all star basketball and baseball player who married young to a friend of my mother’s. The woman’s name is Susan, just like my mom’s. Back then, my father is a friend of Marty’s. Back then, everybody is a friend of Marty’s.

            Marty likes to drink. So much, that after eight years of marriage my mother will leave him, taking my half-brother and sister with her. A few years after that, Marty will commit suicide by inhaling exhaust fumes from his grandparent’s garage-parked car. My father and his first wife, the other Susan as I’ve come to think of her, will divorce, and my mother and father will reconnect through a high-school friend. They’ll console one another about the failures in their previous marriages, consequently beginning a new one of their own.

These snippets of information were like clues to a grand mystery when I was a child. Evidence was released slowly over the years, usually by through an elder cousin at that year’s family reunion or holiday dinner. Sometimes a certain amount of prodding was needed which I endeavored to do wholeheartedly, the true spirit of such childhood detective idols as Harriet the Spy or Nancy Drew, Mary-Kate and Ashley, “The Trenchcoat Twins”. When found, clues were put together carefully to create a somewhat less murky picture. They said to me my parents had a life before me. The world had been here even when I wasn’t.

By the time my mother realizes Marty is an alcoholic, they have been married and living in the little house in Channahon for a year. She has one child, my brother Ryan. He is a dark haired, freckled faced boy and will be indistinguishable from my sister a few years later. With Marty spending more time at Cookies, the local bar, than at work, it’s up to my mother to support the family.

She begins interning as a student nurse at Saint Joseph’s Hospital. She works on the psychiatric triage floor where patients are kept for only three months, a fact that keeps the nurses on their feet when disorders range from paranoid schizophrenia to multiple and anti-social personality disorder. The hospital is in Joliet, only fifteen miles away from my mother’s house in Channahon. She works a shift from three to eleven-thirty pm.

The stories she has told me from her three years at Saint Joseph’s are many and varied. They have meshed deceivingly together to create a sort of cliché movie montage; screaming patients tied down with leather straps, two faced doctors, white walls and sterile needles. How they shocked me as a child! These stories were the beginnings of a budding interest in the field of psychology, something that in elementary school unfurled to an obsession with experiments in Auschwitz, somewhat disturbing my Lutheran teachers. In college it earned me a minor.


She is walking down a white-washed hall, orthopedic shoes padding quick and light across the rows of tiling. In my mind’s eye she is young. A collection of old photos and stories has given her waist-length hair and light brown eyes so similar to my own. She has been interning as an assistant nurse at Saint Joseph’s for a few months and is going to speak to the head doctor about a patient.

            My mother tells the doctor that a man told her something she thought was worth mentioning. He’d said, quite calmly, that when he left the ward and returned home next week, he was going to go to his closet, take out the shotgun hidden there and shoot himself. He is a middle-aged man, has a wife and children. He has been in the psych ward for three months and was admitted for depression. My mother is fairly certain he is serious.

The doctor is the kind of man that thinks all nurses, being predominantly female, know nothing. “He has to go home sometime,” he says, shuffling through a stack of papers and not quite meeting her eye.


The man did go home next week. He did exactly what he told my mother he would. When the news got back to Saint Josephs, she describes how cold the other nurses were. Numb, she calls them. They’d worked on the floor for much longer than she. They were used to the frequent deaths. My mother told me that there was a saying about Saint Joseph’s nurses: they eat their young. She was young and naïve when she started work at Saint Joseph’s, and the job was tough. But even when she’d finished her internship, had graduated from college, and was returning to work as a full-time nurse at Saint Joseph’s, she says that she never became numb like the others.


My mother is promoted to charge nurse at Saint Joseph’s. All the other nurses now report to her. She is responsible for the handling the dangerous patients. She gives them Thorazine injections and every so often must call the police for her and the other nurses’ protection. Saint Joseph’s has grown in the past two years. They now have one hundred beds for psych patients, and there are six psychiatrists that my mother reports to. 

Saint Joseph’s gets a new transfer patient. When my mother first meets the woman, her name is Karen. She’s been transferred from the Mayo Clinic where the doctors slapped her with a diagnosis of hysterical paralysis. In all reality, they have no idea what is going on. She is in a wheelchair and cannot, or will not, walk. It has yet to be seen which is the truth. She is a plain woman, doesn’t wear any makeup. She is quiet and keeps to herself. Before being institutionalized, she was a hand writing analyst for the police. She analyzes my mother’s, tells her she is having power struggles in her marriage.

Karen has been in the psych ward for three weeks now, and still the doctors at Saint Joseph’s don’t know what is keeping her in a wheelchair. My mother is going through her daily rounds, checking vital signs and giving medications. She stops by Karen’s room. When she walks in, Karen is in the bathroom. But she is not in her wheelchair. She is standing up, looking at herself in the mirror. She is putting on make-up.

“Karen,” my mother says, “what are you doing?”

“Don’t call me Karen. My name is Pam,” she says, pursing her lips, then painting them with bright red lipstick.

The doctors and other nurses are skeptical. They don’t think Karen has multiple personality disorder, something that then was just beginning to be understood. She is just desperate for attention, they say. She is faking. But my mother knows better. She gets to know Karen and Pam well. Karen has a husband, Pam does not. Karen likes to read, Pam likes to go out with any and all of her many boyfriends. Karen sits in a wheelchair, Pam does not. My mom gets along with Karen better, and sometimes Pam gets jealous.


It will be three years after Karen leaves Saint Joseph’s that my mother sees her again. She is still working as a nurse, but no longer at the same hospital, and no longer as a psychiatric nurse. She is also still married to Marty. His alcoholism has gotten worse, and signs of depression are becoming more and more evident every day. But it will be another eight years until he commits suicide. My mother is still the main provider for my half-brother and sister. Ryan is four now. Melissa, my half-sister, is one.

It is a Friday morning in the little house in Channahon. My mother is cooking breakfast, half listening to one of her morning talk shows (Regis Philbin is the host), waiting for the children to wake up. Marty still hasn’t come home from the night before, something that my mother is used to. The children no longer ask why. Later that day she plans to take them to get their pictures taken. A free five-by-seven will be the only print she can afford. She will have to argue with the photographer for even that.

            Regis’ voice echoes across the linoleum tiles of the kitchen as my mother cooks. “Please, Miss,” he says to his guest. “Take a seat.”  The woman is wearing a powder blue suit with beige pumps, and she sits with her legs crossed tight. “Tell us your name.”

            It is at this moment that my mother notices something about the woman. She is oddly familiar, something about the way she sits with her hands just so. Someone else, a smaller woman, is sitting in the next chair as if she were trying to blend into the background. This woman wears white from head to foot. She is a nurse.

            “My name?” the woman in the powder blue suit says. “Well, that really depends.” She smiles, lets out a small laugh. “But you can call me Karen. Most people do.”

            Now my mother has stopped cooking. She walks to the Television. “Tell us why you’re here, Karen,” Regis says. “I’ve heard you’ve had a rather rough time of it.”

 As my mother listens the pieces fall into place. The show is about multiple personality disorder, and Karen is the only guest. She talks about how movies such as “Sibyl” and “The Three Faces of Eve” have given the public a rather fantastical, though not entirely inaccurate, view of the disorder. Karen is here to show the world what it’s really like. After years of being in and out hospitals, she is now living in the real world. The woman in all white is a private duty nurse that lives with her. Karen talks about the controversies surrounding her disorder. How throughout her life many of her doctors and nurses didn’t believe her; how she still struggles to this day with people who say she’s faking. She says her husband stuck by her even though he knew she’d slept with other men. He understood it wasn’t her, that she doesn’t even remember those nights. It had been Pam.

            My mother hears this and she feels empowered. Not just because she knew Karen was telling the truth, but because she had chosen to believe her when no one else did. When she told me this story, the last clue to the mystery (at least for now), she said it gave her the confidence to leave Marty. In her words?  To get her s**t together and divorce him.



            It will be another ten years until I spring to life. I will hear about Marty and the other Susan and think of them as phantoms. I will see my half-brother and sister and always think of them as full. I will begin to understand my mother’s life before I entered it, how much work it took to get her where she is now. I will put the clues together, piece by piece, until they fit. Until the mystery is no longer a mystery at all.

© 2010 Elizabeth Moore

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Shelved in 1 Library
Added on May 23, 2010
Last Updated on September 23, 2010
Tags: family, psychology, Channahon, Illinois, detective, mystery
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Elizabeth Moore
Elizabeth Moore

Tallahassee, FL

I'm majoring in Creative Writing at Florida State University. My passion is fiction, but I love to write pretty much anything and everything. I love playing guitar and piano. I love reading boo.. more..

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