A Doctor's Response to His Son's Schizophrenia: Decades in Shoddy Group Homes

Once all but trapped in group homes, Eugene now is studying history at Santa Monica College.
Once all but trapped in group homes, Eugene now is studying history at Santa Monica College.
Photo by Ted Soqui

Eugene Walker's room at the Golden Manor nursing home may not seem like much: cream-colored walls, cottage cheese ceiling with metal sprinklers poking out, two sagging twin beds with floral bedspreads, a gray carpet that looks like television static. But it's clean, it has air conditioning and, at around 200 square feet, it's the biggest room he's had in three decades.

"It's better than where I was living at," he says. "The worst thing about it is they make you get up at 7 o'clock for breakfast."

His gentle voice carries a subtle lisp, perhaps the remnant of a stroke he had sometime around 2004, which rendered him blind in his left eye. His frame is slender, like that of a teenager. When he talks, his eyes widen, as if he's about to tell you something incredible. Yet he seems perpetually unimpressed with his strange journey. Indeed, one symptom of schizophrenia is a narrow range of emotional responses.

His journal is almost laughably antiseptic. A typical entry reads: "I worked out at the gym. Then I went to math class. When I came back I talked to Britany. After dinner I watched TV and used my computer until bed." Nearly every entry ends with "until bed."

Lying on his bedside table, sandwiched between a remote control and a Motorola flip phone, is a copy of The Golden Ass, by Apuleius, the only Latin novel from ancient Rome to survive in its entirety. Eugene is reading it for his history class at Santa Monica College. The hero of the book, Lucius, is obsessed with magic; he tries to turn himself into a bird but messes up the spell and instead transforms himself into an ass. He is saved, in the end, by the goddess Isis.

Eugene still thinks about his lost years, going to sleep before sunset, waking up at 5 a.m., walking outside to smoke a cigarette and listen to the radio and maybe drink some coffee if there was any. Days upon days spent in a haze of the powerful drug Thorazine.

"I was heartbroken at all the years I wasted, not doing anything," he says. "Just kind of vegetating. Well, there was nothing I could do."

From 1986 to 2010, Eugene lived in a series of boardinghouses in cramped, almost Dickensian conditions. He barely left the property. He barely showered. He barely did anything. His family had all but forgotten him.

"I didn't really see him," says his sister, Paula. "No one in the family talked about him. It was kind of like he didn't exist."

Paula directs commercials. She's a storyteller; she wants to shape Eugene's story as a redemptive tale. And perhaps it is. After all, Eugene used to call Paula 15 times a day, begging her to rescue him from the unlicensed boardinghouse where he was all but trapped for more than 24 years. Now when he calls Paula, he talks about how he needs to study, how he wants to transfer to UCLA, how he wants to get a job and his own apartment. His problems today are, in the end, common.

In 1955, there were roughly 558,000 patients in mental hospitals in the United States. Now there are fewer than 40,000. "It should be over a million, if we still institutionalized at the same rate," says Andrew Scull, a sociologist at UC San Diego. "There's a million people gone missing and the question is, what's become of them?

Many, of course, are on the street, and many are in jail. Some live with their families. But mental illness can wreak havoc on a family — just ask the Walkers — so many end up in private facilities.

This shift was known as deinstitutionalization, though Scull calls it trans-institutionalization. America played a sort of shell game with its mental patients. In 1967, a bipartisan state law abolished the involuntary institutionalizing of all but the most troubled mentally ill. Then in 1972, a bipartisan Congress approved Supplemental Security Income (or SSI) for the institutionalized. The hope, even the promise, was that the new approach, often called "community care," would be more intimate and humane than large, sometimes abuse-ridden institutions, and would help integrate patients into the world.

The community care model relied on the theory that patients would live in nursing homes or boardinghouses while receiving treatment at outpatient facilities. This was made feasible by a then-new drug, Thorazine, which sedated patients to the point where they would no longer have violent outbursts, though it did have terrible side effects, causing patients to tremble uncontrollably, as if they had Parkinson's.

Eugene Walker
Eugene Walker
Photo by Ted Soqui

In reality, deinstitutionalization did little more than move mental patients off of state budgets and onto the federal budget, through SSI checks. But the money wasn't enough to actually treat patients, only enough to hide many of them in plain sight, paying for a roof over their heads but not for badly needed care.

"The aim of mental health policy has been increasingly to get people out of mental health care," says Dr. Joel Braslow, a psychiatrist and historian at UCLA.

Unlicensed boardinghouses are prohibited from providing therapy or any other mental health care. And because they are unlicensed, they are largely unregulated — and thus unwatched.

"They are these privatized little islands, where oversight is really minimal," Braslow says. "Honestly, it's really a way of conveniently abandoning people with severe mental illness."

Eugene wasn't the same when he came home from his freshman year at Yale in 1972. Maybe it was the LSD — that's what some people said, that the psychedelic had altered his mind. Eugene says the drug had long-lasting effects: His Yale roommates had been burning strawberry incense, and five years later he could still smell it.

But it wasn't the LSD. Schizophrenia almost always strikes perfectly normal people in young adulthood, in their late teens or early 20s. It comes on fast, often without warning.

And it didn't just affect Eugene. It tore apart his family.

Paula and Eugene grew up in black upper-middle-class Baldwin Hills, on a winding, tree-lined street high atop a hill. The entire backside of the house was made of glass, offering a sweeping view of Los Angeles.

It was a dynamic, intellectual home in the 1960s. Eugene's parents' friends were always dropping by. Politics was never far from anyone's mind. Revolution was in the air — civil rights, women's liberation, the anti-war movement, the anti–death penalty movement. The movements kept coming.

Paula and Eugene grew up wealthy. Their father, Eugene Henry Walker (whose grandfather was born a slave and went on to found Morristown College in Tennessee), was a well-respected doctor who co-founded Vern-Bro Medical Group, one of the first medical facilities in South L.A. The elder Walker wore his salt-and-pepper hair in a ponytail — a friend thought he looked like Steven Seagal. His nickname in the Air Force was "Sugar Child." He commanded the attention of a room just by walking in. A rapid-jazz aficionado, he was graceful, cool, aloof and, above all, calm.

His wife, Olive, was different, incandescent, a free spirit. She had worked in politics, had been a member of the Communist Party. She started a magazine devoted to civil rights, The Integrator. She loved to travel, and took the family to Paris when Paula was 10.

"She just had this really expansive view of life," Paula says. "She said, 'Don't see yourself as being a member of any one country.' She didn't want us to define ourselves as black Americans."

Olive was also an alcoholic and epileptic who often behaved erratically.

"It could go totally bright or it could be darkness," says Paula, who remembers coming home to find that her mother had taken a scissor and cut up all the sheets and thrown them outside.

And then there was Eugene. "My mom was very psychically connected to my brother," Paula says. "And she became increasingly concerned about him."

Eugene was Paula's older brother. But on the Baldwin Hills playground, it was she who protected him. He was shy, awkward, very smart and very bookish. He was a geek before that was even remotely acceptable.

"He was bright, but he had social problems," Paula says. "He had a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills when he was young. I was always jealous — 'Why does he get all this attention?'"

Eugene enjoyed a brief period of semi-popularity in middle school, at private Campbell Hall in North Hollywood, where he was elected student treasurer. Then he went to Cate School, an elite boarding school in the hills near Santa Barbara. His grades were mediocre, but he got into Yale on the strength of his impressive SAT scores. At Eugene's high school graduation, his busy doctor father was a no-show.

At Yale, Eugene's problems began almost immediately. He did poorly in math. He didn't have a typewriter. He was only 17, younger than most of his classmates. There were too many choices. It was cold, and he didn't have a warm enough coat. Distractions were everywhere: marijuana, LSD, movies in the dorm every night. He stopped studying. He stopped attending classes, stopped showering. He was told to see a psychiatrist or be expelled. He saw a psychiatrist; he was expelled anyway. Eugene didn't make it to the end of his first year.

"I was kind of relieved," he says. "Because I was freezing. And I wasn't taking showers. I was really in a bad state of mind."

Back in L.A., Eugene started hallucinating and hearing voices. Sometimes they came from the TV. They hurled racial insults at him. They told him to give away his things, to attack people. And he listened.

"I heard those voices and did what they said," Eugene says. "When they said fight, I fought."

Once, he punched his sister in the face. He shouted obscenities at his mother. He called the cops and told them that his father had been physically abusive. Within 24 hours of that call to police, Eugene was on the way to his first mental hospital, in Alhambra, where the teenager was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

When Paula saw Eugene, he was in five-point restraints. He looked like an animal, all drugged up and deranged. He shrieked: "Help me! Get me out of here! They're beating me!"

The family, meanwhile, was imploding. Eugene's illness was the final straw, particularly for his mother.

"There was a lot of guilt and a lot of blame," Paula says. "Whatever coping mechanism that anyone has to deal with it gets triggered. And if you don't have healthy coping mechanisms.... We didn't do family discussions. There would just be these huge arguments and fights. And then just silence. And another round. And another round."

Dr. Walker became lost in his work, and in the arms of a younger woman, Dottie Ransburg. They married in 1978 and had a daughter, Erica. Olive grew more detached from reality and began telling Paula she planned to move to Massachusetts.

Sometime in the mid-'80s, after Paula graduated college and returned to Los Angeles, she knocked on the door of her mother's Mid-City home. A stranger answered and told Paula that her mom had sold the house. Olive was never seen again, at least by family or friends. A private detective Paula hired couldn't find her.

Now back in L.A., Paula rarely visited her brother at the boarding facilities where his father had placed him. "I saw him every once in a while on the street corner," in L.A., Paula says. "I would drive somewhere and I would see this crazy-looking person, and I would realize that was my brother."

For the next decade or so, Eugene was in and out of mental hospitals. He was arrested twice, once for driving under the influence, once for spraying cops with insecticide. They beat him, he claims, and threw him in L.A. County Jail.

Like his mother, Eugene has epilepsy, and he would wake up from a seizure not knowing who or where he was. He clearly didn't have the capacity to live on his own. But the places that his father paid for grew worse and worse.

Eventually, in 1986, Dr. Walker put his son in the meager boardinghouse run by a Westside couple. It would be Eugene's home for the next 24 years.

No government entity keeps track of how many unlicensed boardinghouses (sometimes called board-and-care homes) have sprung up in L.A. Harold Turner, of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Urban Los Angeles, guesses they number in the thousands, nearly all of them for-profit.

Legally, the houses are supposed to provide a place to sleep and a certain number of meals. They are not allowed to medicate or to manage clients' finances. Unless the state Department of Social Services receives a complaint, it won't check on the conditions in a boardinghouse.

"They range from hardly habitable shacks next to Nickerson Gardens to equestrian ranches in Malibu," Turner says. Most open in low-income neighborhoods and are, he says, "not a place you'd want to leave a loved one in."

"There's a multitude of concerns with the unlicensed facilities," says L.A. City Councilman Mitchell Englander. "One is the services [residents] might be getting. Some cloak themselves in the promises of services, and it's not true care." He has been trying to pass a law regulating boardinghouses, but people who run sober-living homes protested a number of the restrictions, and his changes went nowhere.

When Eugene first moved into the Westside couple's boardinghouse almost 30 years ago, there were six or seven other patients. By that time, his father had stopped paying steep amounts to keep him in homes with more amenities, instead using only Eugene's SSI check to cover the bill.

The boardinghouse owners controlled a number of properties, and moved their charges every few years or so, according to Paula and Eugene.

First the boarders were kept in a small house in Mid-City. Then, Eugene recalls, a garage in Westchester. Then a small adobe cottage in Compton. Then back to Westchester.

"One time," Eugene says, "one of the staff there kicked me in the face. They spat on me. They stole from me. One time, I got cigarettes from my dad. They stole the cigarettes, stole my clothes. Stole my money. One time I went to the dentist. The dentist gave me some medication, gave me some antibiotics — my teeth hurt — and they stole them!"

He claims there was, at times, no heating, he was given meals only once or twice a day, and showers were limited to once a week. The doors were locked at night — and he recalls being told that if he left, he could never come back.

L.A. Weekly is not identifying the facility's operators. Multiple messages left with a family member, and on the owner's private voicemail, were not returned.

Eugene's account of life at the boardinghouse must be taken with a grain of salt. One of the symptoms of his condition, after all, is paranoia. In 2000, his father stated on an SSI form that Eugene "has paranoid ideas, thinks people don't like him or they are trying to hurt him. He is better on medication but has not been normal since his breakdown."

Usually, Eugene speaks intelligently and logically. He follows the news and had a well-informed opinion on two charter amendments on the L.A. city ballot in March.

But there is still a madness there. "I want to tell you something," he says at one point. "Those bugs — when I was at the [boardinghouse], those bugs came out of my abdomen. They ate my hair. They were eating my hair out — this is what happened to it."

Paula Walker, right, wanted to get her brother, Eugene, out of the boardinghouse but was paralyzed by fear — until her daughter, Isabella, intervened.
Paula Walker, right, wanted to get her brother, Eugene, out of the boardinghouse but was paralyzed by fear — until her daughter, Isabella, intervened.
Photo by Ted Soqui

Family members reiterate that conditions at the homes were less than humane. Paula says the tiny garage in Westchester housed three patients in twin beds — two men and a 19-year-old woman, separated by sheets of plywood and hanging beach towels. Paula and Eugene say the boarders were discouraged from leaving the house on their own.

"It was like a prison camp," says Paula's husband, German-born cinematographer Rolf Kestermann. "They had a person outside making sure they wouldn't drift away. [Eugene] was disheveled, unshaven. Obviously he just had a pretty dismal life."

When one of the boardinghouse's owners fell ill, management passed down to her son and his wife. As caretakers, the second generation was as unprepared to cope with Eugene as the first, according to Eugene's family.

"[The wife], she would call me up in the middle of the night and say he used up too much toilet paper," Paula says. Eugene claims the unlicensed caretakers handed out medication to all patients at dinner and made sure they took it, which is not permitted under California law. (The second-generation owners did not return numerous phone calls made by L.A. Weekly.)

Eugene was getting worse. He developed glaucoma, which went undiagnosed for years. His stroke went unnoticed. He was kept on Thorazine long after a new generation of antipsychotics became available. He suffered from incontinence and hypertension.

Eugene's condition required more support — an adult residential care facility, a nursing home or permanent supportive housing. And Eugene's father, a doctor who should have known better, didn't do anything, despite Eugene's pleas.

"I told my father, this is a terrible place," Eugene says. "Why is he keeping me here? He said he can't take me. He kept saying that. He came over every week to bring me food, and usually a carton of cigarettes, until I quit in '93. He wouldn't take me back."

Eugene's half-sister, Erica, was long disturbed by the way Eugene lived. "I'll never understand why my father did what he did," she says. "Maybe it was [him] not understanding mental health."

In January 2007, Dr. Walker lay dying of stomach cancer at Saint Vincent Medical Center, where he had once served as chief of internal medicine. Paula sat by his bed. He spoke to her in an eerie tone. She'd never heard him sound like that.

"'I have secrets,'" Paula recalls him whispering. "'There are things I've done that I don't want people to know." He told her there were things that had happened that weren't right. Unfortunately Paula would have to take care of them.

"'Eugene,'" he said. "'Eugene has to be taken care of.'"

Days later, Dr. Walker was dead.

Paula and her husband hadn't seen much of Eugene over the decades. "His dad would bring him over for, like, a Christmas event," Kestermann says. "He was still pretty aggressive, angry at everybody."

"'Fucking kraut,'" Kestermann recalls Eugene snarling at him. "'What are you doing with my sister?'"

Now Paula was tasked with visiting Eugene on weekends and bringing him food and movies.

"I started getting all these calls," Paula says. "Day and night: 'Help me. Help me. You gotta get me out of here. Save me. You've got to save me. Please help me. I'm gonna die here. I need help.' Day and night."

Eugene left up to 20 messages every day. He called Paula's cellphone. He called her work. He called her house in Eagle Rock. Oftentimes her high school daughter, Eugene's niece, Isabella, was home alone and answered the phone.

The calls "would start with, like, 'Hey, is your mom there?'" Isabella says. "I would be, like, 'No, she's not there.' He would be, like, 'Well, can you tell her I need to talk to her?' Sometimes our call would end just like that. Sometimes he would tell me things, like the people took away his toilet paper."

The calls grew more desperate. "There would be times where they would lock him up, or they wouldn't let him go out of the house or in his rooms," Isabella recalls Eugene telling her.

Paula wanted to help Eugene, but she was scared. "It triggered back my childhood," she says. "When he originally got into the mental institution, and he was tied up, he kept saying, 'Help me, help me, you've got to save me.' I was a kid. I didn't know what to do. What was I gonna do? Cut the bandages and run away?"

For the longest time, Paula didn't see it as her mess. It was her father's mess, but her father was dead and her mother had vanished.

One night in 2009, Isabella walked into Paula's room, crying, and said, "Mom, you've got to get him out of there."

Paula hadn't realized how much Eugene and his teenage niece had been talking, but now she realized "if I didn't do something, it was going to pass on, the legacy was gonna go on to [Isabella], and she would be scarred by it," Paula says. "That was kind of my wake-up call."

In March 2009, Paula threw a birthday party for Eugene, his first in decades.

"He didn't have any friends, so I invited over Isabella's school friends," she says. "It was all these little girls. He said, 'This is the best moment of my life.' Every birthday he'd been alone, for so many years."

"I had never had a cake before," Eugene says. "I had candles on the cake, I blew out the candles, I made a wish: 'I want to get out of the [boardinghouse].'"

But for another year, Paula was deeply conflicted. She was afraid of her brother and afraid of choosing the wrong path. Finally, she sought advice from a mental health expert (who declined to discuss the case with the Weekly). In late 2010, Paula borrowed a truck from a production assistant she knows and drove to Westchester.

"I just showed up at the place and said, 'I'm here to take Eugene.' They were very angry. He'd been with them for 24 years or whatever. His room was so tiny. All he had was stuff under his bed. There was no heat."

Another bed in the garage was occupied by a 19-year-old girl. Paula was alarmed that unstable adult men and a vulnerable teen girl were roomed together, and she thought about reporting the boardinghouse.

"I was torn about it," she says. "As bad as it was, if we closed the place down, where would this girl go? On the streets."

Paula got Eugene settled in Golden Manor nursing home in Cheviot Hills and enrolled in a well-known outpatient program, Step Up on Second, which helps the mentally ill. He saw a doctor, was given new medication, started going to the gym and doing tai chi. He enrolled in Santa Monica College and is studying history.

"I want to get my bachelor's degree," Eugene says. "And see what happens next. I don't know what I'm gonna do. I'm 60 now. So that's kind of against me."

Eugene can seem dour at times. But when pressed, he'll admit: "Well, I persevered. I went against the odds. ... In the [boardinghouse], I was dying there. I guess it's a happy ending."

Someone, possibly one of Eugene's social workers, did report the boardinghouse owners to the California Department of Social Services in November 2010, alleging that the home was administering "unlicensed care." Months later, two agents made an unannounced visit there. Their report read, in part:

"[The owner] stated they are not providing any elements of care or supervision to the residents. [He] stated they had a resident that moved out and he required care; he was the only person that required any type of care and supervision."

The boardinghouse was deemed legal and was allowed to continue operating — not because its care was good enough, but because it wasn't providing any care at all.


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