My Cousin Élise

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After watching an episode of Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda (S5, ep.15), in which he investigates the gruesome murder of a young woman and her mutilation by her ex-husband, a man with paranoid schizophrenia, I felt the need to tell the story of my cousin Élise.

Élise was the second daughter of my mom’s only sister and her husband. (I won’t divulge names to protect privacy.) She was a bright young woman who got a degree in Criminology and later went on to undertake an M.A in Translation. I don’t know if she completed the latter, because she developed paranoid psychosis at roughly the same age as I did my schizophrenia—around mid-twenties to early thirties. The two illnesses are related. They are both psychotic.

Although I eventually was able to break out of the unending cycle of psychoses with hallucinations and delusional thinking, she didn’t, and that’s because of paranoia. Paranoia is one of the so-called positive symptoms of schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders—positive in that they add to the individual’s personality. It causes people who are so afflicted to believe that other people are out to harm them. Consequently, they will stop taking their meds because they think those pills are poison, and they go through the revolving door syndrome of having a psychotic episode, ending up in a hospital for a number of weeks or months, being released with a prescription, which they don’t refill, until they either die or do something that will cause them to end up in prison for the rest of their lives.

People who have paranoia are known to antagonize others, because they believe those people want to harm them, so yes, people with paranoia CAN have enemies, and they are not imaginary. If an individual with paranoia gets in your face about some action they believe you took, whether they’re right or not, and they are 6’5” tall and weigh over 250lbs, you will see them as a threat and not as a friend. Some people who feel threatened by others will resort to violence, especially if a gun is available.

My cousin saw signs in tree branches indicating that her landlords wanted to kill her, so to avoid that end she broke her leases every three months to move elsewhere at the cost of heavy penalties. In Québec, there are only a few cases in which you can break a lease, and leaving to prevent your landlord from killing you doesn’t qualify.

Élise eventually got a man to impregnate her and later gave birth to a little girl with whom she had a bizarre, quasi-symbiotic relationship. When the child reached the age of five, Élise realized that she would lose control of the girl, because Émilie* would start attending Kindergarten in the fall and would become less dependent on her mother.

So my cousin decided to kill her child. She bought a sedative that she gave to the girl and drowned her in the bathtub along with their cat. Then she left the apartment and went to the nearest river and threw herself in it with the intent of dying by drowning, but that took too long. She gave up, got out of the water, and went to the nearest house, where she told the people what she had done. Then they called the police.

Élise was arrested. The police went to her place and found the little girl and the cat still floating in the bathtub as she had left them. After multiple delays, she was prosecuted for some form of homicide. The trial was delayed, because she kept changing lawyers, and she ended up representing herself.

At the trial, she told a story that only made sense to people who were in the throes of a psychotic episode. Because I wasn’t there, I don’t know the details either, but my aunt talked to my mom regularly. What I overheard was that my aunt kept thinking, “Élise, shut up! You’re talking nonsense.”

When she finished telling her story, the Crown Attorney told the judge that she recommended that my cousin be sent to the Philippe Pinel Institute for the criminally insane. My cousin wanted none of that, so she was condemned to life in prison with a minimum of ten years at the federal prison for women in Joliette, the same prison where Karla Homolka served her prison sentence.

While there, she made three suicide attempts. In the first two, the guards found her in time and untied the rope around her neck, but when they found her the third time, they decided to “let her go” figuring that she would keep on trying to kill herself until she died. Her death was a cruel blow to my aunt. I don’t think she ever recovered from that shock.

Some people will say that suicide is unreasonable. Well, maybe to a rational mind it is, but to someone who constantly hears voices telling her that she’s worthless and that she should rid the planet of her presence, apart from the fear of being harmed by others and the guilt of her conscience, suicide may be a relief.

I read in an article published in the Saturday Night issue of March 1987 that when women develop mental illnesses like schizophrenia and paranoid psychosis those illnesses manifest themselves as mood disorders. That was my experience, because my dominant symptom was depression.

When I consider the tragic end of my cousin’s life and the difference between my life and hers, the conclusion that keeps coming to my mind is, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

*name changed

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You have shared your cousin's heartbreaking story in such a poignant way. Praying our hearts and eyes will be opened to the struggles of those around us. 

Thank-you for the courage to share this heart breaking story.
If we pay attention we can gain understanding of something that is so very painful and difficult.

I weep with you