When the Bough Breaks
"Did you know Elizabeth Faber was moving out today?" she asked.
"No," said Burch. "Where's her baby?"
"That's the strange thing," Beck said. "I haven't seen him all morning."
Thinking Faber had left the infant behind, Beck arranged to search her room. She found books on prenatal health and baby care, toys and clothes -- all the evidence of a dedicated new mom -- but no baby. Then Beck remembered something: Earlier that day, Faber had come down to the desk carrying a large plastic bag and had asked for the keys to the dumpster. Beck called Burch again. This time, she asked her to send someone to help her search the trash.
Accompanied by Beck, custodian Barry Lockhart poked around in the garbage with a stick until he hit something soft inside a plastic bag. He pulled it out. Beck refused to look, so Lockhart enlisted a man walking by to witness him opening the bag. Inside, he found Zelazo's body wrapped in newspaper and plastic bags. On the baby's right side under his ribs, Lockhart noticed what looked like a stab wound.
Zelazo Faber was officially pronounced dead at 2 that afternoon. The coroner's report named stabbing and possible asphyxiation as causes of death. The coroner also noted that the baby's stomach contained partially digested formula. Shortly before his death, he had been fed.
In the meantime, Elizabeth Faber had taken the bus to Santa Monica, where she called her sister-in-law and best friend since college, Rachelle Murway, from the Santa Monica Place food court. Unaware that the police were waiting at the house with Rachelle and Elizabeth's brother, Jonathan, Elizabeth asked whether someone could come to pick her up. Murway sent the police.
AT THE TIME OF HER ARREST, 24-YEAR-OLD ELIZABETH LYNN FABER HAD ALREADY BEEN COMMITTED at various times to three different psychiatric hospitals in two states, been fired from four jobs (for, among other things, insisting that the world was ending and that she was the bride of Christ). She had been diagnosed at various stages with bipolar affective disorder, organic delusional disorder, organic mood disorder with "mixed psychotic features" and post-traumatic stress disorder, nearly always in combination with polysubstance abuse. She had exhausted her family's patience by eluding, for seven years, their attempts to get her into a structured treatment program. Yet when Jonathan and Rachelle tried to explain to the police what Elizabeth's life had been like, the police asked why no one had done anything to help her.
Like Julie Rodriguez, the young woman who drowned herself and her two children in the Sacramento River last spring after her family had fought for years to have her committed, and Nelly Sofia Carbajal, the 47-year-old Fresno woman who in May 1998 left her newborn in a dumpster to die of exposure, Elizabeth Faber has been embraced by the advocates of change in California's involuntary-commitment laws, who argue that people with close relatives who are mentally ill -- "family members" in mental health parlance -- shouldn't have to wait for an act of violence before forcing someone into treatment. "If I had a high fever and was delirious, no one would make me wait until I lashed out dangerously in that delirium before giving me help," says Carla Jacobs, a board member of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), an advocacy and support group. "They would pick me up, give me antibiotics, involuntarily if necessary. That's why we live in a society, to help and protect each other."
But other people -- among them many "consumers," people with mental illness who must actually use the system -- argue that Elizabeth's story puts other failings of the mental-health system in equally stark relief, to wit, the absence of community services for people with mental illness, particularly the homeless, many of whom would take advantage of services if only the services were there. "Most tragedies can be traced back to a void in community services," says Sally Zinman, executive director of the California Network of Mental Health Clients, an organization made up of consumers and "survivors." "It doesn't sound like this one is any different."
Both sides agree that California's mental-health system -- which has continuously deteriorated since the counterculture and conservatives colluded to dismantle it in the '60s -- is due for a ser- ã
ious overhaul. Just what to fix and how to fix it, however, remains the subject of an increasingly polarized debate.
BESIDE A WATERFALL AT DESCANSO GARDENS, MARK FABER is struggling to understand, and explain to me, what went wrong in the life of his daughter, whom the family has always called "Lynn" (she now prefers Elizabeth). Both he and his wife, Kathy, have tried over the years to cooperate with a system they trusted to determine what their daughter needed. "I've tried to be even-handed with a lot of things," says Mark, "and to let people do their jobs. But sometimes that can be a fault. Sometimes I need to draw lines and get angry and be proactive." A medium-size man with a mop of curly, reddish hair gathered at his neck into a small ponytail, Faber, a former minister, now works as a computer-network engineer at Lockheed Martin in Greenbelt, Maryland. He stores the family photo album on his laptop and can fire it up in a minute to show pictures of Lynn: at 5, playing at the beach with her older brother, Jonathan; at 8, dressed up like a clown, teetering on a balance beam before an audience of adults in folding chairs; and at 17, a delicate blond beauty just like her mother, in a hospital bed, her arm in a sling, a mass of abrasions on her forehead. That picture was taken in October 1990, Mark tells me, after Elizabeth was catapulted through the T-top of a Nissan Pulsar in which she was a passenger. She hit a passing truck with such force that bits of the truck's battery lodged in her skull.
Whether her symptoms were related to the accident, as her brother believes, or whether Elizabeth was experiencing the first tremors of bipolar disorder -- which typically "presents" in late adolescence or early adulthood -- in the spring of '91 Elizabeth began suffering from persistent headaches and coming home from school depressed. "She'd say that she'd been in class, that it was 10 minutes after class had begun, and before she knew it, it was the end of the class and she had no recollection of what had happened between the beginning and the end," Kathy recalls. She told her mother that marijuana helped her headaches, but she was having other substance-abuse problems, too: Occasionally Kathy would come home to find her daughter passed out, drunk.
Kathy took her daughter's complaints seriously, but she had a hard time finding anyone in the medical community who would do the same. One neuropsychologist, assuming Elizabeth's problems stemmed from the accident, diagnosed her with "post-traumatic adjustment reaction with mixed depression and anxiety and self-defeating personality traits" (a diagnosis a psychiatrist who later evaluated Elizabeth, Dr. Ari Kalechstein, would call "puzzling." "[T]he extant literature on diagnostic syndromes does not include a disorder called 'post-traumatic adjustment reaction,'" he wrote in court documents). A second concluded that her memory loss and troubles at school had all been because she'd smoked pot.
The Fabers had raised their children in a deeply religious environment. Mark spent his 20s in the service of Campus Crusade for Christ; Jonathan claims that the family "went to church five times a week." There were members of their church who insisted that Elizabeth's problems were moral, not physiological. But the Fabers were neither dogmatic nor superstitious enough to pin Elizabeth's troubles on a spiritual crisis. Kathy kept looking for answers, and finally found a neurologist who sent Elizabeth home with a prescription for Elavil, an anti-depressant also used to treat migraine headaches. But Elavil did nothing but make Elizabeth "numb and slow," Kathy says, and while she managed to get into college, her headaches, memory lapses and increasingly mercurial behavior caused her to drop out within the year. Eventually, she followed her brother to Los Angeles.
And at first, Jonathan was happy to have her. He got Elizabeth a job at Harmony Films, a production house where he was working as a runner. "I thought the two of us would take this town by storm," he says. "I saw us in People magazine, a brother-and-sister creative team." Instead, he saw his sister "pretty much go insane before my eyes."
One night, Jonathan, Rachelle and Elizabeth were taking turns inhaling nitrous oxide from balloons, an activity that usually results in an exhilarating head-buzz lasting a few minutes. Most people are satisfied after one or two hits, but Elizabeth couldn't stop. Jonathan estimates that his sister did 100 balloons before he physically dragged her away from the tanks. She went off to take a nap, and when she woke up, she was lost in delusions.
"She said she saw demons and angels flying around the room, and she had a look in her eye like there were definitely some extra chemicals coursing through her body," Jonathan says. "She was screaming, the worst-sounding screams I'd ever heard, and crying as if the whole weight and sorrow of the world was on her shoulders. We said, 'What's wrong Lynn?' And she said, 'You have to believe, you have to believe, you have to believe' and went on a tear about the end of the world, that the end of the world was the next day."
Jonathan almost hoped she was right. "Anything would be better," he said, "than having my little sister go crazy."
The next morning, in the offices of Harmony Films, Elizabeth tried to organize a prayer meeting to prepare for Armageddon. "The head of operations was like, 'Jonathan, you've got to get her out of here -- we've got clients for Budweiser coming in!' Then he asked me what drugs she was on. I said, 'I wish it were that simple.'"
Jonathan ultimately took his sister to the emergency room at County/USC, where she was placed on a 72-hour involuntary hold. Elizabeth had been dropped from her parents' health insurance, but Kathy quickly had her reinstated, and transferred to Ingleside Hospital, where she was injected with Haldol, a neuroleptic sedative, and diagnosed with "organic delusional disorder, nitrous-oxide and marijuana abuse."
Elizabeth was held for eight days at Ingleside. "Not long enough," says Kathy. When Mark came to visit, "Lynn was 'cycling,'" he says. "She'd be animated and paranoid and frustrated, yelling at me about how important it was that I call her Elizabeth, calling herself 'Queen Elizabeth,' telling me that she was pregnant and that Jesus was the baby. And then she would shut down completely, just kind of be there and stare." Mark was shocked at his daughter's condition, but even more shocked to learn that the psychiatrist's plan was to discharge her to her father's care. "He knew that I lived in Maryland and Lynn lived in Los Angeles," Mark says. "But he didn't seem to understand what that meant." Another psychiatrist Jonathan consulted at the time predicted that Elizabeth "would continue to be a challenge to the mental-health community," a forecast Kathy calls "prophetic."
The mental-health system was itself a challenge to the Fabers, who found themselves stymied at every turn in their attempts to find a program in which their ã
daughter could be treated, against her will if necessary. But since 1969, when California put into effect the provisions of the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, the standards for involuntary commitment -- that a person demonstrate "danger to self or others" or be deemed "gravely disabled" -- have been so tough to meet that scarcely anyone qualifies. In the three decades since its enactment, the number of patients in California's state mental hospitals has been reduced by 89.8 percent.
As a result, many people with severe mental illness have ended up on the streets or in jail -- some 33 percent of Los Angeles' homeless have been diagnosed with severe mental illness, as have an estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of the state prison population. Like Elizabeth, many of them demonstrated their dangerousness to others only by commiting a violent crime. By the time Elizabeth proved her need for commitment, her baby was dead.
"YOU HEAR EXAMPLES OF THIS KIND OF THING EVERY DAY," Carla Jacobs told me at a NAMI meeting one Tuesday night in November 1998. During the meeting, which had been called expressly to discuss ways of reforming the system, family members and mental-health workers offered reports of the latest atrocities -- a son who came home from school and stabbed his father, a woman who assaulted her elderly mother -- tragedies many family members believe could have been prevented if the civil rights of the mentally ill were not valued over their well-being. "Mental illness robs you of your free will," Jacobs explained. She then read aloud to the group a description of manic-depression written in 1994 by consumer Dru Ann McCain. "For a depressive, every choice is a conscious one, and no less energy is required in deciding to brush one's teeth than for making a multimillion-dollar decision," McCain wrote. In a manic episode, on the other hand, "free will is accelerated . . . it becomes easy to make choices because thought of the consequences of one's acts is passed over too quickly or altogether removed."
"Two years after she wrote that document," Jacobs told the group, "Dru Ann McCain completed a 'successful' suicide."
The question of whether a person with mental illness is able to judge for herself whether she is able to make sound decisions about her well-being is the question on which battle lines are drawn between the mentally ill and their relatives. Family members want safety for their loved ones; consumers, says Sally Zinman, "want to know [their] spirits will be taken care of, too." Stories such as McCain's and Faber's notwithstanding, it is not an easy balance to strike, and NAMI's ideas for solving the mental-health crisis are by no means universally accepted. And by some, even their examples are disputed.
"You're picking a story that's convenient for their argument," Zinman objects. "You're just going to play into the myth of violence they're using to push their agenda." Zinman, who has been diagnosed in the past as paranoid schizophrenic, speaks from long experience with the system. She co-founded a drop-in center for peer support in Berkeley, and strongly believes that the best people to make decisions about the mentally ill are the clients themselves. "A client-sensitive mental-health system deals with the whole human being," she says, "housing needs, the need to work, self-image. What about those of us who voluntarily choose to look for services and they aren't available? It's not going to help to just commit more of us."
She is not alone in her opinion. When Mark Ragins, the affable and opinionated medical director of Village Integrated Services Agency, a mental-health facility in Long Beach, hears about cases like Elizabeth Faber's, he sees not an argument for more involuntary holds, but a deep need for continuity in a patient's care. "It takes a number of years to stop using street drugs and start using psychiatric medications regularly," Ragins says. "But we never stick with anybody for a number of years. And then, when there's a crisis, if some emergency happens, the person who's ill sees a total stranger. The huge majority of 72-hour holds are written by people who are absolute strangers, and our most common response to a crisis is to have a total stranger tie somebody up and give them a shot of Haldol," which is exactly what happened to Elizabeth at Ingleside. "It's hard to imagine that's very healing."
Ragins would like to see alternatives that might include providing a means for a psychiatric patient to develop an ongoing relationship with a single mental-health worker, or a group of several, so that someone educated and compassionate could keep track of ebbs and flows in the patient's well-being over time. That was a relationship that Elizabeth Faber, for her entire history of psychiatric treatment, was glaringly without.
TWO MONTHS AFTER HER RELEASE from Ingleside, Elizabeth called her mom, crying. "I just need to get back on my feet," she said. Kathy agreed to send her an airline ticket, provided that she'd consent to psychiatric treatment. Once off the plane in Baltimore, however, she decided she didn't need a doctor, just a job. And so she got one, at a record store in the city, and tried on her own to sort through her muddle of moods. But in April, Kathy got a phone call from one of Elizabeth's co-workers telling her that Elizabeth would be fired the next day. "She told me Lynn's behavior was very strange, that she was saying things to customers like, if they couldn't find a certain CD, it was because they hadn't prayed. She was saying that people were trying to kill her. She would write 'Elizabeth' on a label and put it on her forehead."
The next day, Kathy came to pick her daughter up at work and found her walking down the street yelling at traffic. She managed to drive her home, but in the driveway Elizabeth "ran off screaming." By the time she returned a few hours later, the police were waiting to take her away in handcuffs. It was a Friday afternoon. With the help of her neighbor and friend Phyllis Madathy, Mark and Kathy Faber had their daughter committed for the second time, to the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Baltimore.
Kathy Faber describes the treatment her daughter received at Sheppard Pratt as "exceptional." It was the first time a psychiatrist determined Elizabeth suffered manic-depressive disorder (coexistent with polysubstance abuse), and the first time she was treated with lithium. The drug stabilized her, but she didn't like it; she complained that she could feel the metal in her body. So she stopped taking it. But Elizabeth insists to this day that that was neither a willful nor a defiant decision: After her discharge from Sheppard Pratt, she says, the doctor at the outpatient clinic told her lithium wouldn't be necessary. "He told me if I'd just stay off street drugs I'd be fine." She did as instructed. But she wasn't fine.
Like so many of the solutions to Elizabeth Faber's illness, in retrospect the psychiatrist's emphasis on sobriety seems baffingly simplistic. According to Bert Pepper, M.D., of the New Yorkbased Information Exchange, "The most common cause of psychiatric relapse today is the use of alcohol, marijuana and cocaine [and] the most common cause of alcohol and other drug relapse today is untreated psychiatric conditions." Substance abuse and psychiatric disorders commonly coexist in a "dual diagnosis" (half of all schizophrenics have a substance-abuse disorder) and street drugs can also be an unscientific attempt to "self-medicate" psychiatric symptoms. It's perplexing, then, that in seven years of psychiatric treatment, no psychiatrist or social worker actively treated Elizabeth's substance abuse. Instead, they asked her to just say no.
IN THE WINTER OF 1995, JONATHAN CALLED HIS MOTHER TO say that if she wanted to see her daughter alive, she'd better come out to L.A. Elizabeth had left Baltimore for the last time after a brief marriage, which began "in the weirdest ceremony you've ever seen," says Jonathan-- "I could've gone out for a beer in the time it took her to get down the aisle" -- and ended when her husband found her at a party, dancing on Ecstasy. Mark and Kathy had not invited their daughter to move home that time, but had referred her instead to a local homeless shelter for women in Baltimore. Furious, Elizabeth took the bus to L.A. and moved back in with Jonathan. But in a few weeks, Jonathan had kicked her out, too. "She just brought home too many vagrant men," he says.
When Kathy arrived in L.A., hoping to rescue her daughter, she found her living in an apartment she had not paid rent on for three months. The electricity and phone had been shut off. Kathy sat outside that apartment for three hours waiting for her daughter to emerge, but Elizabeth only shouted invective through the door, threatening to call the police. When Kathy returned the next day, Elizabeth had been evicted. At that point, she simply disappeared.
After that, she mostly stayed "off everyone's radar," Kathy says, but occasionally she would resurface. Jonathan managed to get her in to see a county psychiatric-evaluation team, which concluded inexplicably after a two-hour interview that Elizabeth was fine. Kathy negotiated her daughter into a session with a social worker at Santa Monica Clinic West (now Edelman Mental Health Clinic) who determined that Elizabeth was not in need of medication, although she did find it strange that Elizabeth remembered being fed cocaine and heroin by her parents when she was 2 or 3 months old. "I didn't know what to say to this woman," Kathy Faber said. "It was just unbelievable." She hates to say it now, but she gave up. "It felt like the die was cast, and I frankly began to think we were going to get no other response from the mental-health community. I didn't know what else we could do."
Elizabeth was assigned to a Salvation Army homeless shelter, but was evicted for bad behavior, and vanished again into life on the street. But in March 1996, she suddenly turned up on Jonathan's doorstep. She was pregnant. Jonathan promptly called home. "Guess what?" he said to his mother. "You're going to be a grandma."
PREGNANCY WAS GOOD FOR ELIZABETH. SHE SEEMED HAPpy, and regular drug screenings at the Los Angeles Free Clinic confirmed that she was staying sober. She found a place for herself in a program for homeless women at the Hollywood YMCA called "A Brighter Future." She began writing letters home. "Nice letters," Kathy remembers. "More like the old Lynn. It sounded like some of the women at the place she was living had given her a baby shower." She called home in August, a couple of days before Kathy's birthday, concerned that the birthday present she'd sent, a necklace and a CD, wouldn't arrive on time. "Lynn without the illness is a very, very thoughtful, giving person," Kathy says. "She always remembered everyone's birthday."
Kathy, who works for Cigna Health Care and has some background in medical issues, suspects hormones accounted for Elizabeth's improved mental state: Several studies have shown that the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which controls mood and anxiety during pregnancy, can have a salutary effect on brain chemistry; its sharp ã decline after delivery is thought to be responsible for postpartum depression. As stable as she seemed, though, Kathy claims that Elizabeth remained vague about her due date, and insisted she was not interested in having anyone accompany her to the hospital. And so on Monday, September 2, 1997, when Elizabeth went into labor, she took a cab to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Zelazo Faber was born at 7:40 a.m. the next day. On September 4, she left the hospital the same way she came -- in a cab. Discharge reports say that she was "paranoid, delusional and tearful."
She called home for the first time after the delivery the following Friday, from a pay phone at the Y. Right away, Mark Faber says, "She sounded paranoid, and pretty overwhelmed. It seemed to me that she was sobbing. She would fall silent for several minutes, and then come back to ask us, as parents, 'How do you take care of a baby?'"
Kathy tried to comfort her, but Elizabeth was inconsolable: "She said the baby wasn't eating very much, that he was only taking about a mouthful of milk a day. She said she had a sense that the baby was trying to have a bowel movement and couldn't. I asked her if there was anyone there she could talk to, because I was thinking this was a facility for homeless, pregnant women. She said that she didn't need to ask questions of anyone, because she wasn't an idiot."
In the background, both Mark and Kathy heard what she thought was a scuffle. "Here's what it sounded like," says Mark. "It sounded like somebody on the floor came up to look at the baby. I could hear, 'Oh, isn't that a cute baby!' And Lynn started to yell at the person and said, 'Get away from me, bitch!' Lynn said to us, 'Somebody just tried to hit me.' But I could hear the tone of voice. It sounded like someone being friendly."
Elizabeth called again late that night, "and I mulled over calling somebody at the Y," Kathy says. "But I gotta tell you, at this point I was so tired of being labeled the interfering mom. My whole thought was, in the months prior to the delivery of this child, if there's ever a place where she could be getting help, this is it." So she waited until 9 the next morning, when she contacted Jonathan and Rachelle and asked them to check up on their sister. Rachelle promised she would. That afternoon, Jonathan called back with the news of Elizabeth's arrest.
AT FIRST, ELIZABETH SAID IT WAS AN ACCIdent. She had been bathing her baby, she told police, and walked away to get a washcloth. Distracted by a television show, she left him there for 20 minutes. Fearing that her baby had drowned in the bathtub, she had punctured a hole in his side in an effort to "let the water out." Later, she would tell a different story. She had noticed something odd about her baby. He had sat up, and said, "Maybe we should get some pizza." A sports announcer during a televised college football game told her that the baby was possessed. "How long are you going to keep the devil's child?" he asked. He ordered her to kill him. And so she did, first by holding Zelazo's head underwater (with the help, she said, of two apparitions -- the brief acquaintance who fathered her baby and a male friend) until he stopped breathing, and then by stabbing him to make sure he was dead. Better that, she reasoned, than let him live riddled with demons bent on possessing his tiny body.
Infanticide occurs in 4 percent of the cases in which new mothers report postpartum psychosis; documented risk factors include bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and a history of depression. Sally Zinman wonders why no one at the YMCA was monitoring the behavior of a young, and obviously disturbed, young woman with a infant. "As few services as there are for men with mental illness," she says, "there are even fewer for women. Why didn't anyone anticipate her depression?"
Or, for that matter, notice it. Wade Trimmer, her caseworker at My Friend's Place, a support network for runaways up to 24 years old, complained that Elizabeth had lashed out at him the morning before because he couldn't get her a bus pass fast enough. The program coordinator at the Y, Linda Burch, reported to the court that she had some concern for Elizabeth, that she'd been "acting strangely" and "looking exhausted"; another YMCA employee, Mina Mack, filed an incident report the night before Elizabeth killed her child, stating that Elizabeth had physically assaulted a fellow resident, Liza Hess. Hess told LAPD senior investigator Kevin Sleeth that Elizabeth had hit her in the face with the phone.
Despite that behavior, Trimmer insists that "there were no red flags" to warn anyone of an impending tragedy. "Tempers flare up all the time, with most of our people," he says. "The truth is that we followed her; we talked to her and said, 'What's going on? Is everything okay?' We tried to alleviate some of the pressure. But sometimes we rely on places like hospitals, and assume they'd be taking care of some things regarding her new baby."
"Did someone offer her relevant services and she refused?" Mark Ragins asks. "Did someone who knew her offer to raise and lower her meds as her hormones declined? It's not like she turned down appropriate treatment. Services for the mentally ill -- including psychiatrists, including pills -- just aren't offered where the homeless people are." If Elizabeth had had the benefit of an extended relationship with a social worker or psychiatrist, he argues, her needs could have been foreseen.
Trimmer contends that Elizabeth was an expert at masking her symptoms, and claims that the counselors available to Elizabeth could not have known about her illness. "Confidentiality is a huge barrier," he says. "If the client doesn't sign off on the information, we can't get it." (Since Zelazo's death, "L.A. Free Clinic has really stepped up the effort to provide psychiatric assessment for each individual involved in the prenatal clinic," he says.) Unfortunately, when Elizabeth's psychiatric profile was made available, it was to her court-appointed public defender, Terry Shenkman.
A SMALL WOMAN WITH VOLUMES OF BLACK curls, more likely to be found in a corduroy Laura Ashleytype dress than a suit, Terry Shenkman is a fast talker and a rigorous interrogator. At the preliminary hearing of The People vs. Elizabeth Lynn Faber, on April 14, 1998, she questioned prosecution witness LAPD Detective Jose Duran about her client's mood the day of the incident. "Now, what was Ms. Faber's demeanor like when you interviewed her?" Shenkman began. "She was just talking normal," replied the detective. "She answered our questions. She showed no emotion." "And for you it is normal," asked Shenkman, "to show no emotion when a person finds out her baby is dead?"
Elizabeth was initially charged with first-degree murder, but Shenkman managed to get the District Attorney's Office to have the charge reduced to second-degree murder, to which Elizabeth pleaded guilty in exchange for the promise that she would not be sentenced to jail, but committed instead to Patton State Hospital. Officially, she has been sentenced "until such time as her sanity is restored," for a period "not exceeding 15 years to life." According to Shenkman, she could be released in as little as six years. Mark Faber hopes that his daughter will soon be eligible for CONREP, the Department of Mental Health's conditional outpatient release program. "She is beginning to see a future for herself outside of Patton State Hospital," he wrote in a recent e-mail to friends and family.
While in jail, Elizabeth had been required to take medication, if only to keep her manageable. "It probably wasn't the best combination for her," Shenkman says. "It was just so they could control her." Still, the change in her personality, according to her parents, was remarkable. Where once there had been rage, there was now lucidity and friendliness. Her hyper-religious delusions had subsided, as had her accusations and aggression. "They had her on lithium for a while, and on Halcyon and Prozac," Kathy Faber says. "And then they took her off lithium for a month, and I thought, 'What the heck is going on?' But they put her on Depakote, which turned out to be really effective. When Lynn called me, she said, 'It's like my head has cleared up.'" On August 26, 1998, Lynn wrote a letter to her parents from jail. "To my beautiful mother and father," it began, "whom I miss too much, from Elizabeth Lynn Faber, your only daughter.
"How can I explain the way I feel right now? Over and over, I hope the next day arrives without the memories of cursing the both of you out. It seems to me all the love I've ever known has come from the both of you. The way I've treated you in the past is and was so painful . . . I don't know how to thank you except for telling you, as often as I can, that I love you. Once that was an impossible thing for me to do, but because of your support, I'm slowly learning how to conquer the hate. Thank you for helping me. Love always, Lynn."
By every account, including that of her parents, Shenkman, people in the mental-health community who watched her case, and even Elizabeth herself, confinement to Patton State Hospital was the best of all possible outcomes -- better, even, than if Elizabeth had simply been set free. According to Jacobs, "She's very lucky to be in Patton and not in jail. When you come right down to it, murdering a baby is a really bad crime."
THERE ARE MOMENTS IN THIS STORY IN which it seems easy to fault Mark and Kathy Faber for letting Elizabeth get away from them, for not letting her return home after her husband left, for not understanding that her substance abuse was likely an attempt to medicate herself. But while Elizabeth's illness was raging, Kathy was recovering from a successful battle with ovarian cancer and Mark was changing careers, from church pastor to engineer. They acquired their education in mental illness as they watched it unfold. "Parents become very savvy after a few years," Jacobs has observed. "But a lot of tragedies take place along that learning curve."
And in some ways, Elizabeth Faber is now where her parents have long wanted her to be. She is safe. Patton State Hospital, a few miles east of San Bernardino on Highland Avenue, looks like a mental hospital in a bad '50s movie -- floors tiled in institutional green, paint peeling from the moldings, fluorescent lights that cast a gray pall over all who sit under them -- but there is also evidence that it is a relatively humane environment, certainly more humane than jail. In the small reception area next to the soft-drink machine, two posters, one in English and one in Spanish, declare the civil rights of the mentally ill. The staff are friendly, protective of their patients. ã
Most important of all, Elizabeth seems to be doing well.
She weighed 145 pounds at the time of her arrest, and has clearly put on another 50 -- too much weight for her 5-foot-7-inch frame -- and she looks uncomfortable in her body. Her eyes are watery, and her hands shake, a side effect of her psychotropic cocktail: Depakote, Prozac and Risperdal -- "for the voices," she says. But she is lucid and talkative, insightful, perceptive about her illness. She is charming, even fun, and after the second visit, candid and reflective.
"It was terrifying," she says of the morning she killed Zelazo, "because I didn't know who was talking, what they were saying. It was like the walls were on fire, and I really thought the safest thing would be for him to be dead." Elizabeth's upbringing was vigilantly Christian, and so were her voices: They talked of Satan and Jesus and Armageddon; they ordered her to pray. Her religious beliefs these days are more complicated, and "not the norm," she says, but still vaguely Christian: She believes that all the gods, from the Sumerians to the Hebrews to the Greeks, culminate in Jesus. Apollo is the one she admires most. "He's a good friend," she tells me. "He sticks by you in times of trouble." She has not been praying to Apollo lately, however, "because I don't feel worthy."
She is taking classes at Patton, and working with a therapist, whom she looks forward to seeing on Friday afternoons. In her classes, she is learning that "ambivalence leads to bad decisions" -- that her inability to act decisively has led her to impulsive and destructive behavior. She believes that an involuntary commitment might have changed the course of her life, but that support at the right time could have, too. She was not at her most alone during her various crises, she maintains, but during her pregnancy -- when she was doing well.
And of all the many cracks Elizabeth fell through, that one's the widest: As a new mother with a documented history of mental illness, she was somehow left alone to raise her child, hiding in the plain sight of a presumably supportive community. "I just think that in the joy of pregnancy I seemed okay to everyone," she says. Even to her parents. I think of her father's weariness when I asked him about Elizabeth's future a few months after her verdict. "I'm tired," he told me. "We're all tired." It's possible that in the relatively brief period of Elizabeth's pregnancy, when she had a roof over her head and her sense of hope, her parents took the opportunity to tend to their own lives.
"We want to think of mental illness as something you can take a pill for," says Sally Zinman, "something you can get rid of with the right medication. But it isn't that simple." This is the same culture, she reminds me, that once awarded the Nobel Prize to the man who came up with the idea of drilling three neat holes in a raging lunatic's frontal lobes. We want to pinpoint the gene, observe the abnormality in brain tissue, the chemical imbalance in the brain; we want to build the right facility and develop the perfect drug. Unfortunately, what Elizabeth Faber's story starkly documents is that none of those answers will ever be enough. Solving the crisis of the manic-depressive living under the freeway overpass, or the schizophrenic who pulls a screwdriver on a nervous cop, or the next young delusional mother who decides her baby is better off dead, takes more imagination and courage than any one solution -- legislative or medical -- can offer.
Get the Weekly Newsletter