"See What I Have Done"

The concept of schizophrenia was far in the future in 1892. People were “tetched” or “crazy” or “insane,” and when they were disabled, to more or less degree, they were consigned to an asylum despite not usually being dangerous, where no treatment was available and where they lived out their lives.

Lizzy Borden was clearly schizophrenic. She lived with her family: father, stepmother and an older sister as well as an increasingly perplexed maid. In “See What I Have Done,” by Sarah Schmidt, the family is apparently well off but “strange,” what we would call now, dysfunctional.

What “normal person” locks all the doors and windows, plus all the inside doors? Love-hate relationships swirl in the Borden family, surface and subside with a constant subliminal sense of darkness and threat, and through it all, no one seems to recognize Lizzie is insane. Her symptoms clearly are the modern picture of schizophrenia, quite well described by the author.

I don’t ordinarily look for symbols in works of fiction, but there are at least three in the narration: unvarying, slurping meals of mutton soup and johnnycakes; over-ripe pears picked from an arbor by several of the principal characters and greedily eaten, juice dripping off chin and hands; and the pigeons, my God the pigeons, their fate presaging the human events to come.

The murders are seen only as peripheral to the story, not directly addressed in one grisly scene, which makes the continuous underlying threat even more palpable. Instead, we see bits and pieces and chunks of bone and blood and hair stinking as they rot where they fell, adding to the smell of the bodies laid out on the dining table for several days before the funeral.

For a psychiatrist this book is fascinating, but anyone reading it will be drawn into it, uncomfortable with the horror one knows is coming. Careful, someone may see you squirming.