My Personal Experience Of What Happens When Someone In Power “Looses It Mentally”
Right now some people are speculating that President Trump is mentally ill. My wife, who has been a doctor for 33 years, speculates that President Trump may be experiencing the onset of dementia that afflicts some as they get older. For the sake of this country and President Trump’s family, let us hope that these speculations turn out to be unfounded.
I lived through a harrowing experience when a senior executive lost his mind in Brasil. The story that follows is a sad one and it shows all the dilemmas that one faces when confronting mental illness in the very powerful.
When I was working in Peru my boss was named Ken. He was truly “The All-American Boy.” He had a BS degree in chemical engineering from Purdue. He had an MBA from the University of Michigan. He had a JD degree from the University of Houston Law School. Between all these studies, he went to the US Army. He was commissioned as an infantry officer. He served in Vietnam and rose to the rank of captain. He won the Bronze Star and the combat infantryman’s badge. When he was in his mid-30’s, he was appointed a vice-president at Shell Chemical Company.
Ken was my boss in Peru. We didn’t get along at all. I was creative and a free thinker. Ken was rigid and bureaucratic. When I got the word that I was being transferred to Rio de Janeiro, I was over-joyed. My first wife could go home. I would be rid of Ken. My bubble burst when I found out that Ken would continue to be my boss in Brasil.
I endured Ken for a long time in Rio. I was lucky that his boss at Occidental corporate headquarters in Los Angeles liked me and saved me from being fired by Ken. In late 1979, we got word that we were being transferred from Rio to Sao Paul in early 1980. My mother broke her hip so I had to go to Houston to be with her. Ken also went home to Houston.
When the Christmas holidays ended, I was to fly with Ken back to Sao Paulo. In those days, all Latin American flights went through Miami. We flew to Miami on the now-defunct National Airlines. At midnight, we were to board a Varig flight that would go through Panama City and land in Sao Paulo. We passed security. At the boarding gate, it was discovered that there was an issue with Ken’s and my Brasilian visa. We were told that we would have to go to the Brasilian consulate in Miami and get the problem worked out.
The old Ken that I had known for a long time would have become enraged. A shouting match would follow with Varig personnel. I would be in for “a tongue lashing” later. Instead Ken just shrugged his shoulders. We left and went back to our hotel. I had a relaxing weekend including watching the Super Bowl. Ken and I got back together Monday morning. We had breakfast late and took a cab to the Brasilian consulate. We paid a small fine and our visas were in order. That night we flew to Sao Paulo.
All the flights from the US to Brasil landed early in the morning. After up to 16 hours of flying, Ken would order us to report right to work and put in a 10-hour day. When we cleared customs and immigration in Sao Paulo, Ken told us that we had the day off to rest and recuperate.
As the weeks went on, Ken’s behavior became more erratic. He would have his secretary brink him five glasses of Coca Cola into his office. While in a meeting, he would guzzle down the five cokes rapidly. He would then burp in people’s faces. He stopped being punctual. He would arrive at the office at erratic times. He would take multi-hour lunch breaks. He would wonder off from the building and be gone for hours. He started acting like a child in meetings with high-level Brasilian executives.
It became obvious to all of us that Ken was having some serious mental health issues. We talked about reporting the situation to Occidental corporate headquarters in Los Angeles. None of us liked Ken. But we faced one stark reality. Such a report might not be believed by the executives there. In that case, the person making the report would find their career at Occidental finished. If the report was believed, Ken’s career would be finished. He would never hold another executive job anywhere. We would be destroying his life. We argued and agonized but did nothing. Ken failed to show up to work one day. We checked his apartment and he was gone. It ran through our mind that Ken had been kidnapped by leftist guerillas. A big ransom demand coming. We alerted corporate headquarters that he had vanished. We were told to contact the Brasilian Federal Police at the highest level. For many days, we all were in deep worry and sadness. Then we got word that Ken had sent a telex to Occidental’s head office tendering his resignation. We were relieved that he was safe.
A sad story unfolded about what had happened. While in Peru, Ken had become romantically involved with a young Peruvian woman from an upper-class family (She was 20 years old. Ken was 38 years old.) When Ken moved to Brasil, she gave him the news that she was pregnant and he was the father. Ken was devoted to his mom and dad. He went home to Ohio and gave them the news that he was going to be a father. Understanding parents would have asked a lot of questions. They would have hugged Ken. They would have told him that it was a joyous moment. They would want to meet the woman as soon as possible. A wedding would follow.
Instead Ken’s parents were strict and old-fashioned Catholics. They became enraged that he had sex with a woman he was not married to. They told him that he would be ex-communicated from the Catholic Church. Ken’s carefully-structured and rigid life fell apart. He started on the road to a mental breakdown.
There were other consequences. Ken had caused Occidental a lot of embarrassment. He had cost them a lot of money. We all were blamed for not reporting the problems to “higher-ups” sooner. You know that old saying: “Somebody’s head had to roll.” I was picked to be the scape goat. I was told to report to Houston. I was called into the office of a senior executive. He was very upset that I hadn’t told him what was happening. I responded explaining the dilemma that we all faced. My words did not move this man. He told me that I would never get another raise or promotion again at Occidental. (In other words, my career was finished.) He gave me two months to find another job. I would get my full corporate salary and benefits. I would keep my office and my secretary.
It didn’t take me two months for me to find a job. When I was checking out at Occidental, I went to the accounting department to get my final check. I was expecting vacation pay of around $1,800. Instead I saw a check for $18,000. I pointed out this mistake to the head of the payroll department. She showed me the check request signed by the senior executive. Right then I knew that I was being paid off. I was to go away quietly and say nothing.