All four of my grandparents, born in the 1930s, grew up very different than I. In different parts of Wisconsin, all of them grew up materially poor. They were not the only American families struggling at this moment in our history. Their earliest childhood memories took place in the context of the Great Depression, and then World War II. The adults raising them didn’t laugh or smile much during these years. Though they were generally the type of people who did not complain, they were almost certainly exhausted, stressed out, and almost entirely focused on doing whatever they needed to do just to survive and feed their kids.
Around the time my grandparents were born, America had the highest level of unemployment in our recorded history. A full 25% of Americans couldn’t find work.(1) And during the war, families all across the nation were also forced to endure rations on everyday necessities like gasoline and groceries.
Raw fear was in the air as well. Two of my grandparents grew up in the remote town of Superior. At the time, the largest industry there was the shipping yard. In the early 1940s, this meant that most of the jobs in town revolved around quickly cranking out battleships and submarines for the US Navy. Although small in population, as a weapon-of-war production center, this made Superior a credible potential bombing target if the Germans or Japanese could ever fly that deep into the American heartland.
Although they likely would never have classified it this way themselves, it is simply true to acknowledge that my grandparents, in their childhood, definitively experienced what modern psychology would now refer to as some degree of “trauma.”
Today, we know that trauma, especially in childhood, tends to leave a footprint on the human psyche that generally doesn’t just disappear on its own. It sticks to you, often in ways you may not even be consciously aware of. And it’s usually still there well into adulthood.
To varying degrees of intensity, most families experience trauma at one point or another. But historically, broadly speaking, mental health was rarely even acknowledged, much less thoughtfully discussed or meaningfully treated. Unaddressed childhood trauma is one of the biggest predictors of mental health and substance abuse issues later in life.(2) These dynamics impacted my family deeply, but they’ve impacted many others as well. And often with enormous consequence for the overall functionality and wellbeing of the communities and the countries we inhabit.
Now let’s consider the true story of a different American family. This specific family offers us a lot to learn from.
In 1885, a 16-year-old German boy fled his country, as he was about to be drafted into military service. Instead, he sailed to America, where he worked diligently and saved his money. In his early thirties, flush with the cash he had earned in America, the young man returned home to Germany. In his native Bavaria, he met a young woman that he soon would marry. But after the wedding, the former draft dodger was informed by Bavarian law enforcement that his citizenship had been revoked. The young couple then set sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Arriving in New York City, they decided to settle in the Bronx. By 1905, they had a son. The German couple named their boy Frederick.(3) But the child would soon enough end up going by the more American-sounding “Fred.”
At home, Fred and his siblings first learned their parent’s language, German.(4) Years later, when school came into the picture, the children learned their second language, English. At a mere 10-years-old, Fred was already working as a delivery boy to help earn money for his family.(5)
Then, at age 12, Fred’s family experienced a profound and unexpected tragedy. A deadly pandemic suddenly emerged, soon it had grown completely out of control, spreading across the entire globe. In 1918, Fred’s father contracted the Spanish Flu and was dead within a matter of days.(6) In addition to being a full-time high school student, Fred continued working throughout his teenage years. After graduating, Fred’s mother helped him establish his own small business.(4)
In 1891, a young Scottish couple was married.(7) They settled down on a small island off the northwest coast of mainland Scotland. They choose to have ten children. At home, these children first grew up speaking their parent’s language, Gaelic. Years later, when school came into the picture, the children learned their second language, English.(8) The youngest of these children was a girl born in 1912, her name was Mary.(4)
By the time Mary became a young woman, the task of finding a husband was a near impossibility. This is because most of the young men in her community were slaughtered in World War I. This being the case, Mary was pressured by her family to make the voyage across the ocean to America. There, she would certainly have better prospects finding a husband. In 1930, at age 18, Mary’s ship arrived in New York City.(4) She had $50 dollars on her, and not much of a plan.(9) The only thing Mary did have going for her at this point, was that two of her older sisters had already made the journey from Scotland to America. By following them, Mary was engaging in a practice some now refer to as “chain-migration.”(10)
By 1927, Fred was in his early twenties, and at least upon one occasion, he became involved in his local community. That year, Fred participated in a large New York City parade. Fred was one of over 1,000 people marching in a proud, ethnic procession. But it didn’t end well. The police in New York City were offended by this particular parade, and they soon interfered. In fact, a brawl broke out between the police and some members of the parade. The police in New York City at the time were mostly Catholic. And among other things, the people in Fred’s parade were unabashedly anti-Catholic.
They were also stringently anti-Jewish. The people in this specific parade were deeply wed to their identity as Protestants, and also to their identity as people whose ancestors came from Germanic tribes who eventually settled in England. Oh, and you definitely had to be White to be in the parade that Fred was a part of. Altogether, you had to be a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant to join. It was a Ku Klux Klan parade. Fred was one of over a 1,000 KKK members and supporters, who in full white hoods and robes, boldly marched through the streets of New York City. That day back in 1927, they were focusing their hatred on the Catholic police. In the mayhem that broke out, Fred and several others were arrested. He was released shortly afterwards, and was never formally charged with anything. But Fred’s arrest over his attendance at a KKK rally would result in the first time his name was ever mentioned in the papers, including the New York Times.(11)
Freshly arrived in this enormous new city, Mary’s older sisters showed her around. One evening, they brought her to a dance. There, Mary met a German-American man named Fred. Fred was a bit older than her, and by this point, he’d already seen some financial success from the small business he had started with this mother.
In 1936, Mary and Fred were married.(4) Neither grew up speaking English. Neither of them were born into high status or power. Nonetheless, like many recent European immigrants, this young couple would build a life for themselves in America that would simply not have been possible for them to have achieved in the nations where their own families had come from.
Recall that at the time this young couple were married, mental health was poorly understood and highly socially stigmatized. Both Fred and Mary had clearly already experienced significant episodes of childhood trauma in their lives. Fred’s father died suddenly when he was 12, which meant he had to grow up fast, and work like an adult while he was still just a kid. Mary grew up in stark poverty in an enormous family that her parents were not prepared to adequately care for. The pressure on her to find a man was so strong that as a teenager, she sailed across the ocean to a foreign country, in the hope she’d find better luck there.
By the time Fred was an adult, he exhibited identifiable characteristics of serious mental illness. To be abundantly clear, no one chooses to develop mental illness. It was not exactly Fred’s “fault” that he grew into the type of man he would become. Like his height or his eye color, mental illness was simply something that happened to him. As Fred’s own granddaughter, who holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology would one day publicly reveal, Fred was what the medical profession now refers to as a sociopath.(4)
Sociopaths are often able to remain 100% focused on achieving their goals. Part of what helps them achieve this heightened level of focus, is that they simply are not bothered by things that hold much of the rest of us back. For example, sociopaths waste zero time or energy reflecting upon whether their words, actions, and behaviors are “right or wrong.” Sociopaths are amoral. Throughout the long career Fred would go on to have, he frequently made business decisions that proved harmful, unfair, illegal, and unethical to the people he worked with, on behalf of, or employed. Unsurprisingly, these decisions were often highly profitable to him. It simply did not bother Fred to lie and to cheat, because psychologically, his brain did not recognize the distinction between right and wrong.(12)
Fred lied to people’s faces with great skill, and with great ease. This is very easy to understand. Many of us struggle to lie effectively, even when we’re really trying. This is because we get tripped up in how we feel about doing it. Deep down, even if we want to lie, it’s hard for many of us because we feel guilty about it. We feel guilty about it because we know it is wrong. But remember, Fred’s brain doesn’t process right and wrong. If that’s how you’re wired, then lying is a pretty simple and extremely effective tool.(12) Fred used this tool with great success, it helped him achieve his one goal in life: making a lot of money.
Fred soon found that one of the obstacles preventing him from making as much money for himself as possible was this pesky thing called taxes. Through his own hard work, Fred was making himself some serious money. But taxes cut into his war chest. Year by year, Fred’s business expanded, and year by year, Fred’s pile of money grew larger and larger. But no matter how much money he had, the act of paying nominal, legal taxes would somewhat reduce the net pile of money he believed he was entitled to keep in its entirety. As a sociopath, Fred was extremely successful in evading the taxes he was responsible for paying. He did this over the course of his entire adult life. And he did it, mainly, through being a remarkably proficient pathological liar.(13)
In his role as a business owner who was bent on growth and ever-expanding personal profit, being a sociopath helped Fred tremendously. However, in his role as a husband, being a sociopath proved an extraordinary handicap. In addition to moral apathy and pathological lying, another sign of sociopathic behavior is “poor or abusive relationships.”(12) Fortunately, there is no evidence that Fred ever physically abused Mary. But that’s about as far as the positive news here is going to get. Marriage, in general, for nearly all couples, is hard. Pretty much everyone will tell you that it “takes a lot of work.” But in Fred, Mary found a husband who was simply not interested in or perhaps even capable of attempting to do the “work” of maintaining a healthy, loving relationship.
Fred had one focus, making money. He worked six days a week, twelve hours a day.(4) As a husband, Fred was barely even physically present to spend time with his wife. And when he was present, given what we know of him so far, how likely do we think it is that he was a thoughtful listener when his wife was speaking? How likely does it seem that he really invested time and energy into learning who she was as a person? Do we think he truly made an effort to understand her and her needs? Fred did not possess the capacity for basic emotional awareness, much less depth. The truth is, although Mary had succeeded in freeing herself from material poverty by marrying Fred, she had simultaneously committed herself to a life of emotional poverty by latching onto a man completely incapable of being a healthy and caring partner.
So what then of Mary? As a girl in Scotland, she was the last of ten children. As a pure matter of mathematics, of ratio, how much individual attention did a young child in those circumstances likely get from her parents? Especially set in the context of the fear and scarcity accompanying a country at war, both during the conflict and also in its immediate aftermath. We can’t say for sure, of course, but we can come to some logical inferences. Like many women before and after her, from the time she was still a minor, Mary was told that her fate in life would ultimately rest on one decision: whom she would marry. It was this factor alone that led to her moving to a foreign country at age 18. She’d be settling in a county where she’d have to manage speaking in her second language, which by default is far more challenging. Imagine what you personally might have felt like if, at 18, you had to move to a foreign country where no one speaks your language. Imagine doing this with $50, and the knowledge that you may never see your own family or lifelong friends again. Imagine growing up in a remote, poor island of Scotland, populated by a couple hundred people, then showing up in New York City, which even back in 1930 was home to about seven million people.(14)
For anyone in Mary’s position, starting a new life in America on these terms must have been, in a word, overwhelming. Sure, it could also have been exciting, perhaps. But it could also very well have been downright terrifying. Recall too that Mary’s early life in America was that of a foreigner. Mary did not attain US citizenship until a full twelve years after she walked off of that boat from Europe.(9) When young Mary met young Fred at a dance, it’s entirely plausible that she saw an intelligent, charming, and financially stable potential husband. It is unlikely, of course, that she was able to fully grasp the totality of what this man truly was, and what he wasn’t.
In 1936, Fred and Mary were wed. For the overwhelming majority of Mary’s daily waking hours as a newly-married woman, she would never even see her husband. The one day a week that Fred was around, he had little interest in engaging with his wife. Mary was cared for materially, but holistically, her own husband did not care about her.
Unsurprisingly, cracks in Mary’s own mental health began to develop. Most noticeably, she found it difficult to sleep. Mary’s exacerbating insomnia led to her developing some odd behaviors. In the middle of the night, she was once found perched high up on a ladder, painting a wall. In the early morning, when most of society is waking up in their bedrooms, Mary could often be found passed out in other random parts of the house.(4) We now understand that insomnia is fairly common, and its causes are better understood. One of the most common reasons why people develop insomnia is experiencing prolonged exposure to chronic stress. While she and certainly her husband may never have thought of it in such terms, in retrospect, given all of hardships, changes, and disappointments that Mary had and was continuing to experience by the time she was married, she absolutely falls into the category of someone who was very likely living with chronic stress.
Had Mary promptly received access to the kind of mental health support largely available in the West today, her insomnia would have had a great chance of being reined in. But this was the 1930s. Her struggles were likely never even honestly discussed, much less professionally treated. And cruelly, insomnia is precisely the type of condition that, if left untreated, can spiral into other serious mental illness as well. Insomnia is closely linked with both anxiety and depression. It’s normal for all of us to feel anxious and depressed at times. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about clinical anxiety and clinical depression. The kind that are not temporary feelings based on changing and passing life events. Clinical anxiety is when your body and brain feel extremely afraid, as one might feel in the moments after a hostile stranger puts a gun to your head. Only in this case, there is no gun to your head, but your brain makes you feel like there is. And you keep feeling like this, not for seconds, but for minutes, hours, days.
Clinical depression is similar, it’s when your body and brain feel either extremely sad, or extremely numb, as one might feel in the moments after you learn that someone you love has just died. Only in this case, no one you love actually died, but your brain makes you feel as if someone did. And you can’t just shake it off. The feeling lasts and lasts and lasts. Today, we understand that clinical anxiety and clinical depression are in large part a matter of imbalanced brain chemistry. Today, modern psychological medicine is widely available to treat these conditions. The treatment is far from perfect, we’re still trying to figure it out today. But, poor Mary. Her serious insomnia, completely ignored by the sociopath she married, went completely untreated. The dominos starting to fall, she also almost certainly, as would almost anyone in her condition and circumstance, descended into even darker depths.
So. Here we have the young man, son of immigrants who grew up speaking German. He started working at age 10. His father died when he was 12. He learned to throw himself into his work. It’s basically all he ever did. Except that one time he participated in a Ku Klux Klan rally and got arrested. In the realm of making money, the one thing he truly cared about, Fred was extremely successful. As a sociopath, his inability to process right vs wrong, and his extraordinary skill lying to people’s faces would make him wildly rich. But outside business matters, in the whole life part of life, Fred was shockingly incompetent and callous even towards those who loved him most.
And then the young woman, the youngest of ten children from a Gaelic-speaking, poor, war-tattered island. She left her family, she left her friends, she left her country for the chance at a better life in a foreign land. The small-town girl in the big city successfully completed her mission of finding a financially-stable husband. Nevertheless, she struggled to keep it together, even once her material needs were completely covered. She couldn’t sleep. Presumably, she was lonely and isolated. Presumably, she developed some combination of clinical anxiety and/or clinical depression. Her husband didn’t notice, or didn’t care.
And then, in 1937, something was about to change. Fred and Mary, in the condition they were presently in, were about to bring five children into their home, and into the world. The last name of Fred and Mary, is Trump. One of the young children they were about to be responsible for raising, was a boy named Donald.
1. Unemployment in 1930s America
2. Childhood Trauma
3. Fred’s Parents Immigrate from Germany to America
4. Too Much and Never Enough Mary Trump, 2020. (Pgs: 12, 24, 27, 29–30)
5. Fred Starts Working at age 10
6. Fred’s Father Dies of the Spanish Flu Pandemic in 1918
7. A Scottish Couple Marries in 1891
8. Mary’s Scottish Upbringing
9. Mary Arrives in NYC with $50
10. “Chain Migration”
11. Fred Arrested at Klu Klux Klan Parade in NYC
12. Characteristics of a Sociopath
13. Fred Cheats on his Taxes
14. NYC Population in 1930
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This essay was originally posted on Something to Share with the Class in October of 2020.
Photo: Maribel, Wisconsin. 2011.