Samuel A. Autman
Mama had just parked her Buick Regal in front of our red brick house. Even the row houses of north St. Louis sparkled in the warm spring sun. My sister Chung and I—both then in our mid-late teens—carried the grocery bags up the steps of the front porch, while Mama retrieved the mail. The keys rattled as I unlocked the front door, and we filed into the kitchen, Mama glancing at the bills and coupon fliers. As I reached for the light switch, I heard a rustling that rapidly crescendoed. Before I knew it, Chung had grabbed Mama by her hair and slammed her head against the yellow kitchen wall.
“You bitch,” Chung screamed at Mama. “I’m gonna kill you!”
I hesitated for a moment, stunned, my grocery bags spilling onto the floor. Then, I leapt at Chung and grabbed her by the roots of her Jheri curl. “Let her go, bitch,” I yelled, “or I’ll pull your fucking hair out!” Raised in a Baptist household that frowned on profanity, I had never cursed in front of my mother.
“Get off me, Anthony,” my sister shrieked. She always called me by my middle name. But I held on tight.
Mama’s brother Eddie had brought home pictures of a beautiful woman he’d dated while stationed in Korea. Her surname was Chung. “Once I heard that name,” Mama said years later, “I decided if I had a daughter, I’d call her that,” That’s how a Black girl from St. Louis got an Asian name.
Chung finally let Mama go, ran upstairs and slammed her bedroom door. It was a signature Marcia Brady move. Even in our family’s most disastrous moments of dealing with Chung’s mental illness, TV was never far from our consciousness. In 1985, The Brady Bunch had been off the air for a decade but my sister watched the reruns religiously. Marcia Brady was her heroine.
Television had always been a perfect distraction from our family’s drama and trauma, soothing us more than our Baptist faith. TV was ubiquitous and extremely effective at programming us. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, network television offered us—kids from backgrounds deemed as marginalized—aspirational, unattainable families that looked nothing like ours.
Chung and I were born two years apart almost to the day in early September 1966 and 1968. Mama always joked she planned it that way so she’d only have to throw one joint birthday party each year. Before our parents split, we lived in Hillsdale, a northwestern suburb. TV served as an easy babysitter between Mama’s shift as a public-school teacher and Daddy’s evening hours at the General Motors plant. While our mother read books to us at night, it was the television that lit up our imaginations. We’d watch the clownish antics of a local program called Mr. Patches and hoped against hope that the nice white lady on Romper Room would say she saw Anthony and Chung as she gazed into her magic mirror. She never said our names.
Shows like Family Affair, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and My Three Sons sustained the myth of perfect American nuclear families—all of them white. Family Affair was the one Chung and I loved the most. In the first episode, which we watched in reruns, Buffy was reunited with her twin brother after years and ran to embrace him, screaming, “Jody!” He responded, “Buffy!” Chung and I re-enacted that scene over and over. We didn’t see rich white kids on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, just kids. Something in us craved connection to television families that did not reflect us at all. We projected ourselves into their narratives.
By the time Family Affair ended in 1971, our parents’ marriage had evaporated in a hail of gunfire. In the next year, Chung and I were forced to live with our paternal grandmother in a rat-infested house in Louisiana, collateral damage in the divorce. Just like Jody and Buffy, we were lost kids. The court finally ordered us back into Mama’s arms—a small one-bedroom family flat in north St. Louis. To us it might as well have been the Upper East Side. We were so happy to be with her again.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, no network television show featured a Black family with both parents living with their children. The closest was Julia, a single mother whose husband had been killed in Vietnam. We barely watched that show. We didn’t need to project ourselves into the world of a professional Black mother and a missing father. We were living it.
When Chung was about five, she would carry on conversations with people only she could see. “Okay, girl. You be quiet. Here they come.”
“Chung, who were you talking to?” I’d ask.
“You ain’t see her, Anthony?” she’d ask. “Anyway, she ain’t talking to you.”
I attributed it all to fantasy and things we had seen on TV. But if Chung’s imaginary friends told her to dump a tall glass of cold water in my face or knock over an appliance, she did so without hesitation.
Around that same time, producer Norman Lear revolutionized television with a string of family-based sitcoms: All in the Family, Maude, and One Day at a Time, plus the Black family shows like Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and Good Times.
When All in the Family came on, Chung and I leaned our heads against each other and sang along with Archie and Edith at their piano: “Girls were girls and men were men. Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again,” We were clueless how that song called for a return to 1950s segregation and sexism, or that Archie was a racist. But we did start seeing Black characters. Fred Sanford, the loud-talking father on Sanford & Son, lived in a junkyard while the Evanses on Good Times lived in a Chicago housing project. But the Bunkers’ neighbors, the Jeffersons, became more upwardly mobile, and in the spin-off opened a successful chain of laundromats and moved to the Upper East Side. They even had a sassy housekeeper, in whose humor I could see my mother.
That’s My Mama and What’s Happening? featured loving Black families, with laugh tracks framing every storyline. Humor was the antidote to Black pain. But to heal the wounds we didn’t know we had, Chung and I disappeared into white narratives—Apple’s Way, The Partridge Family, The Waltons and especially The Brady Bunch. When the TV was on, Chung sat entranced and quiet.
Many of the kids I grew up with were obsessed with The Brady Bunch. We’d gather on the streets and talk about the show. Even though the Bradys were technically a broken, blended family, we focused on their suburban perfection. Their spacious home, housekeeper Alice and stay-at-home mom bore little resemblance to our lives. A cultural cognitive dissonance enabled us to overlook that their upper-middle-class white family was showcased as aspiration, an insidious racism—silent but bold.
A generation of us grew up unconsciously inhaling messages about which families mattered and how they should look. I don’t think The Brady Bunch ever featured a Black character. Entertainment as a snapshot of the collective consciousness.
None of the shows ever talked about mental illness.
Chung’s behavior became increasingly erratic and violent. She smeared Dawn dishwashing liquid onto the kitchen walls and smashed her fist through a backdoor window pane. Once she rifled through Mama’s top dresser drawer, searching for the handgun she knew was there. Mama’s sister Louise and her two daughters had moved in with us and Chung thought nothing of slapping or kicking our cousins.
All of us were paralyzed by fear: if we responded to her outbursts, Chung’s physical violence would only escalate. One day Chung hurled a 2×4 through the front window. I don’t remember what had enraged my sister, but I locked my bedroom door, terrified she would hurt me and embarrassed at what the neighbors would think.
Mama always told people Chung was “a little nervous.” Truthfully, we were the ones she made nervous. When Chung slammed the doors, we shuddered with fear. The St. Louis Public Schools labeled her “special,” which gave way to “mentally retarded,” which became “behaviorally disordered.” None of those prepared us for the final diagnosis in her teens: schizophrenia.
By then, Chung stood six feet tall. With large bones and a pillowy frame, she menaced us. We knew nothing about the way her brain was wired or malfunctioned. We tried social services, which meant sitting in a room talking to counselors. They didn’t seem to have any solutions that helped us where we lived. Mama hoped against hope that my sister’s behavior would change, but it only worsened, and we did our best to hide.
I disappeared into Boy Scout Troop #150 and delivered newspapers for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I joined a tap-dance troupe. Mama joined a bowling league and ushered at church.
In my early teens, I became convinced if we prayed hard enough, a miracle would happen and Chung’s mental illness would disappear. I had already read The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror and knew what it meant to be possessed by demons. This was around the same time that Chung took all her clothes off and ran through the neighborhood. Although we were lifelong Baptists, I didn’t think they had the spiritual power to heal our family, and so I joined a Pentecostal church several blocks away from the house. I convinced Mama that Chung needed the demons expelled from her by a tongue-talking preacher man.
On a Friday night in June, Mama, Chung and I punted our ritual of watching The Dukes of Hazzard, Dallas, and Falcon Crest, and drove instead to Solomon’s Temple, the Pentecostal church on Page Avenue, tiptoeing into the basement as a revival meeting began.
A bass guitarist, organist, drummer, and singers kept the crowd in motion. Tambourines shook the room—a mosh pit of “Hallelujahs” and “Thank you Jesus.”
After ushers passed around the offering basket, Elder Melvin Smith stood up at the lectern and shook off his coat. God’s Man of the Hour was ready. From the way he enunciated, I could tell he was college-educated. Saints and sinners ran to the front of the auditorium as if Bob Barker had called them down as the next contestants on The Price Is Right.
Smith walked from person to person, laying hands on their forehead. “In Jesus’s name!” he’d call out. Or he’d bellow in tongues. The people convulsed, or shrieked or spoke back in tongues, and then collapsed into the ready arms of ushers who eased them to the floor. Helpers in white nurses’ uniforms tossed sheets over the women to cover their pantyhose and undergarments. The spiritual electricity in the room surged.
Chung’s eyes darted side to side, as we headed to the front of the room. But I hadn’t come to mollycoddle her demons. Let them twitch. I imagined the foam oozing from Chung’s mouth as Smith dispelled evil presences. The Holy Ghost would pour His sweet presence on me and true salvation could come to our house.
There we stood in the spiritual emergency room. Elder Smith stepped in front of Chung, now surrounded by dozens of convulsing bodies. With his palms on either side of her skull, the Elder Smith looked to the ceiling and spoke rapid-fire in tongues. Then he bellowed: “I bind every demon spirit tormenting this young woman. I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her now! Let her go free!”
My insides danced with expectation. Would Chung slap him? Fight him? Speak in demonic voices?
Nothing. Chung had never been more cooperative.
Smith patted my mother on the shoulder and walked away to pray for the next person. My surging anticipation became a cavernous disappointment. Why hadn’t the demons come out? God seemed to deliver people all around us. Why not for us? Did I not have enough faith? Was our sin too great? Social services, police departments, the schools, and now the sanctified church and the God of the Scriptures had failed us.
On the 15-minute ride back home, nobody spoke.
Chung was sixteen when she attacked Mama in the spring of 1985. I had given up on Pentecostalism. I was attending St. Louis University, something Mama had pressured me to do instead of taking a full scholarship to the University of Missouri where I wanted to pursue journalism. “Don’t leave me here with this girl or she might kill me,” she’d said. I felt coerced out of my destiny as a journalist, and I blamed Chung. We took Chung to the St. Louis State Hospital on Arsenal Avenue that day, where we had taken her for earlier episodes. This time, though, we followed the advice of a clerk there.
“Mrs. Autman, don’t tell anybody I told you this,” the clerk said, “but the only way to get help is if you just leave her. When we call for you to come get her, don’t.”
After years of failure, my mother made what she felt was the only choice. When they called, she did not go get Chung.
In 1981 Ronald Reagan had repealed Jimmy Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act. Reagan’s action shifted funding to individual states through block grants and pitted mental health funding against housing, food banks, and economic development. Neither the nation nor my family was prepared. Defunding led to the release of tens of thousands of mentally ill patients from hospitals to communities, where many became homeless or incarcerated.
Grabbing my sister’s hair is not something I am ever eager to recount, but Mama’s plea for me to remain in St. Louis that year had been prophetic. It probably saved her life.
Within a few weeks of the aborted discharge, my sister was absorbed into the system. Mama visited every week for more than three decades. Now a ward of the state, Chung is medicated, living in a group home in suburban St. Louis. She continued her obsession with old TV shows, but as music videos became popular, she began to follow Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson.
I only see Chung on Thanksgiving, when I pick her up and she makes the slow walk to my car, leaning on me. During one of those car rides, I asked if she still loves watching The Brady Bunch.
“Yeah, I like Marcia,” she says trailing off to name the other Brady kids. “I don’t like Michael Jackson no more because he likes little boys.” That she had heard about Jackson’s accusations with boys proved she was still watching a lot of TV.
Mental illness feels like a stain, nobody’s fault but a permanent and psychic scar that can’t be removed. It robbed us. My mother lost a functional relationship with her daughter and I lost the same with a sister. Most of all, my sister lost a functional life. I used to think Chung was the sick one, but in reality, my whole family had to contend with mental illness.
A fleeting part of me will still pick up the phone and call Chung, hoping for a real conversation. Inside of ninety seconds, though, she’ll rattle off nonsensical phrases about TV shows, or random memories from our childhood and then hang up abruptly. When she doesn’t get her way, Chung smashes the TV. She has destroyed at least ten at the group home.
Over time, I formed bonds with powerful women who became proxies for the relationship I couldn’t have with my sister. The most treasured of these is a first cousin who, not by coincidence, shares my sister’s name, Chung. (In a fit of “You aren’t gonna be the only one with a Chung,” my mother’s oldest sister, Freddie Mae, named her daughter after my sister.) Several times a week we speak on the phone. Strangely, but perhaps not so strangely, my mother is even more attached to this Chung, talking to her daily. Her presence in our lives has taken some of the pain out of the name Chung.
I smile when I run across old sitcoms like What’s Happening? or Sanford & Son, but I can’t watch The Brady Bunch or televangelists. The pain is still too raw. For my sister, though, the Brady kids remain integral to her life. Seated in the facility where she lives, Chung brightens when her heroine, Marcia, flashes across the TV screen, epitomizing the bland, fictional wholesomeness that could never be ours.
I no longer share Chung’s yearning to be part of that out-of-reach TV family, though I recognize that it offers her a balm, however flimsy. Chung’s eyes are always watching. Always drinking it in. Always longing.