One family’s story of coping with mental illness.
By: Connie Vandeman, daughter of the late George Vandeman, the founding Speaker/Director of It Is Written
The March 11. 2002 Newsweek cover story, “The Schizophrenic Mind,” juxtaposes two faces of the disease. One, the very public face of Andrea Yates, the Houston mother who drowned her five children and two, the hidden face of John Nash, the man behind the movie A Beautiful Mind. An award winning movie and a famous murder trial have finally brought the tragic disease of schizophrenia to the public’s attention. For me, the disease has been a terrifying yet somehow inspiring reality for the past four decades.
My brother Ron has been suffering from schizophrenia, the chronic, paranoid variety, since age 21. He’s now 60 years old. Ron is the middle son of George and Nellie Vandeman; I’m their youngest child and only daughter. Since both of my parents have now passed away (George in November 2000 and Nellie in July 2001), I’ve prayerfully come to the decision to share Ron’s story. I think they would both agree, were they here, that his story will prove to be a blessing and a source of encouragement to families struggling with mental illness, particularly Christian families.
Schizophrenia remains one of the most tragic and mysterious mental illnesses. Its cause is largely unknown, and doctors and scientists cannot accurately predict who will contract the disease. Only one percent of the population suffers from schizophrenia, but that percentage translates into approximately 2.5 million Americans. The disease is no respecter of persons. It transcends economic status, religious beliefs, education, and the emotional stability of families.
Old notions held that poor parenting was to blame, with the finger of guilt pointed at the mother. I remember my mother sobbing, feeling that somehow she was to blame for Ron’s illness. However, it has been discovered that the disease is a chemical imbalance in the brain. It’s not the mother’s fault; it’s not the child’s upbringing; it’s not anybody’s fault. The neurons in Ron’s brain probably took a wrong turn during fetal development.
Why Ron? Why our family? I struggled with the “why” questions for years dealing with Ron’s illness. Now I’ve come to the comforting, life-changing acceptance of these three facts: my brother had a beautiful mind; he’s living with a tortured mind; but, thank God, his mind will be made beautiful once again.
At Andrea Yates’s murder trial, a doctor testified that she suffered from a combination of schizophrenia and depression when she killed her five children. John Nash, on the other hand, in the early stages of his illness developed his Nobel Prize-winning economic theory. Hence the great paradox of the disease. It can inspire great feats of creativity in one person while the voices, the psychic pressures, can drive another to commit murder.
The Family Secret
Ron was a perfect child. I remember my mom telling me that. He was the perfect baby and almost never cried. He excelled in school. I remember her saying, in hindsight, that he was almost “too good.” Ron won the Columbia Union temperance oratorical contest when he was a student at Takoma Academy. He was popular, a vice president of his senior class. He was the son that my parents hoped for, and they dreamed would be the minister who followed in Dad’s footsteps. He “had it all”: good looks, charm, a beautiful Christian experience, and did I forget the p word? Yes, he was perfect!
The details of his breakdown and the subsequent journey over the next 40 years could fill a book (which I may write someday). Schizophrenia typically manifests itself in early adulthood and is triggered by a stressful event. For Ron, it was a complete nervous breakdown at age 21 while he was in college. My father flew to California to bring him back to our family home in Maryland, where our family embarked on a long, perilous journey into the unknown. Along the way there were small miracles, new treatments, major setbacks, amazing friends, and a loving church family. We kept his illness a secret for many years, except to our closest friends and my parents’ colleagues. It was at times embarrassing, horrifying, and baffling. And every morning and night, day in and day out, year after painful year, my parents’ prayers and the prayers of so many friends ascended to heaven for “Ron’s complete recovery.” Long before we knew the official diagnosis of his illness, we prayed for the miracle of God’s healing.
A Father Attacked
Along the way, Ron spent time at Wildwood Lifestyle Center in Georgia, at Harding Hospital in Ohio, in a variety of state hospitals for the mentally ill, and much of his time at home. During those years my father led the It Is Written television ministry, held evangelistic meetings, traveled worldwide, preached, and wrote books. My mother spent her time assisting Dad, raising me, and doing the thousand and one other things she did so well. All the while, all of us were also dealing with, living with, Ron’s disease. I was 7 years old when Dad brought my catatonic, broken-spirited brother home from California following his breakdown. I was 30 years old when Ron tried to kill my father.
On April 11, 1985, Dad nearly lost his life at the hands of his own son. It resulted in the most dramatic miracle in our family’s history. As a family, we never spoke of it publicly or wrote about it. Because of the publicity surrounding the event, my father alluded to the incident only briefly in his autobiography, My Dream. Yet in order to tell even a small part of my brother’s story, it’s too important of a miracle to omit.
There are a number of reasons I’ll never forget that April day. I had given birth to my son Craig just 16 days earlier. Craig, my husband, and I were scheduled for a photo shoot at the Thousand Oaks office of It Is Written on April 11. We had some wonderful pictures taken that morning. A favorite of the family is framed and sitting on my desk; it’s a group shot of my mom, my husband, Dad holding the baby, and me. Every time I look at that photo I’m reminded of God’s miraculous intervention. That picture could very well have been the last picture of my dad ever taken. The attack occurred just 30 minutes later.
Dad excused himself from the photo session to go home, a 10 minute drive from the office. He had promised to take Ron to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a new ID card. Ron didn’t have a driver’s license, but he needed to carry an identification card. He had been living at home with my parents for a few weeks following a bout of hepatitis. He normally lived on his own in a small apartment in Glendale and took new medication for the treatment of his schizophrenia. We had all been pleased at how the new medicine seemed to control his behavior.
My mother decided to stay at the office and visit with my husband and me and play with her newest grandson. They had come in two cars, so Dad drove home alone. The baby began to get restless, and I wanted to get him home for a nap. We lived 30 miles away and left the office shortly after Dad left. My mother arrived home just 15 minutes after Dad.
The whole incident lasted only a few minutes. Dad parked the car in the driveway, opened the garage door, and dashed into the house to get Ron. As he entered the house, he called out for Ron to come out to the car; then Dad walked back out the door to get in the car. In hindsight, we all shudder to think what would have happened had he stayed in the house even a few more seconds. As he walked to the car, he felt a blow to the back of his head. Later he said he thought the garage door had fallen on him. The blows continued and propelled him into the street, where he ended up lying facedown in the gutter at the end of the driveway. Ron was on top of him, brandishing a six-inch knife from the kitchen.
At the exact moment that Dad was driving into his garage from the office, Harold Reiner was sitting at his computer in his home just a few blocks away. Instead of going to work in his office that day, he was working from home. Harold had been my father’s associate years before and was a close family friend who knew of Ron’s illness from its inception. As he was sitting in his study, he got a sudden overwhelming feeling that he should go to Radio Shack. He got up from his computer and, still in his bedroom slippers, went to get in his car. He didn’t even stop to put on his shoes. As he drove down his street to the intersection, he turned left instead of turning right, the shortest route to Radio Shack. When he drove by my parents’ home just a few seconds later, he saw Ron stabbing at Dad repeatedly in the gutter.
A Rescuer Sent by God
Harold later told us that strange things go through your mind during a crisis like this. He admits that he never would have physically intervened had he come upon two strangers. He would have called for help, but he wouldn’t have jumped out of his car and rushed to assist had he not known Ron and Dad. He remembers taking off his watch and throwing it back into his car. He doesn’t know exactly why he did that, except that it was a brand-new watch, and he didn’t want it to get scratched in the confrontation. It was as if the whole event were taking place in slow motion. The scene was chaotic and horrifying, yet Harold remained calm and had absolutely no fear. He pulled Ron off my father and ordered him to sit on the curb.
“I’ve just killed my dad,” Ron said.
“No, I don’t think you have, Ron,” Harold answered. “We’re going to have to get him some help.” Ron had always liked Harold. When Harold calmly instructed him to sit on the curb, he obeyed. Dad was in shock and bleeding from his back and face. Harold gently placed Dad in his car and returned to Ron. Together they went back into the house, and Harold called an ambulance. Ron wasn’t agitated. He just did whatever Harold asked him to do.
Ron told Harold that he was going to get a lot of money and run away to New York. Harold listened to him, placated him, and agreed with everything Ron said. He was given exactly the right words to say to keep him calm. Any other person would have been terrified in those circumstances, but Harold understood Ron’s illness and the “voices” that tormented his mind.
Just then Mom drove up to the house. When she arrived, police cars were already on the scene and an ambulance on the way. Harold gently asked her to go and be with Dad in his car. She understood in a horrifying instant what had happened, but she didn’t want to believe it. The police arrived and drew their guns. Harold spoke calmly and asked that they put the guns away. Ron would go with them peacefully, he told them. While an ambulance rushed Dad to Los Robles Medical Center, Harold was able to deal with the police and assist them in taking Ron into custody.
My father was released from the hospital after only two days. Miraculously, he had suffered only minor cuts and bruises on his face and back. The knife wound in his back had missed his vital organs by a fraction of an inch. Physically, he recovered in about two weeks. Emotionally, it took a while longer. Being assaulted by one’s own child remains one of the most unfathomable things to comprehend.
The Father’s Forgiveness
Did Dad forgive Ron? Of course. He forgave him the instant it happened. In fact, Ron begged his forgiveness during Dad’s first visit to him in prison following the attack. Dad understood the nature of the chemical imbalance in Ron’s brain; he knew of the voices that tormented him. Another “cause” became clear when we discovered that Ron had stopped taking his medication for a number of weeks prior to April 11. Ron was taken to prison for a brief time, and he pleaded “no contest” to the charges filed by the state. He has resided in a halfway house in Ventura for the past 17 years and is back on the medication that helps to control his behavior. After 1985 he continued to see my parents several times a year, but always under supervision. One result of that fateful day was that my parents became even more cautious and aware of the potential for future violence. Nothing, however, diminished their love and capacity for forgiveness.
The story was splashed all over the local television news, with follow-up stories in the newspapers in the days ahead. All hope of keeping Ron’s illness a secret from the world ended that day. It’s still a painful story to relive, but God’s dramatic intervention that beautiful spring day makes it an important one to share.
We later discovered that Ron had been planning the attack on one or both of his parents for a couple of weeks. He had decided that April 11 was the day and that whoever walked into the house first, Mom or Dad or both, he would kill. Although it may seem strange to find things to be grateful for about that day, there were many small miracles that took place, culminating in the dramatic miracle of God’s deliverance. I’m thankful my mother stayed to visit with us at the office and went home those few minutes later. Ron was a large, six-foot-two-inch, 200-pound, 44-year-old man at the time. Dad’s walking in and then out so quickly forced him out to the street, where Harold could intervene. We all know that God impressed Harold to go to Radio Shack at that precise moment. Why Harold and not another good samaritan? He was the one person who knew Ron and exactly how to handle him.
Dad thanked Harold privately for his role in saving his life that day, and Harold, in his sweet, self-effacing way, gave all the credit to God. God was certainly not finished with my father yet. He had a brand-new grandson to watch grow up, and he had seven more wonderful soul-winning years with the It Is Written ministry. And his story didn’t end with his retirement. His contributions to the church and to his family were enormous. I thank God for the 16 additional years of his life; I thank God for using our dear friend Harold Reiner; and I thank God for the lessons I’ve learned from my schizophrenic brother.
Odd, maybe, to thank God for Ron’s illness. But I’m grateful for the compassion, understanding, and acceptance of the mentally ill that I’ve gained from my experience with Ron. I no longer expect or anticipate that he will be completely healed on this earth. His disease is being managed, and I’m grateful he is in a place well suited to deal with his special needs. I’m grateful that I no longer ask the “why” questions about Ron.
What I’m sure of is that my brother’s original “beautiful mind” will be made new once again, in that place where there will be no more evil “voices,” no need of medication, no pain, no fear, no uncertainty, no tears, no more tortured minds: Heaven!
Note: Ron Vandeman was well enough to attend the funeral services for his father on November 12, 2000, and for his mother on July 28, 2001
Ron Vandeman passed away at the age of 68 – on April 5, 2010