There were two views out of the windows in Kathy Leichter’s prewar Upper West Side apartment.
One window looked out over Riverside Drive; the Hudson River would sparkle every evening as the sun set over it. In the springtime, the trees in Riverside Park would show baby green; in the fall, the oranges and reds would dazzle. The view was expansive, colorful, and hopeful.
On the other side of the apartment, the kitchen window opened onto the air shaft, a small brick-lined hole that ended in cement 11 floors below.
Ms. Leichter’s mother, Nina, saw both views for many years; that apartment was her home long before her daughter and eventually her daughter’s own husband and children moved in.
The river view entranced her, but it was the kitchen window she jumped through to her death.
We see both windows and the views they offer in Ms. Leichter’s documentary, “Here One Day,” a wrenching, deeply personal, hugely affecting film that also is physically beautiful and profoundly human.
It will be screened at Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck, and Ms. Leichter will talk about it and answer questions after it’s shown. (See box for more information.)
Nina Leichter suffered from mental illness — specifically, from bipolar disorder — which led directly to her suicide. The film, shot over the course of many years, chronicles both her struggle with her illness and her family’s struggles to cope with it, with her, and with the gaping hole she left when she jumped.
Kathy Leichter is both a grieving daughter and a filmmaker; she is a main character in the film that she directed.
Nina Leichter died in 1995. Soon after her death, her daughter discovered tapes that her mother had recorded toward the end of her life. She pushed them aside for almost a decade, unable to listen to them, as she pursued her career, first as a staffer on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and then as a documentary filmmaker, concentrating on films that explored social justice concerns.
Eventually, though, the pull of those tapes was too strong, and the impact of her mother’s illness and death were too overwhelming, for her to ignore them anymore. She’d already moved back to the apartment that her family — including her father, former New York State Senator Franz Leichter — had shared. Now she listened to the tapes, old reel-to-reel memory-evoking objects, and eventually made a movie around them.
“All documentary making, at least the kind I do, is a journey and a process,” she said. “You never know what you are making when you start out. When I started, I was making a very different kind of film about mother-loss in my family. My kids were little, and I was very interested in how mother-loss affected me. And then the story I wanted to tell for nine years came to the fore.
“I have been a documentary filmmaker for my whole professional life, but I never thought I would make a film about my mother’s experiences, and her death. I couldn’t even think about it at the beginning.
“I couldn’t even tell anyone she had died of suicide. The stigma and the pain are so intense. When I started making the film, about nine years after she died, only about 20 people knew that it was suicide. And that’s common.
“Another catalyst for the film was that I found out that I was pregnant and found out that I was having a second son, and I was kind of thrown by a huge tsunami of grief about not having a daughter. And then I realized that the grief about not having a daughter wasn’t really about having a son. It was about my mother. It was how I wanted to close the loop.
“I realized that the film and my journey were what I needed to do. I had a lot more grieving to do. It had been nine years — but grief is not linear.”
So far, it sounds as if this film could have been a sort of vanity project, a working out of personal grief that would be interesting only to Ms. Leichter’s family and closest friends. But the story she tells is far broader than that, the art with which the film is made makes it accessible to anyone, and of course the subject she explores — not only mental illness and suicide but the stigma that surround it, which makes the nearly unbearable pain burrow inside because it cannot be shared — can touch anyone anywhere.
“These kinds of independent films take five to 10 years to make,” she said; hers was done in 2012. During that time, she talked to family members and “it became an opportunity for us all to process what had happened to us.”
Most of the time, families are reluctant to talk about the suicide that tore them apart, but most families do not have the chance to tell their stories in public, in front of a camera. Perhaps surprisingly, though — or perhaps not so surprisingly — the camera helped to unlock secrets and tongues.
“I interviewed my aunt, and it was like no one had ever asked her before, about her memories of childhood, or what it was like for her when she found out that her sister was sick. And then my aunt just poured it out.
“In the film, she was the historical voice, the wise old aunt.” She’s photographed lovingly, in subtly golden light, and her kindness, warmth, and compassion all are evident. (“I had an amazing cinematographer,” Kathy Leichter said.)
“Here One Day” begins with a look at Franz Leichter’s parents. His parents, Käthe and Otto Leichter, were Viennese academics, feminists, ardent socialists who had forsworn Judaism in favor of political progressivism. Käthe was a sociologist and economist who argued for equal pay for women, and she was a prolific writer. The Nazis imprisoned her in 1938 and she died at Ravensbrück in 1940.
The rest of the family, including Franz, who was born in 1930, escaped from Austria and came to New York in 1940.
Her family, Kathy Leichter said, “were assimilated Jews. We were very liberal.” Her grandparents’ experiences “had been internalized,” she said. That her family’s relationship to Judaism was somewhat attenuated is clear in the film; while everyone in it is Jewish, the word “Jewish” was said only once, by a friend of Nina’s, in a friendly but tossed-off way. “My father showed up in New York when he was 10. He was persecuted, and he lost his mother. My father’s brother, who was older, had internalized it even more, but my father also wanted to forget some of what he had experienced.”
But still the family’s identity is real. “I was very clear that I was Jewish,” she said. “I am very proud of that.”
“Here One Day” traces Nina’s descent from a golden childhood to a happy young adulthood to a troubled middle age. She was brilliant and politically active, married to a brilliant and politically successful man, trying to figure out a path between social activism and motherhood that wasn’t clear then and still isn’t clear now. Her disorder appeared slowly and was diagnosed even more slowly, but once she knew what she was fighting she fought hard.
The film examines the relationships the remaining three Leichters have with each other. (There are grandchildren too — Kathy’s two and her brother Josh’s two, and they show up in the film, but mainly as graceful and often adorable background.)
In one of the most emotionally intense scenes, the three talk about what happened in the years before and after Nina’s death. It is both hard to watch and impossible not to watch; there is no mistaking that this is not choreographed so-called reality but the actual thing itself. Entirely real.
Kathy has toured this country and Europe with the film, and she has learned that viewers with similar stories find themselves and their families in it. “In Amsterdam, a woman stood up and said, ‘I am your brother.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ and she explained that in her family she plays the role of Josh. And another woman told me that she was writing a novel about a situation very much like mine.
“And all of a sudden a giant light bulb went off in my head.”
She’d seen the film as a personal journal of a personal journey. “But I realized that I’d made a film that other people can use to deal with their own mental health issues, and to help them take control of their own experiences,” she said. It’s not only the person who committed suicide who needs help, it’s the whole family. That they knew. But the stigma can be overcome.
“They think, ‘Yes, this happened to me. I can get help. Where can I get help? I want to get help. And I want to talk about what I’ve been through.
“And it also helps people who have mental health issues. Nina was an amazing person, and that is empowering for people.”
Much has changed, even in the last five years, she added. The stigma has been reduced. “I have been doing community mental health education ever since the film was released in 2012,” she said. “I have worked with foundations, with universities all over the country. I’ve shown it on college campuses, in churches, and in synagogues.
“It’s important for me to show it in Jewish communities, and I do a lot of that,” she added.
Rabbi Larry Rothwachs of Congregation Beth Aaron believes strongly in the film’s message.
“Over the years I’ve spoken about the issue of mental illness from many angles,” he said. “I’ve given Torah classes on the topic, I’ve given sermons on the topic, and I have tried to address the topic. This isn’t the first and won’t be the last time there is such a public discussion of the issue.”
Given how important he feels such discussions to be, “someone directed me to the film,” he continued. “I watched it and found it to be exceptionally powerful and I thought that it would be a great trigger.
“More than anything else, the purpose of showing this film, and of all the programming about it we do in the shul, is to address issues of treatment, and of stigma. We are not giving clinical advice — anyone suffering from mental illness hopefully is getting specific advice from their doctors — but the goal is to address the issue.
“There are two ways to address the issue of stigma. The first is that just by offering this program, that we are inviting people to the shul to watch the film — and it is such a raw display of such a personal nature — and be able to participate in a discussion on an issue that can touch anyone — that goes a long way to addressing the stigma.”
Why does the stigma exist? (And to be clear, it’s strong in the Jewish community but it is by no means confined to it. It’s fairly universal.) Why do people tend to shun friends and neighbors with mental disorders? “I think that probably the most compelling reason — and I’m talking here about people who are otherwise caring, ethical, sensitive, concerned about their neighbors — is because we tend to associate behaviors with motivations,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. When people in the grip of a disorder behave in ways that make others uncomfortable, that seem out of character or inappropriate or just plain weird, “we tend to assume that it shows what they really think,” he said. “What they really mean.” But it’s not the people who are talking, it’s the disorder. “People who do not suffer from mental illness do not have that disconnect” between what they do and say and who they are, “and people who do not suffer from mental illness have a difficult time understanding that the behavior does not reflect the way that person actually is.
“The only people who truly can see past it are either professionals who spend most of their time dealing with it, or the people themselves, or maybe their families. But that goes against our instincts.
“Our instinct is that if we see a person acting inappropriately, we tend to become judgmental. We don’t understand that it’s not the person’s true nature, it’s a chemical imbalance,” Rabbi Rothwachs said.
The instinct to be judgmental is hard to overcome, but it’s far from impossible, and the more we understand that mental illness is not at all a moral but purely a chemical problem, we can work on it, he suggested.
“What makes mental illness different from other illnesses is that it lacks the external features they have,” he said. “It rarely if ever is something you can see on a CAT scan, it’s not a fever, you don’t wear a bandage or a cast. People who suffer from mental illness look just like everyone else.”
So the stigma must be addressed if it is to be overcome. One way to address it is to offer programs like this one. “It sends a clear message, even to people who do not attend the event, because they are too busy or they don’t want to. This is a message that this is something that is important to us, and that we are able to talk about it.
“Also, in a film like this you are looking at people who could be you,” Rabbi Rothwachs continued. “It could be your mother. It could be your sister. It gives people a better way to understand who we are dealing with.
“Probably the most critical, the most essential step in addressing the stigma is to get them to understand that this is not the result of poor parenting or bad schools. It is not because someone is lazy or unwilling to change. It is not someone who is moody, someone who should get up off the couch. It is not someone who should just grow up.
“No. It is someone who is trapped.” Trapped in his or her own mind, by his or her own biochemistry.
“It is only if we get that message across that we can reduce, if not eliminate, the degree to which the stigma affects the community.”
Rabbi Rothwachs agrees with Kathy Leichter that the understanding of mental illness has changed. “When I was in high school, there wasn’t even a psychologist on staff,” he said “Now they have psychologists and social workers and grade counselors and grade deans. Institutionally, there is a heightened sense of awareness now.”
There are many ways to overcome stigma. Some are simple. As Kathy’s aunt puts it in “Here One Day,” as she looks at the camera, “For Nina’s sake, hug somebody you love.”
Who: Producer and director Kathy Leichter
What: Will talk about “Here One Day,” her film about mental illness, suicide, and family
Where: At Congregation Beth Aaron, 950 Queen Anne Road in Teaneck
When: On Sunday, July 30, at 7:30 p.m.
Why: To understand how mental illness can affect a family, and to learn how to reduce the stigma surrounding it.
What else: Beth Aaron’s rabbi, Larry Rothwachs, will introduce the film, and Ms. Leichter will answer questions about it after the screening.
For more information about the film: Ms. Leichter’s website, which includes a trailer, is www.hereoneday.com.
For more information about the screening: Call the shul at (201) 836-6210 or go to www.bethaaron.org.