[Written in 2006.]
Fred Timm is a close friend and colleague of mine, and one of the most mature people I know. In October of 2006 I was introduced by some members of my old website’s bulletin board to the theorist and psychology writer Elnora Van Winkle. I had never heard of her – or so I thought – until I started reading some of her writings, which triggered my memory.
This is where it brought me: Around 2001 I was talking with Fred Timm and he asked me to read some writing on the internet by an old friend of his who had just died, and whom he had spoken about to me for years, but whom I had never met because they had had a falling out. I knew her only as Ellie. It turns out she was none other than Elnora Van Winkle! The coincidence was uncanny, especially since the two people who introduced me to Van Winkle’s work were living in Sweden and Chile (South America), respectively!
Or maybe it wasn’t so uncanny. Ellie introduced Fred to Alice Miller, and Fred basically introduced me to Alice Miller (though I had heard of her before, just not read too much about her), and Fred and I have had countless discussions about Alice Miller over the years. Interestingly, I shared most of my first critical ideas about Alice Miller with Fred, and he read the first draft of my paper assessing Miller’s limits. Fred has a brilliantly critical mind, has excellent insight into people, and he is in the process of becoming a therapist as I write – as his life’s third career. His first career, in the mid-1970s, was as a professional modern dancer, and he toured the world with the Nikolais Dance Company. His second career, based on his performance skill and his gifts as a playwright, has been as an acting teacher, and as he mentions, he also worked in various capacities at the church in the New York City where he met Ellie. So in some ways I guess it’s all come full circle.
I asked Fred if he would grant me an interview about Ellie, and he agreed. Also, it’s worth noting that he was completely shocked that people around the world were following her theories more than five years after her death – and he was sure that she would love to know this. As Fred said, “If there is a heaven, Ellie is watching this all from above and smiling. I’m sure she loves it that we’re taking her work so seriously, even if we’re being critical of parts of it.”
Interview conducted by Daniel Mackler
November 5, 2006
Daniel Mackler (DM): So we’re here to talk about Elnora Van Winkle.
Fred Timm (FT): I actually knew her as Ellie Rotunno.
DM: That was her maiden name?
FT: No, that was her married name. Her maiden name was Van Winkle.
DM: When did you meet her?
FT: I met her in 1982.
DM: What was she like?
FT: Ellie was a good soul. And a good friend. She came from an educated, Waspy, Westchester family. She went to Wellesley – studied biology, I believe.
DM: That must have been in the 1940s.
FT: Yes, she was in college in the late forties, because she was born in 1928. In that sense she was ahead of her time.
DM: So she was well-educated?
FT: Yes, she was smart – but she was very down-to-earth, a lot of fun. She had a great sense of humor. She got into AA after I met her, and she really fit into the AA gang. She had the same kind of gallows humor that they did, very human. She also had a good sense of humor about her delusions. She often said were from the drugs she took.
DM: How did you meet her?
FT: I met her at the church where I worked, and where she volunteered, and we bonded. She was a little skittish when we first met, a little tentative and dopey, because she still was drinking and drugging then – abusing prescription cough syrup to get high. Somehow she had worked out a deal with the drugstores to get more than what was being prescribed – so there was this not-quite-kosher side to her.
DM: But she had delusions. You could tell?
FT: She thought when she came to the church that she could walk right through the wooden doors – when they were closed. Like she didn’t think she had to open the doors – and could just pass right through the wood.
DM: And she told you this?
FT: Yeah, she told me. We talked a lot. I was in twelve step programs then, and it was shortly after I met her that I twelve-stepped her – that is, told her about addictions and got her into twelve step programs too. Actually, I first got her into Gam-Anon – the group for partners of gambling addicts, because of her husband Mike. He was really troubled with gambling, drinking too. Sometimes when Mike was on a rampage she would come and sleep in the church at night, along with the homeless guy, Bill, who slept there – not romantic, though. He’d sleep in the pews and she’d sleep on the communion kneelers! [laughs.] Even she had a sense of humor about it, about a lot of things. When Mike died she put two OTB [Off Track Betting] tickets in the breast pocket of his suit inside the coffin!
DM: [laughs] So you knew her husband as well.
FT: I knew Mike a little, but not well. He was older than Ellie. He was very quiet – and working class – a working class Italian guy. They were a mismatch in that way, because of her background. If I remember correctly he was on SSD – disability. He didn’t work. Ellie was disabled too – for mental illness. She’d been in a lot of mental institutions. She was not working either.
DM: Was he on disability for mental problems too?
FT: Could be. He would buy second-hand flowers and sell them on the street corners and then he could gamble the money.
DM: While you knew her?
FT: Yeah. He never got any kind of sobriety from gambling, but he was okay with me. Then he died, not long after I met her, and we all went to the funeral, and it was sort of like a black comedy, because she really did put those OTB tickets in his suit pocket right in the funeral home – in the coffin! So he’s buried with those OTB tickets in his suit jacket.
DM: She liked him?
FT: I…I…you know, it was an odd connection, because they were so different in terms of coming from such a different class strata, but they drank together, and I think there was a mokus bond between them – and it was…a sexual relationship. I don’t know if it was so much that way at the end, though.
DM: But they had no children?
FT: No, they had no children, so that was good.
DM: She never wanted any?
FT: Uh, I…I don’t think she did. I don’t remember discussing that, but I just think Ellie knew that she was very emotionally damaged, even though she never gave a diagnosis of herself as schizophrenic.
DM: She never talked about that with you?
FT: No, but she would talk about being in the mental institutions – and how in between hospitalizations she worked at NYU [New York University], and how she wrote about the biochemistry of schizophrenia.
DM: Did she do that work when you knew her?
FT: No. I was friends with her for about ten years, really close with her from about 1982 to roughly 1992, and then somewhere after 1992 she went to the Caron Foundation, and she really did a lot of really good psychological investigation there, but she kept saying that you can do two years of therapy in like a week or two, or whatever the short time frame was that she was there. And I just thought, you know, that’s not such a good idea, to concentrate something like that so quickly. And she was really never the same after that.
DM: So she went to Caron as an inpatient?
FT: Yes, you stayed there – you moved there. It’s in Pennsylvania, rather far from New York City. You pack your bags and move there, and you live there a while. Somehow her insurance paid for it. And then she came back and she was always talking about codependency – that everyone was codependent. Really blaming everyone – in the church office where I worked. All her friends were falling away, but I thought, “Oh, we’re such good friends, it could never happen to me.” But then finally she started attacking me and pulling away from me. She started writing and sending very disturbing letters to me and she would be calling me on the phone crying hysterically and raging at me.
DM: For things that you had done, or things that she perceived that you had done?
FT: It was really hard to say. It was like she started to snap after coming back from Caron. It was delusional on her part. So the last time she called me I was home with a friend, and she was going off and crying and blaming me, and it was…crazy, it was delusional, and I just said, “Ellie, I am NOT responsible for your feelings!” And I hung up the phone – and I never heard from her again until I found out she was dying. And that’s when I went to see her on her deathbed.
DM: When was it that you told her “I am not responsible for your feelings”?
FT: That was late 1995 or early 1996, because I know I was working on the movie project then.
DM: Could you give an example of something that she would be angry at you for, or was blaming you for?
FT: Oh, it was…well…no…I really can’t. It was that disconnected. Um, and it’s a while now. But, she would also call the office and rant at the office secretary, and rant at the priest, and I know the theme was always this codependent stuff…that everyone was codependent…
DM: …this codependent stuff being what?
FT: That everybody is using other people as a drug, but it wasn’t, it just wasn’t specifically thought out. It felt more…well…displaced. It felt like there was anger from another source but that it was being aimed indiscriminately at the people around her. But it wasn’t specific. You asked if I did something, and, uh [laughs uncomfortably], uh, I dunno – I never spotted that I did, because usually I know when I cross somebody, and I just felt she was delusional, she was perceiving that people had done stuff to her and thinking things about her that just weren’t true, that never happened.
DM: And you were about twenty years younger than she was, too, right?
FT: Uh, yes, almost. When I met her she was 54 and I was 34, almost 35. And she was in many ways a maternal figure to me – a very spunky mother, and I really enjoyed that aspect of our friendship. In fact, I wrote that play in which a character based on her was a mother to the runaway boy, and really the runaway boy is me.
DM: The Angel Play! I saw it – it was great!
FT: Thanks. Yeah, Ellie, I, and the homeless guy Bill, who was also in AA – and had a character in the play based on him – were friends. We were very close.
DM: Did Ellie see your play?
FT: Yeah, she loved it.
DM: What did she think of the character who was based on her? Wasn’t that character a recovering drug addict?
FT: Yes, I alluded to her drug addiction in it. But I also remember she said “but I wouldn’t have said that!” I explained to her that really she was just the seed for the character, so it’s not exactly literal. But she was very proud of having a character based on her, and she brought all her AA friends to see it.
DM: Yeah, and you helped her get into AA too.
FT: Actually, now that I remember, after I got her into Gam-Anon she realized that she needed to go into AA, so actually I didn’t twelve step her into AA myself, but I did into Gam-Anon. And she stopped drinking, all around 1982. And I felt that she stayed sober the whole time I was close with her, from 1982 to 1992. She would go to an AA meeting every morning, and bring bagels to church afterward, and we’d all eat – and that was fun. It was Bill the homeless guy, Ellie, and me. We were like a family. It was fun, very honest and earthy – and playful. We’d go on day trips to Philadelphia, or to the mall in Jersey City, have lunch, go to a movie, come back to Manhattan and call it a day – so there was a nice camaraderie. She was supportive of me, and we’d speak pretty much every day. And she was kind and generous.
DM: Generous in what way?
FT: Materially. She’d share things, give me plants, other gifts.
DM: Where did she get the money if she wasn’t working?
FT: Well, she had money from her disability check, and she sometimes cleaned apartments for cash. And with that she worked very hard. She had no arrogance that way. She wasn’t arrogant. But she also had a rich aunt who would give her money. Like real money – like a thousand bucks at a time. And this aunt would also take her on cruises, just the two of them.
DM: So she was on disability the whole time you knew her?
DM: I remember reading on her website that it said she was “a retired neuroscientist.” Did she retire, then?
FT: Uh, I…uh, no. I don’t think she retired. I think she was some sort of laboratory assistant at NYU and helped with some experiments that got published, back in the 1960s, but then she broke off her employment because she had mental breakdowns of some kind. She would just end up in the psychiatric hospital. She had several visits to them – some of them long, I believe.
DM: Not when you knew her, though?
FT: No. I’m not sure what shifted in her to get her to start volunteering at the church, though. I mean, she just sat for years in depression, and then something shifted to get her to start coming to the church. I mean, I don’t know why she didn’t just kill herself in despair. But she didn’t. Somehow she broke the cycle and started participating in the world. And after she got sober we became great friends. She was down to earth. I mean, she was one of my best friends for almost ten years. We were real buddies.
DM: Then it changed?
FT: Yes. After she got ten years of sobriety – and I have my own little pet theory about this – I felt some of her traumas started coming up and they were really catalyzed when she went to the Caron Foundation. I felt, I don’t know, I don’t feel she ever, I don’t know what happened to Ellie in her childhood, but something bad DID, and I don’t feel she ever processed it. I felt she had opened up the gates by being sober, she wasn’t pushing her horrors down so much, and then it all got blasted open to some extent at Caron. But then she didn’t go to aftercare, she was just stubborn – she refused – and what came up, all her demons, overwhelmed her, and she blew a gasket, and went crazy – however you want to diagnose it. She went into a big isolation and started writing her theories which…I felt…were – even though some of it made sense, because she had had this history in biochemistry – well, some of what she wrote made sense, and she wasn’t stupid…and Ellie was the one who introduced me to Alice Miller. But when she introduced me I thought that Alice Miller was crazy just because Ellie was so far out. And this was even before Ellie went off the deep end. So I just didn’t…I mean, I liked her, but [laughs uncomfortably]…I just felt she…didn’t really want to know, and I felt she was…as much as I loved her…that she didn’t, uh, couldn’t look deeper. And at that point I wasn’t in therapy myself and didn’t want to look at my own history, but I felt Ellie never did.
DM: What part of her history?
FT: Her childhood history. But I don’t know enough details. She didn’t talk much about it. I mean, I know that Ellie’s sister drowned when she was a teenager and that her parents preferred the sister to Ellie, and she was kind of a left out girl, very neglected. Then her mother died young and her father was the primary parent and was older and an alcoholic, like Ellie’s husband Mike. And Ellie often hinted that some gardener did something to her when she was a kid. I don’t know if he molested her or what, but I know it wasn’t good for her as a girl. I don’t know about the specific history of abuse, but then I always questioned why was she alcoholic, and why did she become so mentally ill, and why was she so unwilling to look at her history. I just feel something horrible happened – and she could never put a finger on it. It’s just like you asked me, “did she ever attack you about anything you did specifically?”, and the answer is no. It wasn’t like “oh god, we had a party and Ellie didn’t get invited.” It was nothing specific, no specific incident. It was just like I watched her push everybody away and attack them. I remember the priest at church said, “Ellie can’t take any personal responsibility. In Ellie’s world it’s everybody’s fault but Ellie’s.” And another friend of mine said, “What makes you think that you’re going to be exempt from her rage?”
FT: But I said, “Oh no, we’re so close, she wouldn’t.” And then she did. He was right. So…that’s why when I came across her writings, um, I mean, she was right about Alice Miller, and I have a lot of respect for Alice Miller, but I never really took Ellie’s writings that seriously, even though in fairness some of it might be accurate, but I could never wade through it. It looked like a combination of her science background, her readings of Alice Miller, some of the AA principles – and also some of the magical ideas of AA, that there are easy ways to be healed – and some of her personal intuition, her life experience. But also her craziness. I just couldn’t look at her theories objectively – I couldn’t read it seriously. I just knew she wasn’t a grounded person. She was an isolated, troubled lady, living in her own world. I, I just remembered what a disturbed person she was after the Caron Foundation. And also I ran into her a few times on the street after our falling out–
DM: –what year was that?
FT: Oh, in the late 1990s, maybe in 2000. You know, I didn’t talk to her then, just saw her, we passed on the street a few times. But she just looked mentally ill, hunched over and furious, like someone babbling…like a street person.
DM: That’s an ugly thought.
FT: Yeah. And it was sad, disturbing to see her that way – and I believe she had stopped going to AA and had become very isolated – and then through the grapevine, from a lady at church who kept in touch with her, I heard in 2001 that Ellie was dying, but that she was willing to see me.
DM: She wanted to see you?
FT: Not exactly, it was more veiled, not so direct, more like that she was open to seeing me. And this friend said that Ellie has pancreatic cancer, and so she was not long for this world.
DM: So she was in the hospital?
FT: No, she was in hospice. She was dying. I think she died a day or two after I saw her. So I went up to see her, she recognized me, she looked okay, and, um, it was a little cool, but then she said “I’m ready to meet God.” She had this spiritual sense, and I feel she believed in another world and an afterlife and she was ready to go to that. And I said, “Ellie, we had a lot of fun.” And she said, “Yeah, we had a lot of good laughs.” And that was the only part of the meeting that I felt was real. I mean, she’s “ready to meet God,” well okay, that’s her sincere belief, but in terms of our dialogue that was the only part that was real.
DM: So there was other stuff that wasn’t real?
FT: Well, I also asked her, “Are you in any pain?”, because I was curious, and she was someone I still did care about and didn’t want her to be suffering. And she just sort of rolled up her eyes and said, “They’re keeping me VERY comfortable here,” and I realized she’s on morphine! [Laughs uncomfortably.] Well, in a way, I kind of felt she died a drug addict. [Pause.] I know that sounds harsh, but I felt that she was not going out consciously, but that she was leaving this world drugged, and that was consistent with her history, which was such a long history of drug abuse.
DM: So she really had a long history of drug abuse?
FT: Yes. She told me once that she didn’t leave the apartment for ten years. She just sat on the edge of her bed depressed, drugged, hung-over, smoking cigarettes–
DM: –before she met you?
FT: Yeah. She said she’d only go out to get more drugs.
DM: So let me ask you this, what are the most important things you learned from Ellie?
FT: Well, almost the most important thing I learned is in reverse, meaning, what not to do. I learned that if you bring up deep emotional trauma that you have to either have enough structure within yourself to be able to hold it or be in a structured enough situation to be able to hold it for you, because if you’re not you will fall apart, disintegrate in a certain way, which I feel she did. I feel that childhood traumas that are not dealt with will destroy you. Those are things I learned from her in reverse. But I also learned that she had a wonderful spirit, that there was something in her that really was amazing, just really spirited and fun. And she certainly had ten years that were good, after the mental institutions and when she was in AA.
DM: And you didn’t find her to be mentally ill during those ten years?
FT: Well, I found that she was, well, sometimes slow. I mean, she was smart, but it was like there was something in her that showed that all her synapses weren’t snapping. Some things she just couldn’t get.
DM: Like what?
FT: Like sometimes she’d just get stumped. Like when she volunteered in the office in church the office manager would give her some simple task, and it was just too complex for her to do.
DM: Like what?
FT: Like filing – like putting files in proper order – or like the office manager would say “Call this one, and then call that one, and then call this one.” It was just too much for her. She’d just go bewildered. And she was only in her 50s, maybe early 60s. But she was empathic, she was very supportive of my romantic stuff at the time, though looking back I now see that my romantic stuff was crazy. But Ellie was really rooting for me. She was a supportive friend, and she had a wonderful sense of humor.
DM: Do you miss her?
FT: Yes…but I also missed her through that whole period after the Caron Foundation. But there was no way to get close to her then. I wish she were still living. I felt she died too young, and crazy. I felt abandoned by her, and if you want my honest opinion, by her mental illness. I felt she got to a point with AA, was sober long enough in it, established enough of an inner structure, and then she went to Caron and ignited. But before that, she was wonderful, fun to be around – and alive. And that part of her I miss.
DM: Well, anything else you want to add?
FT: No. I’ve said it all. God, sorry Ellie for trashing you! I do love you!