In keeping with my resolve not to change the historical record where it exists, I still wrestle with how to handle the gaps. The writing of fictional biography gives me some license, of course, but I mostly interpret that to mean that I am imagining the scenes that are suggested by the historical record and making up the dialogue. I’m also inventing characteristics and histories for minor characters who are documented in the record, but about whom little is written. Mrs. Grut is an example, in my Darwin book. She was the children’s governess at a critical time in the Darwin household and appears in the Darwin letters but in no other place. I knew she tried to make a proper Victorian household out of Emma Darwin’s fun house full of children–to the chagrin and detriment of all. I had to create a character who was motivated to put things in order and provoke consternation. Okay. I’m fine with that.
What I find more troubling is a matter like Mileva Maric’s sister Zorka, who was known to have developed something like schizophrenia. What I don’t know is when it developed. I can read statistics on when young women typically develop symptoms and I can read letters, but it seems that as soon as I write her into a scene with symptoms at an age of onset consistent with statistics, I read that Milos Maric (Mileva’s father) sent all his children abroad to school. Now, how likely is it that an 18-year-old would thrive abroad at school with symptoms of schizophrenia? I’m certain that Zorka was suffering symptoms by age 24, but then, after that, she went to help Mileva with the children during periods of Mileva’s debilitation after Einstein left the family. It doesn’t make sense to me that someone with unmedicated schizophrenia would be able to run a household with young children.
Perhaps the diagnosis is wrong. Zorka was in Serbia and would have been hidden in the attic like Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre to avoid sending her to some brutal asylum where, at that time, she would have been chained to a wall or confined in some torture device and possibly put on public display like at Bedlam Hospital in England. Zorka would not have been seen by a professional until later, when she went to Zurich and was treated at the Burgholzli Psychiatric Hospital, where the Einstein’s son Eduard, also schizophrenic, was interred at times. So, there was a serious dysfunction of a psychological nature, which eventually Zorka self-medicated with alcohol, but it seemed to relapse at times. One relative/neighbor interviewed by Michele Zackheim for her book Einstein’s Daughter said that before Mileva came home to visit her in later life, Zorka stopped drinking and put the house in order. There’s volition, devotion, and shame in that behavior. She knew she didn’t want Mileva to see how she was living. Is that kind of self-awareness typical of schizophrenia?
There are two other bits of data that make me put age of onset sooner rather than later. One is that when Mileva, already pregnant with Lieserl and still unmarried, traveled from Serbia to Switzerland to visit Albert in secret, he sent her a book on hypnotism by Auguste Forel who was then the director of the Burgholzli. Why that book? While it is true that Mileva took a psychology course at some point in her education, they were not known to have read and discussed anything but physics together, so it seems out of context unless Mileva had requested he send her anything he could find to help her help Zorka. He was in Schaffhausen, tutoring a young Englishman, and living in a household with a family. Perhaps it was the only remotely relevant book he could find in a Schaffhausen library.
The other data bit that makes me wonder about early onset for Zorka is that after Mileva’s baby was born, Albert and Mileva considered putting her up for adoption. Why would they not have asked the Maric family to keep the baby? She had already caused them shame by the fact of her unwed pregnancy. They were wealthy and had servants, though Marija Maric (Mileva’s mother) continued to help with all house and farm work. That means she was healthy. The little girl lived there for 18 months, which seems a long time if she was going to be given up. Perhaps Mileva’s parents couldn’t handle another dependent in addition to Zorka?
It’s all puzzling. Then there is the fate of Lieserl–another unknown–except that Mileva clearly knows what happened to her and she’s a point-of-view character, so how do I get around that one? I’m leaning heavily on Michele Zackheim’s interviews with family members and friends in Einstein’s Daughter, though I’m not certain how to explain a few things there, either. For example, if Lieserl was born with Downs Syndrome–as Albert seems to have reported to a colleague later in his life–why would Albert have at the time written “I’m very sorry about what has befallen Lieserl. It’s so easy to suffer lasting effects from scarlet fever.” To me, this sounds as though scarlet fever caused a disability she didn’t have before. If Lieserl had died of the scarlet fever (lasting effect, indeed!), he would not have written the sentences that follow: “As what is the child registered? We must take precautions that problems don’t arise for her later.”
What is the likelihood that Lieserl was a Downs baby? 95% of Downs children are born to older mothers with no hereditary component. Mileva was 25 at the time of conception. The percentage of Downs children born due to other factors is 2-3% and then, only 1 in 3 due to a hereditary defect in one parent. The fact that their third child was schizophrenic then, hardly seems to be related.
And, if Lieserl had been born a Downs baby, would Albert have been pleased when Mileva got pregnant a second time, after they were married? Even without a hereditary factor–likely not known at that time–wouldn’t the feelings be more complex at the thought of a second go-round? But that same letter begins “I’m not the least bit angry that poor Dollie [his nickname for Mileva] is hatching a new chick. In fact, I’m happy about it and had already given some thought to whether I shouldn’t see to it that you get a new Lieserl. . . . Brood on it very carefully so that something good will come of it.”
So what can I conclude that will satisfy the parameters in this letter? This is the primary source.