Charles Lachenmeyer, Ph.D. ’69
from a review of a book about him by his son
Biography Of A Forgotten Man
Son Retraces Father’s Steps, Documents Elder’s Downfall Into Schizophrenia
April 23, 2000|By MIKE HOLTZCLAW Daily Press
“I certainly felt a lot of regrets for what had started out as such a brilliant career, and sadness for both this person, Charlie Lachenmeyer, and his son and family,” Kernodle says. “Regret to know that the larger contribution he might have made got short-circuited by the illness.”
As they talked, Kernodle picked up on the remorse that Nathaniel felt, the way this son was questioning whether he could have done something to help his father hold on.
And that led to a second thought.
“It made me think about other students who have come through here,” Kernodle says. “You wonder if the same thing has happened to others, if this is a story that has repeated itself in the lives of lots of people.”
In a sense, that’s why Nathaniel Lachenmeyer wanted to write “The Outsider.” An estimated 2.5 million Americans are afflicted with schizophrenia, but the condition remains almost universally misunderstood, often wrongly equated with multiple- personality disorder.
He was just a teen-ager when he began reading up on schizophrenia, forming a context for his father’s increasingly paranoid and delusional letters. His education became decidedly hands-on as his research into “The Outsider” took him to Burlington, Vt., where he sat on the same bench his father had sat on a few years earlier with no shelter from the sub- zero temperatures.
He met such people as the manager of the shelter who had reluctantly turned his father out when both his behavior and his hygiene became impossible. Then there was the college student who had befriended Charles after detecting the intelligence and education beneath the layers of madness, followed by the sub shop cashier who would look the other way when Charles would steal a bag of chips while sipping coffee refills at 3 a.m.
Somewhere along the line, an ironic point hit home. Most of the people Lachenmeyer interviewed had told him that his father was always scribbling away at notebooks, napkins and random scraps of paper – insisting that he was working on a book detailing the insidious experiments his enemies were conducting on him.
In the end, it was Nathaniel who wrote that book. But from a mirror-image perspective.
“I don’t know how many times in one’s life you get to do something that is truly for a greater good.”
With those words, Nathaniel Lachenmeyer begins to talk about the impact he hopes “The Outsider” will have. Because its father-and-son story makes it more accessible than a clinical tome on mental illness, he hopes it will find its way into the hands of people who have never thought much about its primary subject matter.
He talks in terms of “altering the mythology surrounding the mentally ill and the homeless.” He wants people who read “The Outsider” to come away changed – whether they become advocates for mental health causes or simply stop joking about “feeling schizo.”
“My father’s story is as representative as it is unique,” he says. “I hope there’s a degree of empathy that doesn’t die when you put the book down.”
Kernodle, for one, believes the book will have precisely the impact Lachenmeyer intended.
“I don’t see how it could miss doing that,” he says. “It will do that. What Nathaniel has done is to provide this personal insight into his father’s development as a scholar, as a prisoner, as a mentally ill person – but without the trap of maudlin feelings that sometimes comes with efforts of somebody to describe a relative’s life. It’s really an exceptional piece.”
It is suggested to Lachenmeyer that perhaps, indirectly, this book represents the fulfillment of the predictions made by those college professors three decades earlier. That through his son’s book, Charles Lachenmeyer could leave a discernible mark in the field of sociology and the study of mental illness.
“By example, maybe,” Nathaniel Lachenmeyer says. “It’s not sociology, but it might have those ramifications. I think of it less as a memoir of my search for my father and more as a biography of a forgotten man. A biography of someone who wasn’t, but who could’ve been.
“It’s an attempt to not have that be wasted – to get across the larger message that his struggle wasn’t in vain.”
Published on December 26, 2008 by Wake Forest University