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Short Stories: Carolyn

bruce gerencser eighth grade
Summer of my eighth-grade year, with my mom and a friend (that’s a Rambler in the background)

I was a young child in the 1960s when I first realized my mother was different; that her wild mood swings were not “normal.” By the late 1960s, I knew Mom was mentally ill. Mom was a wonderful person: bright, witty, and passionate. She was also “crazy.” Her irrational fits of rage were legendary, as were her long bouts of deep, dark depression. By the time I reached fifth grade, mom had tried to kill herself thrice in one year. The first time, she swallowed a bunch of pills and had to be rushed to the hospital in Lima to have her stomach pumped. The next time, she pulled the car she driving into the path of a truck. The older woman who lived next door to us was with her, Fortunately, both of them survived. The third time, Mom slit her wrists. Imagine being an eleven-year-old boy and coming home to find your mom lying on the floor in a pool of blood. No matter how much I try, I cannot push that memory out of my mind. Mom survived, but she would try again and again before finally succeeding. She was fifty-four.

Mom sought help for her sickness. Her father, who sexually molested her as a child, recommended that she see a “Christian” psychiatrist in Lima. He was a sexual predator. Dr. Milke was his name, I believe. Mom would go to her scheduled appointment at Milke’s office. While there, he would give her “injections” that were meant to “help” her. Instead, Mom became addicted to the narcotics in the injections. While impaired, Milke would sexually assault her. He later lost his license to practice medicine.

Mom had two lengthy stays at the Toledo State Mental Hospital. She received electroshock therapy (now called Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)) treatments while there. I remember visiting her several times. She bore no resemblance to my mother. She was docile and zombie-like. Imagine trying to process as a twelve-year-old boy what has happened to your mother. Back then, children were expected to be seen and not heard. Dad never said one word to me about Mom’s sickness, leaving it to me to figure out what was going on. I grew up quickly.

During one of her confinements at the hospital, Mom met a woman named Carolyn. They quickly became good friends. After both of them were released, they stayed in touch. On occasion, Mom would drive to Toledo and visit Carolyn. I had the opportunity to meet her. They also wrote one another and sent each other cards for their birthdays and special occasions.

One spring, shortly before Easter, Mom received a beautiful card from Carolyn. In the card, Carolyn thanked Mom for befriending her. She also told Mom that life was too much for her, that she was done. Carolyn finished by saying, “Barbara, by the time you receive this, I will be dead.” This card was Carolyn’s suicide note. And sure enough, Carolyn put a shotgun in her mouth and pulled the trigger.

In 1992, Mom would take a Ruger .357 revolver, point it towards her heart, and pull the trigger. In a few moments, she was dead. In Mom’s meager belongings, I found Carolyn’s card. I kept it for a number of years. I even used it as a sermon illustration, but only once. I felt dirty afterward. I had violated the relationship Mom had with Carolyn, turning Carolyn’s death into a prop. The things preachers will do to make a “point.”


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Karuna Gal

    I wonder if Carolyn was sexually abused/raped like your mom. Maybe your mom and Carolyn confided in each other about their similar, brutal experiences, things so horrible that it drove them both into depression, madness and ultimately suicide. 😥

  2. Avatar

    How tragic for both your mom and Carolyn. It is good, though, that they were able to give each other some friendship and comfort. Sometimes life just becomes overwhelming for some people. Our mental health system is inadequate to help a lot of people.

  3. Avatar

    Bruce I really had your relationship to your mother all wrong. I thought all the trauma she put you through prevented a loving relationship, but the opposite is true. The love you had for her did make trauma worse, but I can see that your love for her never faded one bit. When a parent dies, part of us dies (and because we live part of the parent lives as well)
    I’ve been listening to some podcasts about cults in the past week or so. I wonder if your childhood trauma led to the IFB cult? Your checkered history is exactly the people that get enmeshed in them.

  4. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce, I wish I knew of some way to purge the memory of finding your mother as you did–or the trauma of her suicide. Having known several people who’ve committed suicide, I know that it doesn’t leave you.

    I also know that people commit suicide because of something that wouldn’t leave them: something that they didn’t ask for, something that was inflicted on them. That is why I see their deaths as murders. The people who abused your mother are murderers. Ditto for those who abused Carolyn, if that’s what led to her suicide.

  5. Avatar
    amy b

    I’m astonished (and impressed) that you feel no bitterness towards your grandfather. I hate his guts, and I never met the man!

    The “fruits” of conservative Christianity … I’m sorry about how much all of you have suffered.

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Bruce Gerencser