Left Behind

By Lynn Ermann
Sunday, September 4, 2005

I imagined the killers might have held my mother under the water until she was dead, so I would try to stay at the bottom of the swimming pool for as long as I could before shooting up to the surface, choking for air. Or I'd float face down, like someone who had just been knocked over the head. Then 13, I envisioned my mother's killers as faceless and unyielding, two brawny men in white orderly uniforms who would one day murder me the way they had murdered her. Though I outgrew my morbid fantasies, I would remain haunted by my mother's mysterious death for the next two decades.

I was 9 when I first heard she had died. My father told me her body had been found in the swimming pool of the Florida mental institution where she was in treatment, that she had gone swimming on a December day in 1979 and drowned. This was the story my maternal grandmother had told him. But the story didn't make sense to me, even then. She was a good swimmer. It was one of the few things I knew about my mother, an aspiring artist who'd walked out on me when I was an infant and whom I'd seen only a handful of times. The other things I knew led me to a question.

"Did she kill herself?" I asked my father.

"I don't know, Lynnie," he said. He put his arm around me, but I couldn't cry, not then.

Later I learned from a cousin that my mother had been murdered, attacked in some way by two attendants at the mental institution. Apparently, only my grandmother knew the details, but I wasn't about to approach her. Grandma Bea couldn't even talk about my mother's life, let alone her death. So I retreated to my underwater fantasies and let the questions go unanswered.

I grew up to be a reporter and to write about the mysteries in the lives of strangers. The mystery in my own life remained unexamined. Then, about 10 years ago, I was at the New York City library doing research on Nexis, and I impulsively entered my mother's name in the newspaper database: Claudia Ermann. An old wire service story from 1983 popped up: "Former suburban Philadelphia doctor accused of sexually and physically abusing patients has avoided hearings by agreeing to give up his medical license." The doctor, John Rosen, "admitted that he left one patient, Gay Claudia Ermann, without proper continuing treatment . . . Ms. Ermann died after a beating inflicted on her while she was being treated by Rosen employees."

I cried, then called my father. He said he had not known the details of the killing -- the abusive doctor, the brutal beating -- and he was very sorry I had to find out. So was I. In my mid-twenties, I wasn't ready to learn more. I was still too afraid that I might suffer my mother's fate.

It wasn't until after I'd celebrated my 32nd birthday -- and finally outlived my mother, who died at 31 -- that I Googled John Rosen and other key words. Immediately, I was hit with a flood of information on the founder of a faddish treatment for schizophrenics. Rosen believed in using talk therapy and confrontation to get inside his patients' delusions. More research turned up a review of a book with a chapter on Rosen, which mentioned that the mother of a Rosen patient had sued him after the death of her daughter.

I located a used copy of Edward Dolnick's Madness on the Couch that night. To my amazement, my mother's name was in the index, albeit misspelled: Ehrmann, Claudia, 116. It was sort of thrilling. But what I read on page 116 devastated me.

"In 1981, for example, Rosen paid $100,000 to settle the case involving the death of a schizophrenic woman, Claudia Ehrmann, who had been under his care. According to prosecutors in the case, Ehrmann died when two of Rosen's attendants tried to force her to speak. One held her by the legs and the other punched or kneed her. (Rosen was not present at the time of the death.) Ehrmann died, the autopsy noted, of 'blunt force injuries of the abdomen.'"

Afterward, I walked 30 blocks in a teary daze. What were they doing to her? Why did they want to get her to speak? Who put her in that terrible place? Was my mother schizophrenic?

I called my father. "She was diagnosed with a lot of things," my dad sighed.

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