When Mac's mother, Lessie Covington Secrest, suffered her second "nervous breakdown," his father explained that there was a strain of mental disorder running through his mother's family. His maternal grandmother, Mary Foote Simmons Covington ("Molly," she was called), took her own life in 1917 on her daughter's 25th birthday. She had been diagnosed with "involuntary melancholia," obsessed with sins she imagined she had committed.
Secrest traced the "family curse" at least as far back as to his great-grandfather, William Gaston Simmons, who lived from 1830 to 1889, and was a professor at Wake Forest University, and to his brothers, with shadowy hints that the gene for depression manifested itself several generations earlier. The family hailed from Troy, NC. "I understood one of my great-great uncles was kind of crazy," Secrest told an old-timer in Troy back in 1963. The old man confirmed Secrest's suspicions. One of his uncles, Walter Alexander Simmons, a physician, the old-timer said, was called "Doctor Odd" behind his back. "Uncle Calvin" Simmons "was one of the first patients at the insane asylum they opened up in Raleigh about 1858," the old-timer told Secrest. The brothers got into a fight one time, and Calvin choked Alex so badly he could only speak in a raspy whisper after that.
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Questions for discussion:
In the 1970s, Secrest's family received a "clean bill of health" from researchers at the National Institutes of Mental Health, he writes. After extensive interviews with many family members of multiple generations, they could not find evidence of mental illness more pronounced in the Covington-Secrest clan than in the American population as a whole.
Could it be that this family is simply more open and articulate about family experiences of depression and peculiarity than other families?
Or was Mac's family of origin, as he describes it, genetically and environmentally disposed to dysfunction, in contrast to the vast majority of "normal" American families? Was your family far more "normal" than the one he describes? Or are people in general, the more intimately you know them, just plain peculiar?